The third Tropico game, this time developed by Haemimont games, has finally washed up on the perfect beaches of my interest. Having messed around with it for a few days, I've found time to issue a diktat. Here's Wot I Think.
There are certain games that it's hard to truly love, but you nevertheless feel fond of. They are acquaintances that you get on with, rather than close friends. The Tropico games have always been like that for me - I was glad to see the series was continuing, because I think it's a game with a usefully dark sense of humour, and one that serves a specific niche of management games that don't demand too much.
The central idea remains the same in this new iteration, and consequently Tropico 3 largely feels like a 3D remake of the original game. Again, it's a kind of black comedy, with secret police, starvation, and violent revolutionary politics all delivered with the same light tough. You're the president of a tiny island nation, and you'll need to make the "right" decisions if you want to stay in control. These decisions might not always be ethical, of course. There are a number of forces at play in Tropico 3's world: the people, the economy, and international politics. The more successful you are economically, the more interested the outside world becomes in helping you. Tropico 3 is broadly set across the backdrop of the Cold War, so you'll have both Soviet and American agents trying to gain influence in your little world. This might come in the form of aid, or it might be channelled through opposition to you on the island. (Which makes for an interesting and malleable safety net early on in the game - you can expect to be bailed out by foreign powers, to the detriment of your standing with them). Ultimately, being pushed from office by elections or violence is an ongoing danger.
The heart of Tropico 3 is in the people who live on the island. Unlike other building games the "policy" side of things is extensive here, and how your president deals with people and factions such as the church are intertwined with the game's basic decisions. This provides an interesting contrast with recent builder, Cities XL, which treats the idea of people rather differently. Both games expect you to build infrastructure so that people will move into your city, but in Cities XL people are more like a resource or information flow: something to be directed and manipulated through building. Tropico 3 meanwhile makes you mindful that people react to the world around them, and may push back if they get pushed. People don't want to live in shanty towns, and tourists won't want to visit an island that is ugly, or which has nothing for them to do. People in Tropico 3 are also influenced by other forces - rivals for your control of the island, such as rebels - so you need to convince them that your way of doing things is best. Consequently you end up seeing Tropico 3 as a kind of cultural management game, where the environment and politics directly impacts on the most important factor, the people, rather than an infrastructural game - which we have with Cities XL - where building dictates the activities of the people who live under your mouse cursor. While Cities XL's online avatar is essentially characterless, here the weird stereotypes and historical figures - or just bizarreness, like top hat and leather-jacket-wearing cigar-smoker "Voodoo Pizzaman" - all factor in to how the island is managed, via explicit traits.
While the most minimal aspects of this are displayed in the tutorial, you end up learning this in the campaign mode, which is an island chain of missions, which opens up as you play. After one introductory mission you're faced with scenarios that illustrate different aspects of the game - staying in office, mastering economics, setting up a tourist haven - before things get tougher. All this is rather like the recent Anno game, especially in that I soon gravitated towards the sandbox mode.
The sandbox also offers a series of islands, each with its own natural resources and topological challenges (limited room on your island is probably the toughest barrier in the entire game), and each one can be set to play out rather differently. The sandbox mode presents you with a series of sliders that allow to adjust exactly the levels of all the key factors in the game: political stability, tourism, world economics, and even random events. If you don't want to have to suppress rebels in your sandbox game you won't have to. It's just the kind of adjustable setup that this kind of game needs, because you're always going to find the kind of scenario you prefer playing when you've pushed your way through a varied campaign mode. Good thing too, because I don't think the campaign will take too long to beat (I'm nearing the end of it and still dabbling in a sandbox game.) That said, it feels like the pace of the game itself could do with work. I've played it at full speed the entire time. "Normal" speed feels like a snail's pace, and getting an economy up and running can take a while. Once you're up to speed there's a lot more to actually do, but that early fallow period can be annoying.
The body of the game is one of serious micromanagement. You need to get the balance of exports just right, although you have no precise control over that. The trick is the types of things your farms produce, and in how well you end up paying the works. These, indirectly, define how the game is going to reward you financially. Tropico 3 is not an epic building game, and the building trees are ultimately rather limited. Where the challenge lies is in performing the kind of balancing act that real politicians face: outside forces versus the constantly fluctuating demands of a restless population. Satisfaction in Tropico 3 comes not from a kind of visionary build, but from mastering the tools at your disposal, getting rich, and staying in office for the duration.
To close I should mention that there's an odd parallel in design elements with Haemimont's other recent title, Grand Ages: Rome, in that the game fails to present information in a totally transparent fashion. (It also boasts the same rather pretty engine) It's all there, but it seems obfuscated. This information opacity seems partly due to the lack of pop-ups on buildings, partly due to the structure of the UI, and partly due to how the game presents its information. Just as in Grand Ages: Rome, it feels as if the information layer of the game - crucial for a management game - just buried awkwardly below the surface. It's not a fatal flaw, by any means, but there is a sense that a better UI would simply have made for a smoother experience. Ease of decision-making is hampered, and that's a vague annoyance that took me a while to identify.
It feels like there are rough edges still being smoothed out, too. The game's autopatcher has updated the last couple of times I've switched it on, and I expect that'll continue for a while. Ultimately, as I said at the beginning, this feels like the return of an welcome acquaintance. I won't be singing its brilliance at the end of the year, but I'll be glad of the few days we spent hanging out. It was a fun time.
Tropico 3 is out now. Get the demo here.