Planet Zoo preview: welcome to the (non-)jungle

Frontier’s really gunning for this simulation genre thing now, isn’t it? And, well, fair enough – Planet Coaster was a (dare I say it) scream, and licensed tie-in Jurassic World Evolution was a solid, well-presented package (with an admittedly lacking long-term appeal).

So it’s of very little surprise the developer-publisher would venture further into the world of making enclosed entertainment spaces to exploit the wallets of the gawking public. Yes folks, this time you’re making zoos.

If you’ve ever played a sim-style game – and you probably have, given it’s one of the oldest genres – you know what to expect, and the fundamental aspects really don’t veer too far from what’s come before. That is to say, you’re granted an area in which to create, and you go. You build enclosures for animals, entrances/paths/shops for the public, and staff facilities for the folks who need to clean up the bad messes the public make (and the animals, I guess).

You do some light management-y stuff in the back end, and you try to make it all a success, sometimes with the odd stipulation thrown in for good measure/challenge. It’s a tried and tested formula, and even now, in space year 2019, it still offers a sturdy foundation on which to build more Good Stuff.

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‘Animal enrichment’, it’s called. We know it’s just an excuse to make us laugh at what these silly ex-dinosaurs get up to.

Planet Zoo’s way of bringing in more Good Stuff is to tweak the approach – the underlying attitude – surrounding your reasons for making this animal jail. Rather than looking at building a grand facility for the people, and bringing in money by manufacturing the sort of pure empire of capitalism you’re usually going for, Planet Zoo focuses more on the welfare of the animals within your walls (and fences, and plexiglass enclosures).

Okay, the overarching goal is still to not lose all your money and go out of business, so really it does all boil down to the endless pursuit of wealth accruement, but at least you are starting out from a more benevolent standing.

Animal welfare doesn’t just mean feeding and watering the beasties in your zoo; you’re looking to tweak enclosures to their needs, bring in friends and mates for them, keep them entertained, and generally just look after them. A dusty sand bowl of an enclosure might be decent for a bunch of baboons, but dik-diks need grass to be happy – not too much, and not too little.

An alligator without any water is just cruel. A bear needs entertaining, and giving it a cardboard box to play with is just as good – and far less cruel – than forcing it to dance or wrestle for the amusement of the masses (not that you can do either of the latter in the game). It all comes together in a grand animalistic facsimile of The Sims, with a big part of your management goals coming down to making sure all of your animals’ many mood bars are kept in the green.

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Elements like heat maps can immediately highlight issues with, say, a lack of cooling for creatures that require not being toasted alive in public.

Left to the hands of the amateurs and fools, this would make for a gigantic pile of micromanagement, with endless menus to click through and ridiculous mini-tasks you didn’t even know were a thing that existed, never mind needed doing. Not so in Planet Zoo – a simple interface guides you through the process of making sure Terry the tapir and his brood have enough space, food, water, grass, shade, and are at the right temperature.

A click to bring up how the enclosure is working out for the animals inside, a couple of clicks to get to the tools needed to change things, and a live update of the mood bars as and when you make changes: it sounds simple, but it’s one of those quality of life features you only see from studios that have this stuff locked down.

Aside from the depth of management aspects – think deeper than Theme Park but not quite on a par with… a really deep management game – there’s another thing sure to draw in a bunch of players: creativity. Admittedly, it’s never going to be as much fun as designing a rollercoaster from scratch, but Planet Zoo does bring with it the creation and landscaping tools needed to make your zoo truly unique. Or to just mess people about.

How accommodating to a freestyle approach the game will be, I’m not entirely sure, but I’m hopeful it will still be possible to make an interesting, visually engaging (and bloody weird) zoo that actually functions in a positive fashion for the animals inside it, rather than having to stick rigidly to predetermined paths towards success. As well as clearly signposted paths towards the toilets.

Zoos aren’t as exciting as theme parks, and frogs aren’t as thrilling as velociraptors, so we’ll have to just wait and see if Planet Zoo can hook on to any particular zeitgeist to become a success. But from what we’ve seen and played so far, it’s starting out life with solid fundamentals, and is focusing just enough on a slightly different angle to what we’ve seen before. It’ll probably all be fine, so long as there are no sudden tiger fights.

Genre: Wildlife imprisonment simulator
Format: PC
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Frontier Developments
Release: 5 November 2019

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