Viva El Presidente! Currently running for his fourth term in office (or third, if you don’t count the markedly different Tropico 2: Pirate Cove), he’s clearly doing something right. The city-builder series is going strong, and I have no qualms in stating that Tropico 4 is the best yet.
Bear that in mind when I start being mean to it, won’t you? It’ll all make sense, in the end.
Tropico 4 is familiar territory for El Presidente. You’re the dictator of an island in the Caribbean. It’s your job to build up what begins as a series of tiny hovels (and your grand palace) into a powerful economy through a variety of means, while appeasing the island’s factions as best you can and lining your Swiss bank account with embezzled cash. As those factions are generally pretty opposed to one another and can make your life hell, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
Still, as the tinpot dictator of a banana republic you’ve got plenty of tools of your own: put money from each construction or export product into your own pocket, start up your own daily TV show to make the people love you, or – if worst comes to the worst – call in the Secret Police to deal with troublemakers. All played for laughs, of course; this is a comical game and the colourful atmosphere, catchy Salsa music, and strict adherence to amusing stereotypes immediately betray the game’s light-hearted nature.
The most noticeable thing about Tropico 4 when compared to its predecessors is the vast improvement in presentation. The almanac – font of all detailed knowledge about how your island is going, who hates you, and what problems you have – is now far more legible. Credit for this is shared between the replacement of the EYE-STRAINING BLOCK CAPITALS FOR EVERY PIECE OF TEXT with a clear and legible font and a few other little tweaks, like positive ratings being shown in green while negatives are clearly marked in red.
The entire interface is cleaner, in fact. Gone, too, is the construction bar at the bottom of the screen, replaced with a pop-up interface activated with the right mouse button. Most of the relevant information is displayed directly without taking up too much real estate, from your current objectives through to how much cash you have on hand and the happiness of the general populace.
But perhaps my favourite of the new touches is the personality. Every character, from faction leaders to foreign ambassadors, has a caricatured picture and a ludicrously stereotyped voiceover. US Senator (and thinly-veiled Nixon stand-in) Nick Richards is a personal favourite, but your sycophantic second-in-command Penultimo (sharing DJing duties for the game’s radio station, this time around) also has his moments.
Let’s face it, though: this is all window-dressing. The meat of the game is in how it plays.
There are three major changes, and the first is that of industry. This time around you can import materials to the island, which is tremendously helpful and provides another way to make a profit. Rather than setting up farms, ranches, and lumber mills to get raw materials you can simply build factories, choose to import the iron/lumber/gold/whatever, and then sell the manufactured products at a higher price. Three new foreign powers (the EU, the Middle East, and China) have been added to take advantage of this function, with each wanting different products, offering different bonuses in return, and favouring different types of island. The Middle East has little time for islands full of churches and cathedrals, while China will love you if you import their high-priced luxury goods.
The second is that of tourism, which has also become a viable source of income. Unlike Tropico 3 entertainment buildings now get you cash, so you can finance your dictatorship by building a variety of tourist traps in picturesque areas. The combination of this and the resource importing gives you a variety of new ways to finance your island.
The third big change is that of the missions. You’ve now got Foreign and National missions that pop up as juicy, clickable, spinning exclamation marks, and five can be active at any one time. Many of these are contextual based on who hates you at any given time (the Environmentalists are fond of giving me missions to plant gardens, or to abolish newspapers on the basis that trees are your friends, and you shouldn’t want to read the news on the corpses of your friends) in exchange for a quick reputation boost.
Some, however, are specific to whichever campaign map you’re on, and these are the interesting ones. Having active missions tracked in the bottom-right corner of the screen gives you a quick reminder of what you’re doing, why, and how you’re getting on with it, and it gives a much greater feeling of involvement.
For that matter there’s actually a story running through the game, and thanks to the sheer weight of personality it’s surprisingly involving. While mission objectives might still be “Build 2 of X building” or “Amass Y amount of cash”, the reasons you’re doing them make them feel fresh and innovative. It’s one thing to build a nuclear program because the game tells you you’ll win the map if you do so, and quite another to build a nuclear program so you can annex Mars to win an award for being the largest nation. This goes double when the person giving the awards is a smarmy cow, and it’ll give you the chance to rub her face in your magnificence.
Unfortunately this doesn’t help Tropico 4 avoid the problems that beset Tropico 3, and this is where we’re going to take a turn for the negative.
While you’re doing interesting things for amusing characters, it doesn’t change the fact that you really are doing the same thing in every single mission. You start with a few crappy buildings, and spend the first five minutes building up the basics of your economy (be it tourism, industry, resource harvesting, or a combination of the three).
You plonk down a Church and a Clinic, and maybe a Police Station, and then start to expand in exactly the same way as in every previous mission… only you’re paying attention to a few twists based on the theme of the map and the missions available. It gets very, very samey after the first four or five maps of the 20-level campaign.
And that leads into the second problem with Tropico 4: it’s eerily similar to its predecessor. In personality and interface it outshines it by an order of magnitude; that much is true. But, while there’s been some rebalancing and some tweaking, and while you have a choice as to your economic focus, it’s very reminiscent of Tropico 3 with the Absolute Power expansion. There are no new edicts with which to flex your presidential (El Presidente-ial?) power. Your choice of economy boils down to which series of buildings you’re plonking down and which rough build order you’re following. And maybe it’s just me, but barring certain island events, I’ve never had too much trouble making every faction adore me at the same time.
So there’s a snag: much as this is the best Tropico game yet, and much as it’s full of character and humour and fun, it also feels more like Tropico 3.5 than it does a completely new game. It runs far better than its predecessor (even my coal-powered machine had no issues with it, and the same can’t be said for Tropico 3), the user interface is far superior, the new map editor is far more powerful than the previous, and the game on the whole much easier for beginners to get to grips with… but how much worth it has to you is dependant on how much time you’ve spent with previous titles.
For newcomers to the series, there’s never been a better place to start – the tutorials on offer here are better than ever before, and it’s a much easier game to get to grips with. Those who didn’t buy the Absolute Power expansion for Tropico 3 will find a fair number of extra enhancements, too, like some unfamiliar edicts. I’d heartily recommend it to these people over even its cheaper, similar predecessor.
But those who played both Tropico 3 and Absolute Power may not be so enamoured. The major improvements are mostly in the appearance and the style rather than in the way the game actually plays, and I’m not convinced that tweaked mechanics, some new buildings, and a truckload of personality make it worth full price for those who played Absolute Power to death. Tropico 4 is a fantastic game, there’s no denying it, but its core audience is the one that’s likely to be most disappointed with it.