It's a huge claim, but one that could actually be true. Frontier's working on another entry for the Planet franchise, and this time it's ditching coasters for critters. The developer seems determined to make this an authentic zoo management game with an unprecedented level of detail. So much, in fact, Frontier believes it's creating "the most authentic, most realistic animals in any game".
Planet Zoo is planned for release as a standalone PC title in autumn this year, but earlier this month I was invited to take a peep at the game in its pre-alpha stages. Like Planet Coaster, it's looking like this will be an excellent sandbox game, with plenty of options for tinkering and perfecting your zoo. And, for the first time in the Planet franchise, this one has a narrative campaign - along with some unusual additions such as a genetic system and inbreeding. Who needs the Lion King remake or Game of Thrones anyway?
Although the first animal entry in the Planet franchise, this isn't Frontier's first go at creating a zoo management game. In 2013, the studio released a Zoo Tycoon title which received fair reviews but was criticised for its lack of personalisation options and depth.
This certainly isn't the case for Planet Zoo. The game seems packed with customisation options and the ability to tweak every conceivable aspect of an animal's life. Exhibits are constructed piece-by-piece, with players given tools to adjust the terrain, biome, and walls. The most impressive thing about this is how the editing tools directly impact the wellbeing of the animals. Each creature has an information panel with a seriously complex set of needs, such as the ideal amount of grass or water required in the exhibit. This means terrain painting has a direct effect on an animal's wellbeing, so you can't just plop a miniature Mount Everest in the hippo enclosure.
During a gameplay demo, we were shown a glimpse of just how deep these systems go. Planet Zoo has its own weather system, with the ability for snow and rain to be partially (or completely) occluded under structures such as trees and caves. In the midst of a snowstorm, the outdoor areas became cold - but the cave remained warm, thus prompting the animals to move inside to seek out the warmer temperature and fulfil their needs. Managing the temperature requirements apparently becomes even more difficult should your zoo be in a challenging location such as the Arctic. Clever.
Beyond the editing tools, the animals themselves seem lovingly crafted and well-researched. Although a management sim, Frontier wants players to zoom in to view the micro, perhaps to admire the game's new "fur technology". There are plenty of tiny details here: at one point I even noticed a bear's claws retracting as it swam around. According to the devs, the custom terrain created a technical challenge when it came to programming animal movement - nobody wants floating feet or animals clipping into slopes - but the team has managed to create animations that adapt to real-time editing.
The individuality of animals also seems to be a major theme for Planet Zoo, with each having their own name, personality and genome. The genomes determine an animal's appearance (such as different stripe patterns on zebras), but also their longevity, size, immunity and fertility.
Intriguingly, this acts as a foundation for a more unusual part of Planet Zoo's gameplay, which involves the careful breeding of animals. Players will have to maintain a diverse stock, or else run the risk of inbreeding. The consequences of inbreeding, apart from having an excuse to name the offspring Joffrey, is animals will eventually become sterile and suffer from compromised immune systems. According to director Piers Jackson, this system helps prevent the gameplay from becoming static, and also touches on problems real-life zoos have to navigate.
"The game is slightly fantastical in its very nature, but we've always centred around the ideas of welfare and conservation," Jackson told me. "The conservation we touch on is an ongoing part of the game - you're breeding animals for that very reason, and we will show a number of those topics to the player."
"Our goal originally, and still, has been to try to create an authentic zoo experience where the animals are central to the game and they feel real and look real and behave in a real way."
When words like realism and depth are used to describe a game, a concern this brings is whether its systems are so complicated they require micro-management and become menial - but Jackson says players can "hit a medium by putting just enough effort in" and the heavier management aspects are more about "perfection".
Planet Zoo also has a narrative campaign to keep players occupied, although the developer is currently being "slightly coy" about revealing specifics. "We do have one, and there is a story which will take you through the whole game," Jackson told me. "We've created a reason for why you as a player will enter into the narrative, and then we see you progress through it.
"Some of the things Planet Coaster established were scenarios that had goals within them, and obviously that's a trope that we will continue to use, but we've wrapped a story around this to guide the player through the whole experience."
Another aspect we only know a little about is what's on the other side of the fence. Guest management currently sounds like it will again build on the foundations of Planet Coaster, but according to Jackson it will "go a bit deeper" and "take an extra step". One of these additions is an education bar, as guests will have an education need beyond merely wandering around to look at animals. As Planet Zoo has a family-friendly, educational focus, you cannot (unfortunately) kill the guests - although loose animals will prompt them to become unhappy and leave, which seems reasonable.
So what about personalisation and decoration? When I was a kid, pimping my parks in the Blue Fang Zoo Tycoon games was definitely a highlight, due in part to the wackiness of the designs. Planet Zoo's focus on realism means these are less zany, and so far the two revealed themes for building vignettes are a little predictable (a British-inspired classic theme and an African theme). There are sure to be more on the way, however - likely in the game's final release version and possibly DLC (Jackson mysteriously hinted Frontier has a "history of supporting its games post-release" - make of that what you will).
Jackson also told me Planet Coaster's Steam workshop support will find its way into Planet Zoo, meaning players "can create blueprints, export them to Steam, and then import them into their actual zoo". You can also expect to see flexi-colour items, and the ability to add custom 2D and 3D backgrounds to the glass exhibits for small critters. Sounds like the community will be able to fully unleash its creativity with this title.
While it's still early days, Planet Zoo looks like it could deliver a deep and detailed zoo management experience. We're due to hear more about the game at E3 this year - with new management features, animals, campaign content and other surprises in store. I'd be lion if I said I wasn't curious.
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