We'll get there fast and then we'll take it slow...
Ah, the tropics. Scantily clad island girls bearing complimentary booze. In the American psyche, nothing embodies rest, relaxation, and happiness like a tropical paradise.
However, beneath that cartoonish tiki mask and sparkling eyes dwells a dark truth: running a tropical island is a nightmare of political manipulation and economic micro-management. It takes the strong arm of a shifty leader to rule this island.
Thanks to developer Poptop Software's new sim, Tropico, any perception I had of the tropics being a fun, cool place has been utterly annihilated. Screw the tropics and all those ungrateful, moaning natives! How am I supposed to please them when half of them craves what the other half loathes?
Tropico looks and acts like other city-builder sims out there, but is twice as insidious and demanding. This is due to the economic and political needs of the people you represent. Within your population are several factions (i.e. intellectual, capitalist, militarist, etc.) and every person on your island belongs to one or another.
Invariably, in addressing the needs of a particular faction, you stomp on the toes of another, so there is always some political unrest. If there were only two factions this would be complicated enough, but there are in fact several, many of which have overlapping interests.
Superficially, needs are met through building this or that, since at its most basic level, Tropico is a city builder. However, in order to get a building built you have to pay your workers to build it. The more you pay, the quicker the job is done. But look out - the disparity between their wages and the wages for the rest of the workers on the island pisses off the communist faction. No one said being a dictator was easy.
The different gameplay elements in Tropico are deeply interwoven, making it one of the most complex games I've ever played. Everything has a use and an impact, and there are thousands of possible options, leading to countless outcomes and possibilities.
The key to success lies in figuring out how the game will react to certain actions and what you need to do to meet economic and production quotas. This is frustrating because the effects of your actions aren't immediately clear. Your power in Tropico is very indirect, and the things you can do directly (like eliminating people) carry dire consequences (like getting deposed).
In this sense, Tropico is the definition of micro-management; this game is the administrator's dream. You control every aspect of the island, from the placement of crops to the various ways of keeping the money flowing in. At the snap of a greasy finger you can bring up all kinds of deatiled stats about your slaves, ahem, "citizens." It's nothing if not intricate.
However, outside of the fascinating political/economical system, there is very little which distinguishes Tropico from other city-builders. There are two game types - random maps and pre-designed scenarios. The random maps are sort of entertaining to play with because you get to choose what your island will be like (which directly effects the difficulty of the game), and exactly what kind of leader you will be...sort of.
You're allowed to choose characteristics for your dictator/presidente, but the effects of the characteristics are purely statistical. If you make your fascist dictator a flatulent, alcoholic ex-pop star (which is entirely within your power), you get all sorts of stats for and against you (the USSR likes the alcoholic part, while the religious and intellectual folk like you 10% less).
However, you never get to see any scripted events, and the choices you make never really mean anything outside of how they affect your constituents. This game is heavy on the stats, but pretty light on the imagination.
I was really looking forward to the pre-designed scenarios, thinking this was where the game would cut loose and have some fun with some really crazy moments, but it's still the same hard-assed game. No scripted events, no cocaine scandals, and even your military manages to be pretty boring.
Tropico's graphics are surprisingly good if you look at everything up close (especially the female guerilla, yowza), but from farther back, which is where you'll be spending most of your time, the game's appearance is a bit dull and unimpressive. Things can get a little choppy, though the fact that so many details are constantly tracked make this a tough pothole to avoid. All things considered, Tropico does it rather well.
The sound is decent with some great Latin beats. I would have preferred some more ambient noises, though; some Baldur's Gate-style banter would've been a big help.
Tropico is a very good game that really pushes the envelope is terms of immersion and difficulty. However, such intense micromanagement would be better balanced with a more robust set of goals or some scripted events and challenges. Still, if you're looking to kick back and take on the responsibilities of a Latin American dictator, there's no locale sunnier.