You don’t often find city building sims infused with a political flavour but the Tropico series isn’t like other games. I’ve been hooked since the Gathering of Developers released the original back in 2001. Combining addictive tycoon style gameplay with a Caribbean island backdrop during the Cold War was genius. It offered a satirical look at the Capitalist and Communist meddling in banana republics and it was great fun. It was also the kind of odd mixture that you couldn’t imagine risk-averse publishers green lighting. The latest release is Tropico 4: Modern Times which is essentially an expansion pack for Tropico 4.
If you’ve never heard of them, Gathering of Developers tried to take creative control over the games they developed and shrug off the intrusion of publishers. It was set to be a partnership between indie development houses. Sadly Take Two acquired them and it all went wrong but not before they published some amazing games. From Max Payne to Space Colony to Vietcong to Railroad Tycoon they turned out innovative releases. Many of them have been revived in recent years and sometimes the results have been disastrous, I’m looking at you Stronghold 3. Thankfully Haemimont Games handled the Tropico series with care and their 2009 reboot, Tropico 3, was faithful to the original and brought it up to date.
Both Tropico 3 and 4 have felt more like remakes than true sequels. They expanded the basic premise, improved the graphics, but retained the core experience. Tropico 4: Modern Times attempts to drag the series into the present day and a little bit beyond. This means you have a range of modern buildings from gleaming Modern Apartment Blocks to Fish Farms, there’s even a Space Program you can build. In total you’ve got 30 new buildings to enjoy and they become available as time progresses. Many of them supersede a previous building, so when you develop Bio Farms, for example, you can’t build regular Farms anymore.
The increased choice is nice, especially for Tropico veterans but the majority of the new buildings function in the same way as their predecessors. There are good tweaks, such as the ability to buy a Doorman Kiosk for the Modern Apartment Blocks which means they don’t contribute to crime, but there are also some odd changes such as the Bio Farms only offering you the choice of growing Food Crops, Cash Crops or Corn (not sure why corn is singled out).
In terms of art style the game looks terrific. Haemimont has built on the source material and created a really consistent look that nails the Cold War Caribbean backdrop. That consistency is inevitably interrupted in Modern Times because they’ve thrown skyscrapers and modern condos into the mix. The fact that you develop buildings at different rates does result in strange looking cities at times. The new buildings all look good but you’ll find yourself unavoidably ending up with a mix of new and old styles because not all of the old buildings have a modernised counterpart.
Another interesting new development is the addition of 10 new edicts. They include options like Healthcare Reform, which increases the number of visitor slots in your healthcare facilities, and China Development Aid, which provides 100 Chinese immigrants for $10,000. The fact that Ban Social Networks increases productivity is nice but most of the options don’t have the modern connotations you might have expected.
The basic game has been boosted considerably by the extra content on offer in Modern Times and you will find it on by default in Sandbox mode, though you can turn it off if you prefer. Naturally there is also a new campaign to challenge your presidential credentials over 12 missions. This is where you’ll find the modern political references as you attempt to outmanoeuvre a secret organisation called The Conclave. As usual you are helped and hindered by your toady, Penultimo, who offers up a range of advice.
In terms of gameplay a sound economic base is still the main essential and you have to quickly decide at the start of each level whether to pursue agriculture, industry, tourism or a mixture. You have the same gang of factions to deal with and the game is a balancing act between satisfying them and insolvency. The Modern Times campaign throws a series of disasters at you that will challenge your ability to cope and force you out of your Tropico comfort zone. It feels as though the design aim behind it is to force you to try out various gameplay styles or game options that you might not have tried before and so show off the full range.
In each mission you have a central strand of tasks to complete to move on and a wide range of pop up, optional tasks that will earn you specific rewards. The storyline itself is deliberately extremely silly with plenty of llama references and some whacky science. It doesn’t grip you with any particular sense of urgency or drama but it is fun and the range of tasks helps to structure the gameplay and encourage you to exercise more of your powers.
The sense of progression is quite new and it is refreshing to develop new building options and edicts as the years go by. It is also reinforced gently by the timeline which references various real world events that exact some consequence on your options, for example the Cuban Missile Crisis triggers conscription, the Bird Flu Scare increases the price of beef and the Chernobyl Disaster increases the price of uranium (not sure it should though).
For fans of the series Tropico 4: Modern Times is an obvious essential purchase, it easily offers enough content to be worth buying. You will need the original game, though, so if you’re new to it then get Tropico 4 first. If you like the Civilization series then Tropico offers a nice alternative, equally if you are eagerly awaiting the Sim City reboot due next year this will fill the gap nicely.