Wot I Think: Tropico 4

By Rob Zacny on September 8th, 2011 at 9:31 am.

Cake but not much death.
To my great disappointment, I am a benevolent dictator. The people of Tropico 4‘s do not fear the tread of the jackboot, but are instead smothered under the heavy yoke of first-rate entertainment options and lucrative employment opportunities. Even the communists and intellectuals have been yielded to the bourgeois hellscape I have created. There will be no revolution to televise.

Which is a bit of shame. Tropico 4 arrives after a year of political discontent exploding into burning barricades and gusts of tear gas, and it would have been fascinating if Tropico 4 fully explored its Cold War-era, dictatorial theme. The whole game carries the threat of political violence: the militarists demand more soldiers and guard posts, loyalists beg you to mobilize the secret police and cancel elections, and by twos and threes discontented citizens turn to crime or join the rebels in the hills. But Tropico is a city-builder, and the answer to most problems is not a vicious crackdown but a new round of zoning. In my fourteen hours with the game, I have never had to steal an election or declare martial law. The interests I balance interlock too conveniently, which means most of the fun “dictatorial” gameplay options are only useful in cases of incompetence or pure malice.


For instance, glancing at the faction relations table shows me that the communists want a social safety net and better healthcare, but those are both expensive services to offer. Fortunately, a little business investment increases prosperity so much that social services are fiscally painless, and now the communists and capitalists are both delighted with me. Perhaps the environmentalists are angry over the rise of industry, but I can mollify them with parks and anti-pollution ordinances. Now living quality is on the rise, and the environmentalists are happy as well. It’s win-win-win. In Tropico 4, there seems to be no limit to the number of ways you can split the baby.

That’s not to say Tropico 4 is too easy. The campaign difficulty steadily increases, and some islands are quite challenging. It’s hard to make everybody happy when your economy depends on scattered strip mines and clear-cut logging camps, and a dip in commodity prices can be deadly. Throw in a costly natural disaster or political event, and suddenly there is no easy way to progress. Rather than building upscale condos and entertainment options, El Presidente must instead tamp down crime and unrest in the tenements and shantytowns that crouch near the sweat shops. This is just the type of downward spiral that forced me to murder my dockworkers.

The docks are the island’s lifeline. They bring in the immigrants who grow the economy, the imports that fuel and feed it, and the exports that sustain it. So when my underpaid longshoremen went on strike, my already shaky economy started to look terminal.


Their demands were entirely reasonable, and a little bit of money would have made the entire problem go away, but I didn’t have any money. My foray into the tourist trade had been an unmitigated disaster, and all my funds were tied up in an empty luxury hotel and cheap bungalows. I was clinging to life thanks to my struggling rum factories, and a handful of justly-aggrieved dockworkers were about to destroy those, too. Since I couldn’t buy them off, I did the next best thing: I shot them dead in front of dozens of onlookers.

The docks reopened (at reduced staff), and the surge in exports brought a brief recovery. With a little more time, everything could have been put right. The Communists, however, denied me that time. After I killed the strikers, they headed to the hills and started a major insurrection. Revolutionaries from around the world came to join them, and the USSR stopped providing subsidies. My army survived a couple rebel raids, but they sustained heavy casualties and I had trouble replacing them. There were few volunteers for my bloody civil war, and I started losing control of the island. Eventually the war arrived at the beaches as my policemen, the remnants of my army, and the guerrillas battled it out in the streets.


This was all as vivid as it sounds. Tropico 4 is a lovely and lovingly detailed game that rewards your efforts with attractive and informative visuals. The strikers carry little signs and gather motley crowds to them. I watched the rebels steal through the slums and then converge on the police station. Traffic on the road leading to the beach came to a dead stop, and drivers sent their cars into panicked U-turns and raced back home. As the fighting intensified, a policeman took cover in a crowded beachfront restaurant. A varicolored mob of tourists headed for the ships like D-Day in reverse, wearing uniforms of Hawaiian shirts and boat hats.

These visuals, and what they tell you about conditions on the island, make Tropico a consistent pleasure, whether or not things are going well. There is joy in building my banana republic, and I have fiddled with the controls to get just the right combination of fountains and gardens in front of my ministry. For tourists I construct false realities: white, sandy beaches bestrewn with cabanas and luxury villas. Just over the hills are the coal-powered generators that light their hotel rooms and the tenement slums where their maids live, but it’s critical the tourists never see that. That’s the sort of thing that turns a novelty-sized margarita into a fishbowl of tragedy topped by a pink umbrella of first-world shame.


Tropico 4 does not seem particularly challenging, and ultimately I feel like I am learning proper procedures rather than making hard choices. I had to fight a communist revolution because I did not know how to develop a tourist industry, and I never again faced such a serious challenge to governance. I fear there is one way to play, and the trick is adapting it to every combination of resources and conditions, and already I have started to follow some rote procedures.

Yet I am not bored by them, because it is fun to govern and build. It is satisfying to read the thoughts of a cook at a beachside resort, seeing how much better he feels about life now that he has a garage near his house, a movie theater where he can relax, and a cathedral up the street. Tropico 4 might be too gentle to satisfy budding authoritarians, but it more than compensates the urban planners and aesthetes among us. The trappings of dictatorial power and Cold War rivalry merely serve to make a good city-builder more interesting, but I can’t help but wish Tropico’s theme were more than decoration. As it is, Tropico 4 is the kind of theme park it has you build for tourists. The illusion wears thin after awhile, but it’s a nice vacation spot.

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73 Comments »

  1. Uglycat says:

    I thought the revolution wasn’t televised anyway ;P

  2. bagga says:

    Heads up for anyone planning to buy this: Tropico 4 is exactly, and I mean exactly, the same game as Tropico 3. To the extent that, 20 minutes in, I was wondering if I’d navigated to the old game by accident.

    • DanPryce says:

      It does look to me like an expansion pack in full-game’s clothing. I’ll probably wait for a Steam sale for this.

    • Thants says:

      That’s a shame since Tropico 3 is basically just Tropico with a 3D engine.

    • Biscuitry says:

      Funnily enough, I heard exactly this a few weeks ago. In response, I bought Tropico 3 instead since it was on sale.

    • Fredrik Sellevold says:

      Yea, I tried the demo and got the same impression: Some nice and welcome tweaks to the UI, and some new buildings, but no changes to the gameplay. Almost makes me regret owning Tropico 3, because T4 does seem better organised and more intuitive, and the version I think I’d prefer to play. Not enough to make me want to buy the same game again (at full price), however.

    • Carra says:

      It’s a fun game but it’s an expansion to Tropico 3, they should have marketed and priced it as such. A few weeks ago I already posted that it looks an aweful lot like Tropico 3 and it seems I’m right.

      Still, it’s a fun game which is well worth playing if you can get it for ~20 euros.

    • Wraithtek says:

      Consider that EA charges the same price ($39.99 USD) for their Sims 3 expansion packs. And you don’t need Tropico 3 to play this.

      That said, I love Tropico 3, and fully intend to get 4, but will see if they have any deals on Steam in the next few weeks, as I’m not short on things to play at the moment. Don’t have a problem with paying $40, but don’t need to get the game right now.

    • Surlywombat says:

      We are in trouble when we start using the Sim and EA as a yardstick to measure anything against.

    • jonfitt says:

      I have Tropico 3 and was wondering how this differs. It seems like we’re saying there is not much difference. That’s not a huge problem as Tropico 3 is good, but personally I have it already and therefore will skip this one.

    • Nikolaj says:

      I’m actually a bit surprised that Rob doesn’t mention this in the WIT. Although, to be honest, I haven’t read a review of Tropico 4 yet that mentioned how similar the game is to Tropico 3. It makes me wonder if any game reviewers have actually played Tropico 3.

    • Stromko says:

      Tropico 4 is definitely a case where you aren’t going to get a useful opinion unless that writer has played Tropico 3, because they have to answer the question as to which game we should be playing.

      What if there is less content in Tropico 4 than Tropico 3 + its DLC (which costs less $ as well)? Are the missions better or worse? What if a new feature or tweak has skewed the balance and made it less fun than its predecessor? If someone hasn’t played the original, they can’t answer any of those questions.

      With a follow-up that is clearly this similar, these are important questions. I’ve played Tropico 1 and 2, the differences in 3 are profound, but 4 … it’s a graphics patch, mainly consisting of changing the lighting levels. If not, I want to hear how it differs.

    • stupid_mcgee says:

      It’s not exactly the same, but it’s not radically different, either.

      Some new things are a ministry, which you directly appoint ministers for treasury, military, etc. There’s a few new buildings, too. The interface is streamlined and is, IMO, quite a bit easier to use. It seems like there are more random events and natural disasters randomly destroy things instead of just causing deaths or costing money. There’s also random objectives, which I don’t remember in Tropico 3. You can now manage imported goods as well. Oh, and the islands are, indeed, much bigger than in Tropico 3.

      Perhaps the biggest thing, though, is the editor. In Tropico 3 you could only generate random islands. In Tropico 4 the island generator is much more robust. Your island is still randomly generated using parameters, but you can alter terrain height, terrain textures, resource locations, plant crops, place buildings, etc.

      There’s some improvements, and I feel like Tropico 4 plays a bit better for the new player. Larger islands allows you to finally make an “all-in-one” island as opposed to having to decide between a tourist trap or industrial haven due to space restrictions. The random objectives make playing, even after you’ve finished your main objective and won the map, a bit more interesting and fun. There’s a few graphical tweaks making the game look a lot better (lighting and shadows are significantly improved) and it looks like some of the buildings have had their textures brightened up a bit.

      Whether these new improvements are worth buying now or waiting for a sale is up to the individual. However, if you enjoy the Tropico series, I would recommend checking T4 out. It might not be a complete overhaul, but it’s definitely a step up from T3.

  3. Teddy Leach says:

    I get the feeling RPS is giving the shortlist of new writers a trial run. I like this Rob bloke.

  4. T. J. McCormak - Parent says:

    This game claims balance but the fact that you even get a chance to “mollify environmentalists” is beyond belief. My father didn’t spend 2 years in the Arctic constructing a nuclear power station out of the skins of polar bears for nothing. And don’t get me started on the Commies. How dare they expose the mind of poor little Timmy to such anti-American ideals. I demand that they rerelease this game where it is won only by a capaitalist approach, correctly promoting the interests of big business and clamping down on evil terrorists. Then little Timmy can play to his hearts content, free from even the slightest chance of the Liberal conspiracy affecting his poor malleable brain.

    T. J. McCormak (parent)

  5. TNG says:

    Aside from the new buildings, it does sound and looks like Tropico 3. With that said, I enjoyed T3 (not as much as the original Tropico but is as good as it gets nowadays) and will buy this one once the inevitable sale comes, with the also inevitable DLC/expansion pack attached.

  6. Belsameth says:

    Not enough dictatorship is, to me, what always plagued Tropico. Tho I must say I did always like em.
    My favorite is still the second, with the pirates, at least you had slaves there :)

  7. Thants says:

    What I really want to know is how different it is from Tropico 3. That game seemed too close to the original as it is. I’m hoping that 4 makes a significant change.

  8. Schmouddle says:

    Companeros y companeras!

    Time has come to see another election, I, as your El Presidente have worked hard, day and night to give you the paradise on earth.

    But, there is one thing which prevent the bright future for us all. No, it is not a communist threat, as the nation is well fed with fish, beef, corn, papaya, sugar and coffee, our workers can even afford our globally known hand-made cigars. It is not our religious zealots, who are well provided with spiced rum almost for free. It is not our enviromentalists who are happy with thousands of gardens spread all over the island, with the windparks which cost us dearly to produce pesky 40MW of power.
    It is not the army as it has the best equipment, the best accomondation and the best salaries in whole Carribean.

    The problem is far worse, my nation and it prevents me to serve you better than ever before.

    The problem presented is very complicated, but can be said it is basically a road length cap. I have ordered a gas and oil terminal to be built on the other side of our tiny little island, far away from our lovely tourist guests at beach resorts. But, we cannot build a road to the construction site as the reply of construction office says the amount we spend on maintenance of current road does not allow us to build any further roads and we shall demolish some unused parts.

    Companeros y companeras,
    you all know this is a complete loco situation as we have over million dollars worth of cash in our coffers, we can afford maintenance of many more hunderds of kilometers of roads. But this is the fact. We can not.

    Companeros y companeras,
    By wise decisions I have made raised our nation from third world state of filth, poverty and corruption into a strong, rich and powerful state. Our atomic weapons spread fear in our opponents, superpowers are forced to let us live our way.
    But the solution of a problem I presented is beyond mine and everyones else’s might.
    By wise investing of funds which origin we would not discuss here, I have made myself reasonably rich, so it is time to retire as your El Presidente as I cannot destroy neighborhoods I have built for you with loving care.

    Farewell companeros y companeras, I will be back when the road length problem is solved.

    Then, I will build a third stadium on the island and we will host winter Olympic Games!

    Carretera o la Muerte!

  9. Drake Sigar says:

    Would the review be more favourable if you had never played a Tropico game before? I’m in that boat and thinking of getting this.

    • Belsameth says:

      Oh, very much so, I would say. It’s an add-on for Tropico 3 basically, which was a remake of 1 (almost). They’re great games, the small upgrades just don’t warrant the price. I’d say go for it if you enjoy these games and never played Tropico before.

    • megazver says:

      If you’ve never played a Tropico game before then go ahead and buy this, by all means.

    • Stromko says:

      If money is any object, just buy Tropico 3 Gold edition now. It’s 20$ instead of 40$. It’s a lovely game and will occupy you for a long time if you like this sort of game. I’ve put 60 hours in and that’s just on the two campaigns (halfway through the expansion now). By time you’re done with it, and once again yearn to rule your own island, buy Tropico 4 + its expansion for 20$. An expansion should make it an actually worthwhile upgrade. You’ll end up with a lot more game for your money.

      The only thing Tropico 4 looks to offer is a new set of missions. There’s no reason you wouldn’t play the base game before getting an expansion if the base game is good, right?

      Seriously even the graphics are the exact same, they just changed the camera filter. FFS.

  10. Jumwa says:

    With Tropico 3 I always kind of “RPed” my way to rebel action. I’d, say, play my game with a certain distaste for a particular group. I’d align myself very strictly with a certain faction or factions.

    I’ve learned that not all games are designed to give you complications when you min-max them to death. In those cases, once you’re done mastering the game, you make things fun by spicing them up. All the more so in open games such as this, where you have so much freedom to do as you will.

    Fine article, that’s just something that’s bothered me for a while. When I mastered Megaman X as a kid, I didn’t throw down the controller and say “Done! Easy!” I started playing without getting any unnecessary upgrades. Made the game fun and challenging again.

    • The Sombrero Kid says:

      Yeah I expect the idea isn’t to make it easy for people willing to sate the demands of every faction, I think the idea is to make it possible to win by refusing to deal with certain political groups, i’ve not played it though but it does intrigue me.

    • Jumwa says:

      Exactly. Most people aren’t hardcore gamers who like to min-max and only play in the optimum method.

      For instance, I think if a game series like the Elder Scrolls were done too strictly like that, you’d lose the ability to create bizarre characters with weird mixes of skills and preferences. You’d have to play things the optimal way, and not do whatever quirky things popped into your mind.

      Similarly, in past Tropico games, I feel if you tightened up the difficulty too much you’d lose the ability to be a whacko dictator whose sworn enemy were the intelligentsia, and spent most of their time constructing statues and monuments to themselves while fending off rebels against your insane machinations.

    • Archonsod says:

      The question is how you want to win yeah. If you take a balanced, min-max approach you can probably keep everyone happy *enough* to coast over the finish line with a nice little nest egg in Switzerland. It’s not as much fun as tearing over the finish line with 90% of your nations GDP for your entire reign in your Swiss bank account though; or creating a Communist paradise, or outlawing the religious faction and attempting to purge society.
      Scoring plays into it, generally speaking finishing with a balanced island doesn’t tend to give you as high a score as skewing horribly towards one side or another. Especially once Absolute Power came out – you can now get points for being an insane dictator too.

    • Jumwa says:

      Strange nobody has mentioned this before Archonsod! The game itself doesn’t counter victory as running a fair and balanced nation. It counts victory as leaving office with a huge sum of embezzled cash in your Swiss bank account. I forgot this myself, as my last game I disregarded that and just went for establishing a religion-free, Communist utopia without corruption.

      So I suppose you could say the game is easy if you don’t set out to actually “win” by its standards. Which is a strange notion, as of course every game could qualify as easy if you didn’t consider winning a goal.

  11. Caspian says:

    I rather like Mr Zacny’s style of writing, fits in nicely with John, Jim and Alec’s approach. More please.

  12. oceanclub says:

    I bought Tropico 3 on sale and played it for a while, but never took to it in the same way that I like Grand Ages: Rome. I just found the feedback baffling contradictory in places; by some metrics, I was earning money yet could see it rapidly dwindling. I much preferred the GA:R setings and just found it more straightforward to get to grips with. Would love if they did another sequel…

    P.

  13. Plinglebob says:

    I’ve tried Tropico games before, but I’ve never been able to get into them due to a combination of being rubbish at stratagy games and being far too nice to be a dictator.

    “most of the fun “dictatorial” gameplay options are only useful in cases of incompetence or pure malice.”

    Just like real life.

    • Wulf says:

      Same here. I love this sort of game and I enjoy picking up the odd one just to support them, visually I think they’re great, and they have a lot of character, but… gah, I suck at them. I suck at them so much. I think it’s due to the whole poor sight thing. It’s a lot of information to stay abreast of if one has poor sight.

      Still. I enjoy trying! Just as I do with Sword of the Stars. And I completely suck at that, too. But the Liir compel me to play.

  14. Daave says:

    Wouldn’t D-Day in reverse be Dunkirk?

    • RobZacny says:

      Haha, an excellent point, and one I considered. But I wanted to communicate a wave of people charging across a beach toward waiting boats. Dunkirk, for whatever reason, I simply imagine being rather more deliberate.

  15. samsharp99 says:

    Having played Tropico 1/2 and recently re-playing the main campaign for Tropico 3 (never got around to the dlc campaign) I actually like Tropico 4.

    Yes – it’s very similar, and I agree with what has been said about the game isn’t particularly challenging (sometimes your economy has ups and downs) because it’s generally pretty easy to keep people happy enough that you don’t have to declare martial law and having hundreds of soldiers etc. I was quite happy with that and treating it more as a city building game.

    I do feel that there have been significant improvements in Tropico 4 – I really like the new objectives gameplay mechanic – not knowing what you nee to do to complete each mission (unlike how it is laid out at the start in tropico 3) and there are some daft objectives thrown in (e.g. build 10 docks so you can escape the island :D ) and the campaign is a lot more continuous and makes sense – rather than just ‘play a bunch of islands’.

    I like the new buildings – e.g. the ministry and how some edicts can only be issued if you have the right minister etc. and the rewards you get makes it worthwhile hiring someone good.

    You also get more feedback – being able to see what types of tourists you attract, more information on how your farms are doing and being able to see who lives in what houses in the lists section of the almanac is cool.

    For someone that hasn’t played any of the tropico series – tbh, there probably isn’t enough of a reason to persuade you from picking up 3 cheaply over buying 4 – but if you bought 3 cheaply now, you would also enjoy 4 later down the line.

  16. fn8rd says:

    Speaking of Roleplaying: Tropico 1 once roleplayed itself into my heart by rating my performance in the end-of-game sequence with “You have created a socialist paradise”. One of the finest moments in my gaming life :)
    Does anybody know if this iteration of the game does this too? Does it give a narrated rating of your rule, commenting on your roleplaying style – you know: it could have told me “You have played the most panamaniam of games … too sad they sent an invasion force” and i would have been just as happy. Ehm. Nearly ;)

  17. cw8 says:

    Where the hell is Juanito??

  18. SLeigher says:

    Holy shit! It’s Rob Zacny, does this mean RPS is international now?

    • Daiv says:

      Paltry internationality? RPS has always been interplanetary. It’s just that the rest of the human race hasn’t expanded across the solar system enough to take advantage of this feature.

  19. Navagon says:

    I hope you stick around, Zacny . I like your style.

  20. Erithtotl says:

    The revolution sounds so awesome, kind of sucks that the game is not more challenging. this is not the first review I’ve read complaining that it’s too easy to make all the factions happy. I assume there is no difficulty levels you can increase?

    • Severian says:

      If it’s anything like Tropico 3, yes it is too easy. You can adjust lots of difficult sliders when setting up an open-sandbox game (like how much good soil your island will have, how much rain, how elevated, etc.), but ultimately, it’s too easy to generate lots of cash and then build everything you need to satisfy everyone. As Rob points out in this review, there aren’t enough instances where if you build one thing to satisfy one faction, you piss off another faction. That type of tension would make this series much more interesting and offer diverse pathways to “victory”.

  21. Severian says:

    Thanks for this review, Rob. I hope to see more of you on RPS, since I do so enjoy the Three Moves Ahead podcast and we need more experts battering their heads against the whole “strategy games are dying” thingee that just seems totally absurd to anyone who pays attention to anything.

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