Hype is a funny thing. For some games, you can hear so much about them and consequently expect so much from them that when you finally do get to play them, you can't help but be disappointed. For Tropico, the latest creation from St. Louis based PopTop Software, I was expecting a fanciful, funny and complicated city simulation -- you know, sort of like Monkey Island meets SimCity. But instead of being funny, Tropico stops somewhere around being congenial, and instead of offering complexity, it offers meaningless options. The result isn't a bad game, but it is disappointing.
Now, if you somehow missed all of the previews, Tropico is a city management game that allows you to be the dictator / president of a small tropical island. “You rule” is the tagline for the game, and it's apt. As “El Presidente”, you'll get to oversee what gets built and where, set wages, and control what products get exported -- all while lining your own pockets, of course. You'll also have to keep those pesky citizens at least reasonably happy so they won't kick you out of office. The atmosphere of the game is light-hearted, but most of the humor comes from things leading up to playing the game (such as picking flaws for your dictator character), while the game itself is a serious-minded simulation.
Unfortunately, as simulations go, Tropico spends more time giving you lots of options than it does in delivering strategic complexity. Far too many decisions don't really make any difference. For example, your people will require some form of entertainment and you'll be able to choose from a variety of buildings, from simple pubs and fancy restaurants to large and expensive sports complexes. But it won't matter. Your people might prefer one type of entertainment to another but they won't demand anything, and they'll be perfectly happy if you only build restaurants. As another example, you can cozy up to the United States or Russia if you want, but again the decision won't make any difference. Being allied with one superpower won't make you an enemy of the other, and it won't drag you into any cold war antics. In fact, how much the superpowers (don't) like you only determines the amount of aid they'll send your island, and so you can completely ignore the diplomatic aspect of the game if you want.
The economic model isn't any better. In fact, it's about as basic as you can get. For starters, there isn't anything to import, and so you won't have to worry about bringing in designer clothes, high definition television sets or anything else from more developed countries. In fact, the only product your people require is food, and it won't matter what kind of food it is. Your people will stay perfectly healthy and happy even if they only eat pineapples. As for exports, there are all sorts of options -- from the aforementioned pineapples to fish, gold, sugar and cigars -- but once again the options aren't overly meaningful. There will always be a demand for your products and the prices won't change, and so all you have to do is export the most expensive products your island can support. There isn't any real difference between exporting gold and corn, except gold is worth way more money.
Where Tropico gets most of its strategy is in the buildings. There are no less than 57 buildings you can construct and it's primarily through the buildings that you'll make a profit for your island and keep your people happy. Since buildings are slow and expensive to build, you'll have to be careful about what you build and when you build it, because you might only be able to afford one or two buildings a year. Plus, space is limited on the island, and buildings tend to be large, so you'll have to be careful about where you place buildings as well. These considerations lead to lots of decisions, from basic things like profits versus happiness and space efficiency versus quality, to more complicated issues involving the potential impact on the environment, whether to use electricity (which is expensive) and whether to use buildings that require trained personnel (who have to be trained first).
There are also some other areas of strategy. Every so often your people will demand an election and you'll have to decide whether you should skip it and be a true dictator or have it and perhaps juggle the vote counts a little. You'll also have to set the wages for your people, set options for your buildings and decide whether to train people locally or hire them from other countries. You'll also be able to issue edicts -- for a cost. For example, you'll be able to bribe some people to make them happier, give your soldiers and policemen “sensitivity training” so they'll be liked more, and send a trade delegation to a superpower for beneficial results. In general, there are enough strategic elements in the game to help make up for the areas that are overly simplified.
The graphics for Tropico are pretty good. There are 46 models for the people in the game and they're all good and detailed (but you might have to zoom in to notice). The 63 building models are also detailed, but they're not as interesting as the people. Some of the buildings, like the palace, look really nice but others are just plain and boxy. The terrain is also a little bit plain, featuring washed out greens and browns. The graphics engine for Tropico is based on the Railroad Tycoon 2 engine and while Railroad Tycoon 2 featured realistic settings, I think Tropico would have been better off trying to be more colorful and flamboyant. Another small caveat is that Tropico doesn't feature any construction graphics. Buildings just start out transparent and then gradually “fill up” as they're built, which is boring.
The sounds aren't as good as the graphics. There are a few tracks of background music, and they're of good quality, but I didn't like them as much as the music from the similarly-themed Escape from Monkey Island. The rest of the sound in the game is rather sparse. There are only a few minor sound effects and ambient noises. Also, citizens only get generic acknowledgments when you select them. For example, instead of a banker saying something specific, he'll just give a random adult male acknowledgment. A decision like that really hurts the personality of the game.
Tropico's interface is decent. Most everything you need is either a hotkey or single mouse click away, the controls are intuitive, and the information is reasonably well laid out on the screen. I only had two problems. Most information about your island can be found in an “almanac”, but some of that information is buried two or three pages deep and you might not even know it's there. I think a standard menu system would have worked better. The other problem is that it's difficult to spy on your citizens. If you click on a citizen, you can see information about the citizen such as the citizen's happiness levels, where the citizen lives and what the citizen has been thinking (and some of the thoughts are pretty funny). However, that information is divided into seven screens and you have to keep the citizen selected in order to keep seeing it. A floating window option for the citizen (like in Rollercoaster Tycoon) would have been useful.
As for technical issues, Tropico performed pretty well. The first three times I played it, it crashed almost right away and I had flashbacks of Age of Sail 2 (that's bad). But after that, over the next 50 hours or so, Tropico only crashed to the desktop a couple of times, and both crashes came after several hours of game play. So Tropico seems pretty stable and since it has an autosave feature, crashes to the desktop aren't as bad as they might be otherwise.
Tropico comes with a random map generator and eight pre-designed scenarios. The random map generator is pretty good and it allows you to create games that are as easy or as difficult as you want them to be. Unfortunately, the scenarios are terrible. I have no idea what PopTop was thinking here. There are almost no events in the scenarios to differentiate them from random map mode and three of the scenarios only require you to rack up a high score (gee, like random map mode again). And even though you can choose a “real” dictator when you play, none of the scenarios try to portray real events. It's like PopTop put forth the absolute minimum amount of work for the scenarios (both in quality and number) and then called it a day.
If you look at the CD Tropico comes on, you'll see that it is completely filled with data -- and that the data itself is compressed. In other words, PopTop squeezed as much information as it possibly could onto a single CD, to the point where there is only one install option for the game because everything on the CD has to be unpacked to be used. Now here's what I wonder: did somebody, at some point, decide that Tropico should come out on a single CD and force PopTop to minimize some areas (like the sound and scenarios) in order to get the game to fit? If so, it's too bad because Tropico is merely an average game as it stands now, and the premise was solid enough for it to be better.
[ 28/40 ] Gameplay
[ 13/15 ] Graphics
[ 10/15 ] Sound
[ 11/15 ] Interface
[ 09/10 ] Technical
[ 04/05 ] Documentation