If you keep even half an eye on delightful construction game Planet Zoo, you’ll know that developers Frontier tend to release a DLC pack for it every quarter, bringing a bunch of fresh animals into the game from a particular region of the globe. Whenever that happens, I tend to make what could charitably be called a concept zoo, in order to show off the new arrivals in the best possible light.
Since this week’s DLC introduces an octet of animals from North America, there was only one conceivable way to exhibit them: an awkward combination of zoo, performance art and poundshop Westworld, displaying the majesty of nature alongside recreations of sets from the legendary TV show Deadwood. Let’s have a little walk around town, shall we?
Before we get into the tour proper, a little note of sincerity. If you like the idea of Planet Zoo but have been holding out on it so far, I’d honestly recommend you jump in now. Frontier have been dropping a free update alongside every animal pack, comprising a bunch of feature tweaks and quality of life fixes, and the 1.5 update accompanying the North America pack is a crucial one.
Until 1.5, you could only ever start a zoo on a huge, featureless, flat plot of land. Sure, you could use landscaping tools to make mountains and rivers on these weird abysses - but doing so took forever, and often ended in tears. Now, however, there are loads of preset sculpted plots available to build on, as well as versions of the gorgeous maps from Planet Zoo’s career mode scenarios, and I cannot adequately express how much it has increased my appetite to play the game. There’s nothing worse than a blank canvas, after all, and I will not miss the headache of trying to build an ape jail ex nihilo, without so much as a hill to work around.
Now, as the great Ian McShane once famously said, “Welcome to fucken Deadwood”.
I think the main thing I wanted to capture with this zoo was a real sense of rancid wild-west squalor. As such, all the paths are buried two foot deep in mounds of dung and straw, there are bleak yellow puddles all over the place, and there are no bins whatsoever. Since the zoo’s built in the middle of the desert, it’s also punishingly hot, and there’s no aircon, anywhere.
I honestly spent quite a long time just relishing the sight of guests running excitedly through the entrance gates, before immediately getting bogged down to their shins in a sea of detritus. Every single customer seemed to have aged about twenty years by the time they’d waded to the welcome centre modelled on E.B. Farnum’s famous hotel, groaning and mopping festering sweat from their brows. Lovely stuff.
Luckily, there are refreshments on hand. Immediately after passing the welcome centre, guests are confronted with the immensity of Al Swearengen’s Gem Saloon. There, they can huddle around torches in a hideous wooden cave, knocking back beaker after beaker of astringent, body-temperature monster juice from one of the four whiskey shops on site.
There are animals, too. The Gem’s back rooms host a colony of Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs, who also have the run of a vast yard full of piss and turds outside. Somehow, by blind luck, the animals proved to be delighted by this situation the second their keepers upended them into the mire.
Apparently they’re quite entertaining too: customers gather in great, gawping packs on the balcony above their yard, and by the glass wall of their shelter (which also features a mural of Trixie Star holding a gun to a gorilla, for some reason; this is visible in the header image).
Down the street from the Gem, there’s an incredibly sinister scene featuring a butcher-shop hovel, and a desolate yard containing a single moose and a load of broken wheelbarrows. Once again, this animal is improbably ecstatic with its surroundings, despite the fact it sleeps under a sheet of battered tin and probably eats nails for breakfast. Who knows - perhaps its spirit is buoyed by the billboard of Deadwood’s eerie handyman Richardson, giving a double thumbs up as he sinks into a pond full of wee.
I’ve yet to provide housing for the California Sealion, the Arctic Fox, the Beaver, the Cougar, or the American Alligator from the new DLC. Nevertheless, there is one more of the new animals housed in my masterpiece-in-progress, and it’s the best of the lot: The American Bullfrog.
Naturally, these absolute marsh lords deserve pride of place in my Deadwood shrine/zoo, and so I’ve installed them in two stout tanks, within Al Swearengen’s office on the mezzanine floor of the Gem. I figure it’s what he would have wanted. Maybe? Anyway, in order to keep the frog exhibits tied in with the theme of the place, I’ve upholstered their back walls with immersive murals of two of the most harrowing moments from Deadwood - Al gurning in agony from a kidney stone, and two massive brutes strangling each other in some mud. It was quite a thing to zoom in on a bullfrog, floating despondently at a 45 degree angle, and staring up at the puce snarl of the gruesome mercenary known only as The Captain.
Now, where to put those alligators...