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Wot I Think: Tropico 5

Totally Dictatorial

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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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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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