Frontier Developments’ Planet Zoo is out now for PC, essentially combining a lot of the expertise the studio has built up through their different franchises. Is it the next great park sim from the UK-based publisher?
When people think “Frontier Developments”, half of them are likely to gravitate towards David Braben and the legendary Elite franchise. The other half will no doubt bring up the company’s many park sim-based titles, ranging from RollerCoaster Tycoon to Jurassic World Evolution and from Thrillville to Zoo Tycoon. They’re no stranger to animals either, because outside of their park sims they’ve also worked on the excellent Kinect game Kinectimals. To them, Planet Zoo will feel like the amalgamation of much that came before it. And to them, Planet Zoo will be easier to get comfortable with than it will be for others.
There is a great amount of depth to Planet Zoo, and if you went in at the deep end and started building a zoo with a blank slate of land you’re probably come away frustrated. Luckily, a game that is essentially about putting the well-being of the animals in your zoo first and puts catering to its human visitors second also features a series of tutorials to help you learn the ropes. Part of that is learning how to make and keep your animals happy by offering the right climates, foods environments, but their well-being also relies on being able to enjoy a bit of privacy, receiving medical treatment when needed and so much more. On top of that, you’ll also need to manage the infrastructural elements that make all this possible – ensuring you have clean water and running power at all times, for example.
Not all of these mechanics will be familiar to people, and it certainly helps to have experience with previous Frontier games. If you don’t, or need a refresher, then there’s a range of tutorial scenarios available that play out in zoo setups that were specifically designed to deal with the topic you’re about to learn. Although that sounds great on paper, the tutorials aren’t as good as they could be and will leave you to experiment a bit through trial and error afterwards. Perhaps it’s intentional so that you craft something that’s truly unique for you, but since the tutorial lessons take quite a while it’s bit of a grind to get through them.
It pays off though, because beyond those tutorials (and underneath an admittedly complex user interface) lies a zoo park simulation that’s easily the best one out there. A lot of the complexity in the UI comes from how deep the simulation runs, so it’s part of the learning process that you eventually forget once you’re smoothly up and running. Until then, it’s good to be a bit more forgiving and accept that you’ll make mistakes – most of which can easily be corrected if you catch them soon enough.
Surprisingly (to me), Planet Zoo doesn’t feel like a simulation where you constantly balance the well-being of the animals with the need to make money. It’s not about sacrificing living space for your lions just so you can fit in a souvenir stand, but more about a slightly idealized version of what a zoo should be like – which includes animal conservation and breeding programs. As a result, you also can’t really intentionally make things fly completely off the rails. I thought it would be a hilarious idea to release wild animals while making the exits hard to reach, but it wasn’t the slaughterhouse scenario I was aiming for. It caused panic with the visitors, but that’s really about it – I went back to being a proper zookeeper soon after.
Besides the sandbox mode where you design and create your own zoo (which can be highly specialized in certain animals or incredibly diverse), the game also offers challenge maps. I enjoyed these a lot as part of my learning process, allowing me to test whether or not I was comfortable enough with the game’s mechanics after passing the tutorials. They’re also a lot of help once you start working on your own zoo, so if you feel like things aren’t going smoothly there you might want to tackle a challenge level first.
When you do, managing your own zoo will become a lot more fun as well. You can gradually grow your zoo, optimize what you’ve got going, or just be content and manage little issues here and there as they come along. In that last scenario, there’s plenty of time to also marvel at the animals, which I fully recommend doing. Planet Zoo’s animated digital animals are absolutely gorgeous, rising to the level of their Jurassic World game but with a much wider range of animals. Since many of us have also seen a lot of these animals in real life, it’s all the more impressive how lifelike they seem in how they look and behave.
What’s also great about Planet Zoo is that there is a large amount of content included with the base game. We all know that Frontier is known to release content post-launch and there will no doubt be more animals later, but what’s already included is impressive and should last budding zookeepers for months indeed. I like to build up my zoo with little mini hubs, focusing on a certain type of animals at a time, and still haven’t even gotten close to seeing all the animals and providing them all with the habitat they need.
Planet Zoo’s a great new park management sim from Frontier, with a ton of complexity that should give it a great deal of replayability with all of the content that’s been included. Its dynamics and controls can be a bit of a hurdle to overcome, but stick with it and you’ve got an amazing sandbox of a game – one that’s gorgeous to look at and show off to visitors (or your kids).