Tropico takes the tried-and-true formula of careful micro-management and gives it an entertaining twist by placing you squarely in the role of the newly installed dictator of a small Caribbean country. The designer's approach is a light-hearted, but still appropriately deep, alternative to games taking a more serious tact.
Starting up a new game brings you to a "dictator selection" screen, where you scroll through a substantial list of (mostly) real Latin American rulers from the last century. The list includes luminaries like Che Guevara, Evita Peron, and Papa Doc Duvalier, as well as the unbelievably amusing option of playing as Lou Bega, the infamous one-hit wonder responsible for " Mambo #5."
Playing through the tutorial is an excellent way to get acquainted with Tropico's personal take on the genre. Your second-in-command walks you through most aspects of the game, from building construction to arranging for your citizens' individual happiness, while you become generally acquainted with the layout of the interface. The screen is divided into a main play area, occupying the top three-quarters of the display, and a control area filled with icons representing the game's commands, as well as the categories and sub-categories of orders to give your subjects.
Figuring out Tropico's gameplay should be relatively simple, especially to those familiar with most other games in the genre, with a few notable exceptions. The primary goal is to build a pleasant little island empire by erecting a large number of buildings, managing resources, and preparing for possible invasion. However, a substantial difference between this and a title like WarCraft is that, here, each individual citizen has statistics indicating his or her personal goals, skills, and overall happiness. As you might imagine, when you have a few dozen people's needs to keep track of, things can get a little tricky.
While citizens perform many tasks without direction, you must give them incentives to actually do any real work. If you set your wages too low in an individual enterprise, you may find that no one shows up for work. Conversely, if you declare a state of martial law in your empire, you might get everyone working industriously, but it won't win you any friends. In addition to keeping track of your citizens, your relationship with the two other world powers in the game, the United States and Russia, can also affect gameplay. If, for example, the U.S. loves you and funnels money into your accounts, management becomes considerably easier.
As if tracking international relations and individual citizenry isn't enough, there are also several factions (communists, capitalists, and the educated), within your borders, each with their own agendas, that will not waste any time voicing their outrage at your regime if they're not kept happy. Various calamities can befall your loyal subjects in much the same way as SimCity, although having a giant monster attack is not one of them. Mark that one down as a break for the dictator.
Fortunately, you'll have some pleasant scenery to view as you manage your land. The tropical atmosphere of Tropico is conveyed through a standard, but nicely detailed, isometric view of the action. Your people never stop moving as they till the soil, perform backbreaking labor, or ride in boats. The landscape changes appropriately with each citizen's actions.
The soundtrack to this wonderful bit of lunacy is just about the happiest bit of up-tempo Latin music imaginable, fitting in perfectly with the atmosphere. It might not be the kind of music you'd want to blow your speakers on, but it fits in perfectly with gameplay. The sound effects, from your Spanish speaking citizen's dialogue to the ambient sounds of a small village, also fit the mood well, though perhaps more effort could have been spent on the quantity.
The main problem with Tropico is the game's unforgiving nature at times, even when you're playing on some of the easiest difficulty settings, and especially if you play on anything but the slowest game setting. Years can fly by in the span of minutes, and you'll have no idea why your citizenry is suddenly in arms. Beyond that, the entire scope of the game occasionally seems a bit too broad.
The micro-management of an entire island and its buildings and sociopolitical trends is already a fairly daunting task, but when you have to deal with each individual citizen's wants and needs, the chore becomes even more potentially frustrating. The Sims, where you only have to control a handful of citizens at a time, can be maddening enough; fortunately, there's considerably less involved in keeping Tropico citizens happy, but the level of overall control can be tough to manage.
Tropico provides a refreshing take on an otherwise tired genre. While personality alone is not reason enough to buy any game, the humor and level of detail in Tropico certainly makes it a worthwhile investment. Strategy fans or those who secretly desire to grow bananas for a living will be captivated. Newcomers to this style of game, though, may want to stick to a title with less micro-management, such as Caesar or even Command & Conquer.
Graphics: While the island of Tropico and its inhabitants can hardly be called "breathtaking," the presentation is palatable and the attention to detail with individual character's clothing and some buildings' architecture is quite impressive.
Sound: Nothing gets your toes tapping quite like an upbeat Latin horn section layered over some traditional percussion. The musical variety in Tropico never fails to please, granting a joyous, mellow atmosphere to the entire game. The sound effects, while not quite as entertaining, are still certainly acceptable, and the ambient village sounds are respectable.
Enjoyment: Sadly, the sum of Tropico is in some ways not fully equal to its parts, as the sheer number of factors to concentrate on during gameplay take a little away from the enjoyment. Likewise, the difficulty associated with the multi-faceted control makes gameplay a bit less fun than it should be otherwise. Playing in "sandbox" mode with infinite money certainly takes away a lot of the pressure, but of course it also diminishes the fun factor.
Replay Value: Not only can you change the victory conditions of a scenario in a wide variety of outlandish ways, you can also change the lay of the land to your heart's content. Add to that the multitude of different character traits available for your leader and a healthy replay factor is ensured.
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