Tropico 4 Review
Tropico 4 (PC [Reviewed])
Developer: Haemimont Games
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Released: August 30, 2011
Soy El Presidente. My spiced rum factory – the bibulous basis of my fledgling economy – is not producing. Could it be an incursion by the rebels in the sugar-rich highlands? The molten results of last year’s volcanic eruption? Or maybe I’m just not employing enough teamsters.
In Tropico 4, you never really know. Developed for the second time running by Bulgarian studio Haemimont, the real-time autocracy sim is defined by its model railroad quality: the player’s job is to set up the buildings and the scenery, then sit back and enjoy watching it all unfold.
It’s a frustration that dates back to my initial, brief experience with the first Tropico, three iterations and two developers ago. Like the intractable problem of third-world dictatorship that the game intends to parody, some things change – some things stay the same.
Most of the activity in Tropico 4 revolves around making money, a goal accomplished by nurturing three areas of your island’s economy. There’s basic harvesting — things like iron mines, logging camps, and papaya plantations — but the viability of these activities is dependent on the island’s natural resources. More lucrative are industrial buildings, like the above-mentioned rum factory, which process locally harvested commodities into finished products. Alternatively, you can “allow imports,” giving factories access to foreign sources of raw materials. This new step is often necessary to kick-start production, even if you have a domestic source of the required commodity. The game offers no explanation for why this is the case.
Exporting goods, it turns out, is an extremely unpredictable basis for an island economy. Your nation’s coffers will fill at the whim of AI-controlled freighters, which arrive without a discernible pattern and export goods in amounts that seem entirely arbitrary. Most of my time with the game was spent veering wildly from export-powered surplus to precipitously increasing deficit. Even with the game speed on its fastest setting, there was a lot of time spent waiting around for that magic freighter to provide the cash needed to finance construction — in other words, to actually play the game.
Tourism, Tropico’s third source of income, is intended as a more consistent money-getter. Erecting hotels, theme parks and other tourist traps is a good way to paper over the cracks in an export economy, but it can be difficult to keep all your revenue-generating balls in the air, while keeping money left over to placate a demanding populace.
Tropican citizens have a wide variety of demands, viewable at the click of a button via the game’s attractively designed but occasionally opaque “almanac” screen. Though the nature and intensity of these demands will differ based on scenario and circumstance, certain issues cause crisis again and again. It is, for example, virtually impossible to build churches, clinics, and housing units fast enough to accommodate a growing populace.
In fact, these repetitious requests soon become tedious. Because you always start with the same limited handful of buildings, the beginning of every scenario is virtually identical. Build a church to placate the religious. Build a clinic to improve healthcare. Build a police station to control crime. Build a high school to provide education. Once you’ve done it at the beginning of 10 missions, it’s hard to look forward to the 11th.
Good governance doesn’t end with keeping your individual citizens happy. Tropicans are organized into various “Factions,” such as the Communists, Capitalists, Intellectuals, and Nationalists, all with specific preferences and demands. Keeping them all in line involves carefully balancing building projects and social policies; policies like Free Housing quiet the Communists, whereas declaring a National Day holiday pleases the Nationalists.
Your standing with these various factions can also be affected by your leader’s traits; players can select from a number of pre-made avatars modelled on real-life dictators (Anastasio Somoza, Che Guevara, etc.) or customize their own composite. If you decide that your Presidente should sport a fancy Harvard education, he’ll be beloved by the Capitalists, but distrusted by their Communist counterparts.
The goals of the Communists, of course, are often aligned with those of the U.S.S.R., who along with the U.S. and Europe are a constant presence on the island. They’ll ask you to export certain goods, or perform certain tasks, and reward you for keeping a high approval rating with their country. Let it sink too low, however, and you’ll soon see meticulously animated foreign gunboats patrolling your shores.
New to Tropico 4 are two factions Haemimont was keen to mention when I saw a demo of the game at E3 2011. The inclusion of China and the Middle East certainly provides fodder for the Bulgarian developer’s ripped-from-the-headlines approach to in-game events, but I regret to say that the portrayal of both factions is thoroughgoingly racist.