Review copy provided by Frontier Developments plc. Reviewed on PC.
Confucius once said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it more complicated.” After playing this game, I am compelled to believe that he may have been right in his conviction after all. Planet Zoo is complicated, it has its goods and bads. Time and again you will complain about the redundant means it employs to appear as if it is lending you enormous freedom through all its advanced editing tools, of how dull it gets after a certain point. Yet at other times, you will find yourself praising the same features for allowing you to get really creative.
Planet Zoo is fundamentally a building game, there’s plenty to do, the ‘plenty’ being just too much. There’s a huge menu to choose from. From building custom made houses bit by bit to add decorative value to your zoo to beautifying it with natural supplements like foliage and vegetation. From laying the groundwork for physical infrastructure ranging from constructing wide roads for crowds to gather to one side in order to gaze upon the majestic beasts of the wild to placing power stations and water treatment plants to keep your zoo functioning.
Barriers are the outer layers of your habitats that surround the living space of the animals. With ample leeway, the game lets you build these around in various ways and shapes. You can choose between what material a barrier should be made of, whether a metal fence would be enough to contain a Bengal tiger or whether you’d need something that is more sturdy and resistant to brute force. With various grades of durability, picking the right one for the right species is not only economical but also important to keep them inside. The open space inside the barriers would only be considered as a habitat once you have placed a habitat gate, after which animals can be delivered inside them.
Staff members have a certain amount of energy and happiness. They are happy if they are paid well, they are energetic and able to work longer if they are well-rested. Some employees like the veterinarians and the mechanics can perform research to unlock additional items. Other than that, vets can perform surgery or catch animals on the run, mechanics can repair barriers and other facilities, while security guards are necessary to catch vandals and pick-pockets. Caretakers keep the place clean and tidy, vendors run shops, and zookeepers take care of the animals.
A host of buildings both for staff and guests are central to customer satisfaction. Facilities like the staff room are places for your tiny minions to catch a moment’s break away from the chaos of the world. The quarantine building is used to isolate animals if they have contagious diseases. Research centres are where the vets do their research. On the other hand, mechanics do their research in their dingy workshops.
Guests also have certain needs: energy, education, thirst, hunger and toilet all of which contribute to a single large factor—happiness. Discontented guests will leave the zoo, thereby impoverishing you. Buildings like the info, drink and food shop and the toilet keep the guests happy by fulfilling their needs. Education boards with monitors and speakers keep your guests informed about the animal they are seeing. ATMs ensure that your guests do not run out of money.
Animals have specific needs and behaviours. Here, the Zoopedia comes in handy — a smooth inbuilt feature which lets you study various animals, their natural habitat, biomes, behaviour patterns, conservation status, etc. Different species have different terrain preferences and require particular vegetation from their original biome to survive. Some even need a sizable water body like the Hippopotamus or the Saltwater Crocodile. The Japanese Macaque or any animal with climbing capabilities require a plethora of trees along with non-climbable barriers. Certain climbable barriers like the fence can be converted into non-climbable barriers. Others are non-climbable by default. If you are housing animals that can jump high, then the barriers must be of a certain height to prevent them from escaping and causing mass panic.
Then there’s the question of the right temperature. Animals belonging to the tundra require cool climate to survive whereas the ones coming from the temperate region require a mild, somewhat warm somewhat cool weather. If your zoo is based in a cool region then you will have no issue keeping cold-weather animals. But if you are based in a tropical zone and want to house, let’s say, a Japanese Macaque, you will have trouble doing that early game. For such cases, there are workarounds. With the help of coolers or heaters (powered by power stations and therefore must be within range of one) that the game provides, you can calibrate the temperature of your habitat in accordance with the animals’ needs, keeping in mind that additional expenses for electricity consumption will have to be borne. Certain animals like the Chinese Pangolin are shy and will get stressed if too big a rabble assembles around it.
Animals have welfare needs, they constantly require food and toy enrichment. If certain needs are not met and welfare is below average, protesters will turn up refusing to leave until you fix things. This can also happen if there are starving animals in your zoo. This can get especially dicey when the inspection officer arrives within that period to examine your zoo. If they were to find protesters within range of a habitat or animals on the run, you will become liable to spot fines.
Planet Zoo has over fifty animal species which can be purchased from the Animal Trading Centre or sold off there either for cash or conservation points. The criteria for earning the latter includes greeting random visiting avatars, logging in daily, releasing animals in the wild, completing community challenges and selling animals in the marketplace which serves as a mechanic introduced to make people grind for the good stuff. The former is your primary mode of income, what the guests pay you for entry, for making transactions within your zoo or for making donations.
An easy to operate UI allows you to customise everything your way. An advanced move and rotate option confirms the developers’ affinity with creativity, bestowing the player with extreme powers. This is how Planet Zoo encourages artistry. These simple options open up a whole new dimension of innovative builds. You can even create a whole building out of simple construction materials from the construction menu and assign them into a single group so you can move the entire structure around instead of moving individual pieces one at a time. That makes it so much easier to cluster stuff into a meaningful object which is a singular form of its own. To make it simple, you can take four pillars, four walls, a slanted roof and a foundation and arrange them into one meaningful whole: a building. But let’s say that you wanted to relocate it, you need not to drag every individual piece. Instead, you put all of them into a group and move the whole lot. But in all this, somewhere down the line, the developers fail to recognise the value of simplicity.
Games like Cities: Skylines and SimCity which came way before this brought into play such methods as snapping, where you are just a click away from perfectly aligning an object to another. Planet Zoo, however, does not have such a feature. I am not implying that the product was rushed but I doubt the developers never saw the outcome of this during the testing phase. It looks downright disgusting when you place a speaker on the ground and they appear to clip through it. Monitors won’t snap to the signboards automatically. Instead, you have a blueprint of the stand and the monitor grouped together, which means the developers were aware of the drawbacks of the system. Yet, it is strange how they have refused not addressed it in an update till now. Then there’s the matter with floating objects, with the advanced move option you can make stuff float and it will be held to the sky with ungodly might. I have seen people make floating islands in videos and that is fine, but I fail to understand how an upside-down hovering tree and a staff building ten feet underground in any way demonstrates creativity.
Two really good components help make Planet Zoo truly fascinating—music and graphics. Even though the people look cartoony, the developers have put a lot of emphasis on animals, trying to make them as real as possible. Just watching the critters frolicking about in the open with their mates is a heartwarming experience. Different species have different life-like animations for when they are interacting with the environment. They even gave them a genetic makeup to encourage breeding, which means finding the perfect mate for a decent offspring is very important. There are behaviour patterns specific to species. Some animals will fight for alpha status, some are maternal and some territorial. Some amicable towards human beings, others not so much. Assertion of dominance is a primary trait of the animal kingdom and the game applies these principles most judiciously with meticulous consideration. The music is a paragon of laudable composition which radiates fun vibes, filling you with hope. The groovy music that plays between the loading sequences will immediately capture your attention and energise you while the soothing melody in-game will provide you with a calm atmosphere to concentrate.
Planet Zoo also adds something that’s quite out of the box. Rides — a fun way to tour through the entire zoo without walking past every habitat. It brings a whole new colour into the zoo simulator spectrum but so far, I have not really found it anywhere near as interesting.
There are tons of modes, career, sandbox and franchise. My favourite is franchise mode because I like starting from scratch with challenges and more valuable animals available for a hefty sum of conservation points. It does not deliver everything to you on a golden platter. It’s challenging to manage finances, animal welfare, marketing and expansion altogether, balancing the basic supply-demand chain. One misstep and you will be at the verge of bankruptcy. There are quite a lot of variables at work and you actually have to keep your nose on the grindstone to achieve something on the lines of a good outcome, a reasonable return for your investments. Trust me when I say this, the grinding makes the experience all the more sweeter.
Planet Zoo has horrible optimization issues. It lags, stutters and freezes when you start getting more guests. I find it hard to swallow that a simulation game would perform so poorly on a PC that has a Ryzen 2600, RTX 2060 and 8 Gigs of RAM. The career mode is impossible to run and perhaps it is why I have shunned it from this article entirely. With barely 30 FPS in most areas, it is a nightmarish experience to build anything let alone zoom in to take screenshots with such conditions persisting in a fully complete game.
Planet Zoo is a highly ambitious venture. It is very fun but it has its downsides like any other simulation game. Some of the systems prohibit a simple, fun experience, others are minor issues that can be fixed easily. But the fact that they haven’t been fixed yet is infuriating. It is gorgeous when it comes to looks but most of the part, it overcomplicates itself with pointless systems. The terrible optimization somewhat adds to the negative feeling and that is what ruins it for me.