Tropico 5 – Review

Title   Tropico 5
Developer  Haemimont Games
Publisher  Kalypso Media
Platform  Windows PC, OS X, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Linux
Genre  Management
Release Date  23rd May, 2014
Official Site

History is replete with examples of dictators and tyrants whose hair, as much as their megalomania, has ensured their place in the halls of memory. Hitler, with his thumb-smudge moustache, Kim Jong Il and his… whatever, and, of course, Simon Cowell. Hell, even Hasselhoff’s luxuriant locks terrified the Berlin Wall into crumbling. Now, with Tropico 5 having been recently smuggled to shore, players can once again step into the beard and aviator shades of a low-rent dictator in charge of a fledgling colony. Tropico 5 is the latest instalment in a strategy management series that has its tongue firmly in its cheek while one finger picks a large amount of cheese from between its teeth. Shying away from both stat-heavy, brain-draining strategy and lite, casual/mobile-friendly management, Tropico 5 manages to tread a fine line between being too impossibly convoluted and dry, and so shallow that you couldn’t drown a dissident mouse in it.

In the single-player campaign (I can’t speak for the multiplayer, what with usually avoiding such social things like the plague), your ultimate goal is to progress from humble colonial beginnings, through world and cold wars, to modern times, dragging two islands – upon which you alternate play as you progress through the campaigns – and its people with you. Whether you play the big bad beard or the champion of liberty and justice, however, is left up to you.

Along the way, a colourful, hammy cast will toss you tasks, most of which are optional but which help you develop your dominion and achieve your overall goal for the campaign, whether it is to declare independence and cut ties with the Crown forever, or amass more cash in your Swiss account than Scrooge McDuck could ever hope to have. Starting with only a handful of buildings, raw resources must be harvested or mined, research undertaken, and homes and jobs provided for your people. This being a typical management game, juggling and balance are forever a challenge, as one area invariably gets neglected while you pour cash into other more needy projects. While you are busy fulfilling your citizens’ desires for entertainment by dropping down a handful of taverns and restaurants, pirates or other nations may well be invading your shores because you ran out of cash for guard towers or forgot to research army bases.

The game progresses at a leisurely pace, with plenty of help given to delay time pressure end goals while you research new technology, issue edicts, and draft constitutions. Raw resources can be used or traded, and, slowly but surely, your economy and city begin to grow. With more research and the occasional boost from allies in return for completing tasks, more buildings and options open up, allowing greater depth and complexity, giving you more to juggle. Trade routes must be maintained, industry cranked into gear in order to produce luxury goods, and the increasing needs of citizens met. It always feels like you are running to catch up – as soon as you throw cheap houses up, you have to work on public services and entertainment before your approval rating dips (with elections around the corner, this is never a good thing). But that’s a positive – no one wants to sit around twiddling their thumbs, having met every challenge, achieved the perfect happiness rating, and amassed a silly amount of cash.

The game is balanced enough to never really be overwhelming, and despite the feeling that you’ll never get to the list of things you need or want to build and improve, the silly, laid-back atmosphere the game oozes is oddly calming. With Tropico 5 being as cheesy and cartoony as it is, with some welcome humour,  you never take any of it too seriously, which is a breath of fresh air in a genre that is often po-faced and drier than a mouthful of Tutankhamen flakes.

Once you have built libraries and thrown enough into research you unlock not only new technology, but also more options for your constitution. As with edicts, these allow you to forge the moral and ethical path of your choice, whether you want to be a self-obsessed tyrant, who imposes martial law, supresses democracy, and thinks that social welfare is a disease that must be eradicated in order to preserve a bulging bank account, or whether you are a benevolent ruler, who puts his or her people first, with welfare reforms, education, and healthcare being key issues. This choice is a welcome one, and being able to play as a cartoonish dictator, simply begging for an assassin’s bullet is a tasty opportunity, but one that is never imposed – the player can go either way or, indeed, forge a messy-but-happy route through the middle-ground.

Despite the relaxed pace and easy to pick up gameplay, however, there were several issues that prickled me, and which, had they been addressed, could have seen Tropico 5 elevated further. Combat is one area where the game falls down. While it can be argued – and I would agree – that this game isn’t about charging into battle every five minutes but, rather, growing an empire, combat has been included, and therefore any problems with it should be discussed. Although it isn’t often required, what there is could be handled better. Rather than allow the player direct control over towers, barracks and units, the game shuts you out, relegating you to role of observer only.

It is incredibly frustrating not to be able to drag or direct units to intercept foes, or bolster defences, but it is some saving grace that the game appears to do an decent enough job on its own, even if it does appear to rely on that trusted but cheap ‘sheer weight of numbers’ ploy. So much for strategy. The few tweaks you can make with base managers and edicts (which can give you small boosts in defence) are of questionable use, although I took no chances and paid for the few available upgrades for guard towers and bases. Build enough military bases and towers on your primary beach (no one seems to have figured out to attack from the uninhabited parts of the island) and you’ll never have to worry. A more strategic element here would have been welcome (if not a large distraction from more pressing concerns) but with combat being as minimal as it is, one could speculate that the developers deemed it unnecessary.

The lack of control and management was also an issue in other parts of the game, where certain functions were simply not included, and nor was some useful information. It’s fine to give figures as to how many homeless people there are on the island, but when you have erected buildings only to have none of those people move in, it is beyond frustrating – in fact, the housing issue was one of the biggest bugbears I had, and one which I spent more time focussing on than researching a bloody nuclear program. More detail would have been helpful, to say the least, saving me from resorting to trial and error.

Which class of people don’t have homes? Should I be building mansions, houses, or slum tenements? What part of the island is in most need of houses, because the sight of an occasional shack is no real help when they ignore the half-empty buildings that I just plunged into debt to build. Why aren’t those unemployed taking the myriad open jobs that are available? Am I not paying enough, do they live too far away, are they allergic to tobacco? Small issues perhaps, but irritating nonetheless as wasted construction hurts the bottom line and even a few points in happiness can affect your approval and lose you an election – which is an immediate game over.

Resource and building management also lack some practical functions. I couldn’t click a button and see all buildings of one type at a glance, so I didn’t know how many taverns I had without scanning the map and trying to pick them out of the sprawling urban mess. I couldn’t mass upgrade all guard towers or bases, but I could modernise all apartments. It wasn’t a serious problem, but the time and faff it could have saved would have been appreciated. Resources are another area where more information and ways to parse it would have been useful. I had no idea whether my plantations were producing enough raw materials for the factories and the trade routes, or whether more raw goods were required – in the end I just set up more plantations and hoped for the best.

The feel-good nature of the game is undeniable, and is thanks, in no small part, to the merciless, unrelenting Cuban music. As annoying as it might get at times, especially when a volcano decides to vomit all over your lovingly cultivated city, or a tornado arrives to ruin your day and you are scrambling to deal with the effects, it makes it hard to remain pissed off (especially as some goofy message from the ever-useless but faithful Penultimo can be relied upon to grace your screen before long to add some cheer). Visually, the game also pleases, with your flourishing island colony rendered in pretty detail, from your lavish palace to the tiniest, sad shacks on the city’s outskirts. Water laps at the beaches, crops spring up in neat rows, and cars charge up and down your ever-expanding road network, all giving the realistic impression of a vibrant, colourful city. It was interesting and easy on the eye, and the occasional natural disasters were always well-presented and grudgingly enjoyed.

Although, for me, it lacked a certain sparkle that I just couldn’t put my finger on (not to mention a wider and more characterful selection of buildings) it could be said that, with its fifth instalment, Tropico is getting long in the beard. However, I found an immersive, enjoyable time sink, which refused to take itself seriously, and which delivered just the right balance between serious and casual.  A few issues and annoyances aside, gameplay was absorbing, making it all too easy to see the hours slip away. What better praise could there be?

  • Relentlessly upbeat and cheerful
  • Cheesy comedy raises a smile and keeps the whole thing from sliding into the serious side of the sand pit where the rest of the genre generally hang out.
  • Walks a fine line between shallow and drowning in terms of depth of management
  • Interesting and well-presented natural disasters
  • Looks and sounds good – nice water (first thing I look at, sorry)
  • ‘Just one more hour’ gameplay, making it a sly time-sink.
  • Player is essentially neutered during combat, unable to do anything to control or direct, and is left to merely watch. A choice would have been nice.
  • A few tweaks and upgrades aside, combat is more about strength in numbers than strategy.
  • The choice of only two islands was a shame – a bigger selection would have been most welcome
  • Subjective, perhaps, but to me a greater number of edicts appeared useless, hamstringing the player too much, or creating issues rather than being of any conceivable use. Perhaps more useful for ‘testing and torturing’ in sandbox mode.
  • The ability to mass upgrade certain buildings, such as guard towers and bases would have been useful, especially as you could do this (to some extent) with others.
  • More detail and depth in building management would have been useful and would have saved a great deal of frustration/trial and error with regard to homeless/jobless citizens.
  • Something felt missing. A spark, a little more character in the buildings, a wider variety of buildings... just, something.

Cartoony, silly and generally thumbing its nose at genre kin who take themselves too seriously, Tropico 5 is an enjoyable, unique experience, presenting an absorbing management game that seems happy in its own merry little niche, playing idly with a nuclear detonator.

A few issues with the combat and management information aside, the game strikes a good balance between dizzyingly in-depth and shallow and unsatisfying. If the measure of a good game is how many hours it can eat before you retire, bleary eyed, then Tropico 5 is more than up to scratch. If you have ever wanted to don some aviator shades and rule over a slice of island paradise then this is the game for you – an oddball, beardy blend of management, questionable morals, and mercilessly upbeat music.

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One Comment

  1. Ste Ste says:

    Nice, review. I’ve always liked the idea of Tropico but never taken the plunge because I kinda like my empire builders to be abit serious. I’m trying to take over the world here, I don’t want to make jokes! Abit strange that you can mass upgrade some buildings but not others. Perhaps there is a tactical reason behind this? E.g. no need to upgrade some towers due to location etc?

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