After their success pumping life into the theme park tycoon genre once again with Planet Coaster, Frontier Developments is back at it again with Planet Zoo, except this time it's the zoo tycoon genre (popularised by games like... well, Zoo Tycoon) that's getting revived, with the same signature art style from Planet Coaster carrying over into this new venture. We've gotten out of our rollercoaster cart in order to dive into some animal attractions, although it's a very different beast running a zoo compared to a theme park.
At the start you're given the option to play through three tutorial scenarios, during which you're introduced to Bernie Goodwin, an omnipresent figure who's telling you all about the zoos that you're helping to run. He chimes in every now and again, but the bulk of the tutorial experience is with Nancy Jones, the head zookeeper, who tells you how to operate the game.
These three missions will take players around an hour and a half, but they're entirely necessary for learning the ropes with Planet Zoo, as there is a lot of stuff to remember. It's a great tutorial in the sense that it layers on all the elements gradually and slowly, and it was fun slowly learning how to get everything working. It's also a nice introduction to the controls as well, which will probably be familiar to people who have played similar games, moving around with the keyboard and rotating/clicking icons with the mouse.
Planet Zoo packs an awful lot in, but let's start with the animals. In your zoo, you can click on animals to get information on them, or just zoom in with Animal Cam to get a good look at the detailed designs and cute faces. This information is vital for keeping your creatures happy, as it details their satisfaction with terrain, entertainment, social situation, food, climate, and more.
If any of these parameters are lacking, you'll need to do something about it, and luckily Planet Zoo makes it clear what's needed for each animal. You can even filter items for habitats by the animal in question, taking the guesswork out of selecting the appropriate items, and it's not too hard to address animal concerns if and when they arise. You'll also need to bear in mind the biome and the weather, since this will affect your needs dramatically.
You get animals from trading, and you pay either money or conservation tokens for the privilege. You can earn the latter by getting animals to good health and releasing them into the wild, which then allows you to adopt more animals and keep the cycle going. Caring for them is of vital importance, then, and you'll even need to make sure there's a quarantine building to check animals for diseases before they enter your park.
A quarantine, however, is just one of the buildings you'll require, as there are zookeepers, vets, mechanics, caretakers, and more to hire, all of which need specific buildings to do their jobs. This is where the human element comes in, as of these staff members will keep the zoo operating at full fitness, from repairing generators to capturing escaped animals and everything in between.
Another one of the realities of a zoo is that everything costs money (that sad truth of life), and therefore you'll need to budget. Enclosures should have donation boxes, education boards, and speakers near them, but sometimes this doesn't work, and you'll need to prioritise some things over others. Essentially, it works similarly to plenty of other management games, so veterans of the genre will feel right at home.
Of course, the public needs to be considered as well, as a zoo doesn't make money without paying customers walking through the gates. This requires balance. For example, a glass wall into a snow leopard's private den lets them get a good look at the animal but might stress it out. Do you cover the glass with a wall, or pay for more expensive one-way glass instead? Those are the choices you need to make.
Building in itself is pretty easy, but not without fault. You drag walls around in segments to build enclosures, raising or lowering their height and choosing certain materials. We wouldn't place a bear in a wooden fenced enclosure for example... don't ask us how we know that. There's plenty of room for personalisation, including the paths that can bend and wind their way through the terrain, and the land itself can even be customised by adding water, materials like long grass and rock, and more. It's easy to make your park your own, but as always, beware of the cost.
The trouble is that some of the UI is often a bit fiddly and cluttered. There's so much on-screen at any one time that finding how to do basic tasks can get a bit tricky, like putting a glass wall on an enclosure. This is done by clicking glass wall, clicking a segment, and then clicking glass wall again.
There are also about a thousand things to remember once you leave the tutorial, and even with Nancy's wisdom to guide you, it can easily get overwhelming for newcomers, who have to remember to build enclosures, manage animals and handle them correctly, hire and direct staff, look at maps (for power, heat, etc.), build facilities, and more. Luckily for us there's actually an alert tab on the top left that shows us the main concerns at any one time, like an escaped animal or a lack of quarantine, so that we can address concerns as they come up.
Career and its various stages aren't the only way to play Planet Zoo though, as Franchise Mode lets you build zoos across the world and trade animals online, while Challenge Mode throws you into zoos with specific tasks, like releasing one Timber Wolf into the wild, in order to get rewards. These Challenges can also be refreshed too, so they're always changing.
Then we have Sandbox Mode, which is like the Creative side of Minecraft. This gives you unlimited money and conservation points and just lets you go nuts creating your ideal zoo, removing all restrictions and letting you focus on creating the biggest and best zoo the world has ever seen.
After Planet Coaster it seemed guaranteed that Planet Zoo would deliver the goods, and it certainly has done. Those looking for a modern take on zoo management should definitely give this a go because, even while it's a bit fiddly and can be overwhelming at times, it's a friendly and educational game that lets you pull the strings behind the scenes of your very own zoo, all while looking a cute and cuddly animals too. What's not to love?