Planet Zoo Review
Planet Zoo taught me two main things as I tried to wrangle its beautiful animals and satisfying tycoon economy: running a wildlife preserve can be a lot of fun, and I would be absolutely terrible at it. I can’t blame any lack of tools or inability to find vital information, because those things were all at my fingertips and worked pretty well. But when the in-depth animal welfare screens told me my prized timber wolves were a little bit sad, of course I was going to throw money at them until their accommodations were heavenly and the accountants were in a panic. In that way, Planet Zoo even makes poor business decisions fun.
Much like Frontier’s other theme park world, Planet Coaster, this sim wowed me with a huge amount of customization. The structure and terrain editors are incredibly powerful and easy to use. Which is good, because outside of a handful of pre-made story scenarios, you always start from a boring, flat plain. To give your non-story-mode zoos some drama and character, you’ll either spend a lot of time sculpting the land and placing foliage yourself, or browsing the Steam Workshop for a landscape someone else has made and shared that strikes your fancy. The possibilities go far beyond what I would ever have the skill or patience to make myself based on what I’ve seen other users create already, and it’s great to have access to it all. I did wish, though, that the franchise mode would have let me start on a map with a bit more realistic terrain without having to rely on other users.
The real stars, of course, are the more than 50 animals you can put on display. They’re all impressively modeled with lifelike fur and feathers, and their animations are excellent. I got a lot of enjoyment out of simply watching my apes climb, jump, and swing around a tropical canopy or dropping a cardboard box into the wolf enclosure to see what kind of games they would play with it. The sound design is also excellent, with every roar, howl, and screech adding atmosphere and authenticity. Each exhibit really comes to life, especially if you place multiple species with an affinity bonus together. And a clean, easy-to-navigate interface provides all the information you need on how to keep each species happy.
These animals aren’t just props to bring in revenue, either. Each one has a diverse set of needs that made me think about them as living beings, from the amount of vegetation they need around them to enrichment activities for staving off boredom. These needs not only serve as an additional layer of puzzle to solve, but also helped nudge me into building better-looking exhibits that weren’t just grassy rectangles with a food bowl in the middle.
There were a couple situations in which it could get a bit fiddly, though. Skittish animals like antelope can develop stress from being observed, and I’d often see them standing around quivering even when there was plenty of covered shelter readily available for them to retreat to. I once watched an elephant die of dehydration standing directly beside a generous watering hole with its own dedicated water treatment plant. The AI just can’t seem to handle it all sometimes.
On the economic side, Planet Zoo has a well-balanced set of income sources and expenses to consider. My favorite new feature is the Conservation Rating. This score gives your zoo a bonus to popularity and guest happiness for housing and breeding endangered species, releasing good specimens back into the wild, and putting up informational displays and audio speakers to educate your guests. Doing so can also earn you Conservation Credits, which are sometimes the only way to acquire particularly rare specimens. My only disappointment with this system is that Conservation Credits can’t keep the lights on. There’s no way to acquire grants or anything for having a good conservation program, so investing entirely into these expensive animals will still mean you have to make cuts to staff and sell a bunch of hats like a ruthless capitalist or your important environmental work will get shut down.
Menagerie of Modes
Aside from a story mode with charming voice acting that does a decent job of teaching you important mechanics little by little, Planet Zoo has all the modes I’d expect. Franchise Mode is where I spent most of my time, in which you can build a multi-zoo franchise online and your Conservation Credits conveniently carry over from one to another and you can trade animals with other players. There’s also a welcome offline mode with the full economy enabled, and a sandbox mode that gives you unlimited money, which is great if you want to terraform your perfect landscape as a starting point before opening a zoo there.
The online modes are a cool idea, but can sometimes get in their own way with sluggish menus compared to their offline counterparts. And in possibly my biggest “huh?” moment, I discovered you can’t actually visit other people’s zoos as a tourist unless they’re uploaded to the workshop and you download them to play in single-player on your own PC. You’ll see avatars from other players “visiting” your zoo, but they’re not actually there looking at it. That’s just their AI-controlled avatar. In-person visiting of other zoos seems like the best reason to make a game like this online enabled, so it’s very strange that they don’t allow it.
There’s also a fairly in-depth breeding system that allows you to try to maximize traits like the size, fertility, and longevity of each species across the generations. Prime specimens attract more visitors and can be traded online for great profit if you want to go that route, but I found that it takes too long to really be satisfying. The online marketplace, at least as I’m writing this, is crowded with dozens of sickly, infertile disasters at bargain bin prices and a handful of uberfauna costing enough that they would take weeks to save up for. I hope that as more players come to understand the system better, the economy might level off a bit.