For the past week or so, I've been as close as I think I'll ever be to getting into the heads of all those who work behind-the-scenes at a zoo. The pure adoration for animals, mixed with a sinking feeling of dread whenever anything looks like it might be going wrong, combines for as realistic an experience as you're going to get from a construction and management simulation video game, with Planet Zoo.
I've always been a fan of video games from Frontier Developments. They're the company responsible for the Rollercoaster Tycoon series, as well as the more-recent Planet Coaster and Jurassic World Evolution. They never fail to deliver on the goods, but I've never been more invested in the actual maintaining of my virtual landscape than I was with Planet Zoo.
There's an unspoken rule of never trusting somebody who claims they don't like animals. The joy they bring in our real lives, whether as pets in the home, or inhabitants at a zoo, is unlike anything else in the world. Some go as far to say that they prefer their furry friends to actual humans! And in today's world, who can blame them?
Whether or not Frontier was going to be able to emulate this feeling and bring it to a virtual world however, was still left up in the air. We've heard of how cinemagoers were left cold by the live-action Lion King movie; so there was always a risk that the same could happen here. Fortunately, the development team have managed to avoid those pitfalls, by ensuring that your main focus is on the comfort levels of the animals from the earliest moments of the game.
To ease players into Planet Zoo, there's a Career Mode which takes you through a variety of different parks, all with different needs. These range from environmental changes required in animal enclosures, to spaces for new staff, and unique exhibitions. You're guided through the mode by a cheeky member of the zoo's management, and the owner of the different parks also pops in now and then for a quick chat. It's during these moments that you'll learn about conservation, which is an essential series of lessons for anyone serious about zookeeping.
Protesters may serve as the antagonists of the game at various points, but for any animal lover playing, they're as welcome as the paying guests, as they'll be drawing your attention to something major in the zoo that needs rectifying sooner, rather than later.
Whilst the Career Mode is very much a tutorial, it never feels like overbearing hand-holding. You learn a lot whilst going through the motions, and it's all essential if you've got any hopes of going into the Sandbox and building your own zoo from scratch.
That Sandbox mode can be a little daunting at any point, but if you're more interesting in the construction side of things, and making something gorgeous to share with the world, then it's where you'll end up. With an unlimited stream of cash at your disposal, however, a lot of the fun of being a part of the chaos is stripped away.
There are blueprints available for those who feel a little overwhelmed when it comes to creating something from scratch, but also the option to do just that with a variety of different tools and materials at your disposal. If you ARE building from scratch, it's probably a good idea to pause the zoo, because you'll want to put a lot of time aside to ensure perfection!
I'm not sure why we fall in love with games that pretty much give us a whole other job to come home to. We work all day, so that we can come home and relax, but for many of us, we find that relaxation in experiences like Planet Zoo.
Without a doubt my favourite sim game to-date, it's been frustrating only a handful of times, with controls feeling a touch clunky, and animals finding themselves stuck up on the roof. Despite that, these problems are easily solved, and aren't horrible enough to bring you fully out of the immersion that Frontier have done so well to include. A big congratulations to all involved.
Now, I'm off to tend to my Bengal tigers, one's escaped and is chasing the visitors around the zoo...
Planet Zoo is available now for PC. A code was given to Female First in exchange for a fair and honest review.