While it may not shiver the timbers of devoted Cold War dictators, Pirate Cove does a mite more than simply slap an eye patch and a peg leg on the old Tropico game engine. This may not seem to be the case at first, since many of the sequel's changes are subtle, and fans of the original will immediately recognize the graphical style and gameplay conventions. Yet in spite of its undeniable expansion-pack feel, Pirate Cove delivers more than just a new setting. It delivers a different kind of gameplay. A few, seemingly minor tweaks make this version of Tropico feel less like a social simulation, and more like an elaborate puzzle game.
This is due, in part at least, to the way the game treats its subject matter. Much more than the original Tropico, Pirate Cove takes liberties with its setting and characters, presenting believable history when it's convenient to the overall game design and unabashed revision when it is not. The game's main characters are a homogenized mix of actual pirates from the 18th and 19th centuries and made-up sailors from popular works of fiction. The Pirate Cove characters seem designed primarily to be fun and comfortable to play with. They don't represent an accurate simulation of 17th century Caribbean culture; certainly not in the same way that the original Tropico put forth its 20th century version of the region.
The odd mix of racy subject matter and political correction in Pirate Cove is entertaining and consistent, but lacks the straight-faced presentation that added an edgy layer of authenticity to the original Tropico. It is not that the sequel's characters are bland. It could be said that these pirates and captives have even more personality than the inhabitants of the first Tropico game, but in the same way that a comic book superhero has more personality than a real-life police officer. The characters in Pirate Cove are designed to fit the gameplay -- not the other way around -- and because of this, it is easier to think of them theoretically, as pieces to be placed around a game board, instead of little virtual people with human wants and needs.
Aside from the setting and characters, a few changes to the gameplay itself also make Pirate Cove feel more abstract, and less like a direct representation of island management. As insignificant as it may sound, the most important gameplay modification concerns roads. Unlike the slow but more realistic development model of the original Tropico, nearly all structures in Pirate Cove must be built with road access. Island citizens, both captives and pirates, use these roads almost exclusively to move around the island. Roads are now free of cost and they can be laid down instantly, so the player doesn't need to spend resources or wait several game months for workers to get around to building them.
This change makes Pirate Cove reminiscent of an old Impressions city-building game, such as Caesar or Pharaoh. Actually it might be more accurate to say this Tropico sequel plays like we always wished the Impressions games did. Even though traffic can be easily steered by the wise placement of roads, Pirate Cove characters have good AI and never fall victim to the woes of Impressions' simplistic one-way walkers. Pirate Cove's new system of instant road creation gives players much more control over the way their subjects move around the island. This is very important, because Pirate Cove's two types of inhabitants, captives and pirates, react very differently according to the environments through which they walk.
It is in the need to account for these different reactions that Pirate Cove is most unlike the original life simulation, and more like a puzzle game. Three environmental factors strongly influence the happiness and productivity of each island inhabitant: the level of defense, the level of fear, and the balance between order and chaos. Pirates like areas that are well defended, are indifferent toward areas designed to produce fear, and dislike order. Conversely, captives need fear (to keep them properly oppressed), ignore defense, and dislike chaos. A different blend of defense, fear, and order or chaos emanates from nearly every structure built.
Adjusting the levels of defense, fear, and order or chaos in different areas (and planning the layout of roads that move through these areas) becomes the focus of play in Pirate Cove. Since the player now has a great deal of control over where different characters will be spending their time as they perform their daily duties, the key to success is in developing the island's infrastructure such that each pirate and captive is most positively affected by the environments of his or her most commonly frequented areas.
This can be trickier than it sounds. For example, a gambling den emanates chaos, making its surrounding area more pleasant for the pirates who patronize it. But a functioning gambling den also requires captive laborers, who will be more tempted to try to escape each time they pass through its chaotic aura on their way to work. Likewise, the player's pirate mansion emanates fear and order, which is great for the sublimation of nearby captives, but discouraging for pirates who might be assigned to work there as guards.
Aside from the obvious but mostly inconsequential differences in content, and the minor but far-reaching modifications to the methods of island development, much of what made the original Tropico so engaging is left intact here. The dynamic island ecology, the building-by-building methods of labor management, and even the impressively accessible online journal of game information all look, feel, and function just as they did in the original game. Like any pirate worth his grog, Tropico 2 commandeers the best assets of its predecessor. It adapts to what is already there far more as often than it revolutionizes, or builds anything new of its own.
It is probably for the best that these proven game elements are unchanged, but it also leads to the most obvious complaint about this release. In spite of its new content and subtle tweaks, Pirate Cove will not feel like a new game to anyone who played the original. It will feel like a mod. A clever, polished mod -- a mod that would have made a fine retail expansion pack -- but a mod nonetheless, and not worthy of its status as a full-fledged sequel. Tropico fans with the proper abstract mindset and sense of humor will find a treasure chest of new challenges in this safe harbor, but may be a little disappointed at how closely the sequel follows the course set by the original instead of presenting new adventures in uncharted waters.
Graphics: Graphics are of the same style and quality as those of the original Tropico game. New artwork and animations are entertaining enough, and appropriate to the pirate theme.
Sound: Character acknowledgments and voice-overs are plentiful and good. Pirate Cove doesn't offer the truly superlative selection of songs found in the original game, but it comes close. The soundtrack features an upbeat mix of steel drums and chanteys that never seems to grow old.
Enjoyment: Provides more than just a face-lift to the original Tropico, but not a whole lot more. Subtle changes make Pirate Cove play like Impressions' Caesar or Pharaoh, compared to the original game's SimCity-style. Players may have more direct control over their islands' inhabitants, but less emotional attachment to them.
Replay Value: The series of single-player scenarios is long and varied. As in the original game, a number of adjustable parameters allow gamers to set up a wide variety of custom "sandbox" challenges.
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