Planet Zoo Review
“Atmosphere, realism, depth, immersion and creativity; Planet Zoo is the Zoo Tycoon follow-up that fans have wanted for years.”
Frontier Developments, made famous by Elite Dangerous, made waves in the industry when they effectively re-vitalised the theme park management sub-genre with Planet Coaster in 2016. Roller Coaster Tycoon had largely floated off the radar, but the fans remained hungry for a modern instalment of the game. Now, Frontier have repeated that party trick. Following the somewhat disappointing reboot of Zoo Tycoon in 2013, it seemed like hopes of a new and shiny zoo management game might have been dashed. Enter 2019’s Planet Zoo; a true rebirth and return to form.
Planet Zoo, as the name suggests, invites players to construct, populate and profit from the creation of their very own zoo. Similar in visual style and gameplay model to the aforementioned Planet Coaster, Frontier have wisely replicated their working design; adapting and improving upon it to suit the needs of a now living and thriving park. To help you get to grips with the workings of the game, some relaxed and welcoming tutorial levels are on-hand to show you the ropes. Working with a wealthy benefactor at some of his internationally renowned zoos and conservation efforts, you quickly learn how to create habitats, purchase animals, manage their comfort and happiness and ensure that your visitors have the best possible experience of the species you have on show. The basics of the game are well-covered over the course of a couple of hours before the reigns are wholly handed over to you.
There are different ways to play Planet Zoo aimed at different types of gamers. Sandbox mode gives you the absolute freedom to create your own zoo from scratch. Alternatively, for those more inclined towards story and tangible goals, a number of scenarios are on offer to provide a more structured experience. The scenarios are an excellent way to play the game. Each one sets challenging but achievable goals to guide your experience, but equally offers enough freedom and creative opportunities for you to complete these tasks and create your zoos in a way that is personal to you. The voice-acted guidance throughout the tutorials and scenarios offer clarity and an air of quality, and visual cues help you to find your way around each zoo without being invasive or distracting. All of these guidance elements have visibly been well-thought-out and designed with player experience centrally in mind. A third option, franchise mode, is perhaps the best Planet Zoo experience you can enjoy. Managing multiple parks with a variety of species and individual goals and draws makes for expanded gameplay experience. The ability to trade assets between parks gives a very interconnected feel and allows you to maintain current locations or launch your new zoos in style.
However you choose to play Planet Zoo, the gameplay is intuitive, in-depth and open. Fans of the older Zoo Tycoon games will feel at home in the design and thought-processes behind creating new exhibits. Choosing the correct boundary, biome, climate, foliage, entertainment, water, temperature and social make-up of your exhibits is all paramount to ensuring animal welfare and happiness, and by extension the positive experience of your guests. The data which helps you to design these exhibits to perfection is clear and visualised in a user-friendly way, meaning you don’t have to be an avid all-round gamer to get your head around the systems. Simply get the sliders in the green, and your animals will be happy. How you achieve this within your zoo is entirely up to you.
Aside from creating the perfect exhibits, there is a careful balance which you must maintain in Planet Zoo. What makes visitors happy does not always align with what makes your animals happy. Privacy, for example, is important for your animals. Too much exposure from arrays of windows or imposing walkways can make them feel uncomfortable and unhappy. On the other hand, guests want to get as close to the animals as possible, seeking out the best possible views around your park. Objects such as one-way windows can help to support this balance, but careful design is naturally key. Go too far one way or the other, though, and you may find profits dwindling or protests rising up around your parks. Fortunately, the park creation tools in Planet Zoo are one of its strongest elements and give you everything you need to keep on striking this delicate equilibrium as its dynamics are constantly evolving.
From landscape modelling to boundary placement, all the way to the angle, elevation and style of your zoo’s pathways, Planet Zoo gives you a vast array of tools to design your park with. Many of these will once again feel familiar to players of Planet Coaster. Even players who are new to the systems, though, will appreciate the level of specific detail they provide you ownership of. Aside from avoiding any game-breaking unrealism, you can largely do anything you like with the design of your zoo. Fancy elevated walkways above your exhibits? It’s possible. Perhaps you would prefer to create a massive exhibit for just one type of animal, giving them the room to breathe and thrive. If so, it’s yours. Planet Zoo doesn’t just allow you to drop in pre-made homes for your various species; it allows you to give them the home you want. Not only does this freedom feel fantastic and easy to use, it also gives you the ultimate control over what is, at its heart, a game aimed at letting your creativity run wild.
If it isn’t already abundantly clear, the pure aim of the development team behind Planet Zoo has perceptibly been to give you complete ownership, control and creative freedom. They have also set out to achieve another aim, though; to make your experience a wholesome, immersive and fantastical one. Micromanaging the finest elements of a series of impressive, efficient, attractive and often expensive zoos is enjoyable, but the living, breathing animals and their highly realistic environments are what truly make the game special. Animals move, interact and live in realistic ways; best enjoyed through the exceptional live camera that allows you to track an individual inhabitants day to day movements. From eating to excretion and everything in between, it is easy to lose yourself following a chimpanzee, a zebra or a baby elephant for many minutes at a time. Few games offer such a compelling opportunity to simply observe and enjoy in this way. For such a busy game, too, this is a very welcome change of pace at times and makes all of the many plates you have to spin feel very worthwhile.
With all of this focus on the animals and creativity on offer in the game, it is easy to forget that the final route to victory lies with the experience of your guests. In the background of all the joys of animal management and creative control lies an intricate spreadsheet simulator in which visitors analyse everything from staffing and toilet availability to pricing and animal wellbeing. It is as complex as it is in real life, to make a person happy. Visitors have these largely similar and logical criteria that they would hope to see fulfilled in order to generate happiness and approval of your zoos, but as previously stated there are a variety of delicate balances to be fulfilled. You must please your guests in order to keep your zoo alive, but doing so could be to the detriment of other factors. This is the sad reality we never see behind the zoo industry. An accidental commentary on this, it may be; but Planet Zoo does accurately simulate the struggles which dictate one’s success.
This last statement underpins why Planet Zoo is a good game. In almost every respect, the game is a realistic and deep simulation of the considerations which go into the daily running of a zoological park. Planet Zoo goes one step further in providing you with this experience though, with its wonderful visuals and animations and the ability to create in whatever way you want. Planet Zoo is comfortable and intuitive to play, too, but never feels easy. With the complex needs of both creatures and characters in constant flux, there is plenty of challenges every step of the way. In the brief moments of calm which do emerge however, Planet Zoo also places itself as one of the most relaxing and immersive games which I have played in some time. Atmosphere, realism, depth, immersion and creativity; Planet Zoo is the Zoo Tycoon follow-up that fans have wanted for years.
Developer: Frontier Developments plc
Platform: Microsoft Windows
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