We who grew up with video games certainly had a great time. While growing up, we had experienced a variety of titles that had gone on to shape gameplay trends in a number of games as well as entire genres themselves. We hold some of these titles on a pedestal because of our memories with it. One such game I can personally relate with is Microsoft Games’ Zoo Tycoon, and later Zoo Tycoon 2. The Zoo Tycoon franchise was a one-of-a-kind ambitious simulation game that helped develop the genre. Needless to say, I was excited when Frontier Developments announced that they were working on a game called Planet Zoo. Planet Zoo resurrects the fan-favourite tycoon game while adding new stuff to improve the player experience.
Planet Zoo is designed to be played in singleplayer mode. The game does not support any form of ‘multiplayer’ in the true sense of the term. However, there a ton of features that adds the feeling of existence in a community. A simulation game allowing you to experience your creations is something I loved since Zoo Tycoon 2. ‘Animal trading’ (don’t sue me PETA) is also something the game very actively touched upon.
Animals in the game aren’t plopped up magically when you click a button – you need to manually buy them from a marketplace and put them inside their cages. This global marketplace actually is run by players – meaning that players can freely trade their creatures on the market. Of course, the system helps add a few listings to ensure the marketplace never stays blank, but other than that – all listings are player made. How cool is that?
Oh, I almost forgot to mention a ‘Community Quest’ system – one that counts the progress of all players towards a shared goal. In my hours of playing, there was a campaign for the adoption of bears – which was a pretty successful one. Transforming gameplay experiences into values in real life is something simulation games love to do, and Planet Zoo has managed to excel at with their added features that imply that no player is truly ever alone – there’s always a community to back them up.
One thing that weirdly goes against this ‘community’ thing is the concept of people getting to visit other zoos. There’s no way to do that unless it’s downloaded from the Workshop. Even then, players mostly end up as AI-controlled avatars in your maps rather than being actually steered by real players (some interaction with the character by clicking on it and you can understand that it’s nothing but an AI). For a game made for people of all ages to bring them together, allowing players to visit other’s zoos manually would have been a pretty neat idea.
Even though it’s just a “single-player”, Planet Zoo has a plethora of modes to have fun in. By ‘plethora’, I mean a lot – there’s a lot of them! There’s the campaign, which basically takes the player through the establishment of a profitable ‘franchise’ of zoos for a rich dude. Don’t expect twists and turns in the plot – because there isn’t any. Honestly, I couldn’t find a reason to justify the presence of the Campaign except for its first two missions, which give the players a basic idea about the game (being the tutorial missions).
There are scenarios, which ask the player to tackle particular objectives in a predesigned zoo. The scenarios are centred around the theme of adoption or conservation of a particular animal as well as the creation of a proper habitat for them. You are limited by constraints like money as well as an overly rigid set of objectives that you have to accomplish.
You can start a normal mode too, managing a zoo with all real constraints written in (if you really wanted to). I had dunked the majority of my time in Sandbox mode mostly because I don’t like being bogged down by restrictions like having enough cash inflow, etc. (so much for responsibilities!) The real mode which attracted the attention of players, of course, was the Franchise mode. It’s an online-only mode where you get to forge your own empire of zoos around the world. This is perhaps the best mode of all, and the trading system I spoke about is employed as a real-time system in this mode. As I already mentioned, visiting others’ zoos or at least viewing them from above should have been an option at least in this mode.
The game plays out exactly like a management simulation. Most people who played Zoo Tycoon in their childhood, as well as people who have played any of Frontier Developments’ tycoon games, might be familiar with some of the game’s mechanics already. The objective of the game is to build a gigantic zoo like no other. In order to do this, the game places quite some tools (a bit too many, in fact) in the hands of the player.
The game has a wide range of animals which can be showcased in a wide variety of exhibits. The variety exists across the spectrum, meaning that there are almost infinite possibilities for creating a zoo. Animals differ in their needs, and managing them can be a hectic job especially when the zoo grows and the number of exhibits increases.
Exclusive landscaping tools allow terraforming like you’re some sort of God and not just an overly rich tycoon wanting to build a zoo franchise. Design your exhibits with deserts, rainforests, grasslands, and many other biomes with a wide range of terrain-changing options. The animals are quite fickle by nature and need care and attention. They have a wide range of needs that need to be attended, and the game provides a lot of tools for that purpose. You have a wide range of toys for the animals to play with, as well as the right choice of nutrition – food and water troughs.
I did feel a bit lost in the tutorial itself seeing the vast number of creatures as well as the choice of toys, nutrition, and biomes for them. Thankfully, each menu has a helpful search option to find suitable items for a particular animal. Some creatures are more fickle than others and might need greater attention for their needs to be taken care of. I found antelopes and giraffes to be two of these creatures, even more so because they hate being watched by guests (it hurts its ‘privacy’ need apparently). Of course, tending to these needs does mean that guests are more entertained and have a greater tendency to donate money. If you ever feel lost about why an animal is throwing perilous tempers, be sure to click on it and inspect its ‘Needs’ panels carefully. The menu is extremely detailed and even tells you why the animal is unhappy and how to deal with it. Ranging from a lack of entertainment and eating options to feeling uncomfortable in the chosen biome – animals have a variety of reasons to be unhappy.
There are chances that you don’t know how to address the needs of a particular animal (in the challenge or campaign modes), but a vet in your staff is more than ready to help you address that for a price. One real thing I wanted to do was release my lions in the wild and watch them bite through the visitors, but the lack of an adequate response from the visitors apart from simply leaving the zoo is concerning – so much so that I ordered the zookeepers to contain the animal and later release it to the wild as part of my ‘conservation’ efforts. I’m not one to stop experimenting, so I put a Bengal tiger and an Indian peacock in the same exhibit. Needless to say, the peacocks became carcasses in a matter of three days (I’m surprised they even lasted that long), and one of my tigers was grievously wounded – all for the sake of my ‘scientific’ experiments to see how naturally the animals could behave.
Every aspect of the zoo is customizable, and that is a good thing. You can choose the stuff being sold at your refreshment stalls, at your merchandise stalls and elsewhere. I switched to sell only cotton candy and pretzel at my food stalls and balloons at my souvenir shops. This can be a pretty handy manoeuvre as such changes do affect sales, helping you keep your zoo floating in ‘troubled’ times. Even staff can be made to operate in a variety of ways so that the zoo does not fall behind. The staff does tend to fall a bit behind when it comes to their duties, which means occasional staffing changes and a chain of manual commands are necessary. It’s really sad that going down into the first-person mode does not allow you to work as one of the staff and interact with various stuff in the zoo.
Despite that, the level of micromanagement is really staggering – so much that it takes a while to be used to the plethora of options available. There are a host of menus that chart every stat of the zoo in a methodological manner, even having options to jump to the issue that needs to be addressed. More often than not it’s often an animal that is unhappy for a variety of reasons, which can be addressed quickly. Other issues like balancing the outflow and inflow of money is a more challenging issue, especially when you’re not playing in Sandbox mode.
Sound and Music
Planet Zoo strikes a few cordial notes and makes it feel like magic. The game’s music is designed to not distract you from your frustration with the negative cash balance or mutinous animals, and it still manages to play a significant role in helping you like the game. It’s like an angelic voice saying “You can always sell those perilous reptiles and get some Bengal tigers or something to fill their place” in your head – distant, yet soothing enough for something in the background.
The game’s ambient sounds are what make it the most likable. Scroll all the way down into the zoo, and you can hear the chitter-chatter of the visitors – children and adults alike. The sound of billing at a store as you earn some quick cash allowing you to renovate the staff compounds or the sound of a donation which allows you to upgrade the walls on the Bengal tiger exhibit is sweet indeed. The animal sounds are what makes the game so special – every sound is original, making you feel like you’re really out in the wilds, instead of being forced to sit in a corporate chair and manage your empire of zoos.
Graphics and Performance
Planet Zoo is painstakingly detailed down to the last pixel. Every effort has been made to model the creatures to make them feel as life-like as possible. They almost feel realistic when you look at them from up close. The gigantic view distance does mean you can enjoy the game from a hot air balloon or from a toy train on the ground depending on how you want to go about it. Even the visitors and staff look cool and modeled on point – making it look like the zoo of your dreams.
The game was tested on the following specifications:-
CPU: Ryzen 5 2600
GPU : GTX 1080
RAM: 16GB DDR4
The game’s performance is where things start falling drastically apart. It has a myriad of bugs, glitches, and issues that ruin the fun experience it was supposed to provide. The game runs fine at 60 fps when you’re getting a stream of 4000-5000 visitors, but crawls to a minimum of 30 fps when you’re seeing numbers go up to 20000. Continue further, and there are chances your game will crash.
Crashes aren’t that uncommon – the game always runs a random number generator to decide whether it will crash before coming to the main menu. The game has a horrendous memory leak – you can observe it by seeing your memory consumption increase with the number of visitors. Also, change of graphics settings has very little effect on the FPS – implying that the game’s more dependent on your processor than your graphics card. Some bugs, like missing notifications from the central zoo panel, have been issued hotfixes in a few patches. The patches did also try to improve the performance which reduces the frequency of crashing, but more still needs to be done to fix the otherwise wonderful game before it fades into oblivion.
Planet Zoo is a remake of Frontier Development’s Planet Coaster Tycoon that allows you to build zoos instead of theme parks. The game does have a number of issues, but it has the potential to provide entertainment for countless hours on end. Owners of existing Frontier games can skip Planet Zoo if they really want to. For fans of the original Zoo Tycoon and its sequel, Planet Zoo is the ideal replacement for a game that’s never getting another sequel (wake up, Microsoft!), so it’s definitely worth a buy – on a sale if you’re sceptical about the game’s issues.