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Tropico 4 Review

By Jeff Buckland, 9/8/2011

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Played on:

PC

A couple of years ago, Haemimont Games and publisher Kalypso put together a pleasant surprise in Tropico 3, a well-made revival of the classic Caribbean Island sim/strategy game, and already they're back with a sequel. No one expected much of this sequel, since both the developer and publisher changed, and after so much time, this is usually not a formula for success. But as a direct sequel to the original Tropico and with vibrant and sometimes very impressive 3D graphics, 2009 saw a revival of one of the most entertaining city management, people sim, and strategy game hybrids yet. Now, Tropico 4 is out, and while the list of new features may be a bit short for the price tag, we're still looking at many more hours of fun.


Those who played plenty of Tropico 3 usually ask the same question once they get their eyes on the fourth game: couldn't this have just been an expansion pack? After many hours of playing, I'd have to say that it's unlikely for a developer with the relatively small budget that Haemimont has; Tropico 4 is much like the third game, but it's subtly better in many little ways, and there are plenty of under-the-hood changes that the developers seem to feel justify the $40 price tag on Steam.

Those who played plenty of Tropico 3 usually ask the same question once they get their eyes on the fourth game: couldn't this have just been an expansion pack? After many hours of playing, I'd have to say that it's unlikely for a developer with the relatively small budget that Haemimont has; Tropico 4 is much like the third game, but it's subtly better in many little ways, and there are plenty of under-the-hood changes that the developers seem to feel justify the $40 price tag on Steam.


Just like we've seen before, the heart of Tropico 3 is a light people sim: every single person on the island is simulated in full, from their time spent at home to their time on the job. Travel commutes, protests, death, family tree progression, and more are all processed, and the game tracks the motivations, likes, and dislikes of all of the island's inhabitants - including the impressions of the tourists you bring onto the island, too.

The entire game is built on this sturdy, well-simulated foundation. You'll be setting up farms to feed the population, keeping in mind that certain crops only do well in some areas, then making sure that the garages are well-stocked with cars so everyone can get to work without having to walk. Mines and non-food crops can bring in cash, and you'll need buildings like schools, churches, and clinics to keep the population educated, satisfied, and healthy. Unfortunately, this is one of those games that is constantly popping up windows in your face, often interrupting things you're trying to do. It often bugs you with needs that, if the game was paying attention to what you were doing, it'd know you're clearly aware of - like the need for a clinic, right after you just looked at one and decided you can't afford it. The thing is, the game does include less-annoying bulletins that are really handy, since you can click an eye-shaped icon next to some of these This is probably my biggest complaint about Tropico 4: there just isn't a very good prioritization of things that need immediate attention, versus medium-level stuff, and on down to low-need things. If Haemimont decides to make a fifth game - or even an expansion - they might look into how Firaxis is doing notifications in Civilization V.


The main aim behind several new features is an added random element of danger that you'll hopefully have prepared for ahead of time. Your new Ministers of Interior, Defense, Foreign Affairs, Education, and Economy now enable your full range of edicts, and these characters can both help and hinder your overall cause - depending on the qualities of the people you nominate to each position. Their actions can turn out to be a pleasant little bonus or a nearly debilitating boondoggle.

On top of this, you can now import raw goods for everything from food to oil, and just use the top-level factories to process them if you don't want to produce the raw goods yourself (in fact, there's a campaign mission that forces you to do this). The difficulty is that whenever a ship comes in, your factories might be spending a hell of a lot of your money on raw materials; it makes managing your bankroll that much tougher. More than a dozen new buildings have been added, too, and Stock Exchanges allow privately-owned businesses to come in and operate on the island, paying you rent and employing your workers.


The natural disasters can really hold you back if they come at a time when you're vulnerable and if they hit crucial buildings, but eventually their threats can be mitigated with an advanced warning system. Tsunamis can kill off key parts of your work force and destroy buildings near the coast, earthquakes can strike anywhere on the island, and volcano eruptions set buildings on fire, requiring you to be ready with a fire department - otherwise you'll be forced to either pay an exorbitant cost to put the fires out or just watch some of your buildings burn down to rubble. Finally, the added international factions allow new flavor through petty squabbles as well as a wide range of new missions you can complete during the game for cash or other bonuses.

The twenty included campaign missions are great in Tropico 4 because only a few buildings are restricted in only a few missions, and in general all - or almost all - of the game's buildings and functions are available to you on every map. Each campaign mission takes place on a different island and includes a particular gimmick that works as a disadvantage for you to conquer. As you go through the missions, though, you find out that each island is part of a larger empire and there's also an ongoing, loosely-told plot about your island dictator. If you'd rather not deal with all of that, though, the sandbox mode is back and is better than ever. (In it, you play a vanilla game on one of ten maps with a good selection of difficulty settings.) You could easily spend weeks playing around in the sandbox with new islands and difficulty settings, never playing the campaign mode, and you could easily be very satisfied with this game. Of course, there are challenges and extra maps, too...


There are a few annoyances here, and unfortunately, some of them have been ported over directly from Tropico 3 without any improvements. El Presidente's speeches drone on, using peculiar language - the same stuff as the last game - making election speeches something you'd rather start avoiding, despite the obvious benefits they concur (if you make good on your promises, that is). Then there are the basic workers at the Construction Offices and Teamster's Offices, performing the simplest of tasks - constructing buildings and transporting goods - and sometimes they will simply seem to be doing nothing at all. Tropico 4 will tell you how religious one of your workers is, who is father was, and how happy he is with his pay, but you can't give him direct orders or really directly find out why he's spending so much time not working.

One feature that, to me, has really fallen flat is the Twitter and Facebook integration. Rarely do I see this as a good idea even in the most mainstream of AAA games, and for a niche title like this, I can't imagine having many fellow Tropico 4 players in friends and follower lists that really care, especially when it's an entirely single player game we're talking about. Sorry guys, but this is not a worthwhile feature to add. Steam achievements (which are included), sure, for those who care - but few gamers have their social networks set up for anyone to want to see the kinds of results Tropico 4 can post.


The bright, crisp graphics of the Caribbean and the goofy, but lovable sense of humor exhibited throughout Tropico 4 make it instantly appealing, and the impressive depth of a people and city management sim layered on top of tried and true RTS style of play will keep you coming back. One minute you'll be in the red, the next rich; one minute you're desperately trying to find space for a garbage dump so that your Environmentalists are content, the next you're trying to stave off an invasion by the Soviets. FPS players often have a story that transpires between every bullet fired, every poorly-timed reload, and RTS gamers will have a lot to talk about after a good two-hour session in Tropico 4. There might not be a huge amount different here compared to the last game, but I don't blame the developers for not wanting to touch such a fun game. Wait for the inevitable Steam sale and buy with confidence if you think you can hold out, but if you're looking for a fun and relatively unique strategy romp before this fall's big, bad war shooters and epic RPGs hit your hard drive, then it's hard to go wrong with Tropico 4.

Overall: 8 out of 10

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