While you’re not likely to find many real life contractors willing to give their weekends up, Sunday afternoons are absolutely perfect for building virtual zoos. While Planet Zoo isn’t out for another few weeks, those who’ve pre-ordered are currently able to get an early start on their digital animal parks, and it’s clear from the off that Frontier have piled all of their previous park building know-how into this latest release.
This isn’t quite Jurassic World Evolution – much to my eight-year old’s disappointment when he realised that this zoo’s inhabitants aren’t going to consistently escape and maul the visitors. Instead, this beta’s introduction to the Career mode sees you handed the reins of Goodwin House, an atypical English zoo, with all of the lemurs, peacocks and West African lions that entails.
It’s a great starting point for learning the ropes of running a zoo – well, a digital one anyway – as you’re provided with a set of tasks to complete which cunningly teach you the skills you’re going to need to succeed. You’re helped on your way by two of the cheeriest digital assistants since Clippy, with Bernie and Nancy dropping in to point you in the right direction or to provide a little bit of animal-based information. Do you know how long a Grizzly Bear can hibernate for? Well, I do and I’m not telling.
Clicking on the animals in your park will form the foundation of your Planet Zoo experience, as it gives you an immediate window into their furry little souls. “Why aren’t they happy?” will likely become your mantra, as you primp and preen their enclosures to try and keep them in optimum health. Each animal’s welfare is broken down into four categories, with Nutrition, Social, Habitat and Enrichment broadly covering the needs of each creature, and it’s paramount that you keep them in the green. If not, your park will soon be filled with protesters who (quite rightly) have plenty to say about an unhappy hippo or two.
There’s a keen eye here on both animal welfare and conservation, and this forms the basis of many of the systems within Planet Zoo. Whether it’s the aforementioned protesters or the fact that you have to consider and include conservation efforts in order to expand your park and be able to adopt new animals, it’s clear that Frontier are well aware of the issues that modern zoos face and the standards that they must meet. At the very least, there are lessons to be learnt here alongside all the building and business action.
Alongside the campaign you’ve also got access to Franchise mode, where you can start from scratch to develop your own company and create your first zoo. It’s a little daunting being handed an empty plot of land, but anyone who’s played a recent park builder will soon settle into the rhythm of balancing facilities, staff and pricing while you expand the number of exhibits.
After Jurassic Park Evolution and Zoo Tycoon, Planet Zoo feels distinctly more in-depth. Trying to maintain your animal’s welfare is a constant task, and just getting our grizzly bears to settle into their habitat proved a real challenge from the get-go. It’s not just a case of putting the correct enrichment items in there as it was in Zoo Tycoon; you’re now going to have to think about the complete environmental set-up, from how much soil, sand or long grass there needs to be in a habitat to balancing the temperature and matching the foliage to an animal’s native habitats.
You also need to have a firm grasp on the support buildings and staff that operate them, as without them your zoo will soon begin to fall apart. You’ll need keeper huts, staff rooms, quarantine facilities and veterinary centres to name just a few, and then employ the right people to populate them. Just like your animals, they can get pretty antsy if things aren’t quite to their liking, giving you another plate to spin to keep your zoo afloat.
While I’ve perhaps made it sound extremely serious, Planet Zoo is a joyful little game, from the head-boppingly cheerful world music to the lovely middle-aged Welsh zookeeper Nancy who talks you through your objectives. It’s perhaps a little too twee – there’s some serious dad-joke action going on here when Bernie appears – but that lightness is going to make sure that this is a game that can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone.
This being a beta, it’s clear that there’s still a little way to go before the game’s release. Hopefully some work is going to be done on the slightly wayward camera, which currently seems intent on making sure you can’t quite see what you want to, and there’s a few stutters and sputters from the engine if you’re moving around your zoo with too much speed. The UI is also pretty clunky, chucking up huge item selection pages that suck up half of the screen, and which then hang around while you’re trying to place said items into your zoo but it’s all stuff that can be dealt with before release.
Planet Zoo is a clear step up from Frontier’s previous park builders, taking some of the lessons learnt from Jurassic Park Evolution and applying them to the Zoo Tycoon template, while sprinkling in a healthy dose of modern thought. It’s wonderfully in-depth and appealing, and when you’re done tinkering with the sliders and percentages you can relax by watching any of the incredibly-animated creatures go about their daily business. That is, until they’re unhappy again.
Right. Someone pass me the grizzly bear research again.