City management has been a part of my gaming habit since puzzling out the often-arcane rules of SimCity as a six-year-old. Tropico came along and delighted me by adding a dash of political simulation and modeling of individual citizens to the mix. Tropico 4 is the best Tropico yet, keeping everything that made the last game excellent while adding several new features and a welcome rebalancing.
Like its predecessors, Tropico 4 puts players in charge of a subsistence-level tropical island. Your mission is typically some variation on turning that ragged band of uneducated peasants into a prosperous society through shrewd urban development, industrial investment, and relieving bored Yanquis of their fat wallets through tourism. Constantly balancing your peoples’ needs and desires for social services and a voice in their own government against economic development and the demands of foreign powers is a big task, but Tropico 4 gives you the tools to pull it off.
Any game with this level of complexity demands a robust interface. If the detailed modeling of everyone and everything on your island is the rock on which Tropico 4 is built, the outstanding UI is the strong foundation that sits on that rock. At any given time, you’ll want to track a few dozen pieces of information. The top-level stuff that isn’t handled on the main view (shacks popping up means you need more housing, while protesting crowds indicate social dysfunction) is quickly visible on the interface itself. Learning something more specific like how much iron is left in a mine, or whether your high school is overstaffed, is as simple as clicking on a building and reading the pop-up. When you have to dig even deeper (and you will; this is a hugely complex game), the Almanac function lets you see detailed breakdowns of everything in your society and even plot graphs over time.
Instead of being thrown into a scenario with only a far-off win condition to guide your city’s development as in previous games, you’re given a constant drip of intermediate goals. Early in the 20-mission campaign these goals will teach you the basics of building a functional Tropican society with the farming, industry, health care, religious appeasement, tourism, and infrastructure that any island needs. Later on, the goals add layers onto what would be a basic “build another booming economy” mission, asking players to step out of their comfort zones and incorporate particular types of tourism or industry into their plans. Optional secondary goals often give you a chance to go out of your way to appease a particular faction, like the capitalists petitioning for a new bank.
The new quick-build option that allows players to dump a lump sum of cash into a building instead of waiting for their construction workers (slackers!) to get around to it is a fantastic tool, especially when you’ve had critical infrastructure leveled by a natural disaster. Paying a few extra thousand dollars isn’t ideal, but it’s much better than having your citizens waste their days walking miles to work until the garage gets rebuilt.
Appointing citizens to your Ministry to serve in your government could have been an interesting addition, but in practice it’s little more than a different artificial gating mechanism for edicts. The Ministry fails to add any more personality to your populace, instead piling on even more administrative overhead for no real gain.
As much as I love Tropico 4, it does little to address legacy design issues that the series has struggled with for years. The interface doesn’t communicate ongoing costs very well when you’re deciding how to develop your island, meaning you can spend your starting pile of cash on a bunch of buildings that drain your treasury year after year without producing much in return. Getting stuck in a rut is still easy when you’re just barely breaking even economically but don’t have enough spare cash to move forward. Austerity options like reducing maintenance costs by dropping service quality exist, but they’re buried deep enough that you could play for hundreds of hours and never think to use them.
The audio presentation also needs to improve. Haemimont got rid of the unpopular radio announcer from Tropico 3, but the replacement radio shows aren’t any more listenable. The addition of a female avatar for your dictator is great, but her voiceovers are so terrible that even women will likely prefer playing as a dude. The music lasted all of one scenario before I muted it, not because it’s bad but because I can only listen to the same handful of Latin dance music tracks for about 40 minutes at a time. After my first few hours with the game, I played with the radio and soundtrack off and improved my experience quite a bit.
Tropico 4 is Tropico 3.5 in a lot of ways – but they’re a lot of really good ways. The improvements over the last game read like a fan’s wishlist, and Tropico 3 was a great game to start with. The revamped goal structure is a fantastic teaching tool for players new to the series as well as being a welcome addition for veterans. Tourism being a viable money-maker is fantastic; it’s still outstripped by heavy industry but not as obscenely as before. Tropico 4 is the top simulation game I’ll be recommending to genre newbies and fans alike.
(Note: This review pertains only to the PC version. The Xbox 360 version, which comes out September 27, will be reviewed separately at a later date.)