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Planet Zoo is at its best when things are going well. Some park building games thrive when they turn into disaster management sims and you're forced to frantically resolve crises before the whole thing comes crashing down like a house of cards. Planet Zoo ain't that.

Sure, things can and will go wrong in the zoo you've built. Animals might escape. A generator might break down. But this is a pleasant game at its core, and one that is most enjoyable when you've got your feet up with a nice cup of coffee next to you, making sure that your cute wittle lion cubs have got plenty of dinner.

If you've played some of Frontier's other park building games like Jurassic World Evolution or Planet Coaster then you should feel at home here. It controls similarly, and in some cases identically to Planet Coaster, and while it's obviously never going to compete with a mouse and keyboard, the transition to PlayStation and a standard controller is about as well implemented as it could be.

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Building your zoo is relatively pain-free. Animals need to be housed in enclosures which means putting up walls, and once they're in there they'll need food, water, and toys. You also need to be mindful of the sort of habitat that each animal is used to so they'll be as comfortable as possible.

Fortunately, even if you were tempted to put a camel into an enclosure full of snow there's some helpful meters to explain why that's a bad idea, and terrain and foliage is easy to alter to make sure that your new guest remains as happy as possible in their abode. Each animal has different requirements from the types of plants they like to the size of group they'd prefer to be in and you can read all about it by opening the Zoopedia β€” a cute encyclopedia with pages dedicated to each and every creature in the game.

Of course, zoos are a controversial subject, and it would perhaps be unwise to ignore the obvious ethical implications of housing wild animals in walled enclosures to be gawped at by bumbag wearing tourists, even in a game as good-natured as this one. Planet Zoo deftly acknowledges the inherent moral quandaries of zoos and weaves conservationism into some of its core mechanics in a way that feels both earnest and rewarding.

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While you'll find some of the animals you'll place in your zoo available for purchase with cold hard cash on the open market, others can only be bought using a special currency that you accrue through conservationist actions. Releasing animals back into the wild once they're mature or nursing sick creatures back to health helps raise this currency allowing you to bring in more exotic attractions and thus raise the profile of your zoo.

The system works well, actively rewarding you for good deeds. There's an education system, too, which is a neat idea but in practice is underwhelming. You can teach the people that visit your zoo about the various animals housed there and raise the education level of your park, but while that's a noble goal, in reality it amounts to little more than hiring educators that stop and chat to tourists, and putting signs up outside each enclosure that explain a little about each animal.

For as charming and breezy as the game is, it's not all plain sailing. There's some unfortunate bugs to worry about and some odd control and UI quirks that take some getting used to. On plenty of occasions we had staff members not doing what they were supposed to be doing, buildings floating in mid-air, and alerts on the HUD staying in place in perpetuity even after the issue they were referring to had been resolved. Most of these can easily be remedied by exiting to the main menu and reloading but it's not ideal.

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You should start your Planet Zoo adventure in career mode, which serves as a decent tutorial for most of the mechanics you'll be using in other modes and it shouldn't take you any more than eight to ten hours to see off the dozen or so missions. The campaign has a story involving unscrupulous money-men happy to exploit animals to turn a profit and a friendly zookeeper that's in it for all the right reasons. It's fine.

As you progress through the campaign you'll go up against increasingly bothersome obstacles, such as taking over a zoo with poisoned water supplies that need cleaning up, or trying to make the best of a park that has been built on a dumping ground for barrels of toxic waste. But beyond those hurdles the campaign is essentially just a series of lessons teaching you how to build habitats for various creatures, conduct research, make money using donations, and peruse the market to purchase new animals to house in your park.

Once you've got to grips with the mechanics of how to build your zoo and how to keep it functioning as a business, the Franchise and Sandbox modes are where the game shines best. Sandbox is self-explanatory β€” you're given a big space to build a zoo without rules or restrictions or any set goal in mind beyond having fun.

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Franchise is like Sandbox, only you can make more than one zoo with some shared resources across the globe, and it also features some online functionality allowing you to trade animals with other players but the servers wouldn't let us connect for more than a minute at a time to test these out. Franchise mode also features some challenges that appear as you play, and if you choose to complete them you'll be able to gain various rewards.

Conclusion

Planet Zoo is, ironically, a relatively toothless park building game. It doesn't have the delicious chaos of the Jurassic World Evolution games or the thrills of building your own rollercoaster and then hoping it'll stay on the tracks in Planet Coaster. But it's a pleasant and charming game. There's an airy joy in creating a peaceful home for animals to live in, and the earnest conservationist slant of Planet Zoo is hard to fault.