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May 16, 2001
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 Overall Score: *85*ESRB Rating: Teen (T)

Tropico 

by PopTop Software  Reviewed by: William J. Shefski  


ScreenshotOverview

Maximum Leader. That's you. That's the role you get to play in Tropico, a kind of Sim Banana Republic (although bananas are not all you can grow). In this strategy game you, as it says on the box, rule -- perhaps with the brute iron fist of a Castro or maybe more in the style of a benign dictator. You control every facet of your island nation, with total information about all your citizens (except those who have run off to the woods to become rebels), including their feelings about you. The economy is yours to build and/or plunder. Of course there are consequences, but the Army is also under your control, or so you think. You can issue edicts that have the best interests of your people at heart or that merely serve your own venal desires.

This is a solitaire game (with multiplayer now pretty much standard, any game without it must have that designation.) that does SimCity one better, it adds "serious" politics to the mix -- communists, capitalists, the KGB, and the CIA. You'll be juggling many areas that plague a Maximum Leader like yourself, including the economy, the health and welfare of your people, their liberty, the state of your army, your relations with Russia and the USA and your ability to attract tourists. Be aware, though, simulation nuts may not mind watching the time tick by and the island society slowly grow, but folks looking for more action might find Tropico a bit dull. The battles between your forces and the rebels or army mutineers are completely abstracted. "Loyalists 5, Rebels 4" is what the results will say, sort of like a Cuban baseball scoreboard. Instead of computer adversaries, in Tropico you have critics, the leaders of the various factions who speak out against you when the members of the faction feel dissatisfied with some policy or other that effects them. You can listen patiently and paternally and then try to improve their lot, or you can employ the only real violent act available and issue an Eliminate edict. This act is not without its consequences, however. In fact, you'll find that every action in Tropico has consequences.

Gameplay, Controls, Interface

Tropico has some preset scenarios but no campaigns, as such. The heart of the game is the random map game, where you generate more than just the terrain, where you can apply role-playing-style personality traits to your all-powerful character. There are a myriad of intriguing options with which to fiddle, and all of them affect the percentage rating for difficulty that's applied to our score. Your score is kept for a number of consistent categories of achievements, and which of these categories count toward your final tally depends on the victory conditions you've chosen.

The simple interactive island geography set-up screen is innovative and the rationally random game generation feature is something that other game makers might consider emulating. Tropico has a nice procedure for applying rational randomness to the generation of a new game. Setting up the random game is extremely well-coordinated as it relates to the victory conditions.  First you pick the physical layout and geographic features of your island, including vegetation and water coverage. Then choose a Victory Goal, like "A Place in History" or "Tis money that makes the man" or you can choose to play an open-ended game. On the same page you'll choose whether to play a game where a Special Circumstance applies, like having elections monitored by outsiders or one where no incoming immigration is allowed. There are also three scales that can adjusted for difficulty, they set political stability, game length and the strength of the economy.

Next, you can edit the dossier of your character.

  • Background: The default is "Leftist Author" but choices here include Generalissimo, pop singer or Harvard/Moscow grad, among quite a few others. All these have their own effects on the computations made by the game. For instance, going in as the former Chief of Police gives you an advantage with the militarists, a penalty in your liberty rating and a big boost in your success against the crime rate.
  • Rise to Power: This choice sets how your character came to be the beloved Leader, through "Communist rebellion" perhaps, or "Elected as a socialist," or my favorite (because you get an annual stipend) "Installed by the CIA." Again, all have an effect on the game. For instance if you chose "Bought the Election" then your people will have become more inured to such shenanigans and will have lower expectations of democracy. So, further election fraud will have less effect. You'll also get a penalty in the respect that the Intellectual faction has for you during the game.
  • Qualities: These are your positive personal attributes, such as "hardworking" or "financial genius." These also affect the game.
  • Flaws: This is a list of negative traits. You must choose two, such as "ugly" and "pompous." Again, the game is affected.

The following are your humble reviewer's favorite set of conditions so far:
Victory goals: 'Tis Money that Makes the Man
Background: Booze Baron
Rise to power: Installed by the CIA
Qualities: Hard-working, financial genius
Flaws: The great Schmoozola, alcoholic

This combination gets you a big bonus in income for rum export, some boosts in production, and financial advantages. The "Money" victory goal counts only funds shifted into your Swiss Bank Account (SBA) toward the final score. The other attributes are well suited for this goal, but it requires the building of a Rum Distillery as early as possible. Issuing the "Special Building Permit" edict ASAP also helps.

ScreenshotPopTop is the company that brought out the modernized RailRoad Tycoon II with its well thought out interface. Tropico, though not exactly a copy, presents an interface that shows the designers obviously had players in mind. The screen is divided into the now fairly standard areas: main screen, what's called a radar screen which shows the whole island from above, and a circle window which displays various views depending on what's happening -- such as the last citizen you clicked or messages announcing arriving ships. The best facet of the interface is that nearly every pixel of it is live. Click on a citizen and the information for that citizen appears; click on the happiness bar below the circle window and it takes you to the appropriate page in the almanac, the book-shaped dialog of handy reports and graphs that will look quite familiar to players of Railroad Tycoon II.

Complaints are few and minor. For instance, the circle window gives a message about a new structure being built but clicking on the message does nothing. It would be nice if clicking could take you to the subject building so you could work on it immediately. Also, it's great that clicking on a building gives you access to all workers or residents attached to it and they're all lined up for you to browse, but click on one citizen and the screen switches to them with no way to get back to the rest of the citizens associated with the building. These are just a few nits, however, barely worth picking.

There are more than sufficient conveniences in the interface. For instance, it is fairly easy to find a specific citizen you're looking for (either to bribe or, perhaps, to eliminate) since there are multiple routes. You can look for them according to their place of work, their residence, their job description, or via the almanac, through their associated political faction.

As for the economics model, the rudimentary development options available in the Caribbean seem to be fairly depicted. There are food crops and cash crops, a few raw materials and a few finished goods, and tourism.

The citizen model, however, is quite elaborate. Your people are nourished by food, entertainment, religion, job satisfaction, and liberty. Lapse too much in any area and you’re in for trouble. You must plan ahead. Elections are demanded every five to nine years. The polls will show your popularity. There are few quick fixes if it looks like you’re going to lose, though those that are available cannot be counted on forever and they're not completely reliable (I’ll leave it to you to find them). You can choose not to grant elections but your citizens' liberty rate will drop sharply. 

Even though whole groups can turn up dissatisfied, each citizen is an individual, with unique ratings for all the categories. Thus whole groups can become unhappy and individuals may also commence to publicly protest. And if the populace is ripe, these protests can spread -- you'll spend a lot of time juggling their needs until you think you're running a stable society and then zap, all of a sudden there's grumbling in the army... and a coup attempt! How could you have neglected the army?

Graphics & Audio

Graphics are not a concern, which means that they meet or exceed the needs of the game. Each zoom level serves its purpose. Zoom all the way in and you see nice animations of your citizens going about their business. Zoom all the way out for a lovely overview of the whole island.

As with all games, there's a series of in-theme (in this case, Latin-flavored) music of which you'll soon tire. But, also as with all games of similar interface, not only does your view change but your sound changes with it. In the movies they call this sound perspective and it's good to see that Tropico's developers, have a firm grasp on it

Parental Warning

Though the game is rated T for Teen, it may be mostly for advanced political concepts and complex gameplay. Other than the Eliminate edict there are no player-participant violent acts. The rebellion / coup d'etat gun battles are played out outside of player control and except for some overly buxom computerized showgirls, certain other adult-oriented themes do not apply.

Room For Improvement

There is no multiplayer aspect to this game, but I’d venture a guess that a sequel might address this gap. Perhaps Tropico II will add maps with borders allowing adjacent countries run by competing human players. Also, the game has an exclusively Latin flavor and, thankfully, the humorless folk who might get upset with such things likely do not play computer games enough to notice and squawk. An expansion disk could address this, also, by adding dictatorial regimes with European, Asian ,and African flavors. In fact the documentation has bonus info about real-life dictators from these areas (Mao, Ceausescu, Bokassa).

System Requirements

Windows 95/98/2000/ME/NT4, Pentium 200 MHz, CD-ROM drive, 32 MB RAM, and 820 MB hard drive space.

ScreenshotDocumentation

Be sure to follow the tutorial and don’t forget to read the quick start guide in the front of the hard copy manual for some hints about getting your economy going. Most of the in-game help takes the form of "status bar" type messages that appear when an object is hovered by the mouse. The small, cleverly written manual does contain the only source for information about buildings, although some important aspects are not covered, such as a building's effect on various factional attitudes. Admittedly this may be an intentional masking of game intent. Assumption from reading all information available, and by observing game effects, can make up for it, but that requires patience and dedicated play. There is no online central database for help.

Bottom Line

This is a complex and subtle simulation that might seem like paint-watching when first played but will quickly grow on most sim fans. The addition of real politics, planning, and consequences to the decision-making process adds a level of suspense not present in other building games

Review Posted On 11 May 2001.

 
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