You could argue, looking at their portfolio, that Frontier Developments are the “Member Berries” (without the subtle racism, of course) of video games. Member Elite? Yeeeah, I member Elite? Oh, oh, Member ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON? Yeeeeah, I member Rollercoaster Tycoon. Member… Zoo Tycoon? Well, if you do, here’s Planet Zoo to tickle your fancy.
Okay, so that’s probably quite the flippant comment but on the outside Frontier games certainly seem to have that certain nostalgia factor in their favour. Anyone who’s played the wonderful Planet Coaster, however, will be able to attest that is simply not the case. Released on PC in 2016, with a console release scheduled for summer 2020, Planet Coaster simultaneously paid lip service to Frontiers classic Rollercoaster Tycoon format, while also deconstructing it for a modern audience. Boiling the essence of the title down to what made the earlier games fun, Frontier added in unprecedented levels of customisation for players, allowing them to combine solid geometry to form ride theming, alter the geography of their parks and even import media to create a unique experience. Add to this a built in social element, allowing players to share not only their parks, but also their own ride creations on Steam Workshop, it’s no surprise that Planet Coaster still has a hugely dedicated player base to this day.
So we come to Planet Zoo which is, yes, Frontier’s reimagining of Microsoft Game Studios much loved PC classic, Zoo Tycoon. Releasing in 2001 it presented players who were happy building their own theme parks with a new challenge – construct and run a zoo, making sure you entertain the customers while keeping the animals healthy and happy. It was an instant hit, so much so that it got a sequel in 2004, but the franchise then lay dormant until it was revived as an Xbox One launch title in 2013. The developer of that version? Frontier Developments.
On the surface, Planet Zoo is the logical evolution of this – a game that takes the essence of Zoo Tycoon and runs it through the same grinder as Planet Coaster; the exact same grinder in fact. If you were to put Planets Coaster and Zoo next to one another the only thing that would give away which was which would be the presence of Lions and Tigers and Bears (oh my) instead of corkscrews and loop the loops. The UI, the art style, the level of control players have over the look and feel of their parks, heck, even the gobbledygook that the park guests spout is identical; and why not? Frontier have built up a “house style” for their “Planet” games now so it makes sense to carry it over. Scratch the surface, however, and Planet Zoo reveals a very different game, one that offers an experience that is far more daunting and, at times, frustrating.
It’s all about those damn animals, you see. If it weren’t for them I could be happily stringing together paths, raising and lowering land, putting in nice looking eateries serving a delicious array of food and keeping all the folks wandering around my grounds happy. Hell, there’s even a smattering of theme park rides you can add to create a nice ambiance. But then the lion needs feeding, or the meerkats are ill, or the rhino’s not happy, or the bear’s have escaped… what, the bear’s have escaped?! Planet Zoo makes you deal with all the problems of a major theme park AND a major zoo and at first it’s just so overwhelming! If you’ve got comfortable with the Planet Coaster UI, you’ll certainly be able to jump right in here and start building structures, but if you actually want to know how to look after those floofs, grizzlords and danger noodles, you’re going to want to start in the campaign mode.
Smartly focussing its initial scenarios on animal adoption and welfare, the campaign gradually introduces new users to the basic concepts of the game such as how to mark out and populate a habitat, how to position exhibits so that guests will get the most out of them and how to hide the day to day workings of your zoo for that fully immersive experience. These scenarios lay out the groundwork that players will take into the meat and potatoes of the game, the sandbox and franchise modes; front loading the new mechanics allows seasoned veterans to skill up quickly.
Once you’ve done as much of the campaigns as you like, you can drop straight into either of the above modes. Sandbox is probably where you’ll spend most of your time, free from the financial shackles of franchise mode. In here you can create animal habitats and exhibits to your heart’s content, play with the games mechanics and explore new ways of doing things. One of the key uses of sandbox is to provide players with a blank canvas to build their own prefabricated park components such as lion enclosures, lemur walkthroughs or even on rail safari’s. These can then be sent to Steam Workshop to share with other players, one of the key community elements that’s carried over from Planet Coaster.
Franchise mode, however, is a new thing entirely. Dumping you into an empty park with limited financial resources and tasks you with building, maintaining and running your zoo from the ground up without forcing it into bankruptcy. The USP here? This mode is online. As with Planet Coaster, Planet Zoo works best when played asynchronously with others. As well as having its predecessors previously mentioned community elements, franchise mode also builds on this idea by introducing animal trading. Yes, just like real life Zoo’s, Planet Zoo’s digital attractions are all about conservation and breeding. Populating your zoo with the right animals and encouraging breeding (but not inbreeding – the last thing you need is a two-headed zebra) you can improve the pedigree of your creatures, eventually selling them on the marketplace to help fund your own ventures or releasing them into the wild to get sweet sweet conservation credits – you can use these to buy animals with better stats to further improve your breeding programme. Add to that the ability to visit other players zoo’s and franchise mode presents a compelling online experience
But franchise mode also presents Planet Zoo’s main sticking point – oftentimes it can be too complex for its own good. With animals to manage as well as guest and other park amenities, and an active marketplace to keep your eye on, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed at an early stage in Planet Zoo which is a shame as the game’s focus on conservation as well as event and estate management presents a compellingly different angle on the traditional management sim that I don’t think I’ve seen in similar games before.
There are, of course, other minor quibbles and bugs that were present at launch – UI issues and various animal related glitching as well as an oversight in the idea of breeding that left the animal marketplace flooded with hundreds of lousy warthogs, but as with Planet Coaster, Frontier are in this for the long haul. The former game has received many patches and content updates over its lifespan, adding more and more value to the base game, so the future certainly looks bright for Planet Zoo.