I’m approaching Frontier’s new management sim Planet Zoo as an animal lover, first and foremost. Its devs previously said the game would offer a modern approach to zookeeping, all about animal conservation and welfare, so I am, naturally, intrigued. Plus the challenge of a meaty, in-depth management experience sounds pretty tantalising. The game’s not due to arrive until next month but the current beta offers a chance to give it a spin, so I jumped in.
The game offers two modes up front – career and franchise. I picked the former and started my journey at Goodwin House, a zoo set in the (somewhat temperate) English countryside.
The first thing that struck me, even early on, is how involved the mechanics, controls, and dynamic factors underpinning the gameplay are. Just about everything you can think of that might impact an animal’s day-to-day wellbeing is captured. Animals will respond dynamically to more obvious factors like weather; at first, my snow leopard was (unsurprisingly) too hot, so in went some habitat coolers to make her comfortable. Soon after, a mid-May snow drift struck, so then my wild boar weren’t thrilled.
There’s also the cleanliness of their habitat, how well they’re fed and watered, and space to consider. But other, more granular factors also play their part, often in pretty complex ways. For example, every single shrub, tree, or ground type you place in a habitat influences sliders or stats denoting the exact ratios they need of each, and you’ll see some low welfare levels if you don’t match the plants’ geographical origins to those of the critter whose home you’re trying to adorn. Fair enough, but tough to get right.
Plus, of course, the little darlings can easily slip into a state of ennui if they’re not entertained. Not that this is a problem for the determined would-be keeper – despite their digitised, non-actual existence, I know I can’t rest until the creatures I’m acting in loco parentis for have enough toys to stimulate and delight them, and there are plenty of options on offer.
The career mode tutorial broadly takes you through all of this, but it doesn’t stop at the animals themselves – the zoo itself is a bit of a beast. Managing correct barrier heights is a big one (because, you know, many of your little darlings will probably frighten visitors if determined to try an escape act à la Steve McQueen), but there’s a lot of emphasis on guests’ experience too. You have to be careful where and how you place everything on your zoo’s map.
There are some curveballs in there, too, where considerations about the animals’ welfare seem to clash a little with the financial needs of the zoo. For example, you’re prompted in the career mode walkthrough to pop some glass panes into habitat fencing so guests can see the animals, with donation collection points nearby – but then the little critters can feel that their privacy’s compromised, meaning their welfare could take a bit of a nose dive. To be fair, I don’t particularly enjoy visitors watching me eat my evening meal, either.
The impression I’m left with after several hours is that all of this makes for a fun and challenging experience, but also a pretty overwhelming one at times. Once I get past the ‘bronze,’ ‘silver,’ and most of the ‘gold’ objectives at Goodwin House, I’m left to get the animals’ welfare up to 80% across the whole zoo – and, boy, does that put you in at the deep end. Straight away a series of red-flagged alerts pop up warning me that various animals – including ones I’ve just brought in – are starving. Dehydrated. Close to death.
I scramble to get keepers in to save my piggies and peafowl, but they’re out of energy and won’t. Do. Anything. I try to re-organise and shuffle the staff to get some appropriately caffeinated keepers in as quickly as I can, in the process tackling the (again) pretty involved staff management menu that either lets you select pre-set work zones or set new custom ones. This seems to work in places, but by the time my critters’ salvation is in sight, my personal welfare has taken a tumbler and I’m a little frazzled over the stress of it all. My new wild boar are at stake, for goodness’ sake! Think of the ring-tailed lemurs!
I even have protesters picketing about these creatures’ wellbeing on-site, which panics me.
That’s not to say that it’s a purely stressful experience, though. The scope of control you have over every granular aspect of the zoo as a living, growing enterprise is humbling. The systems are breathtakingly comprehensive for anyone with the gumption to get stuck in and master them. Even in the face of placards, it’s a rewarding experience.
Planet Zoo will prove appealing to anyone who loves Cities: Skylines or Frontier’s other flagship management sim, Planet Coaster. If you’re purely here for the furry animals, however, and aren’t already au fait with management sims, the sheer depth of the game’s mechanics may prove something of a trial by fur.
Even so, for me the real stars of Planet Zoo are the animals themselves. They’re gorgeously rendered, especially with the top-tier graphics options if your PC can accommodate them. The tigers’ striped fur is gloriously glossy. The Cheetahs’ amber eyes glisten with life and draw you in. Even their movement is fluid and silky.
Seeing your big cats prowl, your peafowl totter, and the ring-tailed lemurs monkeying about in the homes you’ve crafted for them is just lovely. That’s a big win for players who find themselves a little overwhelmed by the mechanics of this exploding enterprise – there’s always got the option of gazing at the creatures in your care when it all gets a little much. On that front, double-click on any critter and you’ll get to see them up close and personal, with an option to let the camera follow them and their antics about.
Encouragingly,, Frontier goes even further and extends all of this out into an educational experience. The studio gently imbues the game with little nuggety droplets of information about the animals under your wing, plus there’s a whole ‘Zoopedia’ packed with facts to check out, which in turn makes you want to do an even better job. Kalpit the bengal tiger needs less wattle bush and more baobab trees, you say? I’m on it.
Overall, Planet Zoo appears to be a thorough – and thoroughly – rewarding management sim that brings the genre to a new level. It imbues everything with a real sense of life, and places its astonishing animals at the heart of it all. Genre newbies should be wary of being taken in by its charming aesthetics, but the rewards on offer are more than worth a bit of a mauling.