Planet Zoo (PC) - ReviewBen Dye , posted on 17 November 2019 / 649 Views
Frontier Developments’ Planet Zoo is the latest entry in the genre made most famous by the Roller Coaster Tycoon years prior. This outing is far more advanced than those rustic and more simplistic days, but you can still clearly see that it is standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before it, making it a less original experience but still a very enjoyable one.
Much has not changed, such as needing to maintain the happiness level of employees as well as consumers, making sure things are operating at a profit, and keeping chaos down to a minimum. The game does an excellent job of introducing problems, identifying the solution, and giving you space to figure out how to get to said solution. Rather than holding my hand, the game pointed me in the right direction and let me figure out the rest. There were times I had to give up for the day and come back with a fresh mindset to fix whatever the problem was. There were even a couple of times I had to restart the scenario. However, for the most part, the game's challenges are far from impossible and feel immensely satisfying to resolve.
Modes featured include Career, Franchise, Challenge, and Sandbox. Franchise mode gives you a bunch of challenges to deal with, both personal and community-based (like releasing a certain amount of a species into the wild across all players combined) and enables you to trade animals with other players. Challenge mode is similar but dedicated to offline play and allows you to build your own zoo from scratch while taking on personal challenges (so the classic tycoon experience). Sandbox mode grants you unlimited funds, so that you can build exactly the sort of zoo you want, as quickly as you want, no questions asked and no obstacles thrown in your way. You can also share and utilise community creations via the Steam Workshop here.
What I particularly like about Planet Zoo is its surprisingly good story mode, called Career mode. Normally, when I think of this sub-section of the simulation genre, I don’t assume there will be a story mode, let alone a decent one, but Planet Zoo is a perfect example of how - with a little developer effort - every game can and should have a story. The narrative breaks up into three arcs. In the first one, you're helping a wonderful philanthropist save animals worldwide. You feel pretty good about yourself going through these scenarios. Then, a twist happens and you suddenly find yourself employed by a rather suspicious fellow who is all about the money. During this second arc you're essentially trying to make the best of the hands you're dealt, despite your employer not really caring about impacting the lives of the animals or his employees in a positive way. The third and final arc of the game has you basically working on crushing that guy and saving the world’s zoos.
These scenarios are challenging and rewarding, but it's best explained via a detailed example:
Once, as I was progressing through the campaign, I had to build a trainline at one of my zoos. I became so fixated on the construction of the trainworks and setting them up properly that I neglected the rest of my zoo. What happened in the wake of that neglect? Chaos. Complete and utter anarchy.
Diseases went rampant, so I purchased a host of new staff members to deal with these diseases and cleaning up the zoo. By then, naturally, my finances were shot; I had hired too many people and had spent too much time and money on the trainline (time I didn’t spend adding more animals, which is what attendees actually wanted to see, of course). So what did I do? I jacked up the prices of tickets slowly until things felt a bit more balanced. But then of course attendees became unhappy about the ticket prices and my visitor numbers plummeted, so I compensated for that by cutting staff numbers to levels lower than they were to begin with and it still didn’t put a dent in the losses I was taking. My last desperate throw of the dice was to take out a $20,000 loan and attempt to stabilise things.
This may have sounded stressful (and it kind of was), but I actually loved going through it! Challenges like these make business simulation games enjoyable. If everything was hunky-dory, if all the animals got along, all the attendees were happy, and all the workers were satisfied, then that would be about as satisfying as watching autoplay levels on Super Mario Maker for 10 hours. I wanted there to be problems that I could research, find out how to fix them, and finally implement a solution.
And boy does this game throw a lot of problems at you. Some of these are easier than others to resolve, but the most challenging of them all, for me, is the scenario where you have to deal with an unhappy workforce. Frustration is a word that comes to mind when I think back on that particular task. None of my solutions seemed to work, at least not quickly. More facilities, better pay, more workers, etc. I tried so many things, and lost so much money, and for what? Staff happiness barely moved, at least at first. I learned two valuable lessons from this. One is that it takes time for worker happiness to go up. The other is that, if I worked on improving the zoo itself, which drives more people in and makes them happier, then staff members tend to be happier as well.
The beauty of it all is how much it demonstrates the chaos, stresses, sense of purpose, and rewards of working in zoos. I went into this game already having a pretty positive opinion of them, mostly because I live in St. Louis and we have one of the world’s most consistently high ranking zoos, so I’m kind of spoiled in that regard. Planet Zoo turns that appreciation into stunning acknowledgement of their purpose and the hard work involved in maintaining them.
The game does a phenomenal job of educating the player on barriers, habitats, nature, facilities, construction, animal trading, and overall zoo knowledge. You learn what animals need and enjoy, that guests are usually happier when the animals are happier, good staff management, how to combat diseases through research, and that the main point of constructing your zoo and adding animals to it is to ultimately release them into the wild when they are healthy enough.
I’m not a conservationist in the modern sense or an environmentalist by any means. I just really love and appreciate animals. This game doesn’t force political views down your throat, it simply educates the player on the purpose of zookeepers, the chaos of the job, and how much joy one can get out of a well-run zoo that took a lot of effort to create.
The tutorial and campaign do a wonderful job of teaching you, and the music, graphics, and art style of the game are delightful, much like Planet Coaster's before it. The people are cartoony, but that only makes the more realistic looking animals stand out as the centrepiece of the game. The music is peaceful and fits the style of the game regardless of what biome or scenario you're in. I particularly love the camera mode, where you can view each specific animal you want to look at and observe how it interacts with its surroundings.
The structure of the Career mode is one issue I have with Planet Zoo. While there is a great deal of pointing you in the right direction to begin with, you're very much encouraged to move on to the next project whenever you've achieved the minimum requirements. In doing this, I fear I missed quite a bit of training that could have prepared me for some of the game's trickier situations. Instead, I dealt with them by exploring the game (and resources online) until I could figure out the solution. This sometimes led me to have to take out loans until I could figure out what to do, and at other times pause the game to look things up online.
Another problem I had was with some of the controls. It's a bit tricky to place things correctly or rotate them the way you want. Things can seem to spaz out when trying to place them precisely, which is annoying. I also had animals escape through barriers that seemed to be closed when I put them up. This wasn’t the norm, but it happened enough that it somewhat diminished my enjoyment of the game. When an animal gets loose, your attendant numbers plummet, and so do your finances.
Despite these issues I would still thoroughly recommend the game to simulation fans. Planet Zoo is an amazing portrayal of real-life zookeepers at work, with all their dedication and accomplishments on full display for all to see.
This review is based on a digital copy of Planet Zoo for the PC, provided by the publisher.