Tropico 3 Review
For years, the appeal of city-building games eluded me. As a teenager, I couldn't figure out why you'd want to plop buildings down in a field in SimCity when you could be killing demons in DOOM instead. As I grew older, turn-based strategy titles like Civilization started to catch my eye, but still, I wasn't terribly interested in city management. It wasn't until this year, with Tropico 3, that I'm finally understanding why these games are so compelling.
Tropico 3, by Haemimont Games and publisher Kalysto, is a continuation of the franchise of strategy games where you become the dictator of a Latin island nation. You can rule it with fear and an iron fist, assassinating rebels, squelching protests, and bribing faction leaders, or you can be a benevolent leader by bringing economic prosperity and maintaining happiness of all the different types of people in your tropical paradise.
You'll start out simply enough in the Sandbox mode or in most of the Campaign games: you've got your palace and a few basic support and infrastructure buildings, and from there you'll need to locate the island's natural resources, build roads out to connect to them, get some industry and food production going, and then start the juggling the often contradictory positions of the militant, intellectual, religious, and nationalistic people on your island (as well as the US and USSR, who can be great friends or game-ending enemies).
To that end, you'll be tasked with managing the island's education and well-being: you can get a quick boost of brainpower by hiring people from overseas to work jobs that require a college degree, or you can build the college yourself and hire from within. On top of that, do you skimp on the health care, invest that money in satisfying a more pressing need and hope that people won't mind? Do you use your sandy beaches to set up a tourist paradise, or turn it into a fishing industry to make money a different way? Do you build tobacco farms to start to sell the product and make some early cash, or do you want to produce more food and eradicate hunger on your island? These either/or options happen in many areas of the game and when it all adds up, it gives players plenty of choices in managing their island.
Tropico 3 is a great-looking game with lots of small details when you zoom in, but zooming out and seeing your whole island bustle with activity is something amazing. It's not just the scale of it - after all, it's just one fairly large island - it's how life goes on and people happily coexist almost without your intervention. Well, it can do that once you've got it set up right, and figuring out how to do that is most of the game's fun.
Still, the campaign mode doesn't pull punches: it's tougher overall than the default Sandbox game's difficulty settings, so you'll probably quickly find out that learning how to play needs to be done in Sandbox mode rather than by trying and failing a campaign mission repeatedly. It's not just that these missions are intentionally difficult, because you could get that by turning up some sliders in setting up a Sandbox game - it's that each mission has its own little goofy story, each with highly unpredictable events that don't occur in the normal game. In one mission, you may be dealing with very hard-to-please people in one of your factions, or having to placate some mysterious figure extorting money from you. The US and USSR both meddle in your affairs, but in one mission they are completely insufferable.
So while the difficulty settings are probably right in line with players of the previous Tropico games, jumping into Sandbox on default settings - or even just playing the tutorial map after you've finished with it - is a great way to learn. And what you'll find if you can start climbing the difficulty curve is a highly rewarding, fun game that covers many aspects of the lives of Latin political leaders. You'll even get the choice of taking on the roles of many of real-life leaders, but it doesn't actually track their careers - it just picks up on some of their specific quirks, issues, and strengths. If you don't like the options available, though, you can use the rudimentary character creation to build your own Presidente as well.
There are a few annoyances I've found with Tropico 3. For one, the Latin music soundtrack is good, but it really doesn't hold up during a long session since it's less than an hour long in total. Second, the radio commentator that keeps you updated on happenings throughout the island often chimes in too late, telling you about problems you're already aware of and often repeating the same useless and irrelevant segments that have no bearing on gameplay at all. They're cute for the first hour, but by the time I'd heard some of the same phrases 20 times or more, I switched off Tropico News Today entirely.
There are a few bits of actual gameplay that can get frustrating, too. For one, the game's tutorial doesn't cover everything or really help you figure out how to make money early, so novices will be bombarded with requests for churches, clinics, and more and won't have the money to build these things until they understand how to get some production up first.
Tropico 3 also tasks you with building your own roads, but there's no way to demolish the rock around the tight gaps on some islands. It's almost like the developers took some kind of sick pleasure in creating these narrow little pathways and forcing you to use trial and error for ten minutes to figure out how to get a road through a tight squeeze just so you can get to a mine on the other side.
Having El Presidente as an actual character on the island was an interesting idea, but it kind of falls flat once you get in-game. He or she can run around, get in a limo, visit buildings and construction sites to improve their speed or performance, and even fight when the rebels rise up. Overall, it just doesn't really feel like it fits here, though, because Haemimont Games didn't put enough depth into this feature. Controlling El Presidente is only done once in a while and isn't exactly fun or very useful. You'll find yourself spending way more time just letting him do whatever he wants and managing the island directly.
Still, those downsides are pretty minor compared to the long-lasting fun that can be had in Tropico 3. With a built-in map editor and solid online connectivity that may not let you play online but does offer some interesting leaderboards and other features, the game's got some longevity beyond the campaign and built-in maps to play in Sandbox mode.
The best part about Tropico 3 is that, as opposed to most city management games, it's as much of a political simulator and study in finance and microeconomics as it is a challenge to build a working city. You'll have to plan the layout of your urban areas correctly, but you'll also have to learn how to make investments, plan for your financial future, maintain diplomatic relations with the superpowers, deal with dissenters, and either keep people happy or scare them enough to not leave the island or rise up against you. Tropico 3 is a fantastic game that captures a uniquely lighthearted essence of Cold War-era life in a Latin country, and it will keep you working hard to stay in power once you get into the tougher difficulties. With a reasonable $40 price tag and some solid visuals to go along, this one crosses genres nicely to appeal to both RTS fans and city management-types alike.