City-building games are about choices, and the overall appeal of the design depends on whether or not those choices are interesting and interrelated. The Tropico series has scored high in this regard, giving players a system that feels logical and consistent but also charming and unpredictable. The third game in the series and the first for consoles, Tropico 3, is due out next week and captures this appeal very well. Far from stopping at the "chop wood, process lumber, make furniture" dynamic that comprises the sum total of most city-builders, Tropico 3 adds a layer of political action that makes you feel like a real leader and not just a businessman.
From the first day you take office, you'll have ships putting in at your dock, dropping off immigrants and picking up exports. If you want to remain in power, you've got to strike a number of very fine balances, finding food and jobs for your people, while also shipping enough goods to keep the cash coming in. You'll begin with a couple of farms and a tenement, but you'll want to add new housing and farms as your population grows. You'll also need to make sure that everything is connected by roads and that you have enough garages to provide transportation for your people.
If you have enough food coming in, you can start assigning workers to harvest lumber or mine precious metals or oil from the earth. These goods can combine with your agricultural surplus to bring in a bit more cash. Once you've got a profit going, you can start to think about the social welfare of your people, giving them the churches and clinics they need. At first you'll have to rely on experts, purchased from abroad, to staff these buildings, but if you build a school, you can start to fill these jobs with natives. With their needs taken care of, you can then begin to consider adding some entertainment venues for your people. Of course, it's impossible to keep everyone happy, so you might want to consider building a few army bases and setting your soldiers' wages high enough that they won't turn against you when public opinion does.
A larger population will require even more services, so you'll need to construct even more buildings and adopt new policies to combat crime and pollution. You can begin to add even more layers on top of the infrastructure, building canneries and furniture plants to make even more valuable exports, or hotels and tourist destinations to earn money from vacationers. An immigration office will then help you determine who can and can't enter or leave your island and a diplomatic mission will open up new options for dealing with your relations with the US and USSR.
In other words, there's a lot to think about in Tropico 3 and the interplay between the various elements, while not always as apparent as it might be, is nevertheless engaging. Just trying to get the logistics of each segment of your society in balance is a very satisfying challenge. From the first tenement to the last television station, your ability to balance the basic needs of the people on your island is what determines your success in the game. Too much unemployment, for instance, creates unrest, but too little gives you no room to grow. Nightlife and industry might fill the coffers, but it alienates the religious and environmental factions that you might need to win the next election.
You can keep track of all of this in the game's handy almanac, a book that not only tells you about your financial bottom line but also shows which factions do or don't like you and why. The nationalists might be angry that you've allied with the US, while the intellectuals might be mixed because you're a religious zealot who also happens to believe in a free press. Trying to figure out why you are or aren't hated by a particular group becomes just as important as whether or not your jewelry shop is getting enough raw gold and has a close enough garage to take it to the dock.
While this tool is invaluable to the player, the ability to get down to the individual level is less useful. You can track each individual Tropican's needs and wants to find out why a certain group might be turning against you, or even engaging in open revolt, but it's a bit like missing the forest for the trees. It might be interesting to see that level of detail, but it's hardly informative from a standpoint of setting new policies.
Taken just so far Tropico 3 would be a merely enjoyable city-builder. When you add in the political and diplomatic options, it becomes even better. Players are free to enact a range of policies, from basic food and social security benefits to more divisive things like allowing same sex marriage or book burning. The edicts also extend to your involvement with the US and USSR, which can have profound benefits to your society but also risk invoking the ire of nationalists and revolutionaries. Once again, it becomes about making the choices that best balance the type of society you want to build with the type of society you already have.
If things get bad, you'll be looking at an election where there are even more choices. You'll have the opportunity to make some election promises, praise some disenfranchised groups and even institute a timely tax cut to sway public opinion in your favor. If you win, you get to keep playing but you'll have to deal with the consequences of the promises you've made. If you lose, well, the reload option is very handy. You can definitely expect armed resistance to your rule if things don't go particularly well. The game gives you updates as people become rebels and your military advisors will remind you when you need to beef up your forces for a potential revolt.
Out of the box, you'll be getting a campaign that allows you to play through 15 different islands with differing objectives. One might simply require you to export a certain amount of goods by a certain date. Another might ask you to stay in power for thirty years, or to obtain a certain level of happiness among your citizens. Each island starts you off with a bit of cash, a palace and a few key buildings to get things going. From there you're free to develop the island along whatever lines you think will help you reach your goal the fastest. Though most campaigns only have one goal, there are occasional side goals that can take the game off in another direction.
There are also several sandbox islands you can play and a number of additional challenges you can find online. The difficulty of the sandbox mode can be adjusted a number of ways. You might, for instance, adjust the stability or economy of your starting government, or select whether to accept the possible invasion of the United States in return for the potential tourism dollars American vacationers can offer. The online challenges seem to be a bit more speculative than the offline campaign. Some add sex trade to the game, or complicate your life by combining massive oil prices with loads of immigrants and lots of unrest.
Much of the overall character and story of your island will come out of the type of leader you choose to play. Tropico 3 includes a sizeable roster of Caribbean and South American leaders, from Castro to Pinochet. Each has unique traits that make life harder or easier for you as you try to rule your island, but the real fun comes from making your own dictator and deciding what qualities they'll be able to bring to the game. Do you want to be an ex farmer who boosts agriculture production but loses respect among intellectuals? Are you willing to take the drop in liberty that a military coup brings purely for the sake of lower crime and more respect among the military? You'll have the chance to pick a background, a path to power and two each from the advantages and disadvantages list, so you can really express some very unique ideas.
The traits not only allow you to set up a bit of personality in your leader but also give you a chance to fine-tune the difficulty. If you have a mission that requires you to stay in power for a long period of time, you can easily tip the scale in your favor by creating a ruler that enjoys some additional loyalty bonuses. I started off one mission with such a high diplomatic rating with the US that I was able to nab an alliance the instant the option came up. Of course, you can play the other way as well, trying to see if you can create an attractive tourist paradise with a thoroughly brutal ruler.
Tropico 3's interface is generally quite good and works very well on the gamepad. Kalypso's done a great job retaining all the nuance and flexibility of the mouse and keyboard setup without burying the player under an overly convoluted scheme. It's not too much trouble to lay down the city the way you want to, but there are some auto-leveling features that can make it hard to link up roads. On the other hand, the road-drawing tool feels very natural once you get used to it, and you can create some really elegant looking streets. You can rotate buildings this time around, but the camera controls are a bit clumsy when trying to place a building. It's not that big a deal for most buildings but when you're trying to put a mine in a forest and realize that you've put the road facing the wrong way out, it can be a bit frustrating.
I'd also like to have seen a bit more feedback right on the map. There are fun overlays that make placing police stations and power plants a bit easier, but there's still a bit of mystery sometimes when buildings aren't connected by roads or don't have something they need to function. And when you get a building that has a full staff, a road connection and access to the materials they need, you might still be wondering what that black trashbag with a line through it is supposed to mean.
The speed of the game is also a bit of a problem. I played the whole time on the fastest possible speed and it still seemed to drag a bit in places. The normal speed might be nice for dropping down and watching your citizens walk around a bit, but it's totally useless for playing, at least for anyone who actually has anything else to do in their life. I would have liked to see a faster speed to get through the less exciting periods of the game. On the plus side, you can play at the fastest speed thanks to the smart autopause function that kicks in when you open the build and edict menus or when you encounter an event.
Some players may respond to the slightly more realistic graphics of the game, and it certainly helps the mood that the game isn't overly stylized. Still, because of the realistic approach to the graphics, it's not always easy to tell what a building is at a glance. I wish the team had taken just a few more steps to differentiate the buildings so you could look at a cigar factor, a distillery and a cannery and instantly be able to tell which was which.
Apart from some anti-aliasing and framerate problems, the visuals are quite good. The lush forests, the rippling surf and the phenomenal lighting and weather effects all combine to create a very natural, realistic setting for the game. More than once I've just parked the camera on top of a tree-covered hill and watched the sun set across the ocean. The character models are generally good but you won't spend much time watching the game at a close enough distance to see the flaws.
Tropico 3 also has a surprisingly robust audio design. The ambient noise adds lots of atmosphere to the world and the kicking Caribbean soundtrack is full of lively personality. This is one of the few games where I actually wanted to listen to the music. The biggest sound kudos go the radio station voiceovers that comment on your progress throughout the game. These bits of dialogue are not only well acted and produced, but are unbelievably relevant to the crises and circumstances you're facing.
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