Tycoon games often offer an interesting snapshot of a time and place, both in real world politics and the state of video game technology. SimIsle, a 1995 tycoon about decimating pristine islands for the sake of commercialism, was later followed up with SimPark, which imposed more environmentally-friendly goals for success. These games often push the limits of a system’s graphical capabilities, displaying vast numbers of creatures, buildings, and customers in real time. Similarly, Planet Zoo is a thoroughly modern take on the zoo simulator, with stunningly beautiful animals and a strong focus on conservation. Following up on 2017’s Planet Coaster, Frontier Developments has created a deep, immersive simulation that offers an enjoyable tycoon experience, but suffers at times from poor controls and interface issues.
Running a business in Planet Zoo is a constant balancing act. Every aspect of park management has a wide array of factors to consider. An animal’s enclosure needs to be large enough for them to roam; the correct temperature; inescapable; the right terrain; and filled with plenty of food, water, and toys. Assigning a keeper to look after an animal will keep the creature healthy and happy, but staff also need a place to prepare food and take breaks. The guests require food and drink options, educational information, and a good view of the animals, but they also dislike seeing the functional buildings, requiring careful placement of every object and lots of decorations. On top of these factors, medical emergencies, pickpockets, fighting animals, and power usage will also keep the player constantly on their toes.
Planet Zoo offers four different modes of play: Career, Franchise, Challenge, and Sandbox. A new player could be tempted to jump straight into making a park from scratch. However, with the depth of the simulation on offer, one would be wise to check out the Career mode first, which is comprised of comprehensive tutorials and interesting challenge maps. Each map focuses on one aspect of overall zoo-keeping, such as creating a good workflow for the park’s staff or perfecting a habitat for a baby panda. When a level is completed in the career mode, the map can be used in the sandbox mode too, offering a good alternative to the blank slate.
Once the player is ready to build a park of their own, they can jump into either Franchise mode, which features online trading of animals; Challenge mode, which offers an offline version of the Franchise experience; or Sandbox mode, where the player has unlimited funds and aspects including animal illness and death can be switched on and off. All three modes are enjoyable in their own way. Franchise and Challenge present a brutally hard, but engaging experience. The challenges that pop up are randomised and can often lead a player astray: a successful zoo is one that is slowly built upon, but a challenge to have three different species at once can encourage the player to expand too quickly. Trading animals with real people is fun, with lots of unusual names and features popping up. Aspects such as albinism are not depicted within the trading screen, so unique creatures come as a nice surprise. The system is laggy, however, and the offline animals of Challenge mode have much more consistent pricing.
Both modes would benefit from a difficulty system: running a zoo is extremely expensive, and most players will have more than a few false starts before they get the hang of running the game’s economy. Sandbox, on the other hand, presents no challenge at all with its unlimited resources. A step between these extremes would make Planet Zoo appealing to more players. If sliders were added for starting money, guest fussiness, and animal needs, most players would be able to find a set-up that suits them.
Building a dream-like zoo is possible with the robust creation tools, but also requires zen-like patience. While general zoo management is explained well in the tutorials, building is only brushed over, leading to constant Googling to try to understand why a path has suddenly become a bridge or why guests are unable to enter the zoo. Paths can only be created piece by piece, rather than drawn in a long line, and they will often refuse to connect for inexplicable reasons. Messing with the path settings will eventually get the result one is after, with ‘align to grid’ creating options for straight lines and ‘snap to barrier’ wrapping a path around an enclosure, but absolutely none of this is explained. A mouse-over explanation for each setting would be a great help. Since Planet Zoo allows the player to build in three dimensions, with hills, valleys, and criss-crossing pathways all possible creations, the building engine’s complexity is understandable, but the mechanics need to be better communicated to the player. These fiddly building mechanics were an issue in Planet Coaster also, so the lack of progress in this department is disappointing.
The general user interface can also be somewhat unfriendly. While allowing the text to upscale is a much-needed accessibility option, the way the scaling is implemented means any setting larger than 120% makes the game unplayable, with vital information spilling off screen. If something within the zoo is constructed incorrectly, the error messages are far too vague to be helpful. In an early attempt, trying to place an animal in a habitat resulted in the message ‘invalid destination’. The reason was that the enclosure was missing a door, but this was only discovered after carefully checking the terrain, objects, and barrier of the habitat. In another instance, a vet got stuck on an awkwardly placed piece of pathway, and her complaint that she could not find a staff room once she was exhausted was the only notification of this issue. Quality of life shortcuts are also absent; best practice with every new animal is to send it to quarantine first, but no shortcut to send a new arrival straight there exists. The building must be hunted down and selected every time, which can become fiddly in a bigger park. A drop down list of habitats would also be helpful; a wolf mistakenly dropped into the tortoise pen was upsetting for all animals involved and resulted in an angry crowd of protestors storming the zoo.
When Planet Zoo works, however, it really works. The animal models are utterly beautiful, and becoming attached to a park’s inhabitants is easy. The base game has 73 different animals available, with a further three provided in the deluxe edition, offering something for everyone. Creatures have complex AI, with ring-tailed lemurs eagerly climbing over a poorly designed walls, and Komodo dragons fighting once they reach maturity. Hard decisions need to be made: in one case, a pair of iguanas had a baby, but they were immediately unhappy because three iguanas is too many for their small exhibit. Baby animals draw crowds, however, so the choice of which one to send away was heart-breaking. The conservation efforts also force some tough choices, with the healthiest individuals having the best chance out in the wild, but are also likely the ones the player has spent the most love and attention on. Every modification made to improve an animals enclosure (such as serving better food, adding extra grass, or placing plants from its native habitat) feels meaningful. Watching a warthog happily roll around in the mud is a far greater reward than simply seeing a number go up.
Planet Zoo has some balancing issues and explains certain concepts poorly. Once the game is understood, however, it offers such loveable inhabitants and deep simulation that its shortcomings can be forgiven. The game shows how difficult running a zoo ethically can be, but also convinces the player how worthwhile that endeavour is by offering adorable animals at every turn. It is clever, complicated, and perfect for animal lovers.
Reviewed on PC.