Review: Tropico 4

Before we start, a confession: I’m not really into sim games. The last one I seriously played was probably Theme Hospital. And that was fifteen years ago.

But Tropico 5 (yes, five) caught my eye on the Mac App Store. SimCity titles are regularly promoted on the front page, but never appealed, however this looked a little different with its Banana Republic dictator and immediately apparent sense of humour.

Unfortunately the reviews told a different story, fairly unanimously saying one thing: Tropico 4 was better. So for £11.99 (it has since been as low as £7.99), the decision to instead buy the previous title in the series was easy.

Being my first venture into the world of Caribbean dictatorship, I was expecting a steep learning curve. Luckily there are a few tutorial missions, although you might find yourself searching the Internet later in the game for some of the specifics of the buildings and effects that your actions have.

The game itself is a fairly simple premise. Over the course of 20 missions (plus 12 extra missions in the Modern Times expansion pack), you play as El Presidente, the head of the state of Tropico. You rule over various maps trying to use your power to bring back wealth and prosperity to your nation.

Whether he is a ruthless dictator, money-making machine or generous leader to his population, it is up to you to decide – and indeed finding the balance is the art of the gameplay.

The simplest way to fund your island’s treasury is by exporting goods

The missions themselves vary over the course of a reasonable story arc, although generally the main focus is to make money in order to construct various buildings, while keeping the various factions of people on the island happy. You can also siphon money off into El Presidente’s own Swiss bank account, although this only serves to increase your high-score and has no direct effect on gameplay.

The simplest way to fund your island’s treasury is by exporting goods. Early on these will be simple crops or mined resources, but later you can build factories to turn your goods in higher value exports.

You are also able to import goods from other countries to replenish your stocks or feed your people if you are short of food. There are many directions you can take for your island, from tourist hotspot to an industry giant, but beware – whatever you do is sure to upset at least one of the island’s factions.

The factions themselves (Capitalists, Communists, Intellectuals, Religious, Militarists, Environmentalists, Nationalists and Loyalists) each have their own agendas and needs, often conflicting with one another. Build a factory, for example, and Capitalists will be delighted but the Environmentalists probably not.

Keeping everyone happy is far from easy, but as the game goes on it soon becomes more apparent who you can get away with neglecting for a while and what needs more immediate attention. The biggest threats to your reign (and therefore can potentially end your current mission) are military coups, rebel attacks and, of course, losing public elections – although none are that troublesome to avoid.

Indeed, there were only two occasions that I ‘lost’ the game throughout the whole playing time, with the first being early on before I understood the impact of rebels. Ironically the second was a military coup, misjudging the consequences of an unhappy army and too few loyalists to protect your palace.

In fact, it’s fair to say the game itself is far too easy. Maybe I’m particularly conservative with my stategy, but I never really struggled throughout. As long as you play to each island’s strengths it becomes fairly procedural in the end. You soon realise that housing and environmental issues, although important, won’t have a huge impact on happiness for a while, whereas lack of food and money to play with certainly will.

There aren’t many situations that a bit of money in the bank can’t sort out

Sticking to a strategy of building plentiful farms and mines, and keeping exports high early on, reaps enough financial rewards which should see you right for the whole of a mission. Similarly, once you can afford one, building a factory gives such a steady source of income that you can slowly build up a cash reserve to help you out of trouble.

There aren’t many situations that a bit of money in the bank can’t sort out. Losing an election? Issue the Tax Cut edict and gain lots of voters. Environmental complaints? Build some cheap gardens or, even better, a garbage dump. Religious faction unhappy? Construct a new church. Essentially, keep your bank balance out of the red and you should win the game.

The missions do throw up some interesting twists though; the ones focussing on tourism and imports offered different challenges, particularly when combined with time restraints. In addition the game’s constant humour is the main thing that keeps it ticking. As a true sim it might be lacking, but it does everything else with its tongue firmly in its cheek.

The main source of the humour comes from your right-hand man Penultimo. He’s a devoted El Presidente fanboy and appears in many of your mission objectives. He also pops up alongside environmentalist Sunny Flowers on ‘Tropico News Today’– an eccentric radio station that plays at various intervals informing you of events around the island.

There are a handful of other main characters from both Tropico and abroad that interact with you throughout the game, all of which have their own quirks. Being critical, you could say most are awkward stereotypes (the skinhead Nationalist, the big-toothed Chinese leader, the eccentric posh Englishman), but on the whole the humour is in the right place.

As for the quality of the game itself, it will entirely depend on your machine. My 2011 iMac (2.7 GHz i5, 20GB RAM), ran perfectly full screen on the top settings, but my 2009 MacBook Pro (2.26 GHz, 4GB RAM) struggled on even the lowest.

Run on a decent Mac though, the game looks incredible. The graphics are seriously good, and although you’ll want to play most of the game from a high vantage point, zooming down to street level is simply beautiful. The amount of fine detail in both the buildings and citizens is amazing, and this is where Tropico really excels.

Indeed, this level of detail is carried through to the gameplay too. Although I played most of the game on top speed (all except the natural disasters where you need a certain level of control), you can slow things right down and watch your people at work and play in real-time, and even drill into each Tropician’s whole life statistics, emotions and family connections if you so desire.

Of course while this view into the minutiae is fantastic, it is completely unnecessary to the main gameplay. With islands regularly having several hundreds of citizens after a few years, you can’t possibly remember or interact with every person.

Frustratingly, with this part of the game being so detailed, there’s some other aspects that have been undercooked. Teamsters and garages are a particular mystery and it seems neither the game’s tutorials, advisors or even the Internet seems to know exactly how many are needed and where. Similarly, there’s a real lack of information about why and when construction workers will build, although the ‘quick build’ feature can ease the pain in the late game, albeit at some expense.

Crucially, there’s also a real lack of control over financial matters

Government issues too are equally as puzzling: The differing skill level of ministers seems to have little effect, their only use being to unlock certain edicts. Indeed, the edicts themselves are confusing and overdone; you will only ever need a handful of them.

Crucially, there’s also a real lack of control over financial matters. Although your trusty almanac (a multi-page guide to literally ever statistic about your island) provides information about imports and exports, there’s no method to control or change prices. Similarly, you can build multiple docks to transport goods to and from Tropico – and while you can set import limits, there’s a distinct lack of clarity about what is moving when and where.

Despite these criticisms however, the gameplay is highly addictive for the most part. Much like other strategy games, it’s hard to know when to put it down – you can easily find yourself playing ‘just a few more minutes’ for hours on end. It must be said though that after completing the missions – some of which were like going through the motions towards the end – the sandbox mode was of no appeal to me.

There are various user-made challenges too, but again these mainly revolve around getting stupidly high scores. Unfortunately, once you reach a certain point with your methodology, the gameplay is very formulaic and you are merely waiting for time to pass to accumulate an infinite bank balance.

Modern Times

The same can be said of the extra content too. While the Modern Times expansion pack (included in the Mac App Store version) adds 12 extra missions, the storyline is nowhere near as interesting.

The idea is good in principal – as you move through time the game reflects real world events which have different effects on your island’s economy and resources. Extra buildings from each modern era are available too, but unfortunately these only add to the simplicity of the game.

Many are like a sledgehammer to the difficulty level – Bio Farms produce masses of crops that would take a regular farm years; likewise Borehole Mines dig up resources at lightning rates; and Solar Power Plants give huge amounts of power for little expense. Additional edicts are also available, but if you ever need to use them – save for when required to complete an objective – I’d be surprised.

Unfortunately after playing the regular missions, this makes Modern Times a walk in the park. Even more add-ons are available as DLC from the Mac App Store, but given these cost £8.49 for only three or four extra missions and a handful of new buildings each, you’d be well advised to give them a miss.

That’s not to take anything away from the regular game though. It’s no classic, but will certainly take over your life for plenty of hours until the difficulty curve drops off. There’s plenty of laughs to keep you entertained alongside the incredible visuals, which makes for an entertaining dictatorial experience, whether it be watching the fireworks light up your city from a mountain top, or executing citizens at will. The choice is yours; it’s always sunny in Tropico.