May 25, 2024
Cumbersome controls and laborious building make Planet Zoo a dysfunctional conservation project. The Finger Guns review:

By now, I would assume we’re all familiar with my appreciation for Frontier Developments’ games. I’ve spent over 60 hours getting the platinum in Jurassic World: Evolution. I thought Jurassic World: Evolution 2 was a solid evolution of the franchise. In my efforts to be the go-to person for all things dinosaurs, I even reviewed the majority of the roughly one billion DLC packs for JWE2 as well.

The point is, I very clearly like what Frontier Developments put out. The management tycoon genre is one I simply can’t resist losing dozens of hours of my life to. All of this is to say, Planet Zoo – from the same developers – should have been a certified slam dunk. Swap out scaley devourers of man for an adorably stupid panda I can follow with a dedicated camera and it’s basically game of the year.

As you might be able to gather from the tone of this opening, however, that is unfortunately not my verdict. The attractions of Planet Zoo are plentiful, the opportunities almost limitless. Dishearteningly, it’s the logistical nightmare surrounding this conservation extravaganza that makes it a day out not worth the effort.

Panda To Their Needs

If you’ve played any title from Frontier Developments, you’ll be right at home in this Zootopia. Planet Zoo has all the same trimmings in terms of gameplay you can expect. Animals you must house, feed, medicinally care for and meet the well-being of. You employ staff, build out the conservation park of your dreams to be the envy of the world, and gawk at the majesty of nature’s creations.

There’s an overwhelming amount of depth and complexity to your zoo construction options. If you can conceive an awesome spectacle of a structure for a habitat, you can be darn sure you can make it a reality. Being able to zoom in on each individual creature with a dedicated camera view continues to be awe-inspiring. The multitude of animal species and the means to develop their enclosures how you please is wonderful.

On this level, Planet Zoo is excellent. Unlike say JWE, Frontier Developments prioritise the conversation and education paradigms of the creatures you care for. It’s one of the more defining features of this game and was one aspect I universally applaud. You educate your park guests, either through tours and talks, or through boards, TVs and interactable objects.

Even as the player, you can read through extensive information dumps that reveal a huge amount about each species. If you’re an animal buff and want to live out the dream of saving near-extinct animals, releasing them into the wild and watching them roam free, this is your game. Of course, you need to manage the running of the zoos you operate and watch the finances, but what else is new?

Planet Zoo review

These Spreadsheets Are Lion, Surely?!

From elephants, tigers, giraffes, leopards, pandas and everything in between, you’ll need to create and maintain livable spaces for your precious animals. Can’t have them mixing with each other to cause havoc or worse yet, be subjected to the aggressive petting of a rogue child. To do so, you need staff, financial security and to keep the inspectors happy.

On easy and normal difficulties, you’re provided with plenty of starting resources to get things moving. It’s easy to find yourself in a financial pit should you go full warthog on the most expensive attractions and hire more staff than Amazon, but frugal players should be pretty comfortable. During the campaign and challenge maps, you’ll be faced with various obstacles and problems to overcome.

I didn’t find them to be as tough as some of the JWE ones, but they’ll provide enough variety to keep things interesting. However, things can tend to go awry when it comes to staff. Keepers inexplicably telling you they’re unable to enter habitats they definitely can enter was a frequent frustration. You have a dedicated path and a door, do you want a private jet too?!

I also had issues with animals escaping enclosures (I know, sue me). You can hit a button which boxes them up, ready for a vet/responder to attend and re-place them into a habitat. Only sometimes, they just wouldn’t. My poor monkey is just sat in a box, like a 9-5 office worker, getting more and more despondent as my staff stand around doing the square root of bear dung.

Planet Zoo review

Neigh Trouble Here

Little issues like this aren’t uncommon in games of this ilk. For the most part, you can eventually get the game to sort itself out. It’s strange that it’s more of a prevalent issue here than in JWE (which came out three years before the PC release of Planet Zoo), but so be it. What’s less tolerable, like the stench of hippo faeces, is the controls and input problems on the console version.

Quite frankly, doing almost anything in Planet Zoo using a PS5 controller is a bigger pain than attempting to brush a crocodile’s teeth. The menus have a strange input lag that constantly ends up with you in the wrong place. For a game all about menu navigation, that’s a problem. Even basic things like placing animals from your centre is a laborious process. For some ill-conceived reason, you cannot mass-place them, it has to be done individually.

I had more arguments with the controls and menus than I had guests in my park. Though, that’s probably not a testament to my zoo-building skills. If you can overcome this frustration, Planet Zoo has so much wonderful content to enjoy, but I can’t help but feel the PC version is likely far superior. This is a game all about navigating layers of screens, meticulously placing items, picking through crowds, and if that act is so painful it makes me want to stop playing, that’s not a good sign.

After just a few campaign levels and trying out the online franchise mode, I was pretty spent with the game. I never felt incentivised to push on to 3* every level or to spend any real time in the sandbox mode, as the act of creation was just too riddled with annoyance. Perhaps I was just unfortunate with my experience, but I suspect others will have the same gripes.

Planet Zoo review

It’s A Keeper!

Provided you can overcome these aforementioned issues, you’ll be overburdened with the content offering and fantastic production values in Planet Zoo. There are 12 campaign missions, each offering hours of potential mastery to hit three stars. An online franchise mode that lets you construct and view other budding players’ conservation masterpieces, challenge maps and a sandbox mode.

Quite simply, you’ll be drafted into dozens of potential hours of playtime. Different biomes and locations mean different species you can tailor for, creating new scenarios for each zoo. The franchise mode especially was a standout for me, I just wish more people had been creating during my time with the game. If the community gets on board with the console version, Planet Zoo will have a long life, safe from extinction.

Much like Planet Coaster, Planet Zoo opts for a more cartoony aesthetic in general. Keepers and guests have wildly eccentric animations and emotes. You can tinker with various looks, styles and colour schemes across your park, some with added authenticity. Most importantly, the animals are the stars of the show, cruising around with stunning detail and immaculate behavioural recreations.

Seriously, it just never gets old witnessing the grace of a giraffe as it lopes through a day. Monkeys are devious and playful, dancing over your barriers as if mocking your feeble efforts to contain them. If there’s one part of Planet Zoo I never had any doubts about, it’s the presentation of the creatures themselves.

Planet Zoo review

A Conservative Effort

I spent less time and got less enjoyment out of Planet Zoo compared to Frontier Developments’ other games. I suspect that had I played this on PC, I’d have gotten much more from it. It’s the typical problem you face when porting a management-style title onto a fiddly, imprecise controller, versus the precision of a mouse. It’s not a bad game, it’s just not able to show off its brightly coloured feathers on this platform.

It slightly baffles me, given how well the JWE series ran on console, how those systems regressed so considerably here. Maybe looking after T-Rexs and Carnotaurus’ is actually simpler than containing a leopard? Who knows. Either way, the long and short of it is that Planet Zoo is probably best enjoyed on PC. It’s serviceable and still a game overflowing with care and depth on console, it’s just a neutered behemoth.

It’s still cool to watch your hippos bound around in the water, however. That just never fails to bring a smile.

Hampered by control and interface issues, Planet Zoo is a neutered and dishevelled version of the graceful beast it is on PC. It has an abundance of content, a wonderfully educational attitude to conservation and the presentation value is top-notch. If it wasn’t for the crippling issues I faced running my zoos, this would be the definitive virtual safari management title.

Planet Zoo is available now on PlayStation 5 (review platform), Xbox Series X|S and PC.

Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Frontier Developments

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.

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