We got some time with Frontier's zoo management game, so we can see what awaits us later this year.
Planet Zoo is an upcoming construction and management simulation game by Frontier Developments, who also made the theme park variant Planet Coaster in 2016. Essentially, it's a spiritual successor to Zoo Tycoon, where making your zoo into a successful, profit-driven business is important, although there is also a big focus on the welfare of the animals. Both things go hand in hand: without profit you can't take care of your animals, and unhappy animals will repel guests (thus profit).
There are two game modes available. Frontier recommends you start in the narrative-driven 'Career' mode, which starts as an introduction and teaches you how to manage and build a zoo. You start your journey in the Temperate Biome where you learn to manage and expand an existing zoo, building habitats, adopting animals, and tackling a range of Bronze, Silver, and Gold objectives. Although this mode is definitely useful to learn the ropes, the narrative quickly began to lose our interest, at times even being annoying and getting in the way of the fun.
The second mode is 'Franchise' mode, a deeper simulation with an open sandbox map and the full economy. Just like Planet Coaster, Planet Zoo has an online community where you can share the world's most creative habitats, scenery, and even whole zoos too. You might see your own designs appear in zoos around the world, and you'll be able to discover fresh new content from the Planet Zoo community every day. At the time of writing, the game is still in beta, so we can't say for sure how this will shape up, but in the full game players will be able to build a zoo with more than 50 animals, and each species will have its own requirements and needs that must be satisfied, so there'll be plenty to see without this.
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We were delighted with the importance of the welfare of the animals, as not only does this add another level of challenge to the game, but it's also a very realistic aspect and teaches players a thing or two about wildlife. For example, as the name suggests, a snow leopard needs snow in its habitat, but without coolers the snow will disappear. You might also learn that tigers can jump very high, so you'd better build some high fences around their habitat!
Most animals prefer plants from their own continent, and the more you recreate their natural habitat the happier they are. Having said that, the happiness of your animals goes beyond just planting trees, as you also have to take into account that some animals are shy and want privacy from prying eyes, and that others want to live with many of their own kin whereas some are better off in solitude. A major factor of happiness is boredom too, so avoid it at all cost, and when your animals are sick, you better call a vet as well.
Another fun feature is the animal cam, where you can see your animals up close in the detailed habitat you've constructed for them. The animals, controlled by artificial intelligence, behave similarly to their real-life counterparts. Every animal in Planet Zoo feels like a thinking, living individual, from their appearance to their movement and behaviour. The game also features a breeding system, as you can monitor and modify the life expectancy, size, health, and fertility of your animals and make sure you don't have any inbreeding (or do - it's your zoo).
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Planet Zoo wouldn't be a spiritual successor to Zoo Tycoon if you weren't able to build a park to your heart's desire. With a plethora of paths, decoration, terrain tools, guest facilities, and of course habitats available, you can build almost anything you can think of. The act of building itself is straightforward, although we did find it is rather easy to miss-click and then delete something by accident, with no option (yet) to undo this action.
Besides that, we found it easy to build, expand, rotate, and get around the park smoothly. Every creative decision you make impacts the lives of your animals and the experience of your visitors. Of course, some thinking needs to go into construction though, as not only do your animals require specific habitats, your guests need looking after too. You have to make sure all animals are visible (without stressing any animals out) and all habitats and other facilities are easily accessible. Of course, your park needs to be neat and tidy at all times too, and a little bit of decoration goes a long way.
As stated before, attracting guests is almost as important as looking after your animals. A zoo is a business after all, and you need the income to further develop the park, build thrilling exhibitions, and look after your animals and staff. The managing side of Planet Zoo kept us interested as well, as the game responds to every decision you make, which made us want to plan ahead and make the right decisions for our park. The kind of park you create is ultimately up to you, as you get to build, purchase, and run the zoo as you see fit. Because animal welfare and conservation comes first in Planet Zoo, there is also the option to develop your zoo with new research and release new generations of your animals back into the wild.
Planet Zoo has thus far proved to be a worthy successor to Zoo Tycoon. Whether you strive for achievements in Career mode or build whatever comes to mind in Sandbox, you'll have your hands full with managing your animals, park, income, and expenses, all whilst keeping every living thing in your park happy and safe. Or you could conduct some serious monkey business and run your zoo into the ground: the choice is yours. The Online Community looks promising, and hopefully Frontier Developments has plans to add more in the future just like they have done with Planet Coaster.
It is worth noting that aspiring zoo managers who have purchased the deluxe edition of Planet Zoo can begin building their animal havens in the beta that is running from until October 8. The deluxe edition also contains three exclusive animals (Pygmy Hippopotamus, Thomson's Gazelle, and Komodo Dragon respectively) as well as wallpapers and the original soundtrack by JJ Ipsen.