Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tropico 4: Review

Version Reviewed: 1.04 (Steam Special Edition)
What I like: Abundant choices, pleasant visuals with good performance, clear objectives.
Not So Much: Most scenarios play out very similarly, ease of campaign decreases importance of making good choices.
Other stuff you may like: Should appeal to fans of the series. Game may have longer-lasting appeal for players who enjoy the ‘sandbox’ play.
The Verdict: C   (average)

Can probably add a couple points if you enjoy the sandbox play more.

About my reviews

Official site:
Tropico 4

What are you doing surfing the internet when you should be using your fishing net for the good of our fellow Tropicans? Sorry, I’ve gotten used to being the benevolent dictator of my own series of tropical islands. Tropico 4 is a fairly detailed, but light-hearted city (island)-builder. Providing jobs, housing, medical care and entertainment are some of the main responsibilities as I oversee my island nation. If you decide to become an island dictator be sure to bring your hardhat, because building different structures is your primary tool for meeting your subject’s needs. Let enough citizens become displeased with your rule and your political authority will be challenged by rebels. Make sure you have a strong economy, because money is power.

Getting Started
Between the 4 scenario tutorial campaign and the manual, new players should feel comfortable jumping in and starting the campaign. The user interface does a respectable job of providing enough information to make informed choices and the controls are intuitive. The campaign scenarios are pretty easy to win, so there shouldn’t be too many worries about getting overwhelmed.

The two modes of play are sandbox mode and the 20 scenario campaign. Sandbox mode consists of selecting a premade map, or generating one based on several parameters. Further customization is available to tailor the difficulty to suit your style of play – the political stability, economic difficulty, tourism difficulty, starting population, frequency of random events, and number of turns can all be adjusted via sliders. The player can also chose a prominent faction to inhabit the island, whether immigration is allowed to your island, and more.

The campaign unlocks in a linear fashion. You must win the first scenario before moving onto the next one. I have played through 12 out of the 20 scenarios and winning hasn’t been a problem. The objectives for each scenario are displayed in the bottom right corner of the screen. As you complete one objective, others may unlock and get added to the list. A time limit is usually not imposed, so the player is rarely rushed. While there are a variety of tasks to perform I found that they rarely had a big effect on how I proceeded. I may have had to build a particular building or industry sooner than usual, but that was it for the most part. Build the economy and complete the tasks. Next.

Game Play
There are a lot of different aspects to Tropico 4, so I’ll go into depth with some and gloss over others. Otherwise this long review would grow to unmanageable proportions.

The controls are simple to use. Move the mouse to the edge of the screen to pan the view, use the mouse wheel to zoom, and the middle mouse button to rotate the view. Keyboard shortcuts also exist for those with an aversion to rodents. Three game speeds are available, along with a pause function, so you can take things at your own pace even though this is a real-time game.

Your Fearless Leader
Premade characters are available, such as Fidel Castro, or you can customize you own. There are a wide variety of traits to select that provide different bonuses for your leader. Some improve the productivity of certain industries, while others make it easier to keep certain factions happy. You can try to tailor them to the current scenario, but since I don’t want to be bothered by the USA and USSR I tend to stick with those that help keep them happy. As you gain experience with these traits over multiple scenarios their benefits increase.

We the People
The people of Tropico go about their daily business in a weird time scale (they may stay at church for a month, take two months to travel to work, etc…). They rest at their living quarters, go to work, and try to fulfill individual needs. If a garage is available from their departure point, they will take a car and use the roads if it is quicker then traveling by foot. Efficient placement of buildings ensures your citizens don’t waste a lot of time traveling, allowing them to help maximize your profits with their work for the state. A poor road and garage network causes the travelers to waste time sitting in their cars. I haven’t run into many problems even though I’m not overly anal about my road network.

As already mentioned, each of your citizens have needs they try to fulfill (food, rest, faith, fun and health), which map to different happiness categories. Periodically they try to satisfy each need by visiting the pertinent structure and when they can’t, their happiness in that category decreases. Each service structure has a limited capacity, so if it is full your other Tropicans are out of luck until somebody leaves. As your population grows additional service providers will need to be built to keep up with demand. Balancing your income with the expense of providing these services is an important part of the game.

Other happiness factors are affected by where they live and work (crime safety, environment, liberty, and job). Each person also has three happiness categories that have a larger affect on their overall happiness. If a person isn’t happy, then they may become a rebel. If all this seems overwhelming, don’t worry. I have been successful at Tropico without worrying about happiness at the individual level. The almanac provides happiness numbers for your population as a whole, so you can see which needs require attention. For example, if healthcare satisfaction is low it may be time to build a new clinic or make sure your current one is fully staffed.

Individuals are further differentiated by their traits, which control how quickly they can learn new skills, how likely they will become rebels when unhappy, how likely they will become faction leader or an opposing presidential candidates. There are 4 education levels a person can have in Tropico (none, grade school, high school, and college), which improves the rate at which new skills are learned and determines what jobs they are eligible to take. If you can afford to provide education through building schools and the literacy edict, your dependence on importing foreign workers will decrease. Making these types of decisions is one of the enjoyable aspects to playing Tropico.

It’s the Economy Stupid
The most basic need is food, so you need to either grow it or import it. There are 7 crops, but only 4 of them provide food. Each crop has its own preferred climate. The crop condition overlay displays which locations are good for each crop. Plant the farm in optimal conditions and it will flourish. Production will decrease as conditions worsen as farming also depletes the soil. The horticulture station will improve the surrounding farm’s output. How it helps farms is not clear in the documentation.

Mining and lumberjacking provides further access to natural resources and also provides jobs for the uneducated. The environmentalist faction won’t be too pleased with this type of job since they decrease your island’s natural beauty and generate pollution. These factors can be somewhat mitigated by passing industry pollution standards (an edict), or building landfills to provide a home for your nation’s trash.

Your basic farming and mining industries can provide inputs to more sophisticated industries. For example, pineapples and coffee can be canned, gold crafted into jewelry, etc… These jobs require at least a high school education, so it is best if you can build a high school to educate the masses. Otherwise you will need to spend your hard-earned money (well at least your people work hard) to import foreign specialists who are educated. The nationalist faction won’t be pleased by the foreigners taking the jobs in their homeland, so you will need to find other ways to keep them happy. These industrial building have upgrades available, which may improve productivity and working conditions, reduce pollution, etc… The supply chains are not very complex, but do give you tools to improve the strength of your economy.

Some of the more advanced buildings require purchase of blueprints before you can build them and/or have electricity available. Electricity can be produced from several types of power plants and/or wind turbines, with the latter being more environmentally friendly, but having a high upkeep.

With over 100 different types of buildings to chose from (in total, not just buildings related to the economy), there is a nice variety in what can be built. Some buildings have different modes of operation (such as running a sweat shop or a more relax work day), so along with their upgrades there are numerous ways to tweak how your country is run.

Your citizens earn money through the jobs you provide or your generosity (the social security edict). This money is spent on meeting their needs. Since you control their wages and set the prices for services, what they can afford is in your hands. A citizen that can’t afford to meet their needs is a likely target for rebel recruitment.

As you can see, there are many aspects to keeping you economy humming and your people happy. If your treasury becomes empty you can borrow money, but this displeases the superpowers (see Politics below). Another option is to fire up the print presses and make more money! If it were only so easy, as printing money raises the future costs due to inflation.

Growing Your Workforce
There are two ways to increase the available number of workers, having babies born on your island or through immigration. Your hospitals and clinics can be set to increase the birthrate of your women, but waiting for the children to grow up so you can put them to work is a slow process. In a longer scenario or in sandbox mode your patience can pay off. Immigration allows your workforce to quickly expand, but also requires the island’s service infrastructure to keep up.

If you keep your subjects happy, they will vote for you to remain in power during the next election. If not it is game-over. Luckily, there are ways to influence the results. Election speeches can change the minds of your pliable voters to get you the numbers you need. Breaking your promises can lead to future trouble, but you can worry about that later, right? For the less honorable dictator, tampering with the election results is always an option. There is always some subjectivity in how a hanging chad is counted!

There are 8 political factions pushing their agendas which influence the happiness of their members. The almanac lets you track what is making the faction happy and what isn’t. This is welcome feedback, as guessing what game designers decided to model isn’t usually fun. For example, affordable housing is required to keep the communists happy, while the environmentalists get upset with high levels of pollution. Each faction can offer up tasks to improve your standing with them. Either I am a naturally-gifted dictator, or keeping the factions happy is too easy an endeavor.

If keeping your own people satisfied isn’t enough, you must also manage your relationship with the US, USSR, EU, China, and the Middle East. Good relations mean getting favorable trade prices. Let your relationship suffer and they may embargo you. Superpowers (USA and USSR) may also decide to invade your island if your relationship hits rock bottom. Build a nuclear program or an alliance with the other superpower to protect your rule from this outcome. Like factions, these foreign powers may provide tasks to be completed to gain their support.

The User Interface
The UI usually does a good job at providing relevant information, but could be improved in several areas. In most cases, the player would like to focus his production on the most profitable exports, so it would be nice to be able to sort exports in the ledger by price. Optimal farm placement is unclear because the UI doesn’t indicate how far farm workers will go to plant crops, or where the initial crops will be planted. Sometimes it is desirable to limit the number of positions available at a work location, and Tropico lets the player do this. Unfortunately there is no easy way to find these buildings again later when you wish to open up the positions again. The employment overlay displays these buildings as filled, as long as all of the available positions have employees. None of these are insurmountable, but are definitely aspects that could be improved.

For Your Competitive Side
You can compare your score with other players on the online leader board. The problem is that in the campaign, points are granted based on the population of your country and the size of your budget. There is no incentive to meet the objectives in a timely manner. To optimize his score, a player is motivated to make the scenario drag out so the island can be completely developed, increasing his score. This would be ok for the sandbox mode, but in the campaign meeting the objectives in a timely manner should be rewarded. 

Graphics and Sound
Tropico 4 looks quite nice, with lush colors and lots of little details. People move about from place to place with a variety of appearances. Crops grow in the fields, cars congest busy roads. The impressive visuals don’t bog down performance either. While my machine isn’t bad, it’s not top of the line anymore either. Tropico 4 ran flawlessly.

As expected the music is of the appropriate flavor. Even though I rarely turn off a game’s music I do tend to tune it out after a while. My guess is that those sensitive to repetitive music will eventually turn the music off. For the most part the attempts at humor are rather juvenile. The radio announcer can be turned off. Occasionally the radio will say something relevant to the situation and is welcome, but I can do without the jokes after hearing them once (sometimes once is too many).

Technical Performance
The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups.
My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
If you’ve read this far, you can see there are a lot choices available in Tropico 4. Between the plethora of building choices, upgrades, and modes, there is wide variety in how you can rule your island paradise. There are plenty of details regarding the citizen’s behavior too. The user interface provides the relevant data for the most part, so I was never frustrated. Available and accepted tasks/objectives are clearly presented so the user isn’t guessing what to do. Occasionally when between objectives I did wonder if I missed something, but eventually a new objective would become available.

Due to the ease of the campaign, I never felt I had to optimize my play. This is a big drawback for me, as in most games I tend to enjoy the focused challenges of scenarios and campaigns much more then setting my own goals in a more open/sandbox mode. I didn’t feel I needed to be very careful in my choices because I could still remain profitable while only being moderately careful. I wish the penalties were a little more severe for making poor decisions. The online scoring system could have mitigated the lack of challenge somewhat, but since the player’s score isn’t based on their ability to meet the objectives, it was of limited value to me. I never come close to losing an election or being overrun by rebels. Unless you’re into role-playing your leader, the ruthless choices never need to be made.

Tropico is a well-done game, but in the end it comes down to fun. Since I tired of the game play half way through the campaign, it’s not going to get a great score. Perhaps some of the problem is the repetitive nature of city-builders. Fans of the more open sandbox mode or user-made challenges will find more enjoyment then I did.

Score: (average )


  1. I decided to downgrade the Tropico 4 score from 6/10 to 5.5/10. Since each game plays out so similarly, I have no desire to revisit the game. This is in contrast to Conquest of Elysium 3, which is much less polished and visually appealing, but one that I will play again. During the times I did enjoy Tropico 4, I would say I enjoyed it more than Conquest of Elysium, but Tropico 4 doesn't have lasting appeal.

  2. I have Tropico 4 all the DLC's and Tropico 3 and like the game. It's not my "main" game right now and never will be, it's a nice change from what I am currently playing. I think your score is pretty close to my own, as I would rate it somewhere between a 6.0 and a 6.5. Good review though.