I've pretty much finished my time (about 2.5 hours) with the Planet Zoo beta. This seemed like an opportune moment to share my thoughts on what seems to work and what doesn't. Frontier has a long history with this sort of thing, which may surprise you if you only know them as the folks who made Elite: Dangerous and Planet Coaster. Frontier didn't really do too much in terms of post-release support for the 2013 Zoo Tycoon, although it was later rolled out onto Windows platforms with additional animals and even got a Steam release last year along with a lot of formerly-XBONE-orWin10-only items; the dev's representatives hint at the idea that Microsoft had a firm hand on the reins on that title and that was part of the reason why. Certainly, last year's Jurassic World: Evolution saw a substantial amount of post-release DLC TLC as well as regular updates and enhancements. The question is whether Frontier can build on the strengths of the latter (as well as avoiding the pitfalls of its weaknesses), while improving in virtually every way on the former.

Zoo Tycoon was a decent first effort. Parts of it are even rather fun. There were several major shortcomings. It sounded terrific--both the music and ambient noise/sound effects were spot-on. It looked . . . well, less-than-stellar. Animal models and environments were only fair, even allowing for the tech of the day. You had serious restrictions on your zoo layouts and certain animals could only be placed in what were essentially pre-built habitats that sucked a lot of the joy out of having them. Want a huge exhibit for your Nile monitors with a pond that has underwater viewing areas and some land spaces to hang out? Well, that's not going to happen. They'll be fine sitting on this little island here.

It could also be rather boring. There were stretches in the game where there was simply nothing to do but wait until you researched an item or had enough money to buy an animal. You had to unlock the sandbox mode, which is a situation I have mixed feelings about. Sometimes I like jumping into things without the hand-holding of a tutorial; while the later games seem to really benefit from the tutorial levels, this iteration in the genre really did not need one.

JWE improved on a lot of the issues with the 2013 game. First, it had dinosaurs, so, WIN! The dinos look and sound great, like the movie creatures, so watching one come out of the gate of the Hammond Research Center just never gets old. You have the freedom to create habitats of most any size and stock them with whatever you want, although most carnivores will not co-exist peacefully. A lot of what sells the game is the atmosphere, with JW actors (including the notorious Mr. Goldblum) providing color commentary. Personally I found that unlocking everything could be quite challenging, given that you often have to juggle conflicting priorities. One of the major flaws is the inability to see whether species are compatible or anything about their habitat requirements before you start hatching new specimens. When dealing with the more volatile critters, this can be a recipe for . . . well, large or sufficiently-aggressive animals can destroy fencing, and you remember what Goldblum said in Jurassic Park about the difference between a malfunction here and a malfunction at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland? Yeah, that happens--which is both great and screamingly unrealistic. I mean, think about it--six people get eaten at your dinosaur park and the worst consequence you get from that is that your visitor happiness numbers go down for a while? What kinds of flaws carried over or were introduced in JWE? There are still lulls in the action where you wait for things to happen, although there aren't quite as many. Unfortunately, one of the ways that Frontier cut down on that specific type of tedium is by introducing a new one: manually assigning rangers to fill food stations. The presence of "feeders" in the game seems superfluous on its face: predatory dinosaurs should, in theory, be able to hunt down game without this, and an even more absurd scenario is the herbivores who will ignore the lush vegetation all around them and starve to death unless you put a machine near them that spits out plant material at designated times. The islands aren't exactly free-form playgrounds, as you can only construct buildings and exhibits within prescribed areas. The gyrospheres, those cool-looking transparent plastic doodads introduced in the first Jurassic World movie, are terribly finicky; you have to lay track for them to follow (which is a little weird in itself) and if you're introducing them as a feature in a park that is already largely-complete, the pathing can be tricky, if not impossible. Power management can be a real chore in certain scenarios, and you do not want to experience a power loss in a park where a gaggle of electric fences is the only thing between your guests and an angry Indoraptor.

So how does the not-quite-complete version of Planet Zoo look? It looks pretty nice. The animals and environments look nice. The soundtrack is very reminiscent of one of the old Blue Fang games. I don't know exactly what "zoo sim" music is supposed to sound like--vaguely African or Caribbean? Whatever it is, Frontier seems to have nailed it. The tutorial level has the novice player completing the design and troubleshooting problems with the Goodwin House Zoo in Britain. The default control scheme is a bit wonky. Unlike its 2013 predecessor, which practically required a controller (not surprising given its pedigree), this one doesn't even acknowledge their existence. Fair enough, it's a computer game--but the default scroll speeds with both mouse and keyboard controls are a bit ludicrous and not at all conducive to fine control. To be fair about this, I do not have a gaming mouse for my laptop, but that was never a problem in JWE. Here, though, clicking the middle mouse button and moving the mouse to rotate your view is oddly difficult to pull off--and this does not seem to be reconfigurable at this point (I tried). An unfortunate inheritance from the 2013 predecessor is the requirement to stick certain animals like the yellow anaconda into pre-built "exhibits"; so much for my grand plan to create a herps-only zoo. There seems to be a lot of clipping all the way round at this point. The height controls not only allow you to soar into the atmosphere, but they also allow to achieve the kind of subterranean depths only previously seen by the Mole People--this is not a good thing. Likewise, I saw numerous instances of mammals sticking tails into the ground and through brick walls in fits of pique. On the plus side, the toolkit does allow you to get creative with pathbuilding, so if you want to recreate that zoo that you built in Zoo Tycoon 2 10 years ago that was pretty much all habitat with teeny-tiny walkways for the annoying humans, er, guests, you can probably make that happen. Animals have a lot of naturalistic behaviors such as playing, resting, eating, and drinking. I haven't seen how Frontier has handled mating or defecating. I also haven't seen anything suggesting that if I put some zebras in an enclosure with some lions, I'll end up with some fat lions and some ex-zebras, so I don't know whether those kinds of behaviors are modelled here either. We know that the enclosures become damaged over time unless maintained in good repair, so does that mean escaped animals can and will attack guests like the dinos in JWE? I suppose time will tell (but I suspect not). I actually wish that more sims would let you be a **** like The Sims. If i want to build a zoo that's essentially a deathtrap for tourists in sandbox mode, then by gum I say, "Let me do it! Let me commit murder like the mastermind behind that Cube movie! Let my park be a warning to all interlopers never to cross my path! [insert maniacal laughter here]" Well, you take my point.

There are three modes showing in the beta, two of which were available to players: Tutorial/Campaign, and Franchise. Fixing up the Goodwin House is the first campaign mission and it's the only one that was available in the beta. The Franchise mode, I confess, I don't quite understand at this juncture. The premise seems to be that you use the game's two in-game currencies to build zoos in different places and trade animals with other players. Apparently beta players complained about this mode being online-only so Frontier is developing an offline version. The Sandbox mode was locked, which is possibly because it was simply a beta and not all of the pieces are supposed to be available or possibly because, in this game like previous ones, it's gated behind certain milestones in other game modes.

The beta shows a lot of promise as possibly being the best zoo sim to date. I hope this is true, but there isn't a massive amount of competition for the title at this point.


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