Frontier Developments continue to prove themselves to be the masters of the real-time park management genre with Planet Zoo.
Having cut their park management teeth reinvigorating the Rollercoaster Tycoon series for Atari back in the day, the Cambridge-based outfit, probably best known for the revered Elite series of space-trading games, have gone from strength to strength.
Their Planet Coaster game is probably the best theme-park management game ever created. Zoo Tycoon is an Xbox One launch title that showed the developers were just as comfortable managing animals as they are with white-knuckle rides.
Frontier Development's licenced Jurassic World Evolution game has players entering the world of the blockbuster franchise. Here, players must manage and maintain dinosaur theme parks based on the iconic movies. It's safe to say that Frontier have the chops.
With Planet Zoo, Frontier Developments have put all their expertise in creating the deepest and most fulfilling zoo management game ever. It's clear that the game is built on the foundations laid by Planet Coaster. The interface, design style and game mechanics closely follow those of the theme parks management game.
Planet Zoo is not for the fsint-hearted. It's one of the most involved creative simulations I've ever played. Whilst there is an extensive tutorial system walking you though the various aspects of the game, once you've done the tutorial scenarios and you are left to your own devices, you are likely to have forgotten where to find everything.
As a veteran of Planet Coaster, I was familiar with the game's user interface and general mechanics, but the game had me flummoxed quite a few times.
Players must manage every aspect of building and running a zoo, from creating the physical zoo and amenities to stocking and looking after the animals. To do all of this the game has a comprehensive toolbox and interface system. It's fair to say my familiarity with Planet Coaster made many of the complexities of Planet Zoo easier for me to overcome compared to those likely experienced by a player coming in fresh.
There are tools that shape the landscape, plant foliage, lay grass, place sand, rocks and water. You can build enclosures from a variety of materials with viewing areas for visitors. Some items need power which needs to be provisioned, as does water treatment.
Whereas with Planet Coaster you can just place pre-designed rides and amenities, give them an entry price and off you go, Planet Zoo has you building your enclosures, choosing your animals, hiring vets and keepers and on top of a that trying to keep your guests happy. Rollercoasters don't need the right flora to thrive, don't get lonely and aren't concerned with being packed in small places.
Even setting up a kiosk is more involved, with players having to construct themed facades in which to place generic vendors. The versatility of the park editor has been opened up quite a lot more than Planet Coaster, requiring a bit more work from the player. Even Jurassic World Evolution is child's play compared to the depth of Planet Zoo.
Building a zoo is a complex task and Planet Zoo doesn't set out to make things simple. Animals are obtained via a marketplace, whereby, after clearing customs they await in the zoo's trade centre until moved to their enclosures. If you start a breeding program, you can release animals back into the wild for a conservation bonus.
Enclosures have to be big enough for the animals to be happy. Each species has a set of desirable criteria in order to thrive in an enclosure. The need the right plants, grasses, rocks and equipment to stay happy. The enclosures also have to be fit for purpose. Chimps are good climbers and one climbed straight out of my first attempt at building an enclosure. Whilst chimps mingling with the crowd is amusing, the same issue with a lion would be a disaster. Barrier have ratings to ensure that you keep your dangerous animals away from the visitors.
Smaller animals are housed in small exhibits. These can be customised to have open glass on all four sides, opaque or with a backdrop.
The game allows players to get right into the theming using landscaping, paths and water features to create a unique zoo environment. You can spend hours just tweaking the aesthetics. I'm expecting to see some jaw-dropping efforts in the Steam Workshop.
Of course, without paying visitors, your zoo will go broke. Visitors need feeding and watering as well. Shops can turn a tidy profit my overcharging for everything, just like real zoos. Planet Coaster fans will enjoy installing trains and other transportation systems.
Planet Zoo looks astounding. The cartoony art style of the visitors does, however, clash with the realism of the animals. The animals move realistically and look amazing. The fur looks so real you want to reach out a stroke it (and get your arm bitten off). Frontier have spent year perfecting their Cobra game engine and it really delivers the visuals. The camera modes allow player to get right in amongst the crowds and experience the zoo from a visitor's perspective.
The sound design captures all the animal noises and is set to an appropriately catchy theme park/zoo-style soundtrack. The whole package is astoundingly polished.
Aside from the “on-the-job” training, Planet Zoo's Zoopedia reference guide teaches players about all the animals found in the game. A few hours playing and you'll likely double your knowledge of the amazing creatures that Frontier have charged you to look after.
It's clear that a lot of effort has gone into Planet Zoo, justifying its release as a standalone title. Part of me, though, considering the games are virtually identical, would have liked to have had the opportunity to incorporate zoo animals into my Planet Coaster parks.
Budding zoo keepers are going to love the depth and level of detail that Planet Zoo affords them. It's a very heady game, despite its cartoon aesthetics. The learning curve is high, but this is offset by the superb depth of gameplay and things to do. If you've the time and patience Planet Zoo will provide you with hours and hours of fun.