Developers: Haemimont Games
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Platforms: X Box, Windows PC
Genre: Real time strategy/Civilisation builder
Tropico is the video game equivalent of a crystal meth binge undertaken during a casino lock in following 10 pints. Suffice to say it is irresistibly addictive.
As El Presidente it is your job to rule a small South American island, guiding your nation to greatness through the turbulent political waters of the Cold War. As your nation grows from a shabby collection of shacks, farms and of course an opulent Palace for El Presidente, your destiny will be shaped by the major political ideologies of the age; capitalism and communism, and the intervention of the imperialist foreign powers.
Tropico is a real time settlement builder (as opposed to turn based civ games) which plays along similar principals as Sim City. If this sounds boring, rest assured there is a rich vein of comedy and irony keeping everything light hearted and punchy. The goal is to keep your growing population content while forcing them to earn you as much cash as possible in order to build ever more opulent public works or to build a military with which to oppress them. Send your minions to work in sweat shop factories on minimum wage and produce land mines to sell to Sheikhs, or build a socialist paradise of free housing and acres of peaceful farm land – the choice is yours, although success will probably lie somewhere between the two.
Under the demands of earning large sums of cash there is freedom to rule with liberal use of the carrot or the stick but an El Presidente who leaves his people to starve while spending all the treasury on a 50 foot golden statue will inevitably find himself in spiraling debt to the World Bank, or voted out of power.
Balancing the conflicting demands of your adoring public is a difficult exercise in plate spinning which requires constant use of management tools and not skipping annoying but informative prompts from your adviser’s. Depending on how they are treated civilians will develop allegiance to one of several political factions under your rule such as Religious, Environment, Loyalist, and so on. Upset any one faction and a ruler can quickly find his economy being disrupted through stikes and protests. Upset too many and followers will abandon your cause altogether and your eternal enemy the rebels. Or if you cant be bothered with all that, make ellections illegal, declare martial law, and hope that your army is not full of uneducated, badly armed traitors who cant shoot straight.
While keeping these internal groups happy or under the Jackboot there are regular natural disasters and political challenges which must be negotiated as your settlement gradually rises in size and complexity. Foreign powers and business men will often appear to make some outrageous demand, or tempt you to take a short cut for the sake of a quick stack of cash. Taking their money will help quicken the pace of development but will doubtless upset your followers or turn foreign powers against you, while failing to agree to their terms will invariably lead to reprisals later on which may cripple your long term strategy. Its a difficult on the spot call but succeeding in Tropico is a game of brinkmanship where the cost of failure is a cruel waste of several stressful hours spent desperately trying to salvage your dying country.
With such high stakes there will be many occasions when the game pad is sent hurtling out of the window accompanied by passionate speeches to any frightened people near by forced to listen to how the game disc will never again enter the console because you have smashed it into pieces, microwaved it, and eaten thousands of shards of molten plastic. Yet it always finds its way back.
Gameplay encourages obsessional tinkering and fine tuning of your own plans which are continually put to the test. Deflating defeats will lead to some experimentation and insane half baked ideas on how to exploit your work force but only by rigid discipline and constant awareness (and probably enormous amounts of luck) is it possible to sneak past those ridiculously difficult latter stages (the amount of times we completed tasks just as the rebels were storming the palace was ridiculous). Pushing through to that next level becomes a matter of personal pride . The increase in various difficulty factors (likely hood of rebellion, frequency of disasters, unusable land etc) which can be gradual or sudden spikes begin to feel like injustices made personal by the game and it must be put in its place.
At 20 missions, each one taking at least a couple of hours to finish (though often much much longer), the campaign is a tad too demanding of your time and mental stability. Things also fall a bit flat after several interesting and comical twists early in the campaign. After having taught the player the fundamentals the finale is really a series of sand box games with severe penalties and enforced time limits which are more cruel than fun. 10 – 15 tightly scripted scenarios with a final mega challenge would have been more than enough value.
For those unsuited to the intense demands of the campaign there is also a sand box mode with a full range of sliders allowing the player to set difficulty of every aspect and either enjoy a stress free or a sadistic challenge which can last for hours. For those craving more punishment there are extreme scenarios which will test your management skills to the limit.
Being a port of a fairly recent PC game the demands of the RAM heavy strategy chaos are extremely telling on the nearly decade old generation of consoles. There are a few minor glitches and more troublesome game ending crashes (regular saves people!) but the real problems begin to kick in once your islands population reaches over 400 civilians. At this point the frame rate begins to drop to a slide show and the console will emit sounds and emissions similar to a 19th century steam train. Fortunately most missions can be completed before this becomes too troublesome but anyone wanting to continue working on their creation will be disappointed.
But this does not take away from what a remarkable and incredible achievement it is to successfully run such a complex game on limited technology. The developers have once and for all busted the myth that strategy games cannot work on consoles with their limited control systems and puny memory, no matter how much this might upset mouse and keyboard fanatics. This may sound like hyperbole but the legacy of Tropico 4 could be a defining watershed in console gaming. With the huge improvement of RAM, processing power and graphics, the next generation of consoles should see many more ports of civ builders and strategy games with even more ambitious scale.