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EGM Review:
Zoo Tycoon

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Posted on November 26, 2013 AT 01:05pm

Eye of the Tiger

Zoo Tycoon has its heart in the right place. Surprisingly, Frontier Developments has delivered a game that’s quite socially conscious, one that’s determined to make clear that running a zoo isn’t about putting caged animals on display for an uninformed public to gawk at while you make a quick buck. Not only does it do a fair job of informing players about the habits and habitats of its many species, but it also structures its mechanics in such a way that the ecology is just as important as the economy. Increasing your zoo’s money and fame quickly become more of a means to an end—that end being a bustling, environmentally minded park that protects, preserves, rehabilitates, and breeds animals, then releases them back into the wild.

And becoming that force for good isn’t nearly as stressful as you might expect from a console business sim. Zoo Tycoon really plays to the platform’s strengths, with menus that are easy to navigate, fluid building mechanics, and snappy, readable visuals. Some nifty additions are aimed specifically at console players, like being able to navigate around your zoo at ground level, jogging around, driving a buggy, and taking pictures of your exhibits. It might sound like a small addition, but being able to see your park in full detail, the way your visitors see it, contributes a lot to the experience. It’s just simple fun.

That’s the thing, really. Unlike some games in the genre, Zoo Tycoon is actually enjoyable to play on a moment-to-moment basis, precisely because you’re never struggling against cumbersome or obfuscated interfaces to keep up with all of your duties.

Much of the credit should go to Zoo Tycoon’s implementation of Kinect support. I’m not talking about waving your arms in front of you to feed an elephant or making faces at a chimpanzee, adorable though those interactions may be. I’m talking about voice commands. Being able to say simple statements like “Ping guest happiness,” or “Ping animal hunger,” and then have that stat immediately overlaid on top of your park view as a series of popups makes all of the micromanagement a breeze. Need to find out which animals are at a high enough level to be released into the wild? Need to see which sections of the park need a new concession stand? The info you need, presently clearly and intuitively, is just a simple voice command away. Sure, these things could easily be handled by navigating a more traditional, more complex interface—and they can be, if you’re willfully mute—but that level of depth remains clumsy with a controller, and the voice commands really open up the genre on the console in a big way.

But behind all of these brilliant interfaces, elegant design decisions, and valuable moralizing, Zoo Tycoon sports one fatal flaw: the endgame sucks. Play any park for an hour or two, and you’ll max out its complexity—the global limit on how many animals and structures you can have at any given time. It’s a pitifully small cap, and once you reach it, the game quickly loses both its focus and its fun. It’s all downhill from there.

No longer are you building the zoo of your dreams. Instead, you’re tinkering with the zoo you effectively finished building long ago. You cram several types of animals into each exhibit, but soon you’re told that you’re already at the maximum diversity for the structure. Your visitors keep getting more and more demanding, and your options keep getting more and more limited. I swear to god, in my current game, I have no idea how to further increase my animal diversity in my crowded zoo, but the people are bored by my selection. The people want more animals. The people want more restaurants. The people want dozens of things that I can’t possibly give them.

And so, Zoo Tycoon plays out as an existential tragedy. You start as a wide-eyed entrepreneur fired up by the desire to build something truly great. You capitalize on your early success to craft a magnificent zoo that’s both an asset to the community and a beacon of ecological conservation. But times change, and what you’ve done isn’t good enough for the visitors anymore. Red tape stops you from expanding, even though you’ve got the money and space to do so. No one understands. You’ve let down the animals you once loved so much. You’ve let down the public who once adored you. Most of all, you’ve let yourself down. In the end, you’re just rearranging benches and repainting bathroom walls to pass the time. You’re doing maintenance, waiting for the inevitable irrelevance to take hold.

Sometimes, to cheer yourself up, you walk to the tiger exhibit, snap a few pictures, and wonder how easy it would be to fall in.

Developer: Frontier Developments • Publisher: Microsoft Studios • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 11.22.2013
7.0

From a mechanical standpoint, Zoo Tycoon works quite smoothly, but a ridiculously low agent cap severely detracts from the game’s longevity.

The Good One of the best building and management interfaces available on consoles.
The Bad An endgame that comes too soon and offers too little.
The Ugly What do you mean I can’t put a tiger in my gazelle exhibit?
Zoo Tycoon is available on Xbox One and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One.
Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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