Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.
It was a real surprise to me when Planet Zoo started to truly click. It doesn’t happen often, with games this high on the complexity ladder. There’s such an incredible amount of stuff to learn about Planet Zoo, not just about the running of the zoo itself and the needs and desires of every animal, but also the remarkably powerful building tools available to the player. I genuinely didn’t think the moment would come when I could get through a session without having to look up a dozen different things about the game.
But after many hours, that point did arrive, and it probably wouldn’t have happened if the game weren’t so enjoyable even when you have no idea what you’re doing.
Planet Zoo is, by quite a long way, the most sophisticated and comprehensive zoo simulation I’ve seen. It was always going to be difficult to make a player’s first impression of such a game anything other than daunting and overwhelming. It’s not a feeling that goes away even after working through the long and necessarily hand-holdy tutorial missions at the start of the game’s career mode. I took to watching lots and lots of building tutorials and timelapses on YouTube during my downtime (there’s no shortage of them, because Planet Zoo really does give you the power to sculpt the most incredible-looking creations), and even seasoned veteran architects sometimes had trouble with the game’s clunky pathing system, rotating walls and other structures to exactly the right degree, and so on.
I think the cuteness of the animals goes a long way to settling the initials doubts that I’d ever be able to pierce Planet Zoo’s hardy exterior. I audibly squealed the first time I saw a snow leopard curled up asleep in its enclosure, and thereafter, whenever I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the pathing system, or the myriad other requirements of a functioning zoo, I would just seek out the nearest animal and watch it for a while.
This calming effect wasn’t a one-time-only thing. Watching the animals kept me going for the dozens of hours it took me to haul myself up the game’s hefty learning curve. Now, from the summit, the view is pretty astonishing. And it’s all thanks to the animals. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but Planet Zoo probably has the most realistic animals of any game ever made – and the developers had to inject that verisimilitude into not just one or two but around 100 different species. That’s one hell of an achievement.