With the likes of SimCity lost in time, one might argue that the age of management sims is long over, and though partially true, this generation has proven that for those willing to look beyond the mainstay of video game blockbusters, there's plenty of quality city building and life simulation to be found on niche, indy titles, most notably appearing on the PC platform. Tropico is not one of those. We don't mean in game quality, but niche status. Since it's humble debut in 2001, the Tropico franchise has ballooned into an admirable effort now helmed by German developer Kalypso Media. Arguably at the forefront of the city management simulation genre, we're now looking at the fourth entry in the series, Tropico 4, for both PC and Xbox 360, and we're happy to report that despite Tropico 3 releasing only two years ago, the series is just as strong as it has ever been.
Following in the footsteps of the previous games, Tropico 4 once again sits players on the throne of a benevolent (or otherwise) 'El Presidente' of a small banana republic situated on a lush tropical island somewhere out in the Caribbean. Though it's people are few and poor, and industry almost completely nonexistent, the tropical paradise is brimming with potential to grow into bustling tourist trap and exporter of fine goods, and it's up to the player to see this future come to fruition. Just like any good sim, the means in which these goals can be accomplished are varied and unique, allowing players to not just steer their republic towards financial glory, but do so however they see fit.
Like all good sims it all comes down to economic management, as players are tasked with balancing wages, expenditure, construction and growth, desperately working tooth and nail to come up green as each month rolls by. At first, a lot of money will be spent, and not a lot of money will be earned, as the early days of your humble village are more focused on self sustaining than exporting goods and pulling in tourist. But play your cards right and before long that humble village will become so much more, and so too will the game itself, as doors for new developments and prospects open leaving you pondering just what the future of your little island will hold.
It's the plentiful options available to the player to make their mark on the island of Tropico that really sets the franchise apart from everything else. Education or religion? Food for locals or exportable goods? Are you are leader who loves his/her people and wishes to see the island flourish for the people, or someone who just wants to make big bucks? Managing island life and industrial development in Tropico 4 allows for a frankly gigantic breadth of personalisation and choice, the game world shaped by real choices devoid of arbitrary black and white categorisation. And though as leader it is your duty to take Tropico wherever you wish it to go, it is also your duty to deal with problems and catastrophes as they arise, and to keep players on their toes, preventing meandering construction and finance management, Tropico 4 makes good effort to throw natural disasters, rebel uprisings and more at the player to keep this management sim fresh with a healthy dose of unpredictability.
Unsurprisingly, Tropico 4 boasts a wealth of content aimed squarely at management sim addicts, including a host of tutorials to easy new players in, and lengthy campaign with a carefully rounded learning curve, voice acted advisers (and other characters) and plenty of 'missions' that will appeal to newcomers and veterans alike, and allow players to track their total campaign score on a worldwide Tropico 4 online leaderboard. As enjoyable as the campaign is, hardcore Tropico fans looking for additional challenge, and less streamlined mission structure, can jump right into custom game setting. Evidential of a developer that knows and loves it's fans, custom games allow selection from a wide variety of maps of varying difficulty, and a tremendous degree of intricate game stat tweaks and variables. Any combination of characterised political parties, influence of religion, well-being of society, frequency of environmental (and otherwise) disasters, rebel aggression, and much more can be mixed and matched for an essentially unlimited variety of rule and game states.
Perhaps one of the most enduring qualities of the Tropico series is its laid back presentation. Much like SimCity, the series has a trademark black humour injected into every vein of the game, mostly in the form of humorous dialogue from political allies and opponents and radio banter that commentates your political progress. Cheeky descriptions for personnel, buildings and features also add to the self aware sense of humour, that is able to turn bleak concepts like political assassination, poverty, and government conspiracies into a running joke.
Powered by the latest iteration of Kalpso Media's engine, Tropico 4 is a modestly attractive game. Relatively simplistic geometry and texture resolution won't buckle modern computing system, but the richly coloured island paradise is rendered convincingly with numerous effects, including godrays and an attractive water shader, and a great clarity, the latter of which is important as the game world develops from sparse farms and towns to a heavily populated resort. Sims often struggle to effectively communicate their game world with the player as the screen becomes densely packed with interactive goodies, and so it is good to see Tropico 4 keep buildings, civilians and other icons of importance clear and distinguishable.
Sticking with the Caribbean theme, and just like previous Tropico games, Tropico 4 is set to a thumping soundtrack. Featuring a blend of calypso, salsa, reggae and more, the catchy soundtrack only heightens the impressions of a self aware game, perfectly capturing the 'island resort' theme of a tropical gem lost somewhere out in the Caribbean Sea. Don't be surprised to find yourself grooving along to any one of the many tracks, which provide perfect backing to your building, managing and, when necessary, political party damage control.
In a stroke of irony, given the game's revolutionary themes, Tropico 4 lacks any true revolutions of it's own. Fans of the series will be immediately familiar with a significant portion of the game's content and core mechanics, and even the user interface bares resemblance to Tripico 3. Rather than turn the franchise upside down, Tropico 4 appears to seek refinement and perfection over ground breaking changes, and for most part succeeds spectacularly. Modernised additions such as Facebook and Twitter integration are subtle attempts at giving the package extra trimmings, but polishing up the base concept Tropico fans know and love was clearly the first order of business.
For this reason a case could be made against the lack of innovation and change. After all, this is the fourth iteration of the franchise, expansion packs aside, and it remains to be seen just how loyal Tropico fans can be. In some ways Tropico 4 may be pushing fans as far as they can go. With so many similarities to past iterations, was now the time to break from the mold and try something new? Maybe, but as a testament to the game's qualities, Tropico 4 does not feel like an unnecessary retreading of old ground, instead just as addictive as it has always been. Instead, the burden of revolution and change will have to lie on the inevitable Tropico 5.
But until that time comes, when revolution and evolution become necessity, Tropico 4 will remain a bastion of construction and management simulation, representing the very best of what a oft-forgotten classic genre has to offer in modern times. Whether you consider yourself a Castro or Guevara, or someone else entirely, Tropico 4 should not be missed by all armchair dictators seeking their own little spot of paradise.