There’s generally a lot of shooting things in the face and chopping bits off people in the average video game. Let’s put what that says about humanity to one side for a moment though, and be thankful for the fact that so many other games exist without any maiming, chopping or guns. Planet Zoo is one such game, a delightful, relaxing park sim that puts our furry, feathery or leathery friends at the centre of the experience.
Coming from the creators of Jurassic Park Evolution and Zoo Tycoon, it’s little surprise that Planet Zoo, for all that it’s brand new, feels immediately familiar. Your job is to build, populate and run a successful zoo, and while there aren’t any of the dramatic or lethal break-outs of Jurassic Park Evolution – the closest I came was a lost Lemur who’d escaped from his enclosure and had no food – its laid back vibe will draw you in nonetheless.
It’s great to see a wealth of content available from the very beginning. If you’re looking for structure there’s either the Challenge mode, where you can build a new zoo or run one of the scenario sites and work through a series of problem, or the Career mode, with a set path of tasks that take you through a slew of ready-made zoos. This is the perfect place to start for most players, as it’ll walk you through the fundamentals of Planet Zoo, and maybe even teach you about some of the animals while you’re at it. Of course, for those who prefer their zoo building without limits you can access the sandbox mode straight away and work on your own dream facility with no outside influence or limits.
There’s a ton of things you’ll need to get right if you’re going to keep the animals happy and content, from simply having a habitat that’s large enough to accommodate them, to getting the correct mix of living conditions and terrain. Each animal has a specific set of needs that you have to accommodate, and a simple click on them will give you an immediate insight into the mind of aardvarks and lions alike.
It’s then generally a case of tinkering with the habitat to meet your animal’s requirements. From making sure it’s the right temperature to populating it with the correct type of plant life, enrichment objects and constructs.
Get things wrong for too long and protesters will start to appear in your park, bringing attention to the dwindling animal welfare. It’s here that Planet Zoo can create a sense of urgency, and in an early case – with the missing Lemur – where I simply couldn’t work out how to fix the problem, it was absolutely devastating to find they’d died while in my care.
Frontier know that zoos around the world can be fundamentally problematic, and the issues of animal welfare, of cramped conditions and poor hygiene form the basis of the game’s own welfare mechanic.
It’s clear that this is a team that adores animals, and while the brilliantly lifelike models prove that in one way, it’s Planet Zoo’s keen sense to make sure that every animal left in your care has their needs perfectly met. You’ll spend time trying to ensure the Baird’s Tapir aren’t stressed by the lack of private space, or that the hippos have enough toys to keep them entertained, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because you want to.
Once you’ve built in the extensive information on each animal, and tailored everything in their habitat, you begin to see what a celebration of life Planet Zoo is. To continue to grow your zoo you’ll also need to release animals back into the wild, earning you conservation credits and highlighting the good work that zoos often do. This feeds into the community challenges that are set each week as well, tasking players with joining in with a worldwide breeding programme for bears, or releasing 75,000 lions back into the wild, giving you another reason to keep returning. Not that you’ll need one.
Unexpectedly, Planet Zoo also boasts one of my favourite soundtracks of the year, and I often found myself swaying along with a big stupid grin on my face to the Of Monsters & Men styled chants, African vocals and finger-picked acoustic guitar. It’s ridiculously and infectiously cheerful, and the perfect compliment to everything else Frontier have built.
Rotation and placement of items out in the park can be a bit of struggle at times, though the more time you spend with it the more you get used to its idiosyncrasies. Sometimes things will refuse to quite do what you want them to – there’s a double shop that I cannot get the second shop to go into, and which consistently wants to be placed on the roof instead – but largely you’ll find that the construction tools will get you to where you want to go, as long as you have a modicum of patience.
Otherwise the UI and presentation does an excellent job of providing you with the information and tools you need in an easy to access way. It’s a little daunting at the start thanks to the sheer breadth of options, but you’ll soon settle into where everything is, and what a functional zoo needs in order to operate.
If there’s one particular oddity of Planet Zoo, it’s the visual dissonance between the lifelike creatures, photo-realistic habitats and the stylised visitors, who look like they’d be more at home in Two Point Hospital. Still, maybe this is part of their rehabilitation?