If there’s one line you see more than any other in reviews of expansion packs, it’s “If you liked the original, then you’ll probably like the expansion pack, too.” Well, duh. If there’s one thing expansion packs do, it’s offer more of the same. In fact, one could say that the minimum job of an expansion pack is to offer more of the same, and that the real question is: can the expansion pack in any way reinvent the original game or at least give it new strategic wrinkles? Most times the answer is no.
And that’s especially true when a third party develops the expansion pack, as is the case with Tropico: Paradise Island. PopTop Software and Gathering of Developers teamed up to release Tropico last year, but then PopTop decided it wanted to move on to Tropico 2, and it left BreakAway Games the job of creating the expansion pack. BreakAway Games decided not to tinker too much with what a lot of people considered to be a winning combination, and so with Paradise Island you basically get the exact same gameplay as with Tropico, but with three times as many scenarios.
That’s not to say there aren’t any new things in the expansion pack. There are, but they’re not overly consequential. For example, as the name of the expansion pack implies, there is a greater emphasis on tourism in the game, and the pack includes no less than seven new tourist buildings. But the only real difference between the new buildings and the old ones is how they look. The tourists (as far as I can tell) only notice the sophistication and quality of the attractions, and so it doesn’t really matter if you have an island full of swimming pools, as long as the tourists like swimming pools. That means the extra variety provided by the expansion pack, like the tennis courts and nature preserves, doesn’t add anything new. The new buildings just let you create a city that looks better to you. That’s not bad, and it’s nice not to have to use the same tourist buildings over and over again, but I was hoping for something a little more meaningful. Tropico isn’t The Sims, after all.
The other buildings included in the expansion pack have a little more meat to them. There’s an army base that satisfies housing needs, entertainment needs, medical needs, and religious needs to army personnel, and so it makes maintaining an army far easier. There are also some new entertainment buildings, like the movie theater and “El Presidente’s Childhood Home,” that give you options for improving your relations with people. Plus there are other buildings, like the furniture factory and the condominium, that have their uses. But the problem with the buildings is that you probably won’t use them very much. The army base is one of those huge buildings that takes forever to build, and it’s only useful if you need an army, which you usually don’t. The appeal to the childhood home is that it can add money to your slush fund, but the gain is so minimal -- if you get a gain at all -- that’s it’s not really worth the effort. And most of the other buildings require electricity, but they’re not important enough to waste electricity on. And so, like the tourist buildings, these other new buildings impact the game almost not at all.
Luckily, there are other additions in Paradise Island besides the buildings, but, unluckily, they’re only slightly more exciting. Consider random events. If handled properly, random events could help spice up random map games, to make each game play a little differently. But BreakAway Games didn’t handle random events properly. Most events are 10% increases or decreases in export costs, and they only make a difference if an export gets increased or decreased a lot -- which probably won’t happen, because there are a lot of exports. And then some of the events are interesting, like when the citizens all decide to take a nap or a plague hits the city. If that were all to the events, then maybe you could say they help break up the monotony of random map games. But BreakAway games included tropical storms as an event, and tropical storms are no fun at all. Sometimes they just destroy a single shack, but other times they take out all your farms, your dock, and other buildings to boot. Plus, the storms are a common event, so even if you survive a few, eventually you’re going to be devastated. Now what possible fun could it be to have a random event end your game, and why would you add a “feature” like that to an expansion pack? I have no idea. Sometimes developers baffle me.
And so, oddly, the gameplay addition with the most impact is the new edicts. Or, more accurately, one edict is really nice and the rest are so-so. The nice edict is social security, and it allows students and retirees to earn some money. Why does that make a difference? Because now you don’t have to include free housing or force people to live in shacks, and everybody can afford to be entertained. That’s important when keeping people happy, and the edict even causes people to respect you more, which is just icing on the cake. Other edicts include a couple tourism packages, military modernization (which improves army bases), and conscription (so soldiers don’t require a high school diploma), but again, I’ve never had a problem drawing tourists, and armies are almost never necessary, and so these other edicts don’t affect the game much.
There are some other minor additions in Paradise Island -- like more background options when you choose your persona, and a couple new tourist types -- but, basically, the only real reason to get the expansion pack is for the 23 included scenarios (Tropico only had 8). The difficulty ratings range from “easy” to “ridiculously hard,” and BreakAway Games did a nice job in mixing up the objectives so the scenarios don’t play (too much) like random map games. One is a take on “Gilligan’s Island,” and you have to help seven castaways to get back to the mainland. Another nods at Jurassic Park, and you actually have to play backwards and remove most of your population so you can make room for the dinosaurs. Still another has a no-holds-barred military encounter -- which would have been cool, except it only showed Tropico doesn’t handle that sort of thing very well.
In fact, BreakAway Games did about as nice of a job as they could with the scenarios. The problem is that Tropico isn’t a very good scenario game. Regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, whether it be attracting a certain number of tourists or exporting a certain cash crop or “acquiring” a certain amount of money for your slush fund, 90% of the games go exactly the same way. That is, you earn money and keep people happy, and then you make some decisions here and there to meet the objectives. That similarity between the games is (mostly) what I didn’t like about Tropico, and it hasn’t changed any in Paradise Island.
One last thing: BreakAway Games did make some improvements to the Tropico engine. Now you get to see voter information before having to decide whether you want to hold an election or not. Also, supposedly construction is a little faster (I didn’t notice a difference, but it’s been a while since I played Tropico), and more buildings can be rotated before they’re placed. That latter improvement is actually really nice, since it makes fitting in things like churches and cabarets much easier, but I’m not sure why BreakAway Games didn’t go all the away and allow all rectangular buildings to be rotated.
But those are some pretty basic fixes, and they’re things that could have been / should have been included in a patch before now. Plus, BreakAway Games missed a few things. Rotating the view still takes so long that I suspect most people never do it. The Almanac is still sort of convoluted, with lots of information on some topics, and almost no information on others. And trade delegations are still way too powerful. But I guess BreakAway Games didn’t want to delve into the engine too far, and fixes like those will have to wait for Tropico 2.
Overall, Tropico: Paradise Island is a fairly lukewarm expansion pack. But it’s budget priced at $20, and its 23 scenarios provide 75+ hours of gameplay. So -- and you knew I was going to say this eventually, right? -- if you liked Tropico then you’ll probably like Paradise Island. It’s almost the same game, after all.