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We Built a Zoo: Planet Zoo review, part one

In which we find out if a man who onced botched the preparation of a Pot Noodle is capable of running international animal conservation industries.

Here’s the thing – the very important preface to my review of this fairly involved sim game. I love them. I love the various interlocking mechanics, I love watching theme parks/cities/frozen dystopias expand under my rule. But I am also very, very bad at them. A dangerous combination of lazy perfectionism and poor spacial thinking leads to many ambitious ideas going by the wayside until eventually everyone is poor and miserable and I’ve run off to Cuba with all their taxes.

From the offset, Planet Zoo is much more accessible than its predecessor. The first few scenarios drop you into running established zoos with simple goals to show you the ropes. Given the sheer amount of tools and mechanics available this is a significant improvement on Planet Coaster which simply pointed you in the direction of tutorial videos (which has to be up there in the top ten least engaging ways to learn how to play something). The introductory content also does a really good job showing you the sheer scope of what can be created with the Planet Zoo toybox (and also made me feel woefully inadequate, but that’s par for the course).

Planet Zoo Iguana
The game is stunning to look at, aided by some magnificent lighting that makes watching your animals go about their day feel warm and natural.

While the scenarios are interesting and it’s easier to learn your away around with specific goals to work towards, I didn’t feel like they held my attention for very long once I had a meagre understanding of how not to kill everything in my care. I had lofty dreams of building a timber wolf habitat with wide, forested environments for them to roam and thrive, and probably a few open fences somewhere for “accidental” escapes. So I headed to the sandbox, ready to cultivate my own personal army of wolves and bears.

Creating a zoo from the ground up is a much more daunting prospect. There are so many options available right away, so many menus and sub-menus you need to regularly access to manage your zoo. The thought of playing this with a controller gives me palpitations. If you’re unfamiliar with games like this playing a hefty amount of the scenarios on offer is pretty much necessary if you want to make something by yourself, otherwise you’ll probably waste a good twenty minutes trying to figure out why your path tool is suddenly elevated and won’t go back down no matter how many buttons you press.

Screenshot from Planet Zoo demo at Gamescom showing a grass area

The pathing and wall-building aren’t as smooth as they could be, and this is probably down to the number of options involved when it comes to angles, grid-snapping and level. But it has the knock-on effect of making very simple tasks unwieldy, which can make getting your zoo up and running in the first place something of a chore. With so many moving parts, even one thing feeling clunky can throw the entire groove off. You can’t fault the amount of building options on offer, though. You can pick from facilities in pre-set, ready to go styles, use hollow shells to stash shops and restaurants in or build your own from grouping basic assets together. It allows for an astonishing amount of individuality and ensures that pretty much everyone can stick to their chosen theme with a little bit of work.

Once you actually get the infrastructure established everything begins to gel together. You can essentially learn on the job, tweaking as you go, expanding on things that work and improving things that don’t through guesswork. Eventually, you begin to gain an organic sense of who requires what, and where certain buildings and facilities need to go – and it’s at this point I felt like I’d stopped blindly figuring stuff out and actually started playing the game. None of this is out of line for simulation games, though, and for all the miserable animals and whinging guests you’ll have at first, Planet Zoo remains a really relaxing and rewarding experience. The gripes and frustrations are never large enough to outweigh the general good vibes (I presume this isn’t the case in the online mode, which is currently broken economically and flooded with pigs).

Inside one of the veterinary clinics you can create on Planet ZooPlanet Zoo

At the time of writing a weighty 5.2-gigabyte patch has been released for Planet Zoo which has balanced some mechanics and improved stability alongside adding a bunch of additional options to sandbox mode. It’s now possible to freeze guest needs and adjust the rates at which animal welfare/staff energy etc degrade, but it’s great to see that Frontier has really listened to the player base and finally “balanced exhibition animal defecation rates”. Because the lack of realistic poop regularity was really starting to put me off. It’s strange that things like this are being addressed above the actual major complaint most people have, and that’s time simply passing much too quickly.

A day goes by in about three seconds. If you don’t leave time paused while you build, you’ll already be several years into your zoo’s lifetime before it’s up and running. It’s a mild annoyance at the beginning but as you expand and have to worry about animals mating and fighting alongside guest satisfaction it just doesn’t feel like you really have any time to sit back and smell the… balanced defecation rates. Seeing as the time issue was raised in the game’s beta stage, and is at this point intertwined with a bunch of other systems, it’s not going to be an easy fix – if it’s ever fixed at all. It seems to make the focus from raising and bonding animals throughout their lifetime to churning out and selling as many offspring as possible just to prevent overcrowding.

While it may be an unpleasant aspect of online and scenario play, it didn’t impact my sandbox play to a significant degree. I had to shift my focus in order to enjoy it, but I’m still having fun every time I play Planet Zoo, and there’s also a lot of joy to be had in seeing some of the stuff other people make (the Reddit community displays some awesome habitats and I highly recommend checking it out for inspiration). While the game doesn’t feel like it’s all the way there yet in terms of stability or economics, it’s still well worth getting involved now – just don’t get too attached to any of your mammals, because they’ll definitely die of old age by the end of the afternoon and you’ll have sold all their kids.

I’ll be adding to this review series over time with discussions and exhibitions of different creations. Send in your screenshots to n1lgames@fullsync.co.uk!

Planet Zoo TL;DR:

  • A gorgeous and involved sim game that can be intensely rewarding.
  • Some basic elements need tweaking to improve the flow of the game but this does seem to be happening quickly.
  • Time passes much too quickly to enjoy the lifespans of your exhibits and it doesn’t seem like they have any intention of slowing it down.
  • Extraordinarily balanced exhibition animal defecation rates. Really the best in the genre.

80%

Planet Zoo is developed by Frontier Developments PLC and is available now for PC. The 1.0.3 update went live today, read about it HERE.

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