A Beautiful, Immersive Sim
Along with Rollercoaster Tycoon and action-RPG Silver, Zoo Tycoon was one of my favourite PC games as a child. Since then, numerous different games have attempted to hit the same illustrious heights that tycoon game achieved and many have really failed to succesfully scratch that Zoo-building itch. Hot off the heels of Planet Coaster, Frontier return for their second outing in the Planet franchise, this time focusing their attention on injecting their creative magic into zoo-building. The result is something that feels like a big step up for the company, with a clear emphasis on the management side of things, addressing one of the biggest gripes fans had regarding their previous game.
For those familiar with Planet Coaster, Planet Zoo takes a lot of the same UI and aesthetic cues from that game, including the main menu and building systems which are nigh on identical, making it very easy to sink into the game. Planet Zoo essentially splits itself into four core play-modes and I strongly recommend checking them all out, as each pose their own challenges and rewards. With a great soundtrack, some truly remarkable detail put into the animals themselves and a welcome addition of educational content throughout, Planet Zoo is a very impressive entry and while I still prefer Planet Coaster in terms of sheer fun and creativity, Planet Zoo is a very good simulation game nonetheless.
The main Career is the mode I’d recommend starting with unless you know what you’re doing. Across the first 3 levels, you’re hand-held through the different systems and ideas at work here, with some humorous narration and plenty of tasks along the way for you to complete as you get accustomed to the way Planet Zoo works. From the fourth chapter onwards though, you’re on your own and a lot of these scenarios play out similarly to other sim games, with objectives to hit including reaching certain number of guests in the park, turning over a tidy profit or even breeding a certain number of animals. All of these add balance to the game and the clever way this mode whisks you off to different landscapes around the world keeps things feeling aesthetically fresh and unique across the levels on offer.
If I’m being honest, I do feel like the jump between the third and fourth level is pretty big and some may be put off by this. While I personally love being thrown in the deep end and figuring things out for myself, a little guidance during the early parts of this mode may have helped alleviate some of the problems others may experience here, especially when faced with the daunting task of building from scratch.
Once you’re done with the career, Franchise Mode serves as the online-version of Challenge Mode and essentially sees you creating your own zoo franchise from scratch, beginning with your first park and working your way up from there, earning conservation points as you go (more on that later) and creating numerous profitably zoos across the globe. All of this is neatly tied into the UI which shows a global map and your influence as you begin setting up a series of inter-connected parks.
However, Franchise Mode does come with its own set of problems, namely thanks to the online marketplace requiring a constant internet connection. During peak-times I found myself waiting for 20 minutes+ just for animals to load and in doing so, forced into pause the in-game timer while I waited. Not ideal. Aside from that naggling issue (which I’m sure will be ironed out in the future), the constant challenges that pop up on-screen, offering cash incentives for completing certain objectives, keeps things interesting as you build up your zoo empire.
The final mode is essentially reserved for those looking to build their dream zoo without the constraints of the previous modes or challenges. With an unlimited cash stream and plenty of tweakable options surrounding animal behaviour, Planet Zoo caters to those creative types, allowing your imagination to run wild.
Of course, all of this great work done with the game modes would be for nothing if the actual zoo management aspect failed. Thankfully, this is by far the best element of Planet Zoo. I’m a massive fan of in-depth sim games and Frontier’s latest entry includes a myriad of different options, even away from the animals themselves, that allow you to dive into the nitty-gritty of creating your dream park the way you want to run it. From worker routines and veterinary research, through to breeding programs and educational speakers, Planet Zoo offers up a wealth of different options which requires a fair amount of time to learn but makes this wait worth it in the long run.
The animals themselves though are fantastic and easily steal the show. Each species has been created in painstaking detail and whether it be the Indian Peafowl, the Common Warthog or the majestic Snow Leopard, each animal has a unique set of animations and requirements that keep you on your toes. From arranging the terrain in habitats through to creating food and drink items to keep enrichment meters high, Planet Zoo takes inspiration from The Sims and builds that into same level of micromanagement into a realistic pattern of behaviour for each animal, based on their real-world counterparts. Some of this can be pretty overwhelming, especially with 10+ different metrics to satisfy per animal, but a handy click of the pause does help alleviate some of the stress this can bring. The result is something that works beautifully to create a rich, diverse range of animals that behave and act exactly like their real-life counterparts.
Of course, this system of realism does bring its own set of issues. You see, with changing seasons the temperature and climate changes along with it and during these moments, Planet Zoo feels very overwhelming. When things do inevitably go wrong, protestors will storm your zoo and demand changes immediately. This can negatively affect the reputation of your park and garner an on-the-spot fine from an inspector if they happen to be in your park at the same time. Thankfully, Planet Zoo includes conservation options that does help keep this more manageable. Releasing animals back to the wild is encouraged, whilst breeding numerous offspring allows you to sell these on for more points which in turn, allow you to buy new species for your park that have better base-level attributes and a higher chance of breeding lucrative offspring.
In my time playing Planet Zoo I’ve learnt an awful lot about different species too and a lot of this is thanks to the built-in Zoopedia. While it’s not essential reading, this cleverly integrated tool ties into the main game, detailing interspecies relationships (very useful for saving space in your zoo and grouping animals together) and even the natural habitat different creatures prefer (ideal for creating the perfect habitat).
Planet Zoo is not perfect of course, and at times there are some odd animations and glitches that pop up. Placing paths continues to be a real struggle, especially with hilly terrain, which causes serious issues when placing benches and utilities. It’s also worth mentioning the in-game clock too which depicts days ticking by at a rate of 3 real-world seconds. This does break the immersion somewhat but while this may put some people off, given some animals take years to give birth, it makes sense in terms of progressing breeding programs.
Despite these minor issues, I really enjoyed my time with Planet Zoo. Much like Planet Coaster before it, this is likely to be a game I’ll spend a considerable amount of time playing over the coming months. The simulation aspects are a big step-up from Planet Coaster and Frontier have been pretty quick to resolve some of the biggest problems with the game during its launch. While the online marketplace and steep learning curve may put some people off, Planet Zoo is a beautiful zoo tycoon game nonetheless, chock full of educational content mixed in with realistic animal behaviour. It’s not perfect but it’ll almost certainly serve as a worthy replacement for Zoo Tycoon for the time being.
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Verdict - 8.5/10