It’s not exactly a hard thing to understand why so-called ‘god’ games are popular. Players get a nice seat up in the clouds and the opportunity to manage the ant nest that is civilisation, of one form or another, below them.
But the Tropico series has higher expectations for us gamers. Tropico doesn’t just want us to build things and expand the boundaries of our great invented cities; it wants us to get involved in the sticky business of hands-on government. Okie-dokie, we might think, You want us to govern a populace of unruly human subjects? How hard can that be? As it turns out it can be pretty damn challenging and not always in a good way. Set in a fictional cluster of Caribbean islands, the nation of Tropico requires a firm hand to govern it and its people. Your journey from a low-level political player to the leader of a world power takes place in a number of pleasant locations wracked with natural disasters, political power games, awkward landscapes, and potentially lucrative resources.
Before you read any further, it might be an appropriate time for you to sit back and think about all the real-time-strategy and god games you’ve played on a console that were easy to get into. Are you done? I bet that’s a short list in your head. The fundamental rule of console gaming, when it comes to games in which you’re expected to zip about from one stack of hay to the next, searching for that metaphorical needle, is that our controllers are just…ill-equipped to handle it. Having spent nearly ten hours playing through four missions, a couple of sandbox games, and all of the tutorials, I’m just about getting used to the control scheme. A lot of actions have been squeezed into the poor Xbox 360 controller and lesser gamers’ thumbs might ache after the experience.
Still, having learnt the fundamentals by this point, it can’t be said there’s nothing rewarding about running a successful government in Tropico 4. Tropico 4 is a title which has the advantage of having a strong following, so no doubt the long-time fans of the series will be prepared to dive in and have a rough idea of what’s going on where and how to handle it. For newcomers however the words “deep” and “end” come to mind. There are some useful tutorials in the main menu you can exploit to gain an almost step-by-step understanding of the basics in Tropico 4, but problems arise because they are just that: the basics. There’s so much more underlying the obvious ‘build-this-build-that’ mentality a lot of casual players will bring to the game, not least of which is how to engage with your population of aforementioned unruly humans.
Tropico 4 focuses on management decisions rather than development decisions. You’ll be spending much of your time looking through your in-game almanac, keeping track of certain rebellious elements or groups who might become rebellious elements, cash flow, tapped and untapped resources, and how to balance your objectives against the needs of the people. As a consequence, it feels like a stat game more than a god game. You exist and prosper at the behest of your ant nest, rather than the other way around. Haemimont Games deserve credit for cramming this amount of behavioural detail into the little people walking around. All of them have needs, such as food, work, and entertainment, and they act as indicators of your governing prowess rather well. If you keep building schools, farms, and factories, people will protest because they have nowhere nice to live – and you’ll see a lot of makeshift shacks popping up in empty areas. Furthermore, everyone living in your island nation belongs to a certain group or movement. Environmentalists, intellectuals, loyalists, industrialists…there’s more than a few you’ll need to acquaint yourself with if you want to have a chance at gaining the respect of everyone.
Dealing with these people on a one-to-one basis is dull and time-consuming. Most of these hopefully happy folk you won’t have to worry about and they’ll just go to work, eat, sleep, and contribute to your ever-growing society. But then there’s always a few who have to come out and start moaning about something you haven’t done right. There are even those who’ll plot to overthrow your rule by force if they’re ticked off enough. When you choose how to interact with these troublesome individuals that’s where Tropico 4’s own brand of action and consequence comes into play. How developed is your government? Do you have a police force, a prison service, a secret police unit, or just a military? Is your economy booming? Depending on these factors and more besides you can arrange for your more troublesome subjects to be arrested and jailed, assassinated, or even for them to have a tragic ‘accident’.
Of course, it pays not to let things go that far in the first place. Tropico 4 works on the premise that you can read into the thoughts of the masses and adjust your own form of government accordingly. If happiness levels are at an all-time low, why not boost the wages of your subjects? Better still, you could announce that all food rations are doubled. Or declare a National Day to increase the number of loyalists who support your rule. Be warned: nothing comes for free. Your actions in governing the island nation of Tropico all have consequences, especially when it comes to the more extreme forms of keeping order. There’s a certain balance to the game – as there is in all real-time-strategy and god games – which you will have to learn. Once you do understand how one thing affects another and which way to turn in order to overcome a set of problems, Tropico 4 can be one of the most in-depth experiences of the genre. It might take a little time though and not all of us gamers are patient people.
As “El Presidente”, your main objective throughout the campaign missions is to establish a stable government spanning the islands of Tropico, financing industrial production, tourism, and generally improving the lot of your people. Twenty lengthy missions have been put together in a kind of step-by-step ascension to power, with the simpler tasks of governance being laid out for you in the beginning and the harder balancing acts (natural disasters and threats of rebellion, foreign invasion, economic decline, etc.) residing at the end. For those truly enthusiastic Tropico players there’s an online ‘Challenge’ mode. This will eventually be populated with player-created content such as unique maps, winning conditions, and resources. If you’re feeling creative, why not contribute to it? It’s just a pity Haemimont Games didn’t include some challenges of their own on the disc for players who are offline, as the range of customisable options for these seems big enough to warrant developer participation. Sadly there’s nothing in the way of a multiplayer mode; to be perfectly honest, Tropico 4’s setup doesn’t really provide the framework that leans towards competitive or cooperative play.
If players want to be able to build their ideal city, or just abuse citizens to their hearts content, the ‘Sandbox’ mode enables this. There’s no winning objectives involved unless you choose them and the developers have graciously included a ‘God Mode’ in which you have a substantial amount of capital to spend as you like. Again, there’s a big load of options and tweaking you can select to refine your experience. This extends from the landscape layout to the amount of vegetation, weather, and disposition of the people. The idea of using your own little avatar to run around as El Presidente with custom ‘perks’ and their own political background is interesting. There’s also nothing wrong with the music, as repetitive as it is, but the sound effects could have been bolstered significantly. The action/consequence factor uses a radio show and broadcasting system to analyse your rule, while petitioners approach you through little optional mission icons to request that you amend or enforce certain policies. It’s a quite fun if overtly cheerful way to portray what’s essentially a game about competent dictatorship.
There are some glaring issues, however…The first and most obvious is that this started life as a PC game and it seems more than a little annoyed at having to operate on your Xbox 360 console. Whereas many titles have made a more than passable transition between console and PC (the Crysis series, Grand Theft Auto IV, and more recently Rage), there’s no getting past the fact that Tropico 4 looks like a PC game operating on a console. Textures aren’t anywhere near as crisp, particularly with the weather and natural disasters, and frame rate issues become prevalent as your cityscape and population grows. Graphically, Tropico 4 looks to have been reduced just a little in order to compensate for its transition to console, which would be fine if everything was seamless – but it isn’t. The other big issue is that the gameplay as a whole lacks the kind of punch other god or RTS games can provide. Besides the fact that you can watch numbers go up and construct buildings to further your cause, there’s a prevailing sense of stillness from events which really ought to have more visual impact – rebels going up against your armed forces, for example. You’ll have to zoom in close to see what’s going on and the chances are most gamers will be unimpressed. These people who are apparently so important to satisfy and bond to your cause don’t evolve as individuals or stand out as much as they appear to on paper, which leaves you feeling indifferent towards them as the central mechanic around which Tropico 4 was built. Whether this was some intentional irony on the part of Haemimont Games to demonstrate the effects of governing remains unclear.
There’s nothing wrong with Tropico 4 as a management game; the missions and the islands on which they’re set each provide their own criteria for success. Once players get the hang of it they’ll be able to produce some pretty astounding happiness ratings from their citizens, along with huge wads of cash in their Swiss Bank account. Tropico 4 won’t leave you feeling empty for the experience if you have the time to get into it and you enjoy managing a difficult environment. It won’t necessarily have you running back to experience it all over again, though.