Animals are the best. I know it, you know it. Frontier Developments knows it, as it follows up its movie-themed park-builder, Jurassic World Evolution, with another foray into the same genre. Except with present-day animals like monkeys and lions, not murderous dinosaurs from a bygone era. Planet Zoo is quite similar to Frontier’s previous game, however, in that you’re still building an animal park and doing your best to keep those animals happy and, almost as importantly, contained. I would say that nobody wants to see animals escaping, but given the way people love to torture their Sims, I’m fairly sure those same people would deliberately attempt to set lions upon their zoo’s guests.
This isn’t Frontier’s first attempt at a zoo game, having co-developed the most recent Zoo Tycoon that was initially released on Xbox 360 and Xbox One (later updated and re-released on Xbox One and PC by Asobo), but it’s certainly its most complex. Planet Zoo isn’t going to be for everyone, thanks to its more in-depth management, but the more hardcore park-building fans will love taking care of the tiniest details.
Those details are unfortunately what turned me off of Planet Zoo, I must admit. Going through tutorials (it has several and they’re all needed), it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of things that need doing when setting up your zoos. Building the enclosures is mostly simple, though the UI doesn’t always make it so. A lot is made of accessibility (and rightly so) but the text is far too small by default and enlarging it only results in enlarging every menu, to the point of barely being able to see what’s actually going on in the zoo because so much screen real-estate is taken up by oversized menu boxes. And don’t get me started on the “objectives” panel, which constantly reappears whenever you complete anything on its checklist, despite repeatedly closing it. Hopefully that’s something to be fixed at a later date.
Some will love this level of management detail, though. Having to set up information boards and speakers, before specifically selecting what each board displays and what each speaker plays. Or perhaps it’s organising an enclosure’s vegetation, making sure it’s tailored to the animals within. This requires selecting individual bushes, trees and bracken to remove, then finding out which plants are needed and placing everything by hand. Of course, you’ll need to make sure each species has its food and water, plus enrichment items such as scratching posts or food dispensing toys, and let’s not forget some cover under which they can sleep, or hide from the public if necessary. We all need that, quite frankly.
Even the building aspects of Planet Zoo are filled with options. Is the fence strong enough? Does it need to be electrified? Is it tall enough and does it have anti-climbing measures? You’ll also need to make sure there are viewing windows, then make sure you use the correct glass (some animals get anxious at the sight of humans, so one-way glass is needed). You can also raise and lower the terrain, fill up pools of water and even “paint” the terrain to specific animals’ biome requirements. The level of control and customisation here is astonishing and will certainly appeal to the more hardcore park-building fans, but it was too much for a more casual fan like myself.
You can pause the action, however. No, I don’t mean bringing up the menu with a simple press of the Escape key, I mean a Baldur’s Gate style of pausing, which lets you make decisions and build facilities and enclosures, without a single in-game minute passing ticking away. It helps when you’re on a tight schedule, because an inspector is coming to visit and you need to tend to the needs of an animal before they arrive.
What also helps is Sandbox Mode. Here you create a zoo using the templates provided, or build one from scratch, without the worries of having to manage the monetary side of things. There are no objectives, no end to the amount of money you have, so you can build your dream zoo and just enjoy yourself. As long as you still don’t mind dealing with the various issues that crop up, managing the welfare of animals and, if you decide to build your own zoo, taking into account the sheer length of time it will take to set up everything.
Building isn’t a case of just setting boundaries and making sure there are feeding stations, etc. to ensure the animals don’t die of starvation. You might want to sculpt the terrain, creating ponds and lookout points, and you’ll have to research the terrain type each animal needs, then “paint” it to match. Then make sure there is enough vegetation and that the animals will have enrichment items to keep them entertained. Not forgetting the various buildings and staff you’ll need to maintain your zoo and allow you to bring in new animals. Then, and yes, I know this is a lot to deal with, there are paths to build and shops to open. Did you remember to build toilets and add decorations? Oh man, did you build the habitat barriers to the correct height and add anti-climbing measures to make sure the lions don’t hop the fence and eat your guests?
It may sound like I’m exaggerating, but I’m really not. Everything is long-winded in Planet Zoo. Sometimes you’ll need to quarantine an animal, but you’ll need a quarantine station and you can’t just select an animal and select “send to quarantine,” because that would be too easy and downright player-friendly. Instead, you need to find the correct animal (either manually or through a list of your animals) and box them up, before selecting to move them and then clicking on the quarantine station. Why not just let me send them with one click? It’s just overly complicated to do most things in the game.
Truth be told I did enjoy managing the zoos once they were up and running. I just could have done without some of the tedious, over-complicated systems that seemed to fight me at every turn. Even the main menu didn’t cooperate, often crashing upon loading up the game. At least 50% of the time, it would freeze and I would be forced to open Task Manager to close the game, before restarting and crossing my fingers that it would work this time.
It’s a lovely game to look at, though. From the beautiful weather effects and lighting, to the detailed animal models that populate your zoos. Okay, so the ultra-realistic animals do clash a little with the stylised humans that look like they’ve come directly from Two Point Hospital, but the sheer number of guests never once caused my game to stutter or slow. They could do with learning how to walk around each other, but that’s probably quite realistic. Try walking through the Trafford Centre, you’ll see how many people refuse to move around one another.
Honestly, it’s difficult to recommend Planet Zoo over the likes of Zoo Tycoon or even Jurassic World Evolution, because it’s just so needlessly overcomplicated. I suspect that even the most hardcore management sim/park-building fans will tire of how inefficient the menus are and how awkward it is even to set up a new enclosure. More casual players will certainly be out of their depth, even Sandbox Mode won’t be enough to keep them engaged. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a bad game, but in its current state, Planet Zoo is a little too unstable and a little too complex. It’s a game that feels like it needed a few more months to iron out its flaws.
Sandbox mode allows you to play without restrictions
Too many systems to manage
UI can be far too complex and awkward to navigate