Released just a few days ago on the 5th November by Frontier Developments, Planet Zoo is a game that has been on everyone’s lips and, as I was lucky enough to be able to buy it on launch day and already log 17 hours of playtime, I thought I’d share with you some of my initial thoughts of the game, some of the adventures that I’ve been on with my zoos, and some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up.
Like a lot of other gamers, I loved Zoo Tycoon but hadn’t played it in years due to the outdated graphics and simplified game story. When I saw Planet Zoo trailer drop at E3 earlier in the year I was over the moon. The graphics and amount of detail put into the game looked incredible, the creative possibilities for building elaborate zoo enclosures and zoo park’s seemed endless, and the focus on animal welfare and conservation made me super happy. From the moment I finished watching the trailer at E3 to release day on November 5th, I have kept up with Planet Zoo developments and eagerly marked off the days in the lead up to release day. Although there was an opportunity to play Planet Zoo a month or two in advance for customers who had pre-ordered the game on Steam, I preferred to wait until the full game was released before playing. So, how does the game match up to my expectations going in?
I think the fact that I’ve already played 17 hours of Planet Zoo in just 2-3 days and have stayed up two nights in a row playing until 3am speaks for itself in terms of how much I’m enjoying the game! I’ve primarily focused on making a start with the career mode as I wanted to get to grips with the game through its 3 tutorials and I’ve been having an absolute blast learning to play the game, experimenting with different types of parks and enclosures, and discovering things about animal management and welfare along the way.
Here’s a quick break-down of some of my favorite features of Planet Zoo so far:
🐺 (Almost) limitless creativity – One thing that has blown me away about the game is just how much freedom you have in the type of park you want to build and how you choose to run your park. If you want to just wack down a couple of buildings from the blueprint tab and build a few simple enclosures to get started then you can do that. Or, if simulation architecture is more your thing, you can spend hours of playtime using the vast array of building tools at your disposal to craft some unique features and even upload them to the steam workshop to share with other players who can then download them into their own game.
🐺 Observing and learning about my animals – In the same way that I get a lot of enjoyment out of the Sims via Sim-watching, I’ve had so much fun checking in on my animals and watching them go about their little pixellated lives. In between zoo management tasks, I can zoom into the enclosures to watch my American Bison frolicking around with each other, Formosan Black Bears shimmying up and down trees, Saltwater Crocodiles playing with a sprinkler toy and, of course, squeeing over all the baby animals. To make life easier, there is also a camera button for each animal so you can get the camera to lock onto the animal and follow it as it ventures around its enclosure. Another great feature of the game is that you have a ‘Zoopedia’ which you can refer to at any time to learn more about each species and help to make their enclosures more suitable for them.
🐺 Focus on animal welfare and conservation – This is definitely one of my favorite features of the game and something which actually swung me when considering whether to buy the game or not. I have very mixed feelings about zoos and, in a weird way, that also extends to game zoos too. One of my least favorite things about Zoo Tycoon is that the zoo (and the game) was very clearly for entertainment; animals were kept in small enclosures and welfare was a mess. In Planet Zoo, conservation, education, and welfare have been much more at the center of the game and the marketing of the game as well. In the tutorial mode, you spend almost all of your time learning about animal welfare and the conservation credits used in the game (these can be earned through releasing animals into the wild, breeding endangered species, and spent on adopting more animals), zoo customers happiness is much less emphasized until later stages of the game. One of the things that do make your customers happy though is education which you can provide through enclosure education boards and speakers as well as via conservation information boards.
🐺 Different modes of play – There are a lot of different ways to play Planet Zoo which extend out of different ways of building and managing your zoo! As mentioned above, I’ve been majoratively playing the game in Career Mode but there are also other modes of play including Franchise (an online mode where you have the freedom to build whatever you like, have other players visit your zoos, and trade animals with each other), Challenge (an offline experience where you build from scratch and meet certain challenge targets) and Sandbox (building without limits with unlimited funds to get extra creative). Career is the narrative-driven mode where you travel around the world, completing 12 different scenarios in different locations, and tackling in-game challenges to progress the game.
🐺 Community – Lastly, it’s nice to see that there’s a real community aspect to the game and that there are plenty of opportunities to team-up with other players (if you want to!) There are a couple of ways to do this including visiting each other’s zoos, trading animals with each other, creating blueprints of creations to share in the workshop, and talking to each other online. Interestingly, there are also “community challenges” set by Frontier Developments which players can complete in Franchise mode. For example, the Community Challenge at the moment is to breed 75,000 Bengal Tigers. Each player breeds tigers within their own Franchise game and these tigers contribute to the overall community numbers. At the end, everyone who participated gets some kind of prize. Unfortunately, I haven’t quite figured this part of the game out so can’t really talk about it too much.
That’s a lot of great stuff about Planet Zoo but, like any game, there are a few things that I haven’t enjoyed about the game or have had particular difficulty with. One thing I will say though is that Planet Zoo has only been out officially for 3 days and the developers appear to be working very hard in responding to player feedback which, I think, is a good sign for things to come. Here’s a quick break down of the things which haven’t been so good for me thus far:
🌿 (Almost) limitless creativity – It might seem a bit weird to include this as one of my favorite features but also as something which I haven’t been enjoying as much so hear me out. I love how much freedom players have in this game. What I have definitely been struggling with is how much freedom players have in terms of building because there is a pretty steep learning curve players have in terms of having to learn how to construct things. There are a few default blueprints that come with the game such as basic keeper huts and climbing frames but if you want to have a zoo that looks *nice* you have to put in a lot of effort to learn how to use the construction tools. To me, these construction tools are quite difficult to use and look more akin to game developer tools than tools for the average casual simulation player! It took me 15-16 hours to work out how to make a bridge and control the unwieldy tools but now I’m getting the hang of it things should start getting a little easier. It also means that in the first non-tutorial mode game (Canada), you have to invest a lot of time in building your zoo from scratch because you can’t just plop down ready-made structures and go. Although you can easily download blueprints from the workshop, these appear to be locked in my game so I can’t use them and the blueprint buildings are often more expensive than my poor little zoo can afford! The tutorials are mostly centered around super basic gameplay control and animal welfare so I think it would definitely help to have a tutorial for building.
🌿 A Beautiful Game = Higher Specs – Before purchasing Planet Zoo, check the specs! I have a gaming computer (albeit a very cheap, lowish quality one) and even my computer has struggled with Planet Zoo at times. I have to run the game on the lowest settings to actually be able to play the game as it’s too high spec for my computer. While it doesn’t make a massive difference to me what the game looks like, as long as it works, I was surprised (and very upset) when my computer almost couldn’t run the game.
🌿 New games are buggy – Given it’s only just come out, I guess this isn’t a massive surprise and I’ve been very lucky in that my game doesn’t appear to have many bugs (yet). Quite a lot of players have reported things like staff not fixing things or feeding the animals and various other things going wrong in-game. Sometimes there’s a weird in-game fix where you just need to double-check if staff can reach the thing you need them to do or might need plonking down right next to it to do it. Other things that are code bugs are things the developers are working on. We’ve already had one patch put out so it seems they are responding fairly quickly.
These are the most prominent problems I’ve been having with the game and most of them relate to either launch game errors and needing to spend more time than expected getting to grips with the actual game mechanics. For the most part though, Planet Zoo has been incredibly fun and is proving to be highly addictive. I keep thinking about all of the things I want to do with my zoo and wanting to get in more practice time so I can learn to make more beautiful buildings. For £34.99 I think that it’s a decent price for a game that includes so much content, creative potential, and fun to be had. As I’ve only just started playing it, I’ll be intrigued to see how the game develops over time and what it will be like when I eventually run out of career mode scenarios. For the time being though, there’s lots still to do in the game!
I’ve been excitedly sharing some of my screenshots and little summary of gaming sessions on my Twitter account most days but thought it would be cool to compile them into a little gaming diary on here so you all can get an idea of what the game has been like and what I’ve been up to at my own zoo(s).
Once I created my avatar (which looks nothing like me because the avatar selections are very poor, but that’s a rant for another time), I launched straight into Career Mode and the tutorials. There are 3 tutorials for you to complete. Each is set in a different type of zoo with a variety of different animals at your disposal and the game walks you through how to play the game via a lovely Welsh lady called Nancy Jones. As part of your job as the new Apprentice Zoo Manager person, it’s your job to step in and fix some of the problems that have been left behind by the previous employee such as broken fences and escaping monkeys, designing enclosures suitable for each species, zoo inspections, guest facilities, and increasing overall animal welfare in each of the zoos. Overall, I think it took me about 5-8 hours to work my way through the three tutorials before I was promoted to Apprentice Zoo Manager (or whatever the title is) by the owner of the zoo franchise, Bernard Goodwin, and unleashed upon the rest of the career mode.
The first scenario you complete after the tutorial is Maple Leaf Wildlife Park which is located in Canada. After traveling to Canada, you arrive at an empty wildlife park and are told by Bernard that it’s your job to set up the zoo from scratch (a fairly daunting task) and to manage the zoo completely on your own. In the tutorials, you are working in pre-made parks and don’t have to worry about zoo management with the exception of animal welfare tasks so the first scenario is a bit of a shock to the system. You not only have to build the zoo from scratch but manage the zoo’s finances, employ and maintain staff, and ensure customer happiness through high standards and development.
Managing all of these different aspects can be very tricky especially when you’ve gone from huge pre-made parks with unlimited money to having to start off small with no help from Nancy Jones! My one most important piece of advice here is start off small. It’s so tempting to go overboard and $60,000 seems like a lot of money but once you’ve put in some small enclosures, hired staff and opened the zoo, money goes out of the window very quickly. I started with three enclosures across different species and level of needs (Aldabra Giant Tortoise x 3, Saltwater Crocodiles x 2, and Grizzly Bears x 2). I put in the staff facilities in a little out of the way staff residential area and a few basic guest facilities (food and drink, info center, merchandise, and toilets). I made sure not to spread them out too much and focused on making sure these 3 enclosures were really successful before expanding.
After a few years, I quickly ran into problems as my zoo wasn’t attracting enough customers and our day-to-day expenses quickly overtook income to the point where my money plummetted down to $2000. Although I had been spending a lot of time making sure my animals were happy, I hadn’t gotten the balance quite right with the financial side of managing a zoo and I needed to very quickly get to grips with that side of the game to save my zoo from going under (a common problem with most players first zoos). Thankfully, a quick injection of cash from a loan, investment in a marketing campaign to attract visitors, the purchase of a Gila Monster and a few very timely babies managed to save me from disaster much to my relief!
The next time I played (yesterday evening), I was 7 years into the game and had $30,000 in my pocket so was in a much better position. I was also treated to my first proper experience of Canadian weather with an influx of snow (much to the distaste of my Crocodiles) and heavy storms. Thankfully we managed to make it through and I could finally start developing my zoo more. I made an enclosure for some adorable American Bison, purchased another small enclosure for a Yellow Anaconda and my guest counter kept ticking up. A year or two later I had a surprise treat of a beautiful Bison baby which was shortly followed by an Albino Bison baby (a feature of the game which grants you a special achievement) which made me so happy.
As my zoo continued to grow and I was certain of our financial stability after a few more years, I continued to expand the park upwards in the mountain; purchasing a single female Snow Leopard, a pair of Lesser Antillean Iguanas and a Goliath Birdeater Spider. Through the game, there are also opportunities for your veterinarian staff to research each species so that you can learn more about them and improve their overall welfare (you can unlock better food quality and enrichment items this way) and your mechanics can also conduct research to improve buildings and unlock specific themed items like an ‘African’ theme and habitat items like two-way glass to reduce animal stress. One amusing surprise that I did have was a reminder to keep a closer eye on my animals, ensuring that I check in with them more often. It was only towards the end of my gaming session that I noticed my Tortoises had TWELVE BABIES in their enclosure and my Gila Monsters had gone from a pair of 2 to 6 (which is 2 too many for the enclosure)!
Towards the end of the session I also FINALLY learned how to make bridges after a lot of experimentation and looking things up in the in-game help booklet, fixed a load of my education screens which had been trashed by vandals (and I only noticed through customer feedback about everything being broken), and put in a few Conservation boards about different important topics like poaching, climate change and bees!
In order to progress to the next level of the scenario and complete it to move onto the next zoo, I need to build a further 5 enclosures and 2-3 small enclosures as well as have an annual revenue of $10,000 so there’s still lots to do on this level and I’m looking forward to introducing some more species to the zoo.
Tips and Tricks
17 hours into the game and I already feel like I’ve learned so much about Planet Zoo with some lessons being more hard-won than others! Before we wrap up, I wanted to include a few tips and tricks for those of you who are playing the game (or perhaps even about to play the game!) to make your time a little easier.
🐘 Read through the in-game help guide – It probably isn’t as much as learning on the job but the in-game help guide (pictured on the upper left-hand side as a ?) has a lot of useful tricks in there like *gasp* how to build bridges. Having a quick skim through can save you a lot of time further down the line and point you in the direction of useful keyboard shortcuts.
🐘 Try to keep your staff facilities away from where guests go – Make sure your staff facilities are accessible only via staff paths and try to keep them out of sight from guests. My guests don’t seem to mind things like quarantines and vet surgeries but they get very grumpy about utilities like power generators and research centers!
🐘 Speaking of utilities, make sure your mechanics can access the mechanics box – For the first half of my game my power generator and water pump kept breaking down despite me requesting mechanics to them all the time. Turns out, I had put them in the wrong way round so the staff couldn’t fix them properly. Make sure the little box is at the front with a path leading to it!
🐘 Don’t be afraid to use contraceptives – this was a hard lesson to learn after struggling with my family of 15 tortoises and 6 Gila Monsters. Make sure everyone is on contraceptives, including animals which appear to be juveniles. My mistake was only giving contraceptives to the female adult tortoises and then being met with all of those babies.
🐘 Spend little over many years – you don’t have to finish the scenario in as little years as possible and most of your babies won’t even have grown into adults before that time. Take it slow, make sure you invest in marketing campaigns and don’t build too much at once!
🐘 Fair staff employment + staff controls – You need to also look after your staff, not just your animals and customers. Make sure you regularly use the Zoo management tab which contains a useful overview of your park, guest feedback, animal welfare, staff research projects, and staff happiness. You can easily see if staff are overworked and/or unhappy. Invest in your staff over time to give them training so they can be better at their jobs and make sure they’re assigned to work zones. Continually check the ground for litter that your groundskeepers may have missed in areas where you can’t install bins otherwise customers will be quick to complain about it. If a staff member isn’t doing a task you’ve allocated them (such as cleaning an enclosure or fixing something) double-check everything: are they assigned to a research task (staff seem to prioritize research over other tasks)? Can they reach the area? Are they tired and need to rest? Are they lost?
🐘 Lastly, have fun and make use of community resources! – There’s lots of fun to be had in Planet Zoo and there are ways to play that should satisfy all different types of players. If you like narrative games then play Career. If you just want to build pretty things then build some cool constructions and share them with others. If you’re terrible at building, it’s ok! You can get better at the game over time and improve things over time. Make sure you also check out the wealth of community resources that are already available. There are lots of helpful tutorials and articles online which can help you learn how to do things with even more tips and tricks. Reach out and ask if you need any help 🙂
That’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed my many, many words about Planet Zoo. This is the first First Impressions/Gaming Diary post I’ve done so if you liked it please do let me know and I’ll keep making them! If you ever want to chat more about Planet Zoo then drop a comment below, send me a tweet or feel free to add me on Steam.