My seven year old and I were lost in a fit of giggles when upon zooming in to check out our new baby warthog, the cute little butterball immediately took a massive dump in front of us. Managing a zoo in upcoming park simulator Planet Zoo can be messy business, but also highly rewarding and fun.
In many ways Planet Zoo is a successful combination of Frontier Developments’ last two games: Planet Coaster and Jurassic World Evolution. The sim park management and robust construction tools from Planet Coaster are all here, but we’re trading in our Teacups and Giga Coasters for African Buffalo and Reticulated Giraffes. As in Jurassic World Evolution, these animals have a complex list of social, environmental, and dietary needs, and taking care of them is the most important element of running a successful zoo.
The Planet Zoo beta, which is only available to pre-orders of the Deluxe Edition of Planet Zoo, features the first scenario of the campaign, Goodwin House, as well as the ability to create a Franchise Zoo in the Asia Grassland biome. Judging from the list of locked scenarios, there looks to be a dozen campaign missions, with each scenario featuring three attainable stars. Other Franchise Zoo biomes include Desert, Tropical, Temperate, Taiga, and Tundra, across all major continents.
The third mode, an unlimited Sandbox, will be available in the full game when it launches on Steam on November 5.
Goodwin House is a gorgeous temperate zoo that needs a few fixes, repairs, and updates. Thankfully the cheeky owner Bernie Goodwin and helpful manager Nancy Jones are here to guide me.
As far as tutorial levels go, Goodwin House does a great job easing me into most of Planet Zoo’s construction and management systems, while providing plenty of fun personality thanks to the fully voiced guides. I learned how to view an animal’s welfare, create a safe, enclosed habitat, and adopt new animals on the market.
Building habitats is a lot like laying down pieces of a roller coaster or adding onto a path, painting each new piece section-by-section, adjusting for height and length as needed. We don’t need the electrified fences of Jurassic World. Instead I easily slot in glass panes and keeper entrances to certain areas of the barrier, and can even use water as a natural barrier for certain species.
Filling out an exhibit is critical to an animal’s success. Every zoo animal has welfare needs that include nutrition, social, habitat, and enrichment parameters. Animals that do best in herds will get stressed if there’s not enough of their fellow species around, while more solitary beasts have the opposite effect. And everyone needs a certain amount of space and foliage to feel comfortable.
The habitat needs include cleanliness, temperature, terrain, plans, and shelter. A Snow Leopard, for example, needs an automated cooler (which requires power and running costs) to lower temperatures and a certain amount of rock and snow terrain, which can be painted on for a cost. Each metric is measured on a 100% scale, and all of them factor into an animal’s overall welfare. The happier an animal is, the more prosperous my zoo will become, and the more patrons will pay to see them.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, unhappy animals lead to stress and sickness, as well as protestors who picket right inside my zoo, driving down my reputation and generally being an effective nuisance.
Acquiring new animals is a bit more involved than hatching genetically engineered dinosaur eggs at an incubator. Although animals can breed in the right conditions, in-breeding can be a problem at any zoo. For that reason no zoo is completely self-sustaining. To acquire new animals I’ll need to go to the Animal Market.
Credit for Conservation
The Animal Market, along with the Franchise Mode, provides an interesting means of including online elements into an otherwise single player experience. Everyone connected to Franchise Mode can release their animals into the marketplace, or into the wild, to earn Conservation Credits, the other major currency system in Planet Zoo. While building most things in the zoo requires good old fashioned money, Conservation Credits are used to adopt animals and create new Zoos in my Franchise.
Not all animals are created equal. Even within the same species, such as the African Buffalo, I can find lower-rated animals for as little as 13 credits, while prize specimens, such as a highly rated female with desirable qualities in longevity, fertility, and immunity, would set me back over 3,000 credits. This uniquely-pointed system creates even further incentive to care for my animals and breed desirable traits, as well as participating in the online Animal Market by selling my own successful animals.
Conservation Credits can also be earned by participating in daily, weekly, and community challenges, and for visiting other Franchise Zoos. I’m very interested to see how well these challenges are implemented as well as the ramification of a player-driven economy through the Animal Market, though it’s telling that one of the chief feedback concerns from the beta has been a desire for an offline Franchise Mode.
“We are pleased to say that thanks to your feedback, we will be increasing the number of game modes at launch from 3 to 4 modes,” writes Paul Crowther, Community Manager, Frontier. “We will still keep the Career, Sandbox (which will include a number of options such as no breeding, no ageing and no animal death etc) and Franchise Mode but we will be adding a fourth. This all-new, currently unnamed, mode will allow you to enjoy much of the Franchise experience, without the online requirements.”
Most of the issues I ran into were performance-based. The game looks gorgeous with its day-night cycle, detailed animal models and animations, and impressive zoom, but it tended to freeze or stutter for several seconds just often enough to be a constant annoyance on my mid to high-range PC, and at one point I ran into a bug during the Goodwin House mission that forced me to completely restart the scenario. The game also needs to a better job explaining its research and staff systems, as I was a bit lost when starting up my own zoo and lacking some critical habitat features, and forgetting to hire vendors to run shops.
I’m having a lot of fun with the Planet Zoo beta, and have been impressed with the level of knowledge and eye for conservation that Frontier clearly displays, from the extensive Zoopedia entries (with full color pictures) to the entire Conservation Credit system acting as a rewarding economy for responsible zoo-keeping. Planet Zoo is looking like their most ambitious and impressive park sim yet.
Planet Zoo is out November 5 on PC (Steam).