Zoo Tycoon [2013] Review

The world has no shortage of animal lovers, which is why it’s small wonder that the Zoo Tycoon series has been so successful. Beginning on PC and Mac, and later extending to DS and mobile phones, Zoo Tycoon allowed players to build and dictate the zoo of their dreams, managing customer satisfaction, animal care and so much cute decoration all the while.

It’s surprising then that Microsoft has taken so long to reboot the series and position it as a compelling Xbox platform exclusive for more casual and animal-friendly players. Nonetheless, Zoo Tycoon has finally graced Xbox platforms both as a first-party swan song offering for Xbox 360, and a more casual/child-oriented launch title for Xbox One.

It’s a great idea, but unfortunately, the series has seen better days, even on Microsoft’s new next-gen console.


Zoo Tycoon is a game made with all the best intentions, but it clearly lacks polish, given the unrewarding objectives and horribly unintuitive navigation. You are given more map space and exclusive multiplayer functionality on Xbox One, but you’re also saddled with aggressive GameDVR recordings against the player’s will, and finicky, thoroughly wasted Kinect controls, with barely any kind of visual bump over the game’s Xbox 360 sibling to boot.

If you have a small animal enthusiast child that you want to enjoy a simplistic, family-friendly game with, then Zoo Tycoon might be worth a shot when it drops in price, but it’s not worth actively seeking out as a blanket offering for a casual or younger player when Xbox One already offers better family-friendly games like Peggle 2 and Powerstar Golf, let alone the numerous appealing and superior family-friendly games released on Xbox 360 over the years. As it stands, Zoo Tycoon may be cute and inoffensive, but it’s also disappointingly boring and tiresome, even for most longtime fans and younger players.


Zoo Tycoon looks bright and colourful, and on Xbox 360 at least, it’s a pretty sharp-looking game overall, despite some shaky human models. The realistic animations and textures given to the animals are very impressive even on Microsoft’s last-gen console, and the ability to tweak and customize your zoo’s attractions with all sorts of cute flair is easy to appreciate and enjoy. This is of course not even considering how absolutely adorable all of the game’s animals are when they play and gesture and generally frolic about, particularly when the player directly interacts with them.

On Xbox One however, Zoo Tycoon is wanting visually, especially when stacked against other first-party launch titles specifically tailored for Microsoft’s next-gen console, such as Killer Instinct and Forza Motorsport 5. The animals still look great, as do the exhibits that house them, but character models and various objects around the zoo especially lack detail on Xbox One, feeling very last-gen for the most part. It was claimed that Zoo Tycoon would have 1080p HD resolution on Xbox One, but given that even the console’s dashboard appears to be stuck at 720p resolution for now, this may instead be patched in later.

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To be fair however, Zoo Tycoon is certainly not an ugly game on Xbox 360 or Xbox One, nor is it without its charm. Kids especially will have lots of fun playing with animals and seeing the bustling crowds excitedly skip and mosey around their pathways. Sure, the game is a little visually uneven on Xbox One, but it could be forgiven to a degree, as it’s meant to be more pleasant and functional than visually stunning. At the very least, it does get the animals right too, and that’s what counts most in many respects.

In fact, one area that the Xbox One version has a more noticeable visual advantage over its Xbox 360 counterpart in is the actual fur and hides of animals, which do look noticeably more detailed on Xbox One over Xbox 360, however slightly. Some of the lighting and other such environmental details also look a bit better on Xbox One, though it’s barely noticeable. Despite that however, the majority of the Xbox One version’s visual assets are clearly just yanked from the Xbox 360 version of the game without touch-ups, feeling quite underwhelming as a result.

More seasoned Xbox One players will see all over the place that this is a game chiefly designed for Xbox 360 as well, and that’s constantly evident with Microsoft leaving the Xbox 360 button prompts intact throughout most tutorials and menus, and not updating them for Xbox One. That’s no big deal when it’s the still-noticeable X, Y, B and A Buttons, but there are also times where menus tell you to press Back and Start, displaying the Xbox 360 buttons even on Xbox One. More experienced gamers will be able to figure out that the game actually means the View and Menu Buttons, but non-gaming parents and children will have no idea what the Xbox One port is talking about when it asks them to press buttons that don’t exist on the Xbox One controller.

Come on, Microsoft/Frontier, that’s really sloppy! It makes it obvious that the Xbox One port of Zoo Tycoon is a blatant afterthought!

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It’s a shame too because had the game just picked a console to specifically release itself for, and not try to have its cake and eat it too with both a last-gen and next-gen release, it could have been more visually noteworthy. Animal designs are a great way to show off animation tech, proving either that the Xbox 360 has plenty of visual potential left to tap even with its successor upon us, or that the Xbox One is a clear visual leap above its predecessor. Instead, we have a game that’s reasonably visually ambitious on Xbox 360, but feels largely phoned-in beyond a few animal and lighting touch-ups on Xbox One, not really accomplishing either result by forcing itself onto Microsoft’s next-gen console for seemingly no reason.

At the very least, both versions offer lots of colourful menus and cute touches, so you don’t get the sense that the game as a whole is visually slapped together, even on Xbox One. Zoo Tycoon certainly missed a big opportunity to be an Xbox One graphics showcase though, since it clearly didn’t have time to upgrade most of the Xbox 360 assets before being shoehorned onto Microsoft’s next-gen console while still looking mostly like a last-gen experience. That’s quite disappointing.


Zoo Tycoon has its share of charm in the audio as well as the visuals. Typical animal-themed xylophones and African instruments are softly played to relax and immerse players in running a zoo, which alter themselves slightly whenever you explore and maintain certain exhibits, even from the overhead view. It’s subtle, but a nice touch.

Most of what you’ll be hearing throughout the game are animal sounds. The cries of elephants will sound amidst the roars of lions, as the screeches of chimps entertain your guests and giraffes politely munch on fruit offered to them from a feeding station. It all feels very innocent and upbeat, not to mention adorable when your zoo animals effectively feel alive and dynamic, encouraging you to go hands-on and actually run around with your custom zookeeper, not just keep everything in an overhead view. Fortunately players, can easily swap between them with a press of the Y Button.

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Voice acting is limited, but you will hear parents and children alike commenting subtly about the state of your zoo. If your zoo is badly run, kids will claim that they’re bored while adults will complain about ticket prices and poor maintenance. Likewise, if your zoo is well-kept, adults will comment on the beautiful scenery and how happy animals look, while kids will more excitedly hop and bound around, talking about how cool everything is and excitedly pulling their parents along to see the next exhibit. As much as the human models look disappointingly bland, they at least sound the part for a game like this.

For most of the game however, you’ll be hearing the business end of your zoo as animals are air-lifted in and out, stations and exhibits are installed, broken attractions, restrooms and kiosks are repaired, and helpful prompts like applause are given by the game whenever you complete a guest challenge, or otherwise accomplish something good. It’s the right blend between helpful and immersive, and it always makes the player feel like their efforts matter, with a flourishing zoo truly feeling alive because of its care and dedication.


Zoo Tycoon begins with the promise of the same kind of enjoyment as its predecessors. Ten helpful tutorials will teach you all about managing exhibits and animals, setting up attractions, hiring staff, breeding and researching, and more. It eases even the most uninitiated of players into the game nicely, and feels like a genuinely friendly experience that wants its audience to have fun.

Then you actually start trying to work with these darned menus!

Where the Zoo Tycoon series was a snap to navigate on PC and DS, this reboot game is suddenly a pain to sift through on Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The menu design is a mess and is frustratingly unintuitive, especially for younger gamers. It’s often difficult to effectively manage your zoo quickly, making time-sensitive and more pressing challenges much more of a hassle than they have to be.

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Some of this frustration is gone at least in Freeform Mode, where cash is unlimited, and players can just build whatever they want, enjoying things at their own pace without the fear of failure or being unable to provide for their animals. Freeform Mode is decently relaxing, being a surprisingly reliable way to unwind from more stressful Xbox One game experiences like Battlefield 4 or Dead Rising 3. Sure, you can’t earn most of the achievements in Freeform Mode, but that’s a minor thing.

When you actually try to play Zoo Tycoon in Challenge Mode or Campaign Mode however, that’s when the game really starts to come apart, even with a reasonably sound foundation. Challenge Mode gives you a set budget and otherwise lets you create your own zoo, while Campaign Mode gives you a pre-made zoo with an even stricter budget that tasks you with fixing up some problems. Campaign Mode spans a decent twenty or so ‘levels’, if you will, but it’s less interesting and fun than you’d think. This is mainly because the rewards, beyond any achievements you may earn, are just cosmetic decorations for your custom zoos that really don’t mean very much.

Challenge Mode at least gives you freedom to take on challenges and manage your zoo however you want to, but even then, you’ll run into annoying restrictions. Your attractions will automatically link their paths together for example, which limits decoration options for those who like to micromanage their zoo. Likewise, the demands from guests can sometimes be very excessive and too frequent, leaving you very little time to just sit back and enjoy what you’ve built. Instead, you’re always scrambling around, constantly feeling like you’re wasting time whenever you want to stop and perk up a depressed animal by making faces at it, or just merrily speeding along in your zoo buggy that conveniently teleports every guest out of your way.

The aforementioned clunky menus only make things worse too. Take a simple task like cleaning up animal poop. How you do this is, you have to highlight an exhibit, then scroll all the way over to the ‘Poop’ heading, then press A to highlight some poop, and press A again to get rid of it. You have to repeat this for every poop that needs to be removed! Why can’t there be a more intuitive way to just clean up all of the poop at once? This annoying setup just wastes the player’s time!

Likewise, almost everything in the game has to be researched before you can implement it into your zoo, whether it’s an animal or an exhibit or even advertising. That’s fine, and even realistic, but the game limits you to researching one thing at a time, which is asinine! If a challenge demands that you need to research and build something quickly, you need to decide whether to ignore the challenge and risk a hit in funds or customer satisfaction, or cancel what you were doing earlier to placate the problem, having to start minutes of research all over again later. It’s not user-friendly, and it doesn’t give you an intuitive way to expand your zoo without a bunch of needless busy work and waiting around.

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Menus are extremely important in any sim game, and Zoo Tycoon makes even simple tasks feel like a chore. You have to address every lone issue at a time, going through excessive menus and picking the same options over and over rather than just being able to perform multiple actions at once. Worse yet, the way that the menus are laid out can often be confusing. The rate that you’ll be fumbling around with various presses of A and B to get the mundane option that you want for some animal or exhibit is very irritating, and it will wear on the patience of children especially.

The Xbox One version of Zoo Tycoon at least allows you to use both voice and gesture commands with Kinect to try and simplify things, but in reality, these only make things worse. The Xbox One’s Kinect is supposed to be such a marked technological improvement over its Xbox 360 predecessor, but so far, just about every Xbox One launch title seems to prove the opposite, and Zoo Tycoon is no exception. The game will routinely mis-read even simple gestures, even when you’re standing right up next to the sensor (which you’ll often have to get up and do when it doesn’t read you right), and it doesn’t seem to understand even one-word commands from the player sometimes. How is Kinect routinely getting basic commands like this wrong in Xbox One games?

The Kinect features of Zoo Tycoon are such a promising idea too. When they work, they’re very cool, allowing you to make faces that entertain your animals, or reach out and offer them food. It’s a neat way to immerse people in actually interacting with the animals, but the Kinect functionality is still too fussy and unreliable to get serious use out of as little more than a gimmick. It’s still easier to do everything with buttons and thumbsticks, which Xbox 360 players will be limited to anyway.

Another exclusive feature in the Xbox One edition of Zoo Tycoon is social and multiplayer functionality, whereas the Xbox 360 edition is single-player-only. On Xbox One, you can team up with up to three other Xbox Live friends (only friends, no random matchmaking is offered), to help manage your zoo. There’s also a few multiplayer-based challenges like kart racing and such, and you can even share and edit animals, zoo infrastructure and more by uploading your zoo to the cloud, allowing your Xbox Live friends that also own Zoo Tycoon for Xbox One to help you out, assuming your friends aren’t cruel enough to butcher your creations anyway.

All of it doesn’t mean much when repetition and annoyance quickly set in though. Devoted sim fans may be able to deal with their demanding customer base and zoo authorities, but everyone else will quickly be overwhelmed when their zoo reaches a certain size and level of fame. This is made worse by the over-complicated and clumsy menu design, which can’t even use Kinect effectively to make it easier to navigate on Xbox One.

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Had Zoo Tycoon been tailor-made for Xbox One and skipped an initial Xbox 360 build, it may have been able to combine Kinect voice and gesture commands with the controller to perhaps make navigation and placement much easier than it is here. Instead however, the clunky control scheme offered by the Xbox controllers feels lacklustre and unhelpful, and will just make you long for the series’ more-polished earlier entries on the PC, which actually were easy to manage and significantly more fun to play!


Zoo Tycoon will disappoint longtime fans eagerly awaiting the series’ debut on Xbox platforms, and while it offers some casual entertainment for kids and animal lovers in Freeform Mode, every other element of the challenge-based gameplay feels unpolished and unintuitive. Considering the limited enjoyment offered by playing around with some otherwise adorable animals, $60 is far too much to ask for a game this clunky and surprisingly demanding.

There is at least some effort made to optimize the game for Xbox One, between some improved animal designs, exclusive Kinect controls and light multiplayer functionality on Xbox Live, at least for friends. Most of the graphics still feel underwhelming however, and it’s all too evident that the game is mainly designed for Xbox 360. The Kinect controls are largely fussy and sometimes downright broken on Xbox One as well, even at their most simple of applications. The multiplayer elements feel tacked-on and half-realized too, ultimately making these concessions no big loss for those sticking with the Xbox 360 version.

For either console however, Zoo Tycoon is too dull and unrewarding to recommend even to fans and young kids who may be interested. It may be more worth looking into when it falls closer to the neighbourhood of $20, but for three times that, it offers too little enjoyment and too little appeal. Xbox One already has more worthwhile casual-friendly gaming options on its marketplace selection, for far cheaper to boot, and Xbox 360 is absolutely spoiled with superior family-friendly games that have released for it over the course of years, leaving Zoo Tycoon without a leg to stand on for both last-gen and next-gen Xbox gamers.

The animals are real cute, but they deserved to be in a game that wasn’t such a pain to navigate and manage.


Zoo Tycoon's animal cast is cute, but the rest of the game is ruined by lacklustre production values and infuriating menus, especially on Xbox One.
Adorable animals
Kinect ideas are cool
Horrible menu design
Kinect doesn't work often
Objectives grate quickly