E3 2011: Tropico 4 Demo

Tropico 4 deployed an unexpected marketing tactic at E3, even though it was the same approach used by many other, better-known games. Kalypso focused around the charisma and familiarity of “El Presidente,” the aviator-shades-and-honorary-medals-wearing dictator who has been the personification of the series since its inception. Players were expected to welcome his return like they would Marcus Fenix, or Luigi. Whether or not they will, it was an endearing, if unusual approach.

Then again, Tropico has always been an unusual game. It’s fusion of black comedy and strategy have always made it stand out among its city-management peers — how many other games feature real-life mass-murderer Augusto Pinochet as a playable character? Yet behind all the cynical jokes about executing virtual dissidents, the series has always provided gameplay that is well-reasoned, deep, and — most importantly — unique.

Like many of the sequels on offer at E3 2011, Tropico 4 promises, bigger, better, more expanded. “Everything that was in Tropico 3,” would be included, the Kalypso rep promised. The new features are intriguing, though, starting with some basic improvements: the islands can be up to four times larger than they were in the series’ previous installment. A redesigned campaign promises to provide both more backstory for your leader and more help to new players overwhelmed by the game’s complexities.

There’s also plenty for returning players to enjoy. The level editor has been streamlined — players are given exactly the same tool the game’s developers use to make out-of-the-box scenarios. The new Council of Ministers, which enables you to enlist talented citizens to help manage your island, was added as a direct response to player demand. Same goes for the Fire Station, which will improve your ability to combat Natural Disasters, another feature that’s been beefed up this time around — Tropico, never a game to shy away from controversy, has left in the tsunami.

As I watched the Kalypso rep play through the demo, I saw many examples of the series’ core idea: having to decide between bad two bad options. An oil spill off the coast was wreaking havoc on the tourism industry (which has been totally rebalanced), but was impossible to clean up without angering one great power or the other. In addition to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., staples since the original, China and the Middle East have now entered the fray, and would-be Presidentes will have to keep them happy or suffer the consequences.

These superpowers will want to invest their massive reserves of cash, and a new feature allows you to grant them license to build private manufacturing businesses on your island. Domestic manufacturing has also been refined — Tropican factories can opt to import the raw materials they need to function. The only addition that fell a little flat was the in-game appearance of Twitter and Facebook widgets — if there’s a community of people who want to share screenshots of their islands, sufficiently large to necessitate those little blue buttons appearing in an otherwise gorgeous-looking game, I’ll be very surprised.

All in all, it was clear that Kalypso and Haemimont have thought long and hard about how to give players more value for their money. They’ve created a game that builds on and augments Tropico’s distinguished pedigree, a process strangely analogous to the building and improving players will be doing in-game. Strategy and city-management fans, especially those who like a little gallows humor, would be wise to take a trip.

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