It's good to be the ki-... I mean, "El Presidente."
I have a confession to make: When I play games where I’m in charge of everything, I generally try to play the “good guy." I lower taxes when possible, I rebuild destroyed buildings, I toss in stuff like carnivals or whatever to try and keep my citizens happy. Like a good politician—the type who actually wants to improve things instead of only focusing on getting elected or being the puppet of someone else—I try to hold power responsibly and with dignity.
So imagine that mentality put into a position of a dictatorship that allowed for elections. I built up my defenses (for the people), then built a new power plant (for the people), and then I bribed the peasant uprisings (for the people… wait, what?). I researched materials the army could use to help protect them (for the… uhh…). And then, the next time they decided to revolt, I quashed that revolt by sending the army in to break them up (for me, those ungrateful jerks).
Tropico is a long-standing franchise that PC players are more than familiar with, but isn’t quite as well known as a console title, though this is the third time it’s had a release on the 360. Players become the governor, then later the president, of a tropical island through different points in history… industrial revolution times, colonial development, the Cold War, and throughout it all players can research and develop new buildings and technologies. The player’s advisor, General Penultimo, is always happy to chime in and credit your researches with “discovering” shovels and sickles; the sickles, by the way, “go well with the hammers” just to give you an idea of his end-game. And with up to four players playing at the same time, it's only a matter of time before Penultimo abandons somebody for good and picks a winner to praise incessantly!
As Tropico 5 is a menu-based game, there’s not much “action” to depend on. Decisions are made by the help or provocation of events both foreign and domestic, from working beneath the power of the Crown of an unnamed country and working with either Axis or Allied powers, to peasant uprisings and attacking rebel groups. It can be a bit tricky to decide on the right structure or group in a densely populated space, even with adjusting the camera down to gain a better view, but any minor issues are quickly adjusted to.
The voice acting is top-notch-level ridiculous. General Penultimo is certifiable, delivering lines in an exaggerated accent and with some absurd dialogue. Just wait until you unlock “Legaliese," it’s theretofore "indisputibly" indecipherable. And the rest of the cast of characters—the American president, the emissary of the Crown, the rebels and leaders of the revolutionaries—are done with both care and dedication. I actually felt good when I screwed some of them over. I’m in charge, don’t you threaten me and my people!
The balance of a game like this really matters, and thankfully Tropico 5 feels solid. When the peasants rise up (as they will) and you have the option to bribe, negotiate, or bring in the military, any consequences never feel unfair. A few times I felt like my approval rating with the people was falling for an unknown reason, but going over anything that wasn't built led to a plan, and the plan to another plan, and pretty soon I was three hours into what I thought would be a few minutes here or there and wondering, "I was just gonna build one clinic, and now I've created an entire education system and military structure. What sorcery is this!?"
Graphically it’s impressive, there’s plenty of detail across each of the wide variety of buildings and environments. There is some glitchy stuttering during the panning shots of the two different islands, and the individual character models look like something from early 360 titles. Along the way players have to create a new possible heir apparent, but the character creation options are woefully inadequate. Only a handful of clothing options, the ability to swap the tops or bottoms of some costumes and some color adjustments? I played this on 360, so maybe the PC/Mac versions offer a wider variety, but I doubt it. True, it’s just ornamental, and you can only actually see your character within that menu (people in the city are too small to directly zoom in on), but it’s still lackluster and disappointing.
That said, with the plethora of other options ranging from churches to space programs, controlling an island nation bent on exorcizing its previous demons (existing under the Crown of an imperialist ruler) and taking sole command of an army and a civilization, Tropico 5 is a fulfilling experience. The downtimes of research and crop production can be fast-forwarded to get to the more involving parts, pitting the Axis and Allies in a diplomatic struggle to find out who’s got the deeper pockets, adjusting trade routes to make the most money to fund a personal Swiss bank account, and I can both flip off and join a new world order. Now I know how Kim Jong Un feels… which both impresses and intimidates me.
Hail El Presidente!
Copy provided by publisher. Also available on Mac/PC and PS4.