In 2001, I was a freshly minted graduate barely a few years in my R&D and teaching job when the original Tropico video game was published. I still have the CD in my library with its colorful drawing of some exotic tropical island where El Presidente ruled (you as a benevolent or dictatorial player). The rights of the game were bought years later, and the German/Romanian developers of the current game have been the same since the third installment. Caramba, muchacha, I hadn’t played any Tropico video games in a decade so I was curious to see how the software had evolved or regressed… In Tropico 4, you’re still in charge of a banana republic, a crossbreed between Cuba and Granada, Haiti or Bermuda, up to you. The story takes place during the Cold War, and the Island State of Tropico is sandwiched between the superpowers of the time: the US and the USSR, with Europe, the Middle East and China (never mind the obvious anachronism) acting as extras.
Playability: Some potholes
I haven’t had to read any game manual for some time, and I haven’t had to use any game wiki or walk-through for some time either… The tutorial is a bit rough and falls short of getting new players thoroughly familiar with the mechanics of the game. Sure you learn how to build infrastructure to please different factions of Tropicans (that’s what the inhabitants of Tropico are called), but you don’t get a sense of how things work. How long does my corn take to grow? How much food do my people need? Is fish more nutritious than papaya and imported food? As an old video gamer, I like tutorials to ease me into the mood smoothly, nice and easy. So I was a bit surprised to have to read the manual to be able to actually play the game rather than to just have to grope my way halfheartedly through the campaign missions. The manual itself is a dry lunch with nigh a single screenshot… ola, cabron!
Annoyance: Nagging mother-in-law
For starters, you have to register with the developer, wait for an email, confirm, log in etc. At least it didn’t require a great amount of personal details. But what for you might ask? On top of that, I had already downloaded the game at home, but was in a hotel room on the other side of the planet from Tropico, with bad wifi and realized I could not play unless I was connected… Well, I spent the evening switching between National Geographic and a Bollywood classic instead. Tropico 4 is tough on old hands like mine. Barely within a few missions, I had to start over several times. Old video gamers with little patience might find it a bit exasperating. There is no difficulty adjustment: it’s a one shoe fit (or doesn’t fit) all. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, tornadoes appear randomly, smashing all your hard earned progress. But the gameplay was catchy enough for me to proceed with the dreaded save/load routine. The campaign is rather interesting (and not so common for a building simulation), with enough twists in the plot, to keep you playing a few more turns into the wee hours…
Beauty: Could use some make up
Tropico 4 is not the best looking game around. For a tropical island, it lacks some juice, colors and cut scenes. The voice acting is generally good, although repetitive. The soundtrack is sexy and puts you in a mood for a Mojito or a Cuba Libre or two, or at the very least a slice of freshly cut pineapple. I still have the little beach guitar tunes in my head. The original Tropico video game was famed for its tongue in cheek humor. Tropico 4 may be trying too hard. Well, I can’t say that in-game quotes by mass murderers like Pol Pot or Idi Amin made me laugh (at all). A friend of mine who escaped the military junta in Chile told me he had no interest in playing Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet for fun in Tropico 4… Fortunately you can create your own avatar to be the savior of the wonderful island of Tropico!
The Old Video Gamer’s Prattle: That’ll do 5/10
At it’s best, Tropico 4 can be a real time hog and has some fun features despite rough edges. Fans of Sim City and the Sims who are desperate for some variety in their gaming library may find something new to enjoy (though they are unlikely to enjoy everything in Tropico 4). Tropico 4 could use some polishing, as it nags old video gamers as repeatedly as their mother-in-law.