We're not going to lie about it – when that first Zoo Tycoon trailer was shown, we were ready to start reading the last rites. Back in the day on the PC, Zoo Tycoon may have been all about building and managing your own virtual zoo, but it seemed that the Xbox version was ready to take the series in a drastically different direction, turning it into nothing more than a tiger stroking simulator - and while we don't mind the odd bit of big cat fussing, it did seem to be a bit of a fall from grace for the series. So, it was with somewhat bated breath we approached the game on the show floor at the German games convention Gamescom in Cologne, not knowing what had become of a game we once loved.
But we left impressed. Really impressed.
Thankfully, it seems Zoo Tycoon was simply a victim of a misleading trailer, as at its heart, this is still the same game we've come to know and love. You'll still be managing your zoo, hiring new staff, laying things out in the most efficient (and profit friendly) way possible, tending to your animals along the way, with the only real difference being a bit of streamlining to make it easier to play using a console and its controller. Currently in the capable hands of Frontier Developments, the folks behind the stellar Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 and it's myriad of expansions (and also practically the only developers who know how to handle Microsoft's rather temperamental Kinect sensor), we're starting to wonder why we ever doubted them in the first place. Oh yeah - Kinect. The good news is, it's entirely optional - you'll be able to do anything in Zoo Tycoon without ever trying to get the camera to realise you're there, and that you're not three foot tall, you're actually just wearing a long skirt.
Indeed, Kinect is just one of a number of choices for taking control of your zoo that's intended to let you play however you want to. First, you can either play the game from the more familiar, strategy-esque overhead bird's eye view, which makes it much easier to oversee your zoo and move around quickly - or you can switch to a zoomed in, street-level view where you'll take control of your own zoo keeper (who also has a cool buggy to drive around in - more on that later). From either of these perspectives you can control the game using either a regular Xbox controller, or by waving your arms around in front of the Kinect sensor – with the latter giving you the option to play a number of mini-games with your animals, such as washing an elephant with a hosepipe or feeding a giraffe an apple from your hand.
This time round, the general design of your zoo is mostly automatic, with animal enclosures coming in a pre-set shape and size for you to place, while paths largely auto-fit themselves around everything. While it means you don't have as much control over your park's design, we can see why they chose to simplify things for use with a controller too (we can imagine we'd have given the term crazy paving a whole new meaning had we been given free-reign with an analogue stick). It's not as though you can't customise the enclosures at all, though - the animals you can choose all have slightly different looks (and names), while inside each pen you can place items known as 'enrichments' – everything from food and water troughs to climbing frames and tyre swings to keep your animals happy and healthy, with certain items only being "compatible" with certain types of animals. Again, you can't quite place them wherever you want and instead have to scroll through a number of 'slots' around each cage, but the biggest drawback seemed to be that there was no easy way to filter all the items so you could only see those relevant to your current animal – hopefully something they'll iron out in the release version. Another interesting new addition is that of a co-operative mode (although only on the Xbox One) – at the touch of a button, you'll now be able to enlist the help of a friend or three to manage and maintain your zoo, as well as playing a few mini-games, including a zoo buggy race around your zoo.
Perhaps the most useful new feature outside of co-op is the ability to 'ping' your park with the X button to get the low-down on how your furry friends are doing. Once pressed, icons appear for a few seconds above any exhibits in which the animals are hungry, dirty or generally a bit depressed, making it much easier to work out where to head next. As before, your animals have a variety of conditions you need to satisfy for them to be happy and healthy – the obvious food and water meters, as well as social and boredom ratings, and maxing out them all looks set to be something of a delicate balancing act. Of course, being OCD about it all has its advantages too – happier animals means more visitors will come, and more people means more money. It also increases your chances of baby animals – and if there's one thing that brings in the crowds, it's the pitter patter of tiny paws.
With the game broken down into three different modes – a career mode where you progress through a number of set levels, a freeform (infinite money) sandbox mode and a challenge mode where you have a list of four different objectives to complete within the time limit, it certainly seems there'll be plenty to keep you busy. Frontier also plan to make a sort of community challenge mode, where they touch upon real-life conservation efforts by setting a specific task for everyone playing the game. Whether it's breeding a total of a million polar bears or simply adding a snow leopard to your zoo, Microsoft are apparently willing to donate money to charities every time the world's Zoo Tycoon players meet a milestone - which is a generous gesture to say the least.
All in all, we're rather impressed with Zoo Tycoon on the Xbox, as the game looks set to fill something of a hole in the console's line-up – we've been wanting a sim-type game for years, and besides the amazing downloadable space station management title Outpost Kaloki X that popped up around the time of the Xbox 360 launch, pickings have been very slim ever since. The game will launch on both the Xbox One and Xbox 360 before the end of the year – although the latter will likely be a more stripped down game than the one we tried out. While we have no specifics about what's being cut from the 360 version, we were told that at the moment, they're hoping it'll just be the co-op mode that'll be absent, with the only other difference being the slightly less fancy graphics. Either way, this is one you'll be wanting to keep an eye on.