December is a slow month for new games, so over the next few weeks we’ll look back at notable Fall releases that we haven’t reviewed yet. Today J.P. Grant reviews the banana republic simulator Tropico 4.
El Presidente never gets a break. In Tropico 4, the latest installment of Bulgarian developer Haemimont Games’s Caribbean city-building series, you hardly get a moment to think before some new demand requires your attention. Construction on your new logging camp has barely wrapped when the environmentalist complaints start pouring in. The Church wants you to ban alcohol, but wealthy tourists won’t party in dry nightclubs. And honestly, who cares what country the USSR invaded? Sure, Senator, I’ll condemn the attack—as long as you keep those aid dollars flowing.
Tropico 4, like its predecessors, is an exercise in balancing competing interests. You can’t increase security without threatening liberty. Praise the capitalists and you risk pissing off your Soviet benefactors. Issuing the Social Security edict will earn you citizens’ respect but deplete your Treasury. Just ask Congress: in government, everything is a trade-off.
The simulation model in Tropico 4 is as deep and addictive as it’s always been. As El Presidente, you guide your banana republic from squalor to renown against the backdrop of a cartoonish Cold War setting. It’s easy to see why this series is catnip for micromanagers: your ability to control the flow of time, and to peer into the opinions and needs of each individual Tropican, inform your strategy. In both the campaign’s 20 island-hopping missions and the more freeform Sandbox mode, your primary goal is to remain in power, despite whatever obstacles—natural disasters, rebellions, invasions, market crashes—the game throws at you. You do so by growing your island’s economy, issuing domestic and foreign policy edicts, and building structures designed to keep your people happy—or at least squarely under your thumb.
Like in Tropico 3, the sinister undertones of totalitarian oppression and corruption in Tropico 4 are largely offset by the tongue-in-cheek tone. It’s hard to read much menace into objectives when they’re delivered by a jowly caricature of Richard Nixon. And although you can choose a notorious dictator like Fidel Castro or Manuel Noriega for your avatar, it’s often more satisfying to play the benevolent leader than the ruthless tyrant. Sure, arranging an “accident” for one of your detractors is good for a lark every once in a while. But in a game so heavily focused on building, it often feels self-defeating to play destructively. This is your island, after all. And you can’t keep building if all the builders are in prison.
As in any political sim, keeping all parties happy (or at least non-violent) means flitting between tasks like a bee between flowers. Tropico 4’s retooled objective system, which pops up periodic tasks in addition to your main goals, ensures you stay busy, whether that’s building luxury hotels, exporting canned pineapple, or squashing rebellions. While the variety is fun, it also contributes to a more frantic pace than in Tropico 3, steepening the learning curve. The thinness of the tutorial missions doesn’t help, especially in the console environment, which is not known for its friendliness to strategy titles.
The transition to the Xbox 360 hasn’t hurt the game in terms of presentation, though. Tropico 4’s terrific Latin soundtrack perfectly suits the rhythm of play, lending a festive flavor to the routine tasks of planning, building, and monitoring your island. The bright, colorful visuals don’t hurt either, especially since they scale so well to the camera’s zoom level. The voice acting is uneven at best, but generally more endearing than irritating, especially since the dialogue is often charmingly satirical. This game is pretty to look at and listen to. That makes a big difference in the strategy genre, which can sometimes feel like a series of spreadsheets thinly masked by a map.
Of course, plucking a Tropico game out of its native PC habitat doesn’t come without its share of issues. While the camera controls relatively smoothly, it’s also slow. The menu interface, a key feature of any simulation game, is a surprisingly intuitive radial affair, easily mastered in less than an hour. Yet navigating sub-menus with the Xbox controller’s miserable D-pad feels like trudging through molasses. That’s quite a sticking point in a game that relies so heavily on paging through reams of information.
Information truly is power in Tropico. But while Tropico 4’s simulation model is more complex than ever before, the information you need can remain maddeningly invisible. It’s tough to tell, for example, when a garage is getting close to capacity, or exactly when crop cycles begin and end. Citizens’ behavior often feels mercurial: unsightly shacks crop up all over the island even when plenty of cheap apartments are available, workers abandon jobs despite high wages and easy conditions. Pausing time to issue building orders and adjust wages can keep you afloat, but the constant need to stop and tinker eventually begins to feel more like work than fun.
That threshold is probably common to every city-builder. But with finely-tuned innovation in a few mechanics, it can be overcome. In Tropico 4’s case, there’s not enough deviation from the formula of Tropico 3 to truly qualify it as a sequel in anything other than title. (The fact that the content of presidential speeches is almost entirely recycled is another knock.) There are new buildings to build, like a roller coaster and aqua park, but they’re generally so expensive and far up the tech tree they’re not worth it. A few new mechanics add complexity, but not necessarily interesting complexity. While the new building upgrade options are welcome, especially for industrial structures, having to purchase blueprints for certain buildings (or wait for foreign powers to gift them to you) is a nuisance, particularly in the early game. Adding the Middle East, EU, and China factions to the US-USSR foreign power struggle feels superfluous, especially since they don’t give you yearly financial aid. And the point of the Swiss Bank Account—El Presidente’s secret offshore account where you can hoard stolen cash—still eludes me. There’s no reward for it other than a high score. Given that your avatar ranks up in various qualities as you progress through missions, it feels like a missed opportunity to not be able to spend that stash on upgrades.
At times, playing Tropico 4 feels like running a business. You get the sense it’s more about your balance sheet than anything else; managing cash flow becomes your major goal. With a big enough Treasury, though, nearly every obstacle can be easily overcome. Maybe this is one simulation game that feels a little too real.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamers With Jobs, and other outlets. He blogs about games at http://infinitelag.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter at @johnpetergrant.