When I was little, I wanted to be a zoologist. I'd read wildlife magazines, memorise the scientific names for specific animal species, and regularly beg my parents to take me to the zoo, despite our nearest one being a good two hour drive away. Zoo Tycoon is a game that speaks directly to eight-year old me, and probably would have blown her away completely - for a few hours, at least.
In Zoo Tycoon, you can switch between the macro strategy game and the on-the-ground action that allows you to get up close with the animals via Kinect or the controller. In Tycoon mode, where you assume a top-down viewpoint over the entire area, you can expand your zoo.
Drop an animal exhibit, concession or facility down onto the map, and the pathways will automatically build around it, connecting the new construction to the rest of the zoo. You can customise the look of smaller details, like changing the skin on pathways, benches, bins and the like, but exhibits come in three pre-set sizes per habitat - small medium and large, and disappointingly, there's no way to really personalise your animal enclosures.
Building new structures, adopting new animals and expanding your visitor rate will increase your zoo fame level, which unlocks new species, concessions and facilities to research and upgrade. You can adopt or breed baby animals, and happy creatures will eventually reach level 15, whereupon they can be released back into the wild. Once this is done, you'll get periodic updates on their rehabilitation, like they've been spotted leading a social group, or with a new baby in tow. It's these small, sweet touches that make Zoo Tycoon so innately likeable, despite some technical shortcomings like loading times up to and over one minute between map loads.
It's a bit too easy, for older players especially, to get suckered into the macro game and ignore the chance to actually wander around the parks they've created, but it's important to dip out of Tycoon mode every now and again to take things in from ground level. It's only when you're actually wandering the zoo that you'll hear the hustle and bustle of guests, or see first-hand the overflowing trash cans buzzing with flies that'll persuade you to hire in a few extra janitors.
There are plenty of adorably quaint features utilising the Xbox One's new Kinect sensor that will delight younger players in this mode, too; waving at happy zoo-goers will cause them to wave back. Shout "beep beep!" whilst cruising around in your park buggy, and the horn will sound. Each horn is personalised to the buggy it belongs to - an elephants trumpet for elephant buggies, for example, or a tiger's roar for its corresponding cart.
In addition to caring for and taking pictures of your animals, in third person mode you'll also be able to interact with some species. Lean towards the see-through screen at the chimpanzee enclosure and you'll see your own face reflected in the glass. Once a chimp walks up to play, you can perform different gestures and facial expressions to have the animal mimic you. Simpler touches are just as effective too; you can install a water feature to hose down a dirty bear, and there's something really quite wonderful about holding your hand out to feed an apple to an appreciative elephant.
That's the thing about Zoo Tycoon; you could accuse it of mawkishness with its saccharine animals and gentle gameplay, but it's undeniable that the game is a breath of fresh air in a launch line-up that otherwise involves carving up zombies or shooting soldiers in the face. Standing by the ring-tailed lemur enclosure for what felt like an age, just watching the animals happily caper, I could feel my cynicism melting away. It's juvenile in its own way, maybe, but still lovely.