Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: November 22nd, 2013
Available On: Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewer’s note: I played this game on the Xbox One. There may be differences between versions.
The original 2001 Zoo Tycoon was a fun game that was probably more well know for the ability to constantly let animals out of cages and maul visitors than anything else. This 2013 remake seeks to give a more family friendly focus on taking care of the animals, but is playing with cute animals worth losing the ability to watch them rampage?
Zoo Tycoon is meant to be about as casual and peaceful of a zoo building game as possible. Players don’t need to put too much work to ensure their zoo works. The game automatically handles things like paths: placing a structure will immediately connect paths to everything nearby. I miss the ability to customize my zoo how I wanted, but this seemed like the smartest way to handle easy creation so I guess I can’t blame them. This left me free to mostly just place things that I wanted to see, which I do appreciate. Yet the game seemed to suffer when it comes to animal diversity: there’s only 24 different kinds of animals in the game (The 360 version only has 21). The majority of the animals have subspecies, but these are mostly just recolored versions of the same animals with slightly different needs. Worse: only 9 of these animals (8 on 360) go in the game’s big exhibits. So my dreams of creating a big zoo with a ton of diverse animals kind of got shattered.
Caring for the animals, and for the guests, is easy enough. The game outright tells me exactly what each animal type would like by giving it a 1 – 3 star rating. For the mini-exhibits all I had to do was build the exhibit and populate it with whatever the recommended social group for that animal is. The game even made the mini-exhibits easy by only allowing me to buy animals that would consider that mini-exhibit to be perfect for them. The larger exhibits required a little more work, but not much. I had a few different environments to pick from and I had to match them up with the subspecies, again information the game provides for me. Then I had to place the right food, entertainment, and cleaning stations in the exhibits. Every now and again I had to go back and make sure everything was refilled and the poop was cleaned, but I could also just hire AI zookeepers to do this for me. I could have a exhibit up and running in minutes and keep the animals happy with barely any effort.
Guests are simple too, and taking care of them just requires me to meet a few basic needs. Bathrooms, places to eat, and non-animal entertainment is all easily available and buildable for your guests. While there are several different kinds of entertainments available for the guests, it doesn’t really matter what I bought as the guests accepted it all the same. The real big draw to Zoo Tycoon is supposed to be the ability to interact with the animals. At any time I could press Y to switch between Tycoon mode, which showed me the whole park from a top-down mode, and Zoo mode, which basically put me in the zoo to wander around in a third person view. You can do almost anything from either mode, though I found managing the zoo a lot easier from Tycoon mode. Yet only in Zoo mode could I interact with some of the animals. Sadly interacting with animals amounts to basically nothing. I could only interact with big exhibits and there were only three different things I could do. Some animals I could feed (which was as easy as picking a food and watching an animation), some I could spray with a hose, and for the chimpanzees I could play this sorta mini-game that required me to move the analogue sticks around. I never really understood it and saw little reason to do it more than once.
Thanks to all this ease, getting through the game’s 20 scenarios is hilariously easy. The same park design works every single time and I often only had to swap an animal out here or there. The scenarios felt more like an extended tutorial for a game that never really shows up, and this is after an already absurdly long tutorial that repeats the same information constantly. The real meat is supposed to come from the challenge mode, where I got $25,000 and a blank space to try and build the best zoo possible in. Occasional challenges are thrown my way to keep me on my toes, but again the same park designs work just fine. There’s also a free build mode where I had unlimited money, but without any challenge I didn’t see much point to it. The Xbox One version of the game also allows up to four players to build a zoo together, which is nice enough but never really something that felt necessary.
Actually, “never really something that felt necessary” is a good way to describe this remake. While the original Zoo Tycoon was fondly remembered, this remake just isn’t much. It’s boring, easy, lacks much content, and takes away a lot of the things that made the original fun. I could see this game appealing to a very young audience, but not many others.