Zoo Tycoon: Ultimate Animal Collection Review
A mostly satisfying management game with a sense of charm
Strategy games aren't typically well-adapted to consoles. For the most part, the somewhat awkward and restrictive nature of a controller prevents titles in this genre from really establishing a foothold. That hasn't stopped various studios from trying though, even if it means mixing things up with other elements. One such title was Zoo Tycoon, launched in 2013 for both Xbox One and Xbox 360. As the name might imply, the game put players in charge of running a zoo as a manager, looking after the animals, the park itself, the finances, and so on. It also featured Kinect integration for interaction with some of the critters. The title must have done well with audiences, as Microsoft has now re-launched the game in time for the Xbox One X and Windows 10 as Zoo Tycoon: Ultimate Animal Collection. This expanded edition features all of the previously released content, updated with better visuals and the same family-friendly vibe, in hopes of further expanding the Xbox One X Enhanced games program. Despite a few gameplay and control blemishes, the $30 price tag and lots of content in Ultimate Animal Collection should satisfy fans of management games.
The game features four main modes. In Training mode, players get to play through a series of guided missions that do a good job of introducing you to all the mechanics within the game, from the basics of running a zoo to the more advanced features like finances and animal breeding. It does feel like the game could have sped up this process a bit, but it feels disingenuous to complain that a tutorial is too lengthy. There's also a Sandbox mode, where players are free of any goals and restrictions, and so you can simply build and grow a zoo to your heart's content at any of the game's 20+ locations across the globe. The only downside to this mode is that, while you have unlimited time and funds, the animals and items that you can access are still locked away behind the Zoo Level rating that you've achieved in Challenge Mode. This means you can't just truly build what you want and interact with rare animals from the get-go, and have to reach high Zoo Levels through Challenge Mode first, which is a bit of a disappointing design choice, especially if you've got younger players who just want to see the animals in Sandbox mode.
That Challenge Mode, alongside the Campaign Mode, are the core parts of the single player experience. There are 20 Challenge missions, where you're given an unlimited amount of time but limited funds to create zoos and collect species. Campaign Mode, meanwhile, is a bit more involving and features a mission timer between 20 to 60 minutes to complete a series of objectives in the zoos around the world. The mode includes the original game's campaign, as well as the South America and Australia expansions. This adds up to 30 campaign missions total; the tasks within each mission typically provide you with a foundations of a zoo with a few exhibits, and from there you must complete goals such as reaching certain animal and visitor happiness, adopt certain species, build specific exhibits, raise the zoo's fame level, and so forth. The missions range from easy to hard difficulty, depending on your starting resources and amount of time given. None of the missions are too daunting, but perhaps the key reason for player frustration will be the fact that unlike most tycoon games, you can't pause or slow down time. So your time spent building out and managing the zoo is rushed, as you don't have much time to plan or care about aesthetics, which is unfortunate. At least, there's plenty of structured content here to sink your teeth into.
When it comes to managing a zoo, you're the man (or woman) in charge. Players have two views that they can utilize - a Tycoon view, which features a traditional birds-eye look at your park, complete with all the building and management menus; and a third-person view, so you can get to the ground level and explore as a person, as well as perform a few interactions. The third-person view of a zoo owner is a nice feature, allowing you to truly enjoy what you've built and see the sights and sounds, interact with entertainers you've hired, and so on. You can also perform a few animal interactions, such as feeding or cleaning them. Though there are minor annoyances here - the water cannon's aim sensitivity for washing animals seems broken, and when feeding animals it can take them a while to actually care and walk over to grab the food from your hand. Still, it's a neat viewpoint and should be the favorite part of the game for younger players.
The Tycoon view is where the majority of the serious gameplay happens, though. From here, players are able to navigate a series of linear menus in order to select what they want to build on the quite large plot of zoo land. Selecting an exhibit and putting it down anywhere is easy and intuitive, and the game automatically lets you connect it via a path to the rest of the park. You can also build staff facilities, decorations, customize the look of your park and its name, and so on. Rotating the camera, zooming in and out all works well as in any strategy game. At the push of the left trigger, you can bring up a contextual menu that lets you oversee the happiness of the animals, the guests, and so on. Hovering the cursor over an exhibit lets you view the needs of the animals within, particularly hunger, social happiness, satisfaction with enclosure, and so on. Keeping animals happy is a fairly straightforward process that doesn't really change - as long as you setup the exhibits with everything they need, put in a few toys and other fellow animals, and have hired groundskeepers to keep them fed and happy, there's not much micromanagement required. You can clean and feed the animals manually, but this is certainly inefficient and only suitable for Sandbox mode.
The exhibits are the key areas of the zoo, and players need to manage them well. There are a few different exhibit environment types, which dictates how happy the animals will be. From savannah to tropics and grasslands, each exhibit type is preferred by a corresponding group of animals, so it's important to plan ahead. The helpful contextual popup on the LT can also be brought up at almost anytime, so you can see what animals prefer the exhibit type quickly. Within the exhibit, players have a few set slots where they can build additional modules. In Care slots you can build food and cleaning stations; in Enrichment slots is where the toys go, such as ropes and scratching posts - once again, each item has a contextual information window that lets you ensure that the food and toy are appropriate for the animal in the exhibit. You can also expand the exhibit with a few decoration items, and the animal interaction items mentioned earlier for feeding / cleaning animals manually. With everything built, you rarely need to return to the exhibit as the animals should remain happy with what they have, again as long as you have staff that can refill food and clean.
Once you've got the exhibits ready, it's time to adopt some animals. All of this costs money, so you're not likely to get a full zoo right off the bat. You get a choice of adopting over almost 200 animals total, that's about twice the number from the 2013 release. From antelopes, bears, tigers, crocodiles, owls, snakes, tapirs, tortoises, flamingos, and everything in between, there are a ton of different creatures that you can bring to your zoo. Each animal species has between two and 5+ varieties, so you're not just stuck with one type of bear and owl. Each animal has their preferred exhibit type, food, and interaction, so as mentioned you should consider that when building their exhibit. Animals can be adopted based on what's available, so they could be young or old, male or female, and even already pregnant. You probably won't be able to afford to fill up the exhibit with the rarer species, so you can also turn to breeding them yourself by getting enough animals of opposite gender. Your breeders on staff will then oversee the animals and you could end up with unique outcomes such as a different fur color. Offering a wide variety of animals will also boost your visitors' happiness. And not to worry - the game will tell you that you can't put a herbivore with a carnivore.
If you're looking to make changes to your zoo's population, you can release animals to the wild. You can also gift animals to friends, which is a good segue to the multiplayer in Zoo Tycoon. Players can invite up to three friends to their zoo, which lets you all play together within the same level. Everyone can switch between third person and Tycoon view at any time, and build/interact with everything in the park. If you've got friends who want to share the management or animal interaction experience, or do a few brief races in a buggy, this is a nice feature to have. It's worth noting that the Ultimate Animal Collection is a separate entity from the 2013 Zoo Tycoon, and as such you can't play with those who only own that original release.
Besides exhibits, you can also build facilities for staff and guests. Your staff facilities include the janitors, breeding, and zoo keeper buildings. You can then hire staff for each location, who have their own rating and salary. Each facility and staff member can level up to three stars, which increases their efficiency and skills. For guest facilities, you can build food and souvenir shops, and also set their prices as low/medium/high (the same goes for price of admission to your zoo). Another aspect of attracting visitors is to run an ad campaign, which can provide a boost to your popularity. When things go well, your zoo can even win awards for achieving goals such as having lots of different species, great customer ratings, and so on.
The larger your zoo grows and the more things you build, the higher your Zoo Level rating. As mentioned before, this rating limits players to expanding their park by unlocking new habitats, animals, and facilities gradually. It's a fine mechanic, though it would have been nice to just have everything unlocked from the start in Sandbox mode. The rating also limits what you can research, which is a needlessly annoying mechanic. There's a basic research tree, which lets you unlock minor bonuses such as cheaper animal adoption fees and reducing maintenance cost. But there's also research that must be performed to unlock new exhibit sizes, and new interaction items for the animals. Each of these must be researched individually, and it takes between 20-60 seconds of just waiting for it to complete. The big problem is that there is no queue - you can only research one thing at a time, and if you just happen to get distracted and click to research something else, your current project is instantly cancelled and progress is lost. This means you now have to go back later and research that original item again, with the timer starting from scratch. It's a poorly designed system that makes you wait, or worse, have to navigate all the way down to the other item and start over.
This leads into the game's other annoyance - the menu system. While the controls themselves are fine and the LT contextual information prompt is very useful, the menus themselves are linear and are a slog to get through. Everything is nicely laid out, but it just takes ages to go through them and build out the exhibit, its expansions, and adopt the animals. The annoyance is exacerbated by the research mechanic; it almost makes more sense to just sit there and wait for research to complete and build it right away, rather than have to navigate through all the menus again to find the item you wanted to build originally. Other odd decisions also don't help: after placing an exhibit or a facility, you remain in this menu as if you're going to build multiples of it, rather than the game taking you into the edit menu of the one you just built. While logically the menus are well laid out, surely there could have been a better way to help players get through them.
Ultimate Animal Collection has been launched as an Xbox One X Enhanced game, and thus it features 4K Ultra HD visuals and HDR support. The game does look nice and some of the animal animations are really good and lifelike, but as far as pure image quality and textures, this isn't the most technically impressive game in the X Enhanced library. On Xbox One and One S, the game runs natively at 1080p and features HDR support on Xbox One S. There's obviously been some work done to improve the game from its original launch, but it isn't a night and day difference. Loading times to get into a zoo are quite lengthy.
Zoo Tycoon: Ultimate Animal Collection is a nice re-release offering for those who have missed the original game. Perhaps it would have been nice to offer the new content as DLC for owners of the 2013 release, but at $30 it's not too big of an ask anyway. There is plenty to do, between the tons of different animal types and their interactions, to the structured campaign and challenge modes. Everything should have been unlocked from the start in Sandbox mode, though. The third person view mode will immerse players in their zoos, and the tycoon aspect should satisfy most, even despite its sometimes awkward menu system and a few gameplay design blemishes. It's not the most technically impressive Xbox One X launch title, but it is certainly one that should appeal to both casual and family audiences.