Planet Zoo Review
No time to monkey around
With wildlife conservation and animal rights gaining evermore exposure, zoos have become a bit of a controversy. There is some truth to the argument that, no matter how much space you can offer an animal, it will always feel confined. No zoo or wildlife reserve can match the wide open spaces of the wild, yet many establishments will argue their primary purpose is to raise endangered animals that wouldn’t survive on their own.
Planet Zoo does not take a political stance on wildlife tourism. But the latest release from British developer Frontier - known for their work on simulation games like Planet Coaster and Zoo Tycoon - does put a focus on conservation. With it, Planet Zoo succeeds as not only the most authentic zoo simulator out there, but in creating a greater goal for managing your virtual zoos that actually makes you feel quite good.
The number of things you can do in Planet Zoo is immense. Like most simulators, creation and management make up the core gameplay. Once you have built some initial pathways, habitats and staff and guest facilities, you can trade for new animals. Once those animals have been moved to their new habitat, your job becomes looking after them (and the staff who treat them). Within each of Planet Zoo’s key mechanics lie huge amounts of detail: choose a theme for your buildings, sculptures and foliage; ensure facilities and exhibits are powered with generators; research new enrichment items to keep animals entertained... your to-do list is near-infinite.
There are several ways to play Planet Zoo but, with so much to learn, the tutorials are a crucial starting point. The first three levels of Career Mode are based in per-existing zoos and guide you through the basics: the first explains camera controls and animal welfare, the second explains constructing buildings and hiring staff; the third introduces conservation, breeding, and releasing animals into the wild. These tutorial levels provide a gentle learning curve to ease you into the core features of the game.
The fourth level of Career Mode is where you move from tweaking existing zoos to creating your own. With free reign over a plot of land, it’s tempting to dive straight in (as I did) but the amount of detail in Planet Zoo means that planning is essential to success. I made a fatal mistake in my first zoo-building attempt by spreading resources too far apart - it took too long for zookeepers to take food into the habitat, leaving the animals constantly hungry. My Himalayan Brown Bear habitat was too small and the interactive section of my Aldabra Giant Tortoise habitat was causing the tortoise stress. With my animals unhappy, protesters arrived at the zoo and the Zoo Inspector eventually fined me into bankruptcy.
One thing the tutorials don’t emphasize is the Zoopedia: your source of information for every animal in the game. It’s not flashy but it’s arguably your most important asset. It tells you how much land space, climbable height or water an animal needs in an exhibit. It tells you the ideal group size for an animal and the ideal male-to-female ratio. It tells you which terrain an animal prefers and if it benefits from sharing a habitat with other species. This information is vital in keeping your animals happy and is worth researching before you choose the next addition to your zoo.
Fortunately Planet Zoo, like any good simulator, allows you to pause time. In my second zoo-building attempt I spent the first hour on pause, carefully building habitats and checking their size before selecting which animals to put in there. These habitats were simple rectangular spaces, but where Planet Zoo impresses the most are the customization options at your disposal. Rocks, plants, signs, statues and more come in all shapes and sizes and can be placed practically anywhere on the map. Everything can be moved and rotated with 360 degrees of motion, providing a blank 3D canvas for artistic types to run wild. And for the less artistically gifted people like myself, you can steal the best designs from the Planet Zoo Steam Workshop, which is already thriving.
The path creator is decidedly less intuitive. There are still useful adjustments like creating wider pathways to minimize congestion or snapping left or right turns to 90 degrees. Building a path isn’t difficult, but things can get fiddly when connecting buildings or entrances to it, especially if you have a keen eye for symmetry. It’s manageable, but expect to lose a lot of money accidentally placing a pathway or building in the wrong place.
After spending three hours building two tiny enclosures, the next level of Career Mode had me take control of a giant African nature reserve with four multi-species exhibits and a transport ride running through each of them. This is when the real scale of Planet Zoo’s customization options hit home, at around the same time my to-do list spiraled out of control. My main objective was simply to finish building the track for the safari ride, but my attention was immediately sent elsewhere because animals were getting sick. Mixed-species habitats are more prone to infection and, despite hiring increasingly more vets and caretakers, it was spreading quicker than I could treat it.
For some players, the level of micro-management needed to keep things ticking over might be overwhelming - particularly when part of Planet Zoo’s charm stems from its excellent presentation. Double-clicking on an animal will enter cinematic mode, allowing you to soak in the game’s beautiful design and impressive animation of all 76 animals. But in the back of your mind, you know that time spent admiring your new Giant Panda is time that should be spent elsewhere. When you exit cinematic mode, you might find that a fence has broken and your herd of American Bison have escaped. It’s a shame Planet Zoo doesn’t allow you any time to sit back, relax and appreciate your work. But I suppose there’s no time off in a real zoo, so why should a proper simulation be any different.
Career Mode has 12 levels, each functioning as an independent zoo. You’re free to return at any time to keep playing after the objectives are completed. Career Mode contains hours of content - yet some people might not play any more than the tutorials, and instead head to Franchise Mode.
Franchise Mode lets you build multiple zoos all over the world. The core gameplay is the same, but this mode adds some community spirit to the experience. Conservation credits are the only way to purchase animals, which you earn by visiting other zoos (you must subscribe to them in the Steam workshop), trading your animals, and logging in regularly. It’s in Franchise Mode where Planet Zoo’s focus on conservation shines through. There are breeding medals for every animal in the game and weekly community challenges, like collectively breeding 75,000 endangered Bengal Tigers or releasing 90,000 Lowland Gorillas in the wild. I haven’t been able to earn conservation credits from visiting other zoos yet, however, which has slowed the pace of Franchise Mode down. I can earn 100 credits from logging in each day and 20 credits from greeting visitors to my zoo, but endangered species like the Western Lowland Gorilla cost upwards of 1,000 credits.
If you want to accelerate the process of seeing everything Planet Zoo has to offer, Sandbox Mode gives you unlimited funds and unlocks everything in the game. So that means, yes, you can create one giant exhibit complete with lions, antelope, tigers and crocodiles. And you can add in a guest gate for an interactive section. And, yes, I know this because it was the first thing I did. Sandbox Mode is the best place to let your creative-bordering-on-psychotic juices run wild, but irresponsible decisions don’t go ignored - my hunger games-style nature reserve did not go down well with the animals or guests. Career Mode also takes the achievement out of unlocking items through progression. If you don’t want to spoil what the top-tier items are, it’s best left alone until you’ve exhausted Career or Franchise Mode.
Planet Zoo really does offer the closest thing you can get to managing your own zoo, while still sitting behind a computer screen. That means there’s always something else to be done and very little time to sit back and take it all in. It means you might get frustrated with your staff because they’re not working efficiently enough or curse your visitors for leaving so much litter around. But with wildlife conservation at the forefront of Planet Zoo, there’s a little added purpose behind all those hours you spend creating your dream zoo.