Game review: Planet Zoo - Career Mode

We can't say we expected this.

Written by ritabuuk and dubiousdisc
Posted on January 13th 2023
Planet Zoo cover, prominently featuring the lions

When we first heard about this game, we were like :) game with zoo :) just like Zoo Tycoon back in the day, but modern! With more functions. More animals. And you can see them up close! In full high definition. In fact, these are some of the best 3D models of animals we've seen in anything ever. The camera follows them as they walk around. That looks very good! Let's make a zoo.

We had previously played its sibling game, Planet Coaster, by just jumping in and trying things, and we were very quickly overwhelmed. So, this time around, we chose to start with the Career mode, which seems to have a tutorial! Let's learn about this massive game bit by bit, rather than being expected to do this all from zero, while also not getting vandalized and having visitors puke all over the place.

Nancy Jones
Head Zoo Keeper, Nancy Jones

When we start the Career mode, our first surprise is that this zoo simulation game has characters. Huh!

In the first scenario, we play as a new hire in the zoo, and the head zookeeper Nancy is showing us the ropes of how to create a new enclosure, and how to make sure the animals are fed. Nice!

Around this point, Rosy was starting to think, I think that's enough tutorial, let's go to the sandbox mode and make our own zoo. But Denise said, no, not yet. There's surely more to it than this. We went to a few premade zoos with Nancy, and we were given the goal to improve them in various ways. We learned about features such as the one-way glass, which allows people to see the animals without them getting stressed, and the air conditioning, for animals that need cooler temperatures. This game really has more stuff than we'd expected.

Bernie Goodman
Zoo Owner, Bernie Goodwin. He's got one of those mugs with an unfortunate design.

The story goes that we've been doing a fine enough job with Nancy that now the owner of these zoos wants to meet us. Bernie Goodwin is a jolly old man who really loves animals and really loves his corny jokes. He's endearing and he really does want to make a difference in the world.

An aspect that the developers of this game really wanted to emphasize is the reason why zoos still exist. Good zoos today are sanctuaries for unreleasable animals, provide education to the public about nature, and try to save endangered animals with breeding programs which ultimately release to the wild. We're not kidnapping animals from the wild and keeping them in concrete boxes. All the individual animals that you take in have their stories and their reasons why they can't be released to the wild. This information is readily available next to their name and age. Some are ex-pets. Some are rescues that are unfit to return to the wild. Some are custom seizures from poaching activities. Some are part of breeding programs from other zoos whose animals started from these other categories. Some are retired from other zoos. The animals may have scars from fights with other animals, or injuries from being hunted or mistreated. All of the animals have had lives and a history. And your job is to make good homes for these animals, and make them happy. If you do really well, they might even breed, and you are rewarded for releasing endangered animals to the wild.

Continuing with the career mode, we are sent to a whole park themed around pandas, focused on breeding programs to save the panda. In fact, a baby panda named Lin Lin was just born the other day. When we were first playing this, we immediately went, oh, WOW, imagine what an attraction that must be, a baby panda born in a zoo. Denise was in Washington DC when the baby panda was born at the National Zoo, and it was a big deal.

So we work on this zoo for a while and learn a few more mechanics. This premade zoo is very elaborate in that it has this whole building with glass floors, and you can see the pandas through the floor and out the windows and over the balconies.

Lin Lin and other pandas Pandas visible through the floor
Baby panda!

We certainly made the right choice to start with the career mode, not just for the benefit of being introduced to the game mechanics in a more staggered way, but also so that we can see some premade zoos to know what even can be done in this game. Coming from older games such as Zoo Tycoon, we wouldn't have even thought to do some things that are perfectly possible in this game. We don't have to just make a square that people can walk around. You can make really fancy setups with bridges and viewing points over and under, and in a tunnel, and under the water, and just wow. In this game, generally, if you can imagine it, you can probably do it.

In fact, if anything, we were held back by being too genre-savvy of simulation/management games. To make an enclosure, we thought we had to use the barriers from the barrier menu, as provided by the game, and we thought that only something from that menu would function as an animal enclosure. But actually, anything that a certain animal would be unable to cross constitutes a barrier, such as a pool of deep water, a pile of rocks, a building, a canyon, whatever. We don't have to make fences everywhere.

Wolves in the shelter
Now that we know how the shelter mechanic really works, we have prepared a fancy building with a fancy chair for the wolves to use as a shelter. We now have Wolves in the Throne Room, the metal band.

Similarly, when animals require shelter, it doesn't only have to be the premade shelter object in the menu. Anything that gives the animal a roof is a shelter. So that can be inside a cave, under a tree, inside a house, under a rock. And if you want to be silly, you can find a horizontal slab of anything and put it floating wherever you want, and because it creates shade and protects from the rain, that's a shelter. In fact, the game object called a shelter is just a bunch of stick objects pre-assembled into a particular shape, for when you don't want to build your own thing.

And what about visitors being able to get a good view of the animal? We thought it had to do with having a window in the fence, but actually, the game is calculating the visitors' line of sight. So if the fence is only a foot tall, the visitors can just see-in over the fence and that counts too.

Next, Bernie wanted us to help him design a zoo from scratch. Alright, so the Career mode isn't only just putting heavily-guided tweaks onto pre-made zoos. We can stretch our wings and build a zoo however we want, while still having some objectives to satisfy. This was our first zoo from scratch, so our result was... yeah. Not overly impressive. But it was a good opportunity to learn. By having to deal with the overall layout of the zoo, we learn the importance of staff-dedicated paths, and we learn how to plot the position of the staff facilities, so that the staff can get where they need to go without wasting time getting stuck behind a crowd of slow-pokes. We also learn where visitors will and will not naturally want to go. And that, whatever we thought was a wide enough path, we were wrong. Go wider.

The bear enclosure The turtle enclosure with staff path visible

The next one is the Safari Zoo. This one almost made us give up on the Career mode. It's a premade zoo that is very elaborate, but it also is full of blind spots and bits that are incomplete. One of our tasks is to add more educational signage throughout the zoo. In Planet Zoo, ye olde plaques are apparently not good enough (and certainly not the laminated printer paper that our local zoo uses). All the educational signage is done through screens, which need power. But there are big areas of this premade zoo with no power. Visitors to the zoo consider the power generator to be ugly and noisy. They will get mad if they so much as walk by one, or see one in the distance. So the generators need to be strategically placed to cover the area that needs to be covered, while also being sufficiently far away from the walking paths and hidden from view. But this premade zoo is already jam-packed with enclosures and landscaping and a train ride, so it's really hard to find where to sneak in these power generators, and in some cases, it requires editing the whole surrounding area. And since this is a nice premade zoo, we don't feel comfortable gutting it when we don't even know the thought process behind each piece.

A lion runs past the train ride in the Safari Zoo
That would be so awesome

Then, we have to extend the train ride. Oh no. We are so bad at this aspect of the game. But when it works, it's sooo cool that you can have the little train go through the lion enclosure.

The Safari Zoo was, for us, significantly more difficult than the others, so we were thiiis close to jumping to sandbox mode, and nevermind having to do any more surgery on these nice pre-existing zoos. At this point, we think we know how to play this game, so we can move on to the sandbox mode without getting overwhelmed. But Denise said, let's at least look at one more scenario, and then go to sandbox.

If you are reading this and know what point of the game this is, you are laughing. We were completely unprepared for what was about to happen.

Spoiler warning: YES, spoiler warning for a zoo simulation game. And this is a giant spoiler. If you are interested in playing this yourself DO NOT READ FURTHER, we do not want to ruin this for you.

Bernie had mentioned that he was starting a new zoo in the Arctic, and maybe if we keep up doing such great work, he'll ask for our help there too once he gets it started. We go to the next scenario zoo and... Nancy greets us, but in an unusually somber voice. We've lost all contact with Bernie in the arctic, and he's been declared legally dead.

Dominic Myers
Slimey Hedge Fund Manager, Dominic Myers.

The board of governors sold off all of Bernie's zoos and now the animals are in the hands of the a "slimey hedge fund manager" named Dominic Myers. Nancy wishes us the best of luck caring for the animals - but she won't be the head zookeeper anymore, as she's been laid off. Good luck.

And then Dominic introduces himself. He's very sad to be meeting us in such sad circumstances, after the death of.... Benjamin? No, Bernard. I was a very close friend of his, he says, and I am honored to continue his great work of letting people pay me to see animals.

And this is all happening the day after Bernie has been declared dead. The hastiness of this all makes us suspect foul murder. Well, we mean. His name is Dominic, for crying out loud. Just like another horrible video game villain that we know of.

You need to know how he sounds. And if you played this game before, listen to him one more time and hate him again.

Dominic has promoted us to "senior zoo manager" of one of his new zoos. He sends us there, and... it is an absolute disaster. It looks like Dominic Myers bought a few houses in Greece, put up some chain link fences between the old houses, and unceremoniously shoved some animals inside the barriers.

As soon as the introduction ends and the camera lands us inside the zoo, we are blasted with 15 urgent red notifications about animal welfare problems. The zebra enclosure is too small, being essentially a fence around a stable, and being less than a third of what would be their absolute minimum required space. The anaconda is drying out in a sad little terrarium. The titan beetles are being left to the elements without climate control. The mandrills are so sad in their overcrowded little cage where their sole enrichment is a sprinkler (which probably was just a lawn sprinkler that came with the houses when Dominic bought them up). The African elephant is being kept in an enclosure with stagnant water that is just becoming more and more polluted with its own shit. There is a poor, shy nyala (a forest antelope) in a sad, dried up yard full of litter, and with nowhere to hide for privacy. And a lonely hyena is being kept in a pen with nothing but a soccer ball for company.

A very sad zebra The lonely hyena with a soccer ball
Oh no

And beyond the animals, it's not good for the staff either. What little staff Dominic hired do not even have a break room to rest in, or, for that matter, any other facilities that they need to do their jobs. He also didn't bother to hire a security guard, so crime can just go unchecked in the zoo. Things are so overwhelmingly bad that crowds of people have come to this "zoo" to protest the inhumane (and inanimale) conditions. And there's an inspector coming in a few months! And if the inspection goes badly, the senior zoo manager is the one who is going to take the fall!

And we're still rocked by the news that Bernie is dead. Noooo, poor Bernie. But as we are there mourning him, we have to try to do something for these poor, poor animals. Oh no the cramped zebras, nooooo!

And in all of this, Dominic's concern is if we're generating sufficient profit. He orders us to somehow incorporate a new grizzly bear and a Siberian tiger in this outdoor zoo in sunny Greece (because people will pay to see those).

Earlier with Bernie's super nice Safari Zoo, we felt reluctant to make changes, since we'd be messing with something nice and what if we ruin it. But here with Dominic's zoo, we are absolutely ready to go in with a sledgehammer, confident that we will come up with something better. In fact, we are compelled to do so, for the sake of the poor animals. And as we complete this scenario, we realize that we are now fully invested in the plot of a zoo simulation game. Well done, Planet Zoo.

Our next assignment is to fix up a zoo in India. Dominic previously owned this casino, but it had to shut down because it was considered poor taste to have a casino that looked like a temple. Who knew?! So, he's repurposed the structure as a zoo, by just putting animals into the casino, and not bothering to clean after them. All the water is polluted. The poor gharial is swimming in... we don't even want to describe this. Some animals are confined by electric fences, which would be terrible enough, but there are frequent power outages, so the fences aren't even preventing the animals from escaping.

The Rhino in the India zoo The poor gharial

Dominic periodically pops up to give us some animals that, he says, he's "found". As in, he "found" an elephant. And now we're putting it in the zoo. What horrible shady thing are we involved in now?!

We are faced with a moral dilemma. Is it better for us to do this job or not to? The animals are suffering, and we are able to help them. If we quit, Dominic will be able to just stick animals in horrible conditions, or he'll hire someone else who is okay with this. But, if we continue working for him, does that make us an accomplice to whatever crimes are going on? Does us helping him turn a profit make it easier for him to obtain more zoos and more animals to mistreat?

Well, we can say this is something that we would have never imagined to find in our zoo simulation game.

The next zoo is our toughest project to date, so tough we had to restart it several times, and for a good while we thought it might just be beyond our capabilities. Dominic has plans to open a zoo in an abandoned quarry in Brazil. Inside the quarry. Down the quarry. And no, we can't alter the terrain to make it more navigable. Were this not bad enough, we have to clean up the quarry from all these barrels of radioactive waste. We can locate them using our heat map view, because they're so radioactive, they heat the surrounding area. This can't be legal…

Gondola ride
Ultimately our gondola ride was pretty cool though.

This is another one of those where we're in sandbox mode, but with objectives. We have to plot everything ourselves, but Dominic will pop up every once in a while to give us an animal that, he says, "rescued" from being "lost". For example, a poor lost snow leopard which he found in Brazil. Very, very lost. Needs a lot of help. All the animals he gives us are sick and hurt. We have to work within the constraints of the unusual terrain and find places to put all these poor animals. Oh, and we need to set up a gondola ride for him. The gondola ride was the bane of our existence and the reason why this was one of the last zoos that we completed with a gold star.

At the very end of this scenario, Dominic shows up to tell us that he's brought in Lin Lin the Panda! She's going to be on vacation here at our zoo. Having a panda will definitely boost our ratings. But, he says, don't mention that this is Lin Lin. It is really, really special that she's going to be here for awhile.

Lin Lin in the rainforest zoo
Oh my god, he kidnapped Lin Lin.

The next zoo is in Russia, the so-called "Sunshine Happiness Zoo". What sunshine, and what happiness? Looking around at the buildings, pipes, chimneys, cooling pools, trash, and the army of metal bear statues left around, we suspect this location is an abandoned steel plant or something of the sort. Maybe a launchpad from the space race. Either case, whatever it was, it looks like it must have also been a school or playground for a while, and now it gets to be a shitty zoo. Well, at least it's not a uranium mine.

The Sunshine Happiness Zoo The army of metal bear statues

A major challenge of this zoo is because it is so cold, being in Siberia and all, and all the animals and the people need heating. And even worse, there's also a hiring freeze. You need to make the underpaid staff happy or they'll leave, and you cannot rehire anyone. If your lone security guard decides enough is enough and quits, you've pretty much lost the game.

And Dominic is doing all of this zoo enterprise as a publicity stunt to polish his reputation, probably after scandals like his former blasphemous casino. This game is going into the issue of philanthropy as a means for rich people to launder their reputations. And money. Dominic needs to take mysteriously large sums from the zoo's books for tax reasons. Yeah. Tax reasons. Yup.

The tiger in the cooling pool

This zoo... well, after doing all the previous zoos with Dominic Myers, this zoo is almost okay. At least he's got wolves in Russia. But he's also got African wild dogs in Russia, freezing their asses off. And a tiger swimming into what appears to be a cooling pool for metal. The whole place looks... incredibly run down. But highly fixable at this point, what with everything we've learned.

After we manage to turn this zoo into a smashing success, Dominic lets us know that we really appreciates us, and we will always have a place at his company!

First thing in the next zoo, we learn that we are fired. We do always have a place. In the outbox. Bye.

Luckily though, we have a new job offer almost immediately. Bernie's daughter Emma wants to create a rival chain of zoos and drive Dominic out of business, so that he can stop destroying zoology.

Emma Goodwin
Bernie's daughter, Emma Goodwin.

Our first assignment with Emma is a sandbox zoo in Nevada. Emphasis on Sand. Emma specifically wants a zoo that is ecologically conscious, powered by all green energy, with diversity of flora, and a breeding program for timber wolves. Although this isn't a requirement, we personally go out of our way to select animals that can tolerate the heat, so we don't have to use up obscene amounts of energy on air conditioning the desert. It's a success!

Next, Emma purchases a zoo in Japan. The previous owner abandoned it in a half-finished and mostly ruined state. Turns out, the owner was none other than Dominic Myers. Of course. We're once again cleaning up one of his messes. But now, with Emma, we're going to turn it into an award-winning zoo!

To be fair to Dominic, and we can't believe we're saying this, the park itself is beautiful. It has very good theming, lots of landscaping (even though most of it is fallen over right now), a sky ride going around, and it has this central boardwalk of shops that is really nice. It will take a long time to find all the issues and fix them, but the underlying structure is good, actually. We can't believe we're saying that Dominic did a good job.

The skyride over the zoo in Japan The central boardwalk in the zoo in Japan

This is a very large project, and one of the zoos on which we've spent the most time. Every single animal enclosure has to be repaired and then prepared for the animal that we choose to put there. Our approach was to go around the zoo, look at the existing enclosures, and figure out what kind of animal would be most suited to the existing frame and the plants inside without having to redo it completely from scratch.

Keep out - or enter.  I'm a sign, not a cop
Unlike in The Simpsons, the signs in the Planet Zoo are impassible.

Because the zoo is so big and such a disaster at the beginning, our strategy was to actually close off the areas that weren't ready yet, and guide the visitors towards the refurbished parts. It is at this point that we learn that the signs in this game are actually functional, rather than decorative. If we put up a "Do not enter" sign, NO ONE will enter. Not one person. If we put up a "Do not feed the animals" sign, the visitors will no longer have the impulse to fling pizza at the ostrich. And if we put up a "Quiet!" sign, they'll immediately hush around the poor aardvark. Wow. We never would have expected the visitors to actually respect the signs. What kind of unbelievably respectful visitors do we have? Then again, they're also the people who will just litter if they don't see a trashcan every three feet. Maybe there needs to be a "Do not litter" sign.

At the very end, Emma officially brings in Lin Lin, who presumably was recovered from her "vacation" to the uranium mine in Brazil. She's now an elderly panda, and this zoo will be her retirement home. Apparently the lifespan of a panda in captivity is 35 years... have we been at this for 35 years? Shh.

Our final assignment is to build a zoo on a small island in New York. Emma paid a lot for the real estate, so space is at a premium here, but we are directly competing with one of Myers' last zoos on the New York mainland, so we have to do better. Even if the plot of land is ridiculously tiny. We have to fit all these animals in this tiny tiny space, but in a good way. We have to be surgically precise and waste no square centimeter. We did a good job, we think.

Emma's New York zoo seen from above All the compatible animals in the same habitat
Prioritizing space efficiency...

This was named the Bernie Goodwin memorial zoo. At the end, Bernie shows up to thank us!

He didn't die! He was just lost and had to spend a month in an igloo. No foul murder actually occurred, although the board of governors (and Dominic Myers) definitely took advantage of the situation. But anyway, the zoos we made with Emma are so good that we do end up putting Myers out of business, and also we are able to prove to Bernie that Emma cares about zoos too, and is a worthy successor to his zoo legacy. Much earlier in the game, Bernie had mentioned that he thought Emma wasn't interested in zoos and really cared more about plants, but turns out, this is not true. She just needed the right opportunity to get really invested in zoos too.

By the way, in the Arctic DLC you can go and make that zoo in the Arctic that Bernie wanted to make before all of this mess.

In conclusion

What I played: Planet Zoo. What I expected: Game with lions. What I got: The death of Bernie! Dominic Myers as the devil! Bears crying! Spiders fucking!

The Career mode of Planet Zoo is much more than we would have ever imagined. It functions as a thorough, fun, and well-made tutorial, in which we get to learn about the many mechanics of this game subtly, by example, without needing to go through a laborious info dump. For example, in one of Myers' zoos he had already set up an exhibit with spiders before we arrived. It won't be long as we play the game that we will realize that the spiders reproduce quickly and plentifully, and that selling the spiders is a great source of income. So, if you are starting out with a new zoo and money is tight, now you know you should start with an exhibit of spiders, and they'll help you earn funds for expanding your zoo.

The plot's structure is in itself useful to teach us how to play the game, in steps. With Nancy, we learn the basic mechanics of the game. The nuts and bolts. Things like, how to make and edit an enclosure, and how to make a path, and what will your staff need to care for the animals.

Bernie teaches us about the grander goals of zoos, both in-universe and out-of-universe. He's all about animal welfare, education, breeding programs. With Bernie, it doesn't matter if we lose money - we are doing this for the greater good. This is both part of his characterization, and simplifies one part of the game for this earlier phase.

While Dominic Myers doesn't personally teach us anything, the situations he puts us in forces us to figure out the management side of this game. How to turn a profit. Even though when we are with Dominic we are crying for the animals, the way he sets up his zoos helps us understand where we need to place income-generating facilities. We see how his zoos have big food court areas and souvenir shops and lots of donation boxes, and we can learn by example. Another thing Dominic Myers unfortunately teaches us is how to work within constraints, and how to fix problems. When we later go into the sandbox mode, we'll surely mess things up, but after we've fixed atrocities of this scale, surely we'll be able to fix our own little boo-boos. And it was very clever of Planet Zoo to introduce a villain to their tutorial, so that we'd learn what is absolutely unacceptable.

Suitably for the last part of the Career mode, Emma's zoos are about putting together all that we've learned before, in challenge mode. Now we must achieve the important goals of animal welfare, but on a budget and in a tight space.

The characters and the overarching plot are fun, and we especially loved to hate Dominic Myers. But most of all, we would have never imagined that a zoo simulation game would even have a plot, let alone one with this level of intrigue. Good job.

Steam Achievement for the Gold Career

We finished the base game's Career mode completely, which awarded us with a Steam achievement… that apparently only 1.5% of players have. We suppose that the other players also didn't guess that the Career mode would be so in-depth and so fun, which is part of why we wanted to write this review. So, take this as our personal recommendation. Also for Planet Zoo in general. It's a great game, and, as of this writing, it's still in active development.