Planet Zoo may not be a perfect game, but it captures everything gamers love about management sims, with gameplay that's easy to get into and room for expanding potential. Come inside for our full review!
We’ve all sat and daydreamed about what our perfect game might be on lazy weekends or during especially boring moments in school or at work. For some, their dream game already exists. It might not have all of the bells and whistles you've dreamt of, but it absolutely melts your time away every time you decide to pick it up again. For many, however, that game they wish for never comes. Maybe a few games come close enough to string you along, but they just never steal your heart like you'd like them to.
For me, one of these dream games was a modern take on Zoo Tycoon. I fell in love with the original Zoo Tycoon in so many ways, but by the time I played it, it had already started showing its age. I started to think such a game with modern graphics might be too difficult to create, but the management of Planet Coaster and the graphics of Jurassic World Evolution gave me hope.
Sure enough, Frontier games revealed Planet Zoo, and I reached dangerous levels of hype. Most of the time, hype levels of this magnitude guarantees a let down, but that isn't at all the case with Planet Zoo.
Living and Breathing
Planet Zoo is a zoo building and management sim. Your goal is to keep your animals and your guests happy, all while building a zoo you feel proud to have made. Guests and animals have needs that need to be met in order to keep them happy and ensure the success of your zoo. There are so many different ways to accomplish this and decorate it's easy to get lost in it all. The game is friendly to casual players and players who want to minmax every little detail. There are multiple game modes to appease every kind of player, so long as management games are your jam.
If you've read my review on Jurassic World Evolution, you'll know I'm not keen on the gameplay but I love the graphical eye candy that is every dinosaur. Planet Zoo delivers on the eye candy just as well. Each animal is crafted with an attention to detail that comes out in their visual design, animations, and sounds. Bears have thick coats of fur, camels grunt obnoxiously, and, well, hippos even fan their tails while pooping everywhere.
Whether it's gross or cute, guests always react accordingly while donating large amounts of money to the zoo that, if accurate to our real world, would ensure funds to projects so no animal was ever endangered again while also solving world hunger. To my greatest amusement, sometimes donation animations are skipped at crowded bins, making it look like the donation bin is sucking money out of passerbys' pockets.
Unlike Jurassic World Evolution, Planet Zoo is incredibly freeing in its gameplay. It's easy enough to make simple animal enclosures, place down some premade assets, and run your zoo smoothly and make it look pretty. For players that really want to dive into it, however, there are seemingly endless possibilities for decorating, micromanaging, and building. At times, the controls seem difficult to grasp, but if you take the time to learn hotkeys, it makes so much of the game a breeze. So click and drag fences and spam trees around your zoo to your heart's content!
I loved making unorthodox ways for guests to get around the zoo and see the animals. There's an option for rides to view the zoo, but these have been nothing but trouble for me. I can never seem to get them running smoothly, and sometimes the huge line of guests never even bother to get on the ride. I much prefer making tunnels, bridges, and platforms to get guests in as close to the animals as I wish I could at real life zoos. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and normally everything I try looks wonky. But it's this sort of experimentation that gives players a strong sense of freedom in every aspect of the game. When platforms and glass tunnels don't work, some animals are safe enough to create paths through their enclosures. As a personal aside, I'm floored that you can walk through okapi enclosures because it's a personal dream of mine to get that close to my favorite animal.
Did you know that the okapi is the only living relative of the giraffe, has a tongue long enough to lick its eye, and that is secrets a brown oil that helps keep them dry in the moist rainforests of Africa? Well if you didn't, you can learn all about the okapi and each animal included in Planet Zoo using the Zoopedia. It's a super helpful tool that not only helps you create the ideal living space for your animals, it also serves as a bit of educational reading. As a kid, I never appreciated this on Zoo Tycoon, but adult me is willing to take in as much information on animals as possible and it's integrated in such a way that your knowledge of each animal can actually help you create better environments for them.
Information on animals can also be seen on each animal's specific stat screen as well. This ranges from how good their environment is to their genetic makeup. Genetics are a super cool feature that lets more serious players breed their animals for better genes. Better genes means healthier animals, better breeding chances, longer lives, and even ups the price of your animal which can be sold for either in-game money or...conservation points!
The Online Factor
Conservation points are used to trade animals with other players and can be earned by trading animals away yourself, releasing animals into the wild, completing daily objectives, welcoming players to your zoo, and even just logging in for the day. This system ensures that there's a bit of growth needed in your zoo before getting really impressive animals, but my issue with it comes from having to be connected to the internet. At times, the server was unable to connect to my internet, so the game would essentially come to a halt if I wanted to trade or buy new animals. Other times, I could only find one sex of animal to trade for because said animal only wanted, say, one male and a bunch of females in their group. So people would only trade males away because otherwise the animals would fight. Relying on real players becomes super cumbersome and it's annoying to wait until one pops up.
In my experience, the animal trading menus can be super laggy and slow to load. This only adds to my frustration when, after dealing with slow load times, the animals I'm looking for aren't even available. This is an issue that extends to sandbox mode, which seems absurd to me. I would expect to get any animal I want whenever I want in sandbox mode, but it seems to still be reliant on trading with other people. While I think that the trading makes each animal feel a little more special, I don't think it should come at the cost of fun or the freedom I would expect in sandbox mode. In short, the breeding for better genetics makes animal trading interesting, but the limitations and lag slow down the pacing of the game drastically.
And while I love the genetic system, it's not always clear which animals carry better genes. When clicking on individual animals, you can get a quick idea of their genetics by the color of ring around their portrait (none, copper, silver, or gold). However, this quick glance can't be seen in animal lists such as when viewing all animals in your zoo or in specific enclosures. This seems like a small issue on paper, but it makes managing animals a lot more difficult than it has to be.
Without it, I have to click on each animal, some of which love to hide or climb trees, and see which ones are worth keeping while also juggling in my mind the sex ratio of the species, which ones I've already clicked on, the popularity of each specific animal, and their age. Some animals, especially small tank animals like frogs and spiders, breed so quickly their numbers need to be culled frequently in order to keep them happy in their natural social group size. This could all be made easier by just showing each animal's tier in lists and sits with me as a major oversight in a game about effectively managing a zoo.