Frontier’s Planet Zoo is the latest in a long pedigree of simulations from the developer. You might recognise Frontier from games like Planet Coaster, Jurassic World, and Kinectimals. In a way, all of those titles feel like they’ve been building up to this – a fantastic zoo simulation experience. It hits pretty much all of the points from our wish-list.
Planet Zoo features a charming story mode that will teach you the ropes, as well as Sandbox, Challenge, and Franchise modes. Franchise Mode is a neat addition that allows you to build a series of connected zoos and trade animals with other players across the world. I recommend playing the story first; it acts as a tutorial.
I’ll be frank, dear reader: I loved Planet Zoo. Let’s talk about why.
Living, Breathing Animals: An Aardvark’s Tale
One of Planet Zoo‘s boldest assertions pre-launch concerned their animals. They called them “authentic living animals who think, feel and explore”. A bold claim, but one that holds more water than you might think.
When I first started playing, animals of an individual species seemed pretty much interchangeable. “Sure, they’ve all got cute randomly generated names, but surely any given moose is going to act the same as any other?”, I thought. However, that proved not to be the case. Right near the entrance of my first franchise zoo, I had two adorable aardvarks. They went about their day, keeping to themselves, being cute as hell. After a while, I noticed that one of my aardvarks got stressed far more than the other. It seemed I had adopted an aardvark with social anxiety.
Using some strategically placed shrubbery and rocks, I built several places around the exhibit where the poor creature could hide when the crowds gawking at him were too much. His overall welfare improved hugely – but the other aardvark didn’t seem to mind either way. Getting to know each of your animals – their preferences, their quirks – is great fun, and hugely rewarding. Moments like this are rife throughout Planet Zoo, and make it a uniquely charming experience.
Aside from the lovely AI, Planet Zoo’s animal design is impeccable. The animals are beautiful, detailed, and varied. Similarly, their animations are lovingly crafted simulacra of reality. A lion doesn’t walk like a cheetah, or a leopard; it walks like a lion. Everything feels beautifully bespoke and genuine.
Brick & Mortar, Earth & Stone: Build Your World in Planet Zoo
If you have played Frontier’s Planet Coaster, Planet Zoo‘s terraforming and construction tools will feel very familiar. Using intuitive systems of pulling, pushing, chiseling and flattening, it’s incredibly easy to start carving out interesting landscapes. Like many things in Planet Zoo, the learning curve is a little steep. However, you will quickly grasp the fundamentals. As well as being intuitive, these tools are fun. I, for example, got sidetracked by them almost instantly. I spent over an hour building a single cave. Hopefully Javier the Galápagos tortoise enjoys his new summer home half as much as I enjoyed building it.
Similarly, the construction tools allow for huge modularity. Planet Zoo handles staff buildings and shops pretty cleverly. The base buildings (keeper’s huts, vet clinics, workshops, etc.) are plain cuboids with identical interiors. You can snap walls, floors and roofs right on to these as you please, letting you mix and match freely. If you want to build a three story shopping centre complex with a neo-gothic facade, you can do that. Similarly, if you want flavour your keeper’s huts as cute little cottages, you can do that too. In one of my zoos, I turned my staff areas into secluded campsites with log cabins. In another, I hid all staff buildings in a cave complex underground. Presumably my guests saw the staff as terrifying mole-men, but that’s neither here nor there.
Conservation, Animal Welfare & Education in Planet Zoo
It’s fair to say that zoos, and other institutions with captive animals, are a divisive topic. Many people advocate for them as centres for learning and conservation. On the contrary, many others rally against them as unfair prisons for animals. It’s clear where Frontier stands on this. Everywhere you look, Planet Zoo drives home the ideas of conversation and education. Guest education, for instance, has an enormous influence on your zoo’s overall rating. To keep that score high, you’ll need to dot your zoo with information signs and speakers blaring fun facts.
Animal welfare is also a graded metric with enormous impacts on your zoo’s popularity and guest happiness. Periodically, your zoo will undergo inspections – if you have sick animals, animals under undue stress, or have provided unsuitable habitats, you’ll know about it. The inspector will issue an on-the-spot fine, and your zoo’s star rating will fall, further affecting your profits. Planet Zoo is fun and light-hearted, but it takes animal welfare very seriously.
Likewise, conservation is always at the forefront of gameplay. You won’t have access to the most exciting, exotic animals right away. Rather, you’ll need to earn Conservation Points – an in-game currency gained from breeding animals and releasing them into the wild. Not just any zoo can feature Giant Pandas or West African Lions – only those which have proven themselves as excellent animal caretakers.
Charming, Engaging; Just Plain Fun
Planet Zoo isn’t a perfect game. The UI is a little cluttered, and you’ll do an awful lot of tedious clicking and filtering to get the info you need. Paths are maddeningly finicky. Planet Coaster‘s dead-eyed NPCs are back, with their terrifying grins. All that said, it is a wonderful experience. If you like building/management games, you’ll love this. If you’re an animal lover, you’ll adore Planet Zoo. It’s got heart, soul, and personality in spades. This is one I’m going to playing for a long time to come.
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