We've gone entirely too long without a new PC game that captures the magic of the original Zoo Tycoon, but with Planet Zoo this year, Frontier Developments is looking to set things right for neglected fans. It's a management sim in which you'll learn about a range of real-world species, design their enclosures piece-by-piece, and strive to meet their specific needs to keep them happy and healthy. I'm so in.
According to senior artist Liesa Bauwens – the narrator of my animal-fact-filled hands-off demo at E3 – Planet Zoo is a game about conservation and education. It was the most precious thing I saw at the show, bar none. I came in thinking that Frontier was probably in a good place to handle a modern-day zoo game off the heels of Planet Coaster, and the E3 showcase left me feeling even more confident.
There were a lot of standout moments, but one in particular absolutely had to make the cut for this recap article. Minutes into my Planet Zoo demo, Bauwens introduced the game's African savanna biome and a zoo geared around conserving local species and releasing them back into the wild.
"This is the home of our tallest and possibly one of our most majestic animals, the reticulated giraffe," she said, setting herself up to drop a nugget of insight about the beautifully-rendered creature.
"Oh... Right on cue!"
"Every demo we've run today, they've taken a dump right as we get into it."
The timing couldn't have been funnier. Frontier is working to make animals in Planet Zoo as "authentic as possible," and that approach doesn't lend itself well to meticulously scripted press demonstrations.
They'll have unique fur patterns and behaviors – one particular cheetah was called out as the "fussiest" animal in the demo – and, in essence, come with their own "genetic print." This variability will affect factors like their size, longevity, fertility, and immunity to disease. It's not enough to figure out what general land, water, and foliage requirements each species has – you're caring for individuals.
"We have a whole pile of mechanisms in the game that when it's running, you can't just walk away and leave it on fast-forward," explained game director Piers Jackson. "It'll collapse."
One major concern is animal inbreeding. You also have to keep your zookeepers and other staff happy and motivated. "If you have a population explosion, you will [need to] deal with a sudden welfare crisis. You can't just put the zoo down and hope it runs itself; you're gonna be busy keeping this thing going."
It's the exact answer I was hoping for. Aside from the usual zoo guest concerns like hunger, thirst, and having plenty of bathrooms, Planet Zoo's park-goers care about being educated. Bauwens used education boards as an example. Not unlike a real zoo, you'll be able to place placards with factoids. "How much information is available will depend on how much research you've done into the animal. And this information will also display on these boards, so you'll get more filled as time goes along."
As for figuring out how best to meet the criteria for each species with the structure and scope of your exhibits, some clues will reside in the Zoopedia, while other needs can only be gleaned on the fly after you've situated the animal in question. "We're not just gonna give you all the information."
I also wondered about the campaign. "We have a number of scenarios – they're in a line – and we have a narrative that makes them cohesive," said Jackson. He added that beyond the "fairly lighthearted story" and sandbox mode, "maybe we have other things to talk about at a later point as well."
A few other assorted highlights from the E3 demo:
- Zookeepers make the rounds between habitats and when they need to prepare food, they'll duck inside a hut. You can follow them to their cluttered workspaces, too. They aren't hidden out of sight.
- To keep your guests in good spirits, you'll want to cordon off sections of your zoo with paths that only staff members can walk through. Keeping certain aspects of zoo management behind the scenes is important, and Planet Zoo will offer ways to make that feasible.
- Bringing in money? One example Frontier showed was an off-road 4x4 vehicle bound to a winding track that you, as the player, get to lay out. You could have the tour cut through a habitat for a safari experience and set the ride's price accordingly.
- Climbing frames can also be custom-made. You'll place down beams and platforms, and if your structure is soundly built, your chimps will climb it. Bauwens said they've "had a team of coders working on this [feature] for over a year now." It shows!
- Planet Zoo has indoor exhibit animals. We saw a lesser Antillean iguana whose enclosure was temperature and humidity controlled. "Even though these creatures are usually the smallest in your zoo, they can still be a very important part of it," Bauwens said. "It's not because they're small that they don't matter. We've done the same things for them as we have for any of the others. If they are happy and well taken care of, they will breed, so you will have to manage their population."
- At one point, I saw a baby zebra go for a swim. My heart melted.
"Because of all of these systems – our animal AI, new staff, new guest behaviors, and a large economic rebalance – we've made Planet Zoo a standalone game rather than an addition to Planet Coaster," said Bauwens. "If we would not have done that we would've not been able to go through the same depths of simulation, so we're really happy that we've managed to take it separately and take our time with this."
I'm stoked for Planet Zoo. I really am. I've been waiting for this type of detail-oriented experience for years, and seeing even a sliver of the game at E3 warmed my heart. I need November to get here soon.