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Planet Zoo Preview: The Most Refined Park Planner Yet

The beta for Planet Zoo began this week, and will continue until October 8th for players who pre-order the game on Steam. Planet Zoo comes from Frontier, developers of park building games Jurassic World EvolutionPlanet Coaster, and the space sim Elite Dangerous.

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Construction and management sims (a pretty clunky name for a genre) have been around since the first SimCity was published in 1989 on the Commodore 64. I'll save you the history lesson, but over the proceeding 30 years, the genre continued to build upon itself, constantly giving more depth to the systems and adding more and more tools for players to express their creativity with. In a lot of ways, Planet Zoo feels like the culmination of all of that progress; the peak of city building gameplay.

Evolving The Genre

Planet Zoo is a spiritual successor to the Zoo Tycoon series, of course, just as Planet Coaster was a spiritual successor to the Roller Coaster Tycoon series, franchises which developer Frontier has a history in. When given the opportunity to brand their new zoo builder with the Tycoon name, Frontier optioned instead to stick with their own "Planet" title in order to distance themselves from the lack of quality the Tycoon games became known for in later iterations. It speaks to a commitment to quality and confidence in the design of their game that really shows through in the presentation.

Planet Zoo takes both construction and management to such an extreme level of complexity and interaction that it's difficult to imagine what more anyone could possibly want from a sim game. The piece-by-piece construction tools allow players to create objects and structures down to the smallest detail, and even upload them for other players to use in their parks. I barely scratched the surface of construction (and admittedly I'm more of a management guy than a construction guy), but just browsing through the hundreds of building components and messing around with the upgraded free placement system (as opposed to the traditional grid placement from Tycoon games) works beautifully and is certainly going to give creator players every tool that could hope for.

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The other half of the game, the park management, is equally robust. The overall wellness of each individual animal in your zoo is represented by dozens of meters that track everything from their health, social and mental engagement, to the appropriateness of the plant coverage in their habitat based on their natural environment. There are so many ways to investigate and interpret data in the game, and all of the menus are intuitive and easy to navigate. Making your park the safest, happiest environment for your animals (and incidentally the most profitable) is a delicate balance of systems management that is easy to understand, but takes a great deal of effort to master.

Learning The Rope Swings

Players of both Planet Coaster and Jurassic World Evolution will have a pretty strong foundation for how to begin building and managing your zoo in Planet Zoo, but those who don't have a life time of sim games under their belt (like me) will be happy to hear that the campaign mode tutorializes the game in an easy to digest way. There is still a dense help guide filled with hotkeys, system tips, and park-network requirements for you to reference when you can't remember how a particular system works, but the story mode does an excellent job of taking you step-by-step through each component and breaking down how it works.

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In the beta, players only have access to the first chapter, which teaches you the basics of animal adoption, wellness monitoring, and habitat creating. It isn't enough to really jump into Franchise mode and start creating your park from scratch, but it is a strong indication of how useful and polished the story mode will be, complete with actual English voice acting!

Most pre-order players, though, are seasoned Planet Coaster and Zoo Tycoon veterans that will probably want to jump right into Franchise mode and start creating their park. To that end, the beta already gives you all the tools that the final game will have (just with a smaller pool of players to buy and sell animals to). I suspect there will need to be some fine tuning around earning income, which seems to heavily rely on donation boxes outside of each exhibit right now, but the game is definitely in a really good place already.

Making Learning Fun

Here's what I maybe didn't expect: I started to care A LOT about these animals. The more I took care of them, the more I learned about them. The game has a really incredibly zoopedia that teaches players about the dozens of animals in the game, and I found myself just reading about their environments and life cycles as if I was standing in front of the placard at an actual zoo.

No hyperbole here: it is just like that. Are you curious if your park goers have a good enough view on the tigers through the glass window you just made? You can zoom right down the street level and have a look for yourself. Every details is beautifully rendered from a birds eye view all the way down to muscles and fur on each animal. I spent a long time just marveling at a pair of leopards as they scratched on a giant post I installed for them. When you want to take a break form the pressure of maintaining the moment to moment of running a zoo, spending time admiring your animals is pretty relaxing. The aesthetics and music are just perfect.

Planet Zoo is coming to Steam on November 5th. You can play the beta from now until October 8th with a pre-order.

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