Coming to PC Today, November 5th, 2019
Having played Planet Zoo for about ten hours during its beta period, I hadn’t anticipated being worried about the impending release. While Zoo successfully manages to create an experience with the potential to be as intriguing as its predecessor, Planet Coaster, many flawed design options seriously limit the premise I fell in love with.
Planet Zoo is, just like its predecessor, a sandbox simulation game with flexible camera control within a confined area. The player can create their own emergent narrative by building a park to spec as desired, in this case, a zoo. Animals have to be traded, staff has to be managed, and pathways and buildings have to be carefully constructed.
During the beta, I had access to the Career and Franchise modes of Zoo, with the Sandbox mode being unavailable.
The Career mode consists of chapters with clear objectives within a pre-rendered fictional zoo — it basically functions as scenario challenges. There was only one challenge available which mostly served as a tutorial, and was about 30 minutes long.
The Franchise mode had me create my own zoos from the ground up, and this served as the main gameplay component of the beta. I could potentially start a franchise with multiple zoos all over the planet in the full release, but options were limited to Asia in the build.
While everything could be purchased with in-game dollars, the most important aspect of a zoo, the animals, required a secondary currency called Conservation Credits, and these Credits were the biggest problem I had with Planet Zoo.
The only way to earn these Credits is to either release an adopted animal back to the wild (the more a species is endangered, the higher the value) or by trading these animals into an online animal marketplace, which is (regrettably) also the only possible way to purchase them. The problem here is that the most interesting animals such as bears, tigers, lions and elephants cost thousands of Credits. These are, as the player starts with 300 Credits, not affordable right away.
My impressions following this is that a starter zoo feels demotivating and stagnant because I couldn’t get any of the animals I wanted from the start, and also because adopted animals cost at least the value of the reward for releasing them. With this economy, even the suggested progression of diversity in species feels hardly possible.
With these prices, the only way to earn an increased number of Credits is by having animals mate and releasing or trading these animals again, which means sacrificing my barely grown-up zoo babies. Further complicating matters is that animals with good genes cost more, requiring a larger investment and fewer Credits left in my wallet.
Since there are no microtransactions to add Credits (which is good!) my frustration with this system ruined most of my time playing Zoo. Traders would annoy me by selling elderly animals or critters with terrible genes, and after ten hours I barely got to my first baby zebras — the cheapest lions and elephants were still a good thousand credits away.
In contrast to the credit system, after a certain point the cash flow (as in, dollars) seemed to grow exponentially, and there wasn’t any lack of building opportunities — I could build to my heart’s content within the space and use animal data to determine habitat interiors regarding terrain and enrichment tools.
Another positive highlight was the educational aspect of Zoo. There’s a convenient ‘Zoopedia’ for players to use, not only for entertainment but also to help run the place. Proper male/female ratios of species can be found here, as well as endangered status and fun facts.
Bugs most likely related to the beta status caused some animals to refuse to eat or drink without evident reason, to the point of dying of malnourishment or dehydration when next to a full drinking spot. Malfunctioning animal marketplaces required multiple game restarts, hardly any available blueprints for obligatory buildings were available, and the AI needed to be smarter.
I would expect these things (and the issues with Credits) to be improved in today’s full release, but the question remains as to how much Frontier Developments has fixed since the beta — it remains to be seen if the weak Beta state of Planet Zoo can live up to its immense potential.