Wot I Think: Tropico 5

By Alec Meer on May 30th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Tropico 5 doesn’t deviate far from the series’ blueprint – real-time city-building on an initially low-tech, low-wealth Caribbean island, with you playing the role of a cartoonish dictator who’s as benign or malign as you care to be, now with a revamped campaign mode and added multiplayer.

I’ve spent a big chunk of this week with it, and have now left its sun-kissed beaches and mouldering tenements to bring you the following report. If it matters, I skipped Tropico 4 so can’t tell you anything about how it compares to that.

Now see here, I do tend to prefer the easy life and for that reason I can grumble at games which require a high degree of exactness. I also don’t like being restricted because a game is determined that I should do things a certain way. As such, neither Banished or Sim City were ever going to be quite to my tastes, try as I might. So here’s jolly old Tropico, proudly bearing a numerical suffix which suggests a series milked to near-death, but then confidently offering me a box full of toys and giving me plenty of time and space in which to investigate them. There is, I must confess, a certain shame to this admission – but Tropico 5 turned out to be pretty much what I’ve been looking for from a city builder these last couple of years.

Straddling a fine line between throwaway silliness and strategic meat, Tropico 5 is much more a game to indulge oneself with rather than to truly love. The same series-long gag – you’re playing the clownish but brutal dictator of a Caribbean island – persists, and frankly it’s a case of It Was Funny The First time. I wasn’t tittering at any point, but very much in the concept’s favour is a consistent sense of amorality.

Usually I find myself gravitating towards social justice warrior behaviour in any given game (or social media), but here I’m all about what builds the best economy, and what keeps me in power in order to keep doing that. Ideally my economy’s so strong that I don’t need to vote-rig or have people killed anyway, but more than a touch of dark utilitarianism crept in. A trouble-making military leader was ‘escorted’ off the island, a group of eco-protesters were bribed into downing their placards so I could retch up more filthy factories, election results were massaged, tenements were further partitioned into grim shoeboxes…

All of that was optional. There are myriad ways around every economic or social hiccup, but sometimes the sinister shortcuts appeal the most. The range of ways to deal with trouble also mean there’s little chance you won’t create a satisfyingly sprawling island city. It’s also highly unlikely that a butterfly effect will see all turn to ruin because of a logjam somewhere.

Which is just as well, as some of the simulation aspects are either opaque or barely-there. This lacks the fancy-pants tools to painstakingly track, say, the flow of traffic or construction workers, opting instead for a generalised red/yellow/green grid to demonstrate the city’s need or appropriateness for broad building categories in various areas. This means that plonking stuff down is a fairly liberated affair, but good luck, buddy, if you want to try and work out what your builders show no interest in erecting that army base in the south west. Sure, it’s about proximity and headcounts and a sharp mayor can be mentally on top of what’s where throughout, but in most cases it comes down to either waiting or spending spare cash on the option to hurry a build.

It’s not really a problem, more a warning that if you like your city-builders painstaking and blessed with simulation analysis tools which drill right into the bone, Tropico 5′s probably going to frustrate you. It works for me because it’s an unhurried game, for the most part free from urgency and big on flexibility.

The exception to that is the combat. Enemy invaders crawl up the beach and swarm around your island being slowly ground away by your guard towers (like a haphazard tower defence game), while any soldiers you might have will amble towards them if you’re lucky. Clearly the game’s trying to avoid a full-on RTS growth sprouting from its well-tanned face, but by forbidding any control of military units its occasional argy-bargies involve either irritatedly waiting it out or frenziedly trying to convince those uncooperative brickies to throw up more guard towers ASAP.

It’s the one truly sour note in an otherwise joyful game, and while fights are only a very occasional occurence, Tropico 5 might just be better off not including any combat, but on the other hand it does tie into one of its more involving features – international politicking. The game progresses through a potted history of the 19th-21st centuries, which means your rickety Caribbean province roars through colonialism, world wars, the Cold War and up to something like the present day. Your island is only a pawn in the globe’s major powers’ largely unseen game, but said powers will show enough financial friendship or aggression based on your behaviour.

This makes for a fairly deft metagame on top of the day-to-day business of building and upgrading – you’re choosing who to associate with or placate based primarily on the economic gain (i.e. trade routes and cash gifts) and secondarily on how likely they are to drop a load of tanks onto your beach. In campaign mode this involves accepting or refusing assorted pop-up quests (e.g. export so much steel, build so many barracks) that please or piss off one foreign power or another, while in sandbox mode it’s more about maximising trade route profits. It’s something to do other than straight-up building, and coupled with a loosely plot-led chain of quests that take you gradually up the tech tree in campaign mode, there’s enough new purpose that this doesn’t feel like another Tropicoal retread.

It looks the part too – all over-saturated colours, golden light and a place teeming with incidental, if simple, life and detail you don’t notice apart from on the rare occasions you zoom all the way in. It doesn’t feel real, but it does feel alive. The soundtrack, meanwhile, sounds like it was designed for an advert for fruit juice, and that is as it should be.

I’ve got to admit that a familiar fatigue set in past a certain point, where the concurrent tasks of bringing in cash, expanding your civ, keeping citizens suitably happy (or their oppression watertight), allies allied and enemies at bay begins to look a little onerous, especially if you’re starting a new game from scratch. The campaign to some degree retains past efforts at least, so there’s relatively little rewinding all the way back to your first scrappy banana plantation there.

Usual proviso though – it is the inevitable fate of any games critic to have to binge-play most games, so there’s every chance Tropico 5 would have retained its vibrancy for longer were I only dipping in and out. I also haven’t looked at the series-first multiplayer yet, which likely shakes things up more. Whether that’s the case or not, I happily indulged myself for many long hours – this is a solid good time.

There are some bum notes both tonally and strategically, Tropico old hands will find the bones of the things over-familiar, and despite having tons of things to fiddle with ultimately it’s hard not call it a lightweight game. I really think it has to be, though.

Tropico 5 is out now.

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45 Comments »

  1. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    If it matters, I skipped Tropico 4 so can’t tell you anything about how it compares to that.

    This is unfortunate, since the big knock on Tropico 5 that I’ve been hearing in pre-release buzz is that it’s not terribly different from Tropico 4, which leads to boredom setting in pretty soon if you’re one of the people who played that one. (I did, and liked it a lot, so maybe “more of the same” is good rather than bad? Who knows.)

    Of course, the big knock on Tropico 4 was that it was not terribly different from Tropico 3

    • iucounu says:

      It is, I fear, a bit of a problem for an otherwise good review that it doesn’t address the issue of whether it’s terribly different to 4, or indeed whether 5 addresses the issues of 4 (in that, for example, it’s pretty easy to be a benevolent dictator and never to have to get your hands dirty.)

      • Tacroy says:

        The Tropico games have always been super easy to play optimally, the fun is in playing sub-optimally but still making it work.

      • Jason Lefkowitz says:

        Yeah, exactly. Like the combat, for instance — the combat system in Tropico 4 was pretty dire too, but that didn’t really matter much because it was easy enough to keep the people and the superpowers satisfied enough that you never had to face an actual armed enemy.

      • thelucster says:

        I was hoping for this too, from the graphics it looks pretty much the same other than some new content. There don’t seem to be any reviews that really compare them, but looking through forums there seem to be a few changes that affect gameplay quite a bit.

        • Archonsod says:

          It’s a bigger departure from the formula than 4 was, though it’s still built around the same core ideas. Personally I find it different enough to be refreshing, while familiar enough to still be comfortable.

          Direct comparison of the changes is difficult. For the most part they’ve simplified some aspects while fleshing out others. Employment is a good example; you don’t set wages in buildings anymore, instead each building has a budget level. Increasing the budget increases the income of the workers (which is now simplified to levels rather than actual amounts, from poor to filthy rich) and also increases the efficiency of the buildings. On top of this you can also add a manager (if you discover any Tropicans with the relevant skills) who will affect the operation of the building in a number of ways.

          I’d agree with the criticism regarding the interface. It’s somewhat unintuitive and digging into the data is a chore at best. For example I got one mission to banish a certain number of crime lords from the island. The only way I could find to determine if a Tropican was a crime lord or not was to go to the faction screen and scroll down the list of individual members where those who were crime lords were marked as such. This information doesn’t seem to be recorded in the list of Tropicans for some reason.

          Apart from that though I can’t say I have any complaints. It’s close enough to Tropico 3/4 to say if you enjoyed those you’ll enjoy this, while adding and fleshing out enough features to make it feel like a proper sequel rather than a rehash.

    • Tacroy says:

      Tropico 3 was basically Tropico 1 except with cars, they learned their lesson after Tropico 2 tanked.

      • Rich says:

        It’s a shame because Tropico 2 was an interesting idea. It was bloody frustrating though, when your ships got lost and basically destroyed your economy. Also finding space for all those houses was a pain in the arse.

        • The Random One says:

          Tropico 2 was the one in pirate times, right? I’d bet real money that the One Big Expansion 5 will get (like 4 got Modern Times) will be setting the starting date to the 1700′s and adding pirates to it. It just makes sense.

          • davethejuggler says:

            Tropico 2 was indeed the pirate one. I still listen to the soundtrack for it every now and then. Loved it! I hadn’t realised that it tanked. Shame, it was a great variation on the theme and clearly they’ve shied away from trying new settings because of it.

            I’m gonna skip this despite being a massive tropico fan. Sounds way too much like an expansion pack to 4.

          • secuda says:

            Yea that would boost up the DLC if more of them was like modern times.

    • RaveTurned says:

      Indeed – I skipped 4 because I’d played 3 to death. I wonder if the enough time has passed and sufficient changes have been made that 5 will feel– well, maybe not fresh but like a welcome return.

      I miss the swashbuckling antics of Tropico 2. The pirate economy was an interesting reversal from standard city-builder mechanics that I think games could explore further.

    • sabasNL says:

      I believe Tropico 5 was a bigger step from Tropico 4 than Tropico 4 was from Tropico 3.
      Tropico 5 is probably my favourite due to having adressed some issues in 3 and 4. I’ve never been able to really enjoy 4, somehow.

    • novagoon says:

      Yeah, this of all games needed a different reviewer- nobody at RPS realizes this?

      • drewski says:

        Because the billions of people who also didn’t play Tropico 4 don’t deserve to read any relevant reviews?

    • Carra says:

      Even though Tropico 4 is a *lot* like Tropico 3 I still finished it and its expansion and had a lot of fun doing it.

      So I’ll probably pick this one up later on.

  2. cheaperthansteam says:

    I think this would be one of my favorite city building sims. But I wish the graphic is much more better than this. And it’s only $39 here: http://tinyurl.com/CheaperThanSteam

    • Frank says:

      ^ spam for that site that had a tiff with Devolver Digital the other week. Some sort of steam key scammery

      • Bull0 says:

        Haven’t we all wished the graphic is much more better than this at one time or another

      • AngoraFish says:

        Another vote for link-spam here. Referral link plugging a commission.

    • Chalky says:

      This is spam, please delete it.

  3. Jimbo says:

    I only got around to playing Tropico 4 (with expansions and DLC stuff included) recently, and between that and Tropico 5 I would have to say that the former is still slightly the better of the two.

    T5 does have some improvements –mainly the improved trade system– but I’m finding the way the campaign just alternates between two persistent islands to be a real slog. Apparently there are 2 more islands later in the campaign but I’ve been alternating between the first two for what feels like forever. The missions also soon cease to be remotely challenging as your island is (or should be) still an economic powerhouse from the last mission you used it on.

    The Dynasty system seems tacked on and effectively pointless, which means that the Swiss Bank Account mechanic (basically XP for your dynasty members) also continues to be pointless. It would perhaps be better and more engaging if levelling up your dynasty members allowed you to unlock non-critical building types, better roads, building upgrades and additional trade routes etc., rather than simply giving you x% off of build costs or something equally dull.

    • MaXimillion says:

      Yeah, the campaign goes through 4 islands in total, whereas T4 had (IIRC) 20 missions each on a new island. Made the campaign a lot more interesting IMO.

      • Banjo-Tuesday says:

        Trop 4 had 10 different maps repeated over 20 missions AFAIK.

  4. Bobtree says:

    I’m liking Tropico 5 much more than 3, but guessing I won’t end up loving it the way I did the richly detail oriented original (with its amazing soundtrack). I’m only halfway through the campaign on medium, so whether it turns out to be great in a high difficulty sandbox remains to be seen. Either way it’s enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the rough spots getting patched up.

  5. maquis196 says:

    I’ll buy this one Linux version comes out. They said its coming, ill wait till then.

  6. JonClaw says:

    Biggest issue for me is have they done anything to the AI. The construction worker AI in T3 and T4 were slackers regardless of how much you paid them; I’d usually find myself always paying for “quick build”.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      This is so much better in 5. Building seems to happen quicker, and there are either more workers or they are just faster. It is much less frustrating and you’re never just sitting there wondering, “WTF are my builders doing?!”

  7. Jerppa says:

    “The construction worker AI in T3 and T4 were slackers regardless of how much you paid them”

    Most realistic building games ever!

    EDIT: This was meant for JonClaw…

  8. HadToLogin says:

    Played campaign and had lots of fun until one level decided not to load for me :(

    • Danarchist says:

      If its on the Boa-Boa island there is a workaround for it. Simply create a sandbox game on that island and then you will be able to load the campaign map again. Ran into that myself.

      • HadToLogin says:

        Other map.

        Tried that, doesn’t work. I think it does load (at least from time to time), but it just don’t skip LOADING menu – I can hear sound of new missions or radio talk or Penultimo informing me about attack.

        Hopefully it’s not a problem with my previous campaign mission, something saved bad and now game somewhat crashes because of some save corruption…

  9. Lanfranc says:

    Okay, great, but let’s get to the most important question: Is Juanito back in the game or not? >:-|

  10. Danarchist says:

    Did not see Juanito yet and I am fairly far in ;) Also the multiplayer does not have a save feature, which is a huge oversight.

    I enjoy this new rendition quite a bit, it is actually a big improvement over 4. The ages have a big effect on gameplay and the edicts have a good balance of cost and benefit. There is quite a bit more combat in this one however so do not forget to build those guard towers, and upgrade to machine guns when possible!
    The music is awesome, although I wish they had more than 4 or 5 songs as this is a game I tend to sit and play for multiple hours at a time.
    The trade routes can be a bit cluttery and you do need to check them monthly to avoid missing a big pay day somewhere. I also found the number of houses I was required to build daunting and honestly a bit micro manage y in a game that does not cater to that kind of game play. I was a bit confused figuring out what is pissing off who and why when your trying to raise your popularity. Great game, sunk over a dozen hours so far and still look forward to playing it in the evenings. My wife shaking her booty to the music every time she walks past me doesn’t hurt either ;)

  11. Cryptoshrimp says:

    Tell me one thing: Can you place the farm fields or do they still randomly pop up in the worst places?

    • Carra says:

      You could plant your fields in Tropico 4 so I’d assume you still can.

    • MaXimillion says:

      Plantations take up a large rectangular space for fields now, which they need to use fully to get maximum efficiency.

  12. The Random One says:

    It’s too bad if it’s still too easy. That removes all the fun of being a fair dictator, since you’re pretty much just doing what’s best for the game, and removes all the fun of being an evil oppressor, since you’re pretty much being Stupid Evil.

    • Vinraith says:

      If you still have control over the economic, political, and overall difficulty as you used to in setting up a sandbox game, I’m not sure how “too easy” can really be a problem. Unless you’re saying it’s too easy when those are cranked up to max?

      • The First Door says:

        Well, if it was anything like Tropico 4, they could be meaning the campaign is much too easy? As much as I loved T4, I just ended up getting bored with it as it didn’t through enough spanners in the works, so playing became very mechanical.

  13. Maxheadroom says:

    Having not played any of the previous Troipcos, would this be a good one to jump in with?

    • jimbobjunior says:

      I’d not played any before, and I’m enjoying it. So yeah, if you think it’s your thing go for it!

    • Jimbo says:

      Yeah, I’d say so.

  14. mr.black says:

    I, for one, liked Tr4 more than Tr3, though I must say I did like the 3rd one, but didn’t play it to death. Tr4 seemed very similar in gameplay design, but the overall presentation was way more tight and slick. I liked the new UI, I liked the campaign and all the dialogues, the smooth tongue-in-cheek humor – again, more of the same, but slightly better, I liked the larger number of new buildings, once I had the expansion, etc.
    So I can say Tr5 is a greater step sideways. The eras add needed diversity to the gameplay. The building placing has become more universalised – the building plots are almost always like Lego 2 x 4, 4 x 4, 4 x 6, etc, divided into neat and tidy squares, there’s no more tiny gaps between two buildings. Which is a double-edged sword, I think. OCDers can fill the entire grid with neat rows of stuff without a single empty square, though the city looks kinda like a Match 3 grid in the end. All to tidy, not organic enough.
    Humor holds, but it isn’t as smooth as before so far; graphically, textures are a bit more detailed and look nicer, though lots of tiny effects are lost – no more tiny animals around the island, or chickens around the shacks..
    One thing I don’t like – the music is far more cheap, seems there’s less of it and it very quickly becomes repetitive, opposed to awesome Tr3 and great Tr4 tracks.
    All in all, if you like the franchise and aren’t oversaturated by it, by all means, go for it! Alternatively, there’s gonna inevitably be a series of DLCs and a probable expansion or two, so later there’s gonna inevitably happen a GOTY ed., or a Bundle, or a Steam sale, so you could snatch it then.