Planet Zoo Beta Impressions: Breed Your Very Own Ostrich Army
When loading up Planet Zoo's beta for the first time, the plan was to start with an animal that wouldn't be too difficult. Monkeys seemed like they would be too smart and escape. Lions or bears would be too dangerous. Ostriches seemed like a solid bet; they could cause a ruckus if there were a screw-up, but they could probably be a safe first choice. Bertie and Benny did great for a while.
Then they had babies. So many babies.
Soon, the ostrich pen was full of little fluffy birds. It got too crowded. The protesters showed up to tell all the patrons how awfully my zoo treated the animals. The money dried up. The zoo went under.
Overall, it was pretty fun.
We Bought a Zoo
Planet Zoo comes to us from Frontier Developments, who have a pretty solid track record when it comes to simulation management games. Just in the last few years, they released Planet Coaster and Jurassic World: Evolution. Planet Zoo looks and feels familiar to anyone who has dabbled in their other games.
It puts all sorts of tools at your disposal to build the perfect zoo. You must build paths, facilities, and shops, adopt and care for your animals, and decide when and how many to release back into the wild (or put up for sale). You can also choose when to expand to new locations around the globe in your quest for global zoo-premacy.
The beta, which I played for this article, is available to those who preordered the game: it began September 24 and runs through October 8. The full game releases November 5.
Let's get something out front: the Planet Zoo beta is buggy.
My game has crashed multiple times, and lots of little hitches have gotten in the way of things I want to do. Judging from Frontier's track record, this is a true beta. Planet Coaster featured a very similar opportunity before its release and had identical results. From the good we've seen so far in Planet Zoo, it's going to be an absolute blast for those who love every little detail of designing an attraction.
In my second attempt at a zoo, after the ostrich disaster, I lasted much longer.
Multiple species ran around in their habitats, guests had a variety of ways to view and interact with the animals, and shops hummed along. It eventually came crashing down, as often happens when one is learning the ropes of a new management sim. However, Planet Zoo hits that "Oh my, I've been playing for HOW long?" level of interaction that the best management games always hit.
It's even more entertaining because of how great everything looks when you zoom in for a closer look.
One of the best parts of Jurassic World Evolution was zooming in on your dinosaurs (or taking to an ATV and just driving around) while watching everything run efficiently.
Planet Zoo takes that even further by incorporating into gameplay the actual behavior patterns of the game's animals. Some animals are comfortable with guests entering their habitat. Others are particular about the types of plants in their habitat, the amount of water they have, and how close guests can get (even through glass) before they freak out.
That said, it's super easy to get lost in it all and just watch the animals. You can turn on a cinematic camera that follows any animal in your park. You can hop into the vantage point of a guest and wander around yourself, peering into enclosures to spot all the baby bears.
It's a wonderful little time sink, and all the small difficulties of managing keep you engaged and dying to put up one more habitat.
Conservation is Key
One of the other exciting aspects of Planet Zoo is how you obtain animals.
There are two types of currency in the game: money and "conservation points." They are both earned in different ways. Money is what you make (or lose) by putting together a good zoo. Conservation points are earned through daily challenges and by releasing animals into the wild. You can buy animals for your zoo with either currency, and many of the animals up for auction are put there by other players.
This means there are a lot of options for the focus of your zoo. You can transfer animals freely from any of your open zoos, so you can start one with the sole purpose of raising critters for your other zoos. You can focus on animals that have a lot of babies with the goal of releasing many into the wild once they reach a certain age. You can concentrate on big-ticket animals that will draw a lot of eyeballs (and a lot of money).
There are a lot of opportunities for how you choose to run your zoo, and they all seem viable. That's the hallmark of an excellent management game: you can make a variety of different methods work as long as you piece together the puzzle.
A Positive Outlook
It will be interesting to see how the game's different modes play out on the full release. The beta only contains a tutorial scenario and a barebones "Franchise" mode that will have a lot more options.
I would like to see some things streamlined. For example, scrolling through animals, especially when shopping for new creatures, features a lot of delays and hitches.
Research is handled by the park vets, who will stop researching if an animal gets hurt, but then won't automatically go back to what they were doing before. There are just some things that can get repetitive that seem like they shouldn't.
That said, Planet Zoo looks like it's a winner. We'll have more on the game once it sees a full release on November 5. Check back then.