15th Nov2019

‘Planet Zoo’ Review (PC)

by Matthew Smail


Planet Zoo is the direct semi-sequel to Planet Coaster, the modern classic that was released back in 2019. More importantly, Planet Zoo is the spiritual successor to Zoo Tycoon, and many of the Frontier Developments team who worked on both Planet games are of previous Rollercoaster and Zoo Tycoon fame. With this kind of heritage, you’d expect Zoo Tycoon to be pretty good and guess what (spoilers) it is.

Planet Zoo is actually so comprehensive and complete a zoo management game that I’m not sure there will ever be another one to follow it. Assuming that you choose the campaign mode to start you off, the game begins with three Tutorial zoo’s that feature fully operational setups demonstrating just how in depth the game can be. These zoo’s have all of the basics that you would expecting, including nicely laid out habitats, various visitor and staff facilities and a decent staff setup.

They also include a load of more complex options for the real purist. Features such as footbridges that span ravines but have shops and smaller animal exhibits along them, for example. These features demonstrate how powerful the Planet Zoo engine is and prompt the imagination, but they also left me feeling a little bit inadequate once I cast aside the training wheels and began to manage my own zoo’s.

This, I think, is because the tutorials are excellent at teaching players most of the basic requirements for running a zoo, but less good at dealing with the huge amount of tweaks and nuances that Planet Zoo offers. Players entering into the game should know that Planet Zoo is the exact opposite of what Zoo Tycoon (most recently seen as a launch title on Xbox One) has become. Where Microsoft have made Zoo Tycoon into an almost casual experience that barely demands anything from players, Planet Zoo is the polar opposite.

With all of this teeing up out of the way, I could appreciate that you might think that I’m a bit down on the amount of responsibility that Planet Zoo leaves the player with, but that couldn’t be further from the truth – I’m simply trying to prepare players for the magnitude of the task they’ll be taking on. Why, you ask? Well, because like all good management simulation games, Planet Zoo is also incredibly addictive, and once you realise that you can model very nearly everything – from the height and type of terrain in your zoo to the individual viewing panels in each of your exhibits, you’ll be hooked.

In addition to the campaign mode (which features a story arc that builds out across successive scenarios) there are also sandbox and challenge modes to experience, with the latter providing some very complex situations for the player to deal with. Personally, I found these very tough going until I’d experienced much of what the campaign had to offer, since I hadn’t encountered some of the situations before. Any zoo will throw up issues in its own time anyway and part of the fun to be had is in solving them.

Some of these challenges are more interesting than others however – like making sure your zoo has an engaging and educational range of suitable things for guests to look at, eat, drink and do. Less interesting are the kinds of things that are hard to solve because the game doesn’t always provide loads of feedback, like why is it that when I send Peacocks to their habitat does nothing happen? Or why do those Nyala have a constantly filthy enclosure despite having three keepers assigned to tending them?

Of course these minor issues only sometimes become real problems (and can affect guest ratings, zoo inspection reports and even animal health) but more often than not, the zoo functions as it should as long as you set it up correctly. When you do create the perfect habitat and introduce a new, high interest animal like a Panda or a family of Baboons, Planet Zoo really shines thanks to the animals themselves. I’ve had few better gaming experiences than having my two year old daughter sat on my knee whilst we watched animals go about their business in what is a remarkably natural way, based on the different items within their habitat.

Planet Zoo also features numerous online modes that I expect will become the biggest draw for the game long term. Players can drop into each others zoos just to take a look around, and of course for those who really invest time and effort in ensuring every brick is placed just so, this will be a great way to showcase their talents. Steam Workshop integration is fully integrated, allowing players to save and load blueprints for most of the key elements within the game. This is a great time saving feature, since it allows players to add several items together at a granular level to save a lot of time later.

One remarkable thing about Planet Zoo, given the amount of customisation that can be applied to each park is how good it looks. The engine seems incredibly stable no matter what you throw at it, and as a result it’s possible to create enclosures that feature dense forest, underground cave systems for the animals to retreat to, complex waterways and a lot more. There is no limit to what can be achieved and where I’ve often felt that more basic games restricted my imagination based on the capability of the engine, Planet Zoo feels as though it enables me to design more and more exciting habitats.

As I hinted at earlier, the animals also look incredible, with their animation and movement a particular highlight. With the settings turned up to their highest, fur, claws and other details are clearly visible and the close up camera shows the personality of each animal through their facial expressions. Each animal seems to be programmed to interact properly with the features of their habitat – which as I keep mentioning can vary wildly based on what the player introduces – in a really nice way, meaning that a player who has built a well-oiled zoo will spend a lot of their time just observing the animals whilst things take care of themselves.

When it boils down to it, Planet Zoo is without any doubt the best zoo management game that there has ever been, but seeing as this genre is relatively underpopulated, it’s also fair to say that it’s among the top management simulators I’ve ever played of any kind. It’s singular weakness is that it is so powerful that it demands more of your time than most similar games, and it really only rewards players that give it the time and energy it deserves. With that said, it’s so beautiful, so well crafted and so addictive that I can’t think of any reason why someone interested in the subject matter wouldn’t plough hundreds of hours into it anyway.

****½  4.5/5

Planet Zoo is out now on PC/Steam.


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