For fans of amusement park/roller coaster sims, Frontier’s Planet Coaster has easily become the go-to time sink. With a suite of fantastic building tools and more add-ons and user created content than it’s probably even possible to explore, the game strikes a perfect balance between the fanciful and the “real.” So, I have to admit I was pretty excited by the prospect of Planet Zoo, which takes the visual aesthetic and construction tools from Planet Coaster and moves them into the zoo sim genre, which has never really had a truly standout product.
Unlike amusement parks, the idea of how zoos function in our modern world has changed and evolved significantly over the past several decades. While there are some animal activists that would like to ban zoological gardens altogether, most people recognize that zoos play a hugely important role in education and most critically, the preservation of species threatened by climate change, development and diminishing habitat. Of course, many people — myself included — simply love animals and despite some rough edges in the beta, Planet Zoo is built on a solid foundation that accommodates education, real-world concerns and our appreciation of animals and nature.
Many of the building tools from Planet Coaster have been re-purposed for Planet Zoo, and are easy to use if not always cooperative and more fiddly than they should be. The terrain sculpting and painting tools are incredibly fun and while the decorative and design elements are only a fraction of what will no doubt be coming in the months and years, they allow designers to create a wide variety of architectural styles. Just like designing a coaster in an amusement park, creating a habitat brings with it dozens of decisions about size, entrances and exits, viewing areas, staff buildings, pathing, enrichment objects, food and drinking stations, and nearly all of these impact the animal residents.
While following the health and happiness of amusement park visitors is one of the important factors in running a successful park, it’s obvious that monitoring the same parameters of the animals is essential in Planet Zoo. Hiring and training staff and properly maintaining habitats are, of course, key elements, but animals are more complex than park visitors and there are always dozens of things to monitor and adjust.
The Planet Zoo beta is fairly limited in scope, only including a single biome for the sandbox mode and a small slice of the campaign in the form of a tutorial. I was surprised, given the polish of Planet Coaster, just how many big and little bugs seemed to be living in the walls, from crashes to unresponsive zoo staff to online issues with buying new animals for the zoo.
The most important thing to get right — at least to me — is capturing the essential movement, behavior and personality of various animal species and, of course, allowing the creation of that perfect zoo that has lived in the imagination for years. Planet Zoo absolutely nails those things. Animals look and behave realistically and absent of some bugs and rough edges, I can easily envision getting lost for way too many hours building, tinkering and hanging out with the animals. Although the zoo sim niche is probably relatively small, I have no doubt that Planet Zoo will take its place as the best in the genre.