Oh Tropico. You attracted me with your full-featured exterior and fun-loving personality, but I remain because you’re really rather smart on the inside too.
Tropico 4 is might be a disappointment to anyone with Tropico 3. It’s a full priced game, and yet it offers little more than its predecessor that wouldn’t be amiss in an expansion pack. Some new edicts (perks), buildings, and a new campaign (well, two given the inclusion of the “Modern Times” DLC). It’s more of the same, in other words. If you’ve played through number 3, you know if it’s worth getting number 4. For the rest of this review, I’ll look at the game from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the series (which is just as well as we’ve never reviewed Tropico 3 here).
Tropico 4 then is a city-building game. You’re given a tropical island paradise to destroy, pollute with industry, and generally line your pockets with as much money as possible whilst keeping the inhabitants happy and/or suppressed. There’s more in common here with the Anno series than SimCity, but Tropico’s unique spin is to indulge your inner megalomaniac by giving you a dictator avatar within the game, with a private Swiss bank account to satisfy in addition to the needs of your people.
You are El Presidente (you can select from a bunch of different dictator avatars, each with different bonuses, though some seem innately more useful than others) and in the course of each of the 20 campaign missions (with a further 8 in the included Modern Times) you must grow a sprawling metropolis of commerce, industry, and tourism from next to nothing, using the great number of tools at your disposal.
At the most basic level, you have farms that produce a specific type of crop. These are used to feed your populous (aside from farms that produce tobacco, for instance), but any surplus can be exported to increase your treasury. As you progress, you’ll have ever-increasing options for producing goods to sell (as well as other ways to feed your citizens), the most valuable of which are created by chaining different industries together, such as having a salt mine, a fishery, and a cannery, allowing you to export canned fish (just having the requisite buildings seems to be all you need to do, there’s no way to actually ensure that resources get used for a particular purpose, which cuts down on the micromanagement, but does mean that it’s anyone’s guess as to how a production line will actually run). You also have the option of importing goods you require for production, though in most cases it’s usually possible to build factories that use resources you already produce. Every once in a while a freighter will dock at your port and whisk away goods for export, and your treasury balance will increase. Everything else is about logistics and managing the society.
The logistics aspect is probably the weakest part of the game’s design. It’s simple and sensible in concept, but seemingly impossible to manage in practice. Teamsters transport goods around the island, which is most important for getting goods to and from docks. They require cars, which are produced by building garages, and roads (though not strictly necessary, these will reduce the time to get from one place to another). The otherwise helpful tutorial explains all of this, as well as making you aware that employing too many teamsters is a waste of resources. How many teamsters is too many? After hours spent playing through the game, I still don’t know. You’ll get prompted to build additional garages every now and then, and on very rare conditions you’ll be alerted when a building that needs to be connected to a road isn’t (strangely, many buildings, such as apartments and hospitals, don’t need to be connected to a road), but never alerted to an imbalance of teamsters. And this seems to be true of every staffed building in the game: you never truly know if you’ve gotten the balance right, and so my strategy throughout the game was just to throw down more buildings when it “felt” right.
And then there’s construction. Like other games, in Tropico you’ll need to pay for a building at the time you start construction (a nice feature is that you need to pay for “blueprints” to be able to build certain buildings before constructing them), but the difference here is that they might never get built. Sometimes this might be that the construction offices (that supply the builders required to actually construct anything) are already tasked with doing something else, sometimes there’s a strike (which at least makes sense, even if you’re not in a position to do anything about it), and sometimes… well I have no idea. There were occasions where I had several construction offices scattered around the island, and still nothing was built, and there was no way to find out why. This would have been more frustrating, were it not for the fact that you can instantly build anything, if you don’t mind parting with the cash. It’s an interesting mechanic, and it sure does throw a spanner in your plans, but I’d have liked more information as to what I could have done better.
The Sim-like Tropicans, on the other hand, provide you with an abundance of information. Click on any single person wandering around on the map, and you can learn everything about them, including everything they’ve done that day, how content they are in any number of metrics, as well as what they’re thinking and who they plan to vote for. Fortunately, much of this data is summarised in the game’s “almanac”, which aggregates the overall happiness of the citizens (this is further aggregated as a single “happiness” percentage under the mini-map) and ends up being a rather useful tool, even though it was a good few hours before I’d figured out how to understand all the data there effectively.
The needs of your citizens are many: quality food and housing, religion and healthcare, and liberty and low crime to name just a few. Each of these needs can be satisfied with a corresponding building type, so a Tropican whose “entertainment” level is low can be appeased by building a Cinema complex nearby. Happy citizens are more likely to vote for you in the elections that happen at regular intervals, and losing an election means losing the game. So you can see where this is going.
For all the attempts that the game makes to paint you as a dictator, you do actually have to spent a lot of time keeping your citizens happy, as well as those of the various factions they belong to. There are several such factions in the game, covering ideologies such as intellectualism, environmentalism and religion, with each having a leader that periodically makes demands of you, to build a cathedral for example, or improve housing quality. Upset too many of them, and you’ll be more likely to lose the next election, although you can also make use of various “edicts” to improve relations, such as issuing a contraceptive ban to increase your standing with the religious faction, or just going all-out and bribing all the faction leaders. Somewhat disappointingly, it’s entirely possible to keep all of the factions happy at a given moment, despite many of them having opposing aims from each other, so it never feels like the juggling act it perhaps should.
Finally, there’s your standing with foreigners, which comes in the form of tourism (a kind of sub-resource, requiring specific building types to attract specific types of tourist) and foreign powers and super-powers. Most notable are the USA and USSR super-powers, who actually provide you with financial aid at regular intervals (the amount based on how much they like you), but perhaps more important is when they turn on you, imposing trade sanctions, or worse, attempting to invade. All the foreign powers, including the minor ones (such as Europe and the Middle East) will offer quests to complete periodically for various rewards. Later you can construct a stock exchange, which allows the foreign powers to invest in your island by providing certain types of buildings (though you’ll need to provide resources such as power, and you won’t profit from them).
If there’s a glaring flaw with the game, it’s one that most citybuilding games share: you get to a point where your island is a well-oiled machine, indulge in a moment of satisfaction, and then have nothing to do. To be fair, in the campaign mode, you’re working towards a specific goal, and once that goal is reached, it’s on to the next one. There are also periodic natural disasters, such as drought, tornados, volcanos and even tsunamis, but these tend to be much more devastating in the early game than the late game, when you’ve built an infrastructure to deal with such problems. They also lack the awe-inspiring destructive power of the disasters in the SimCity series, so after a while they just become minor annoyances to contend with.
The same seems to be true of finding an overarching strategy and sticking to it. Early on I discovered that just creating lots of farms early on was a sure path to victory (since they are used for growth, happiness and commerce and don’t require skilled workers), so in most cases that was the approach I took.
That said, there’s an interesting “Swiss bank account” mechanic in the game. At various points, you have the option to divert funds away from the treasury and into El Presidente’s private account. The only purpose of this (at least until you get to the Modern Times campaign) is to give you a score at the end, so at least there’s some replayability in trying to improve your score each time. Beyond the campaign, there’s a “sandbox” mode, and a “challenges” mode that lets you play user-created scenarios.
Some of the game’s systems are not explained very well, for example things like liberty and environmental considerations are not properly covered in the game’s tutorial, and although there are several handy analytical tools available during the game, such as the various “heat-map” style overlays, you’re more likely to find these through exploration rather than deliberately. Other annoyances include not knowing how to place certain structures, such as the fisherman’s wharf, which requires a specific orientation, and the correct area of placement is not highlighted like it is for other resource-generating buildings. With all the information the game gives you, the sore point is that you’ll undoubtedly find things that you want to know but can’t.
I went into Tropico 4 not expecting it to get hooked as easily as I did. As it is, I enjoyed the many hours spent playing through the campaign (I actually enjoyed the Modern Times campaign more, but probably because it amped things up a little more on the crazy scale). In terms of things to tweak and fiddle, SimCity 4 remains superior in my opinion, as does Anno 2070 in terms of building a thriving commodity-based economy. Neither of those games are available on Mac OS though, and so it’s easy for me to crown Tropico 4 the king of citybuilders available for the Mac today.
Performance & Quality
Though I had no issues running the game, the anti-aliasing settings (available both in the game’s launcher, and the options screen) didn’t seem to have any effect, with things (particularly foliage) looking aliased no matter which settings were used.
The game is visually quite pretty (it helps that it’s a tropical island after all) and you can zoom a surprising way in and see little details (you can zoom quite a long way out too, and there’s no appreciable frame drop).
The sound is rather wonderful, with periodic (often hilarious) broadcasts featuring the characters within the game. A rather nice touch is that the campaign is voiced by a male if your avatar is male, and female if she’s female. The only negative is the soundtrack, which is fantastic the first couple of times you hear it, but after that you’ll probably turn it off completely.
The Windows version of the game includes a “Challenge Editor” which is seemingly absent from the Mac version, although it is still possible to play challenges that others have created, which give you a starting point and a set of constraints to try and work against.