Another Turn In The Eternal Revolution
PC gaming may or may not be dying, but the sad truth of the matter is that the city building simulation genre is not what it once was. Back in “the day” games like Sim City and Caesar were ubiquitous on gamers’ computers. That was then, and this is, of course, now. The city building genre is currently an amalgam of the mediocre and the ultra-complex. The Tropico series has always bucked that trend, with a blend of visually interesting, approachable yet deep gameplay, set in a unique scenario.
Apart from Tropico 2, which had the player build up a pirate civilization, the series has always focused on having the player fill the shoes of a Caribbean island dictator (read: Fidel Castro). 2009’s Tropico 3 was the real break-out point for the series, combining an excellent visual style with deep and rewarding gameplay. It was also pretty much the only game in town if you wanted a quality city building sim. Just released this last week, Tropico 4 looks to improve on Tropico 3’s success, but are its improvements substantial or simply incremental? Read on to find out.
Tropico 4, like its predecessors, is a city building game in which the player rules over an island nation. The goal of the game is to successfully build up the island while managing the needs of the citizenry, the political support of various factions, the demands of foreign nations, and responding to other sudden threats such as natural disasters or rebel uprisings. Once again, Bulgarian developer Haemimont Games developed the game, and Kalypso Media published it.
At first glance, and certainly to a newcomer, Tropico 4 looks great. The game runs well, even at its highest settings, on mid-range machines. The graphics are beautiful, the game has a great art style, and the user interface is very approachable. Even the music is fantastic, combining humorous DJ voiceovers with pumpin’ Caribbean jams. So why has the games media given Tropico 4 a hard time? And why am I not just going to leave this review by saying “It’s great! Go get it?” Well, as it turns out, it isn’t clear, at least at first, if the game is all that much of an improvement over Tropico 3, and thus worth the $40 price of admission.
Some Shocking Similarities
To be clear, the two games are very similar. So much so that it seems shocking. Tropico 4 apes major aspects of Tropico 3. The two games are nearly identical when it comes to things like the main menu, the basic graphical design, the loading screen quotes, and even most of the building options. In fact, and I am not exaggerating here, Tropico 3 actually has slightly better graphics than Tropico 4. I had to play both to really believe it, but it’s true. Don’t get me wrong, Tropico 4 looks great, but Tropico 3’s textures had greater detail. Even so, Tropico 4 runs significantly better at higher settings, much in the way Crysis 2 runs smoother than the original Crysis: they toned down the graphics at the highest end to make the game play better on more computers.
Now, Tropico 4 is not, of course, an exact duplicate of Tropico 3. The developers did make some substantial improvements to the building interface, making it much simpler to select the necessary items you wish to build. This interface improvement comes with the added benefit of being able to access more and better detailed information much more easily than in Tropico 3. Put simply, it’s easier to get things done in Tropico 4. The developers also upped the number of dictators the player can choose to play as, and gave players greater options to custom build their own home-made despot. The game has also added the ability to appoint a political cabinet, and has even added in a very minor RPG system, whereby your custom dictator can improve his or her skills in between the campaign’s missions.
More Than Just Tropico 3.5
So yes, the game definitely improves on its predecessor in direct and meaningful ways, but these aren’t the reasons you should buy it. The real improvement comes in the game’s core campaign. You see, one of the biggest complaints I (and others) had about Tropico 3 and the previous games in the series was that the missions seemed dull, lifeless, and lacked direction. Sure, the previous games had campaigns where you would hop from one island to the next, being tasked with producing X amount of some resource while dealing with one or more limitations or challenges. After a few missions, however, you kind of got the point, and the games stopped being compelling.
Tropico 4 succeeds where its older brothers failed by introducing a strong story-based single player campaign. The missions now tie together with a continuity based storyline complete with twists and an actual narrative arc. There is a consistent cast of characters that will interact with your dictator, each with their own motivations. Your own dictator, be it man or woman, will narrate between missions, which makes a nice touch.
Missions also now have interesting unique objectives, such as preventing nuclear war between the United States and the U.S.S.R., or rooting out a secret mafia boss sewing seeds of discontent amongst your people. There are even cinematics that play several times during the 20-mission campaign when the story beats are particularly important.
Additionally, the game’s missions are now far more dynamic. Tropico 4 presents the player with more and more diverse opportunities to take on optional sub-objectives. These may pop up as requests from specific factions, such as a priest asking you to issue a prohibition edict, or demolish all of the pubs. They may also be mission-specific, such as agreeing to hold a pan-Caribbean summit to reduce international tensions and prevent a nuclear doomsday. These sub-missions are usually optional, and come with their own risks and rewards. To put it simply, they make the game more interesting and engaging, and thus more fun to play.
I do have a few more nice things to say about the game before I turn to its faults. First, for newcomers, the game has an excellent set of tutorial missions, which serve both to entertain and educate. The game also has greater depth when it comes to building and upgrading. There are new international factions to placate. In addition to the U.S. and U.S.S.R., the player will have to deal with the Middle East, China and the E.U. Finally, the game does a great job in providing interesting looking islands for the various missions, with greater ecological and geographic variety.
Things Left Unfixed
But, of course, I do have to point out some of my complaints with the game as well. Beyond the fact that the game’s basic functions, graphics, and even loading screens were taken whole cloth from its predecessor, Tropico 4 also fails to address some of the series’ problems. First, while the player is constantly being encouraged to embezzle money from their island nation into their Swiss bank account, there is never much of a purpose to it, beyond a higher score at the end of the mission. Considering the finesse it takes to do this properly, it would be nice to see some sort of actual gameplay benefit to embezzlement, as opposed to just seeing a bigger number on a debriefing screen. Further, the game still has some interface issues such as road placement. Putting down roads is finicky at best and downright broken at worst. The game also has a few bugs, notably one that can permanently disable all sound if the game is minimized for long enough. The only way to fix this is to exit out of the game entirely and reload.
Not Quite A Revolution, But A Step In The Right Direction
Ultimately, these are minor complaints. After booting up Tropico 4 and seeing how familiar it all seemed, I expected to play a slap-dash rehash of Tropico 3. Well over 20 hours later (and growing) I am pleasantly surprised. While at first it may seem like not a lot has changed between the two games, the deeper I got into Tropico 4, the more I saw how significant the improvements were. Tropico 4 isn’t just a quality city building game; it has some ideas that actually move the genre forward, making city building a more directed and entertaining experience. For Tropico fans and newcomers alike: if you want to build cities for fun, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Tropico 4. This comes highly recommended.