When I was little, I was hooked on any and all Sim games (with the exception of SimGolf). SimSafari and SimPark were two of my favorites, so when I heard that the team behind Planet Coaster was going to tackle a wildlife park as their next adventure in Planet Zoo, I was beyond excited.
Right from the get-go, Planet Zoo is a lot to unpack. I tried jumping right into creating my own park, but I realized after 20 minutes that I had no clue what I was doing. Begrudgingly, I began playing scenario levels so I could get my bearings. I wasn’t thrilled about having to do a scenario, I wanted to go straight to sandbox, but I figured a tutorial level was better than my floundering about like a dying starfish. One thing I will give the sandbox mode credit for is the variety of locations and biomes that you can choose for your zoo. There are several different continents to choose from, everything from jungle to the plains, from Africa to Asia. If you’re aiming for an authentic experience, Planet Zoo has got you covered.
I tackled the first scenario level, working at an already established zoo that needed a little TLC after their last keeper left. It wasn’t labeled as a tutorial level per se, but that’s what it played out as. After meeting zoo owner Bernie and his staff, they guided me through basic tasks. I learned how to adopt and take care of animals, build habitats and ensure the zookeepers are well-stocked with what they need to keep things running. There are on-screen prompts and a checklist that walks you through each step of the process. It’s well thought out and goes at a steady pace, allowing you to take your time as you follow along. If you’re running into difficulty, you can even pause the in-game clock.
While the tutorial does its job well, it also highlights the most glaring problem of Planet Zoo. There's a lot to deal with in your zoo. It’s very clear that the devs were trying for realism, which I think is a great goal, but there’s such a thing as being too realistic, or at least too realistic for the average player. Even just getting a habitat ready requires finding all the particular items that the specific animal needs. For example, bears and ostriches have different requirements for habitat, stimulation, types of feeding stations, etc. While I understand that these are very different creatures, a large part of me just wants to chuck food troughs and giant hamster water bottles in every enclosure and call it a day.
Beyond each animal having very specific needs, you also need to strategically set up the keeper’s huts – close to the animals but away from the visitors – add glass viewing windows, donation bins, and transformers. This is without even getting into animal statistics, breeding programs and more. If you’re a lover of statistics or of long, thought out strategy, you’ll love Planet Zoo. But for those of us who just want to hang out with some elephants and try some challenges while running a park, it can quickly get very overwhelming. Even after playing the tutorial through the first time, there’s just so many buttons and toolbars I kept forgetting where half of them were.
Whilst overcomplication bogs down Planet Zoo and dampens the fun, each animal’s unique details made me enjoy it more. It’s clear that a lot of research went into every animal, from basic facts and biology – did you know grizzly bears can hibernate for up to seven months of the year? – to what they need to survive in captivity. The fact that the game’s sole method of obtaining animals is through adoption is heartwarming, and there’s plenty to poke around and learn about your favorite species. It continues the tradition started in the 90s of games mixing in education with gameplay in a fun way, as well as teaching management and strategy skills. I’m very happy to see that combination return.
Overall, Planet Zoo left me excited yet trepidatious. It’s not a game for those looking to throw down a couple of giraffes and run a zoo, and the overcomplication can get confusing. At the same time, it’s clear that a lot of thought went into the systems and the educational aspects. They are logical in their execution and all work coherently together. It’s not impossible to learn, but there’s a steep and lengthy curve. I’m interested enough to jump back in upon release, but probably with a blank notebook to take notes as I go.
TechRaptor previewed Planet Zoo on PC via Steam with a key for their Closed Beta provided by the publisher