Planet Zoo

Planet Zoo Review

Do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.

Planet Zoo

Susan, my beloved Bengal tiger adopted two years ago, has once again broken out of her cage sending hordes of screaming guests in her wake. This does not bode well for the zoo’s safety rating, especially with the inspecter due soon. But, as I’ve come to accept, Susan getting a little too friendly with the park attendees is only one of the many problems on my plate. Figuring out how to keep the animals comfortable, and in my case contained, is a big part of Planet Zoo’s impressive digital ecosystem.

It turns out running a zoo can be quite stressful but if you know anything about simulation games then you’re aware that’s part of the pleasure. In Planet Zoo, much like life in general, you are presented with a never-ending slew of minor problems and issues that constantly need your attention. The tiger isn’t keen on the plants in her enclosure, best get some continentally accurate flora in there as soon as possible.  The snow leopards are hungry, the armadillo is too warm and the saltwater crocodiles are bored – you get the point. It’s that constant, plate spinning of sim management games that engage on a level where time just disappears. Next thing you know, your park and staff are three times the size and the sun is coming up.

Planet Zoo

From the get-go, there’s a number of modes available to the budding conservationist but it makes the most sense to start with Career mode as this doubles up as a sort of prolonged tutorial. Guided through the first few parks by a lovely Welsh woman called Nancy and some rich guy who gives off some serious Phileas Fogg-type philanthropist vibes, you’re introduced to the basic functions of running a zoo. It feels a little slow and even easy until they take the training wheels off leaving you to design, set-up and run your own zoos at exotic locations.

Like a lot of simulation games with this level of detail, there is a lengthy introduction to the game’s systems and it takes some time until you feel like you’re actually playing it.  You also realise that the stock parks you manage, designed by the game’s development team, are utterly amazing and must have taken hours to construct. In comparison, my bodged-together hellholes looked like an inspector’s worse nightmare. Never mind the guests; the animals were trying to leave.

Once you get the hang of how the core systems function it becomes very enjoyable through watching your animals thrive and breed. Turning a profit is almost an afterthought.

Planet Zoo

There’s clearly a very keen focus on conservation here. Planet Zoo opts to present the more positive side of animal-based entertainment, so it’s unlikely you’ll be creating any dystopian prison zoos with dancing bears. In fact, the game’s most valuable currency, Conservation credits, are based on how well your breeding programs go and the number of species you reintroduce into the wild.

The animals are not easy to please either, breaking out into fights like they’re in student digs if they feel there’s overcrowding or an inaccurate sex ratio. There’s a lot of focus on breeding, but don’t worry if you’re not into being some kind of Doctor Doolittle-themed matchmaker, as you can also opt to give the animals contraceptives and just take in more captive-born animals to maintain your population. That does mean you won’t be earning Conservation credits though, which in some cases are worth more than cold hard cash, especially in Franchise mode – or at least that’s the idea.

Planet Zoo

On an aesthetic level, Planet Zoo is flawless. The animals look and act more lifelike than you’d ever expect to see in a sim management game. They’re easily the absolute stars of the show. Throw in systems like the dynamic weather, which can send all the wildlife huddling under the nearest shelter, and it’s easy to forget that the end goal is profit, not creativity. Although, creativity is very much what you get with an astonishing array of customisation available to craft your enclosures and parks.

That’s often put forward as the goal of real zoos: for people to see the animals, care about them and, hopefully, care more about the environment as a by-product of that – or, at least that’s the argument. Because it has to be mentioned that Planet Zoo is also an impressive learning tool. There are swathes of information about all the animals you can care for and you have to learn that knowledge in order to create successful zoos. Unless you want to give a black bear the wrong enrichment toy and have him escape from his enclosure to find something more interesting to play with, like a keeper, or guest.

That does require a level of commitment – this isn’t what could be described as a pick-up-and-play game, although the Career mode does offer that in its early challenges. Despite its cute graphics, this is a complex simulator that requires hours of time to understand and master. Planet Zoo is the Crusader Kings 2 of zoo games on every level.

Planet Zoo

It’s not all smiling llamas though, as there are a few minor pain points. The fact you can’t pick up staff or directly assign them to complete a task is infuriating. Many times animals would go unfed for long periods and I wasn’t able to make the keeper address the issues despite clicking on it like a maniac. They’d just walk in the enclosure and then walk out. I’d have loved to have seen the option to take control of staff in first-person, jumping into their shoes to get the immediate tasks done.

The pacing of the game is also just a smidge off, although you can control this to a certain degree. It just feels like you’re breeding and moving animals on sometimes faster than you really get to know them. It kind of breaks that attachment or bond you can develop. It doesn’t affect the game in too much of a detrimental way but it would have been nice to still have animals around for years and really make them a long-term resident at your zoo.

Finally, there’s the building system, which although amazing in its level of customisation, is frustrating in its general application. Getting things to click together is fiddly and awkward; they often place out of joint because of the angle you’re looking at them. Walls and barriers snap together weirdly with you having to set the length before you place them juggling an unwieldy amount of settings just to get them down. I have no doubt, if Planet Coaster is anything to go by, players will do amazing things with the customisation in this game but a more intuitive system would have been easier in function.

Planet Zoo

So, there is a little barrier to entry but if you pour time into Planet Zoo you’ll get something really special out of it. You might not make zoos as breathtaking as the show maps included in the game but there is a great focus on customised themes. Want to make a monkey sanctuary? No problem. A giant reptile house or panda sanctuary? Cool, the options are there for you to do that. It doesn’t have to be a standardised zoo and I like that freedom of expression.

The modes are pretty straightforward but everything is here that you need. Career is pretty focused on teaching you the game’s systems but none the less enjoyable, partly just because of how great the zoos you get to manage are. Challenge mode is excellent if you like to bounce from one task to the next and want something more focussed. Sandbox is all the freedom you could ask for with the usual restrictions turned off, which is always fun. And, finally, there’s Franchise which really feels like the flagship mode for long-term players.

I love the ambition of the Franchise mode – a worldwide economy of animals shared between players around the world. You have to build your zoo in a more organic way, earning money and conservation points as you go. It tries to get as close to managing an actual zoo as possible and lets other players come visit your creations and see the amazing work you’ve been doing.

Planet Zoo

Maybe in the future this is the way we’ll see the once-diverse animals of Earth; digital zoos aren’t a new thing. There is a reason why the focus of this game is conservation and that may eventually become the reason why people visit virtual zoos. Thankfully, Planet Zoo has recreated some of the world’s most beloved creatures in amazing detail and, despite a few minor teething problems, a truly compelling sim game.

Hands down, it’s the best zoo management game available, so if that’s what you’re looking for then you’ve found it. I think there’s so much more to come for Planet Zoo though. This humble beginning will no doubt grow in something much greater supported by the community. I’d love to see things such as the option for water parks in the future and have no doubt there’ll be plenty of DLC coming over the next few years. As humans, we are infinitely fascinated by nature and it’s great to finally have a digital playground to explore that.

[Reviewed on PC]