Death by cuteness.
The only reason you should play Zoo Tycoon is for the same reason people go to a real zoo in the first place: to see animals so adorable that you have to punch a wall five times to regain your manliness. From the first very first few tutorials, it becomes clear that your role as zookeeper has its perks. You can feed an Indian elephant by having it grab an orange right out of your hand, bathe a grizzly bear by shooting water from a hose, and watch a Bengal tiger mimic your movements as it paws at you through the glass. Unfortunately, Zoo Tycoon fritters away a part of these magic moments.
In line with the other Tycoon titles, Zoo Tycoon asks you to manage a zoo from the ground up or revive a struggling zoo in Campaign mode. Starting off with the main gate, you can plop down habitats of various climates and purchase compatible animals, making sure to provide them feeding stations, cleaning stations, and enrichment activities. The interactions themselves are enjoyable, along with a few that can be controlled with the Kinect, though it sometimes takes a long while for an animal to walk toward the interaction station. Keeping your animals happy will in turn make customers happy, who must also be distracted with entertainment booths, food and drink concession stands, decorative areas, and the occasional bathroom break. It's about keeping all those plates spinning so that you never start losing money.
Despite the ten tutorials which thoroughly explain each of the game's mechanics, including releasing Level 15 animals back into the wild and breeding new animals, maintaining the zoo isn't particularly difficult. As long as you pay attention to the notifications and teleport across the map by switching between camera views, you can do everything in time and you won't have any trouble fixing something that breaks. So long as you suspend your disbelief, building a world-class zoo is fantastical and gratifying. (That said, a pride of lions surrounded by a two feet-high railing is better known as child endangerment.)
The trouble with the gameplay is not being able to take a breath, since there is no pause or slow-speed for time. Every moment, there's some poop to clean, some status bar falling into the yellow or red, something to upgrade or research, and some goal you should complete for extra cash, like taking pictures and speeding around the zoo in a buggy. In other words, if you're not flipping through some kind of menu, it feels like you're wasting time. Some challenges will even penalize you if you don't complete them in time and you can't dismiss them in any way. So in essence, you're not playing the game right if you're standing still or just watching animals for the beauty of it. Yet who doesn't want to stop and watch two giraffes neck-hugging? Isn't that supposed to be the payoff?
Similar to the central fault of the SimCity reboot, the other annoyance is the limited number of objects you can place in the zoo, which doesn't come close to filling the actual boundaries of the zoo that you're allowed to build on. Within three hours, you'll reach the zoo limit and you won't be able to place any more exhibits. This makes it difficult to keep the status bar for animal variety high and very irritating whenever you want to move animals around from that point on. Also, building a zoo becomes redundant since there's no incentive to change things up or any meaningful areas of customization. Completing the multiple campaign scenarios quickly becomes a chore, despite how easy it is.
Zoo Tycoon has all the cuddly critters up its sleeve (and I'm down with any game that features red pandas), and it wields the stick of cuteness without shame. But this simulation buries the cuteness beneath menus and squanders the power of the next-gen console by limiting the size of the zoo. Though creating a zoo is pleasant and breezy, after building several zoos with all of the animals, you've pretty much experienced the lion's share of what Zoo Tycoon has to offer.