Zoo Tycoon Review: We bought a Zoo

I've always had an interest in the Tycoon games. There's something about managing a theme park or perhaps a casino — or in this case a zoo — that always felt so enticing to me. Whether it was laying out the land, choosing which animals to showcase near the entrance, or what entertainment will keep the guests happy; I was at the forefront of all these decisions.

Zoo Tycoon lets you build up and manage and zoo right from its humble beginnings, and lets you choose how to go about building it up to attract more visitors, and by that same token, make you a ton of money. However, unlike its hardcore predecessors, this Tycoon simulator has a bit of a wider appeal.

A mode for everyone

Zoo Tycoon comes with a few modes that are suitable for pretty much anyone. Training Mode will get you up to speed with all things Tycoon-y, teaching how to build and manage your own zoo. You'll learn everything from hiring staff, breeding animals and more. It's a perfect place to start, even for those that might not know what they're getting themselves into.

From there, players can choose from three different modes. There's Freeform, where money isn't an issue and they can build as they please. Then there's Challenge, which starts off with little money and it's up to the player to build up a thriving zoo from nothing. And lastly, there's Campaign, which puts players into already premade zoos that need help with various problems.

Regardless of the mode you choose, you'll be progressing your zoo by constantly expanding it, leveling up your fame and unlocking new exhibits and animals to wow your guests with.

Don't let the 'Tycoon' confuse you

Whereas past Tycoon games were really in-depth, more or less letting you truly tailor the experience as you built your empire, Zoo Tycoon is much more accessible. Everything from laying down plots and exhibitions to running an advertising campaign is completely simplified, ensuring that even your 10 year old kid can have a crack at running a zoo.

Zoo Tycoon

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it does cut out a lot of annoyances and streamlines the whole experience. For example, laying down exhibits and other pieces of land will automatically join them together with pathways, cutting out the need to connect them. For those like me however, who are obsessed with making their layout a certain way, this accessibility can be viewed more as a negative. If I want my zoo to be laid out like a grid, I'm completely out of luck. My OCD is already kicking in.

The menus can be cumbersome

For a game that's all about simplifying the experience, the menu is unnecessarily complicated. Everything you do has you going through menus upon menus. Want to fix that scratch post that's broken in the Lion exhibit? First select the exhibit, then Enrichment, then the Scratch post and then finally scroll over to repair. Why couldn't there just be a button prompt to repair something when it's broken? It seems completely ridiculous to expect us to scroll through so many menus when doing something so simple, especially when for instance five things are broken at once.

Here's an example that's even worse. Let's say you want to put down a few bathrooms around your whole zoo. You have to go into each build menu, which is another three or so menus in, to find a bathroom stall and lay it down, and then do that all over again to lay down another one. Why couldn't there be an option to lay down the same facility multiple times?

Why so limited?

Although each plot of land is absolutely gigantic (something Maxis should learn with the new SimCity) you're held back by a fullness bar at the top of the screen. Each time you place something down, the bar fills up. I must have taken up only about 1/8 of the whole plot when the game told me it was too full, and that I needed to make room for new exhibits by deleting old ones. If only it was that easy.

To sell an exhibit, it needs to be empty. That means you either need to set your animals free if they're level 15, or sell them off. Of course then you have to wait for the helicopter to fly in and take them away. You could just move your current animals to a larger exhibit, except that the game won't let you place that exhibit down since apparently you're at capacity. This moment was easily one of the more frustrating in the entire game. I was having a blast unlocking new exhibits, placing them down, researching new animals, until the game simply told me I couldn't put any more down. Why give me such a weird restriction when the plot of land is so huge?

But the animals! They're so real right?!

Zoo Tycoon

Zoo Tycoon's saving grace is certainly the animals. Not only are they extremely lifelike, they're gorgeous to look at. You can build interactive stations in each exhibit which allows you to interact with various animals in three ways: feeding, washing or mimicking. Feeding will have you extend your hand out and watch as the animal picks it up and chews it right in front of you. There's not much to it, but it looks real.

Washing is easily the least exciting, as it has you hold up a water cannon and hose down an animal until its cleanliness bar is completely filled. The last interaction, and easily one of the more fun ones, has you making various poses and faces at animals like monkeys, and watch as they try to mimic you doing them. It's completely adorable, and the Kinect seemed to respond to these without a single problem.

The game also contains a rather hefty encyclopedia for all the animals in game, though it definitely could have benefited from more pictures, or hell, even some videos.

What's the bottom line

Keep in mind that Zoo Tycoon will most likely keep your kid's attention way longer than it will keep yours, and that's fine, it's that type of game. But where Zoo Tycoon cuts corners to appeal to a wider audience, it also alienates it with overly cumbersome menus.