Reviewed: August 11, 2001
Released: April 26, 2001
For those of you who have played Sim City, Railroad Tycoon, or any of the Theme Park games like Roller Coaster Tycoon you already have a good idea what to expect from PopTop's upcoming dictator sim, Tropico. Tropico uses many of the conventions from these earlier games as a foundation then builds upon it to create one of the most involved and detailed strategy sims I have ever played. Tropico features:
The basic premise for Tropico is simple. You begin your career as the ruler of a small Caribbean island with a small population and very little development, aside from your palatial residence of course. It is your job to build-up the island while maintaining a carefully balanced regime. Not only is the economy in Tropico very fragile, so are the loyalties of your citizens.
Tropico features over 80 structures you can create to develop your island nation. Each structure is carefully tied into a very detailed economic model. It takes careful planning and a visionary leader to create an island paradise. One wrong move could mean financial ruin turning your island into a third-world nation with rioting citizens banishing you from office.
Tropico is primarily driven by randomly created maps, although you do have minimal control over the size of the island and various landscape features. You also get to pick from several well-known dictators and are given the ability to modify their personalities and attributes for some very interesting variations in gameplay.
There are also several pre-designed scenarios you can take part in. These range from rebuilding an island after an earthquake or volcanic eruption to creating a huge tourist trap or achieving a certain level of prosperity. These scenarios are really nothing more than preset maps and some preset initial settings that you could probably replicate if you tweaked the random map generator long enough, but it is still nice to have them available.
The level of sophistication in the AI of the citizens and the detailed economic model is amazing. A large section of the 75-page manual is devoted to the various types of buildings and people and how they all interact with one another. Pop-Top may have come as close to simulating real-life as is possible with today's technology.
You are eased into the complicated world of Tropico through one of the best tutorials I have ever used. It is informative and humorous and guides you through all of the necessary steps to get you started. When you are finally offered the opportunity to continue past the tutorial you will feel more than comfortable doing so.
After choosing a scenario or generating a random map the first thing to do is get some income. This means getting some sort of industry going whether it be farming, mining, or any combination of several commercial opportunities. As your island grows along with your bank account you can afford bigger and more exciting business ventures such as casinos and hotels.
While planning the layout of your island and creating various structures is key in building your economy and establishing a steady flow of income, your people are the true key to keep your island thriving. Every citizen has a unique set of emotions, beliefs, and opinions that drives him throughout the game. Each member of your population even has a unique name; even the cattle on your ranches have names! It is your job to make sure these people are kept happy and productive. They require a life carefully balanced between a satisfying job, happy home, and accessible entertainment.
Keeping track of your population is done through a very friendly interface. Much like Roller Coaster Tycoon, you can click on any individual to get a current report on their various statistics such as happiness, politics, education, job, and even their desires (shown in a little cloud above their head). The latter is useful in determining what would make your population happy. You also have the ability to "lock-on" a citizen and follow him/her around the map. While it is interesting to watch the exacting details that PopTop has put into each character as they go about their daily lives, remember that the world moves on and you cannot waste too much time with any one citizen.
From time to time the game will notifying you of certain things your citizens desire or attempted "smear campaigns" from neighboring rulers who are trying to generate civil unrest on your island. You will be prompted to take certain actions to quell any possible uprisings.
Listening and responding to the demands of your population is a unique skill that will take a little finesse on your part to master. The first thing you need to do is get a good source of food for your people and income for yourself so you have the necessary funds to improve the island.
A good place to start is with corn and tobacco farms that can both feed your population and earn you export revenue. Placing your farms and other structures is aided by a color-coded overlay of the island showing you the places where each structure will prosper. As the population increases you will need to build some low-cost housing. Manipulating the rent for these houses and apartments is a careful balance. If the rent is too high (based on the renter's salary) then they will move out and build a shack on the beach.
Much of Tropico's gameplay is construction and construction not only requires money but workers. Creating several Construction Offices and staffing them with highly paid workers accelerates the speed of most construction. You can also switch these offices from an "Easy Does it" work ethic to "14hr day sweatshops" to increase production. Balance this negative impact on the workers with more money so they don't quit. Once you start juggling multiple construction projects you will have to start assigning each project a priority status to allocate more manpower to the more important structures.
You can strategically get back some of those high salaries by building a pub or nightclub near the construction offices. This helps the overall morale of the population and gives the workers a place to unwind at the end of the day. Be careful not to make the prices too high or you risk alienating the lower class citizens.
Many industries have modifications you can perform to make them more profitable. Tobacco generates a good income but cigars would do better. You can build a Cigar Factory next to the tobacco plantation and staff it with workers. You can optionally install automatic rolling machines, which makes the workers happy but lowers the value of the product. As you can see, every course of action has a positive or negative reaction and balancing this system is crucial to the duration of your term of office.
If you find you cannot "make ends meet" with local revenue you can try your hand at tourism. Build a hotel or casino or create an entire resort community. Build special docks for yachts, or an airport then advertise your island on TV or radio (provided you have built TV or radio stations). Then watch as those crazy Yankees come to your island to part with their greenbacks.
Tropico is one big balancing act. People will scream for electricity then get mad when the power plant is generating too much air pollution. They will want schools, churches, nightclubs, and just about anything else you can think of. Your popularity as a leader will be affected by how you respond to these demands. While free elections are not mandatory, the public will become restless after a few years and demand an election soon or later. You have the option to "fix" the election if your advisors think you might not win. Of course doing so will cost you much respect from the educated populace who will realize what you have done.
Each year you will be presented with the Almanac (although you can view it at any time). This huge book features a complete breakdown of your island's economy and census information. You can view the population as a whole or broken down into several groups. This book even gives you the power to locate a possible rebel and click on his icon in the book to instantly locate him on the map then monitor his actions. Big Brother may not be watching but El Presidente' sure is.
The graphics are second to none and feature rich 16-bit colors at resolutions up to 1600x1200. You can play in windowed or full-screen mode and there is support for hardware acceleration which smoothes out the rotating and panning around your island. There are five levels of zoom that range from a satellite view of your island all the way down to exquisite, detailed close-ups of individual citizens as they go about their daily routine.
The animations are incredibly detailed. You can watch the women working in the fields chopping down crops or men in their boats fishing or construction workings building new buildings. Children play in the street or go to school (if you've built one for them) and you can zoom in and watch the daily lives of any of your citizens at any time and monitor their thoughts and feelings.
The rendered introduction and fly-through of a typical island city, and the clever menu interface designed after a presidential office are also very nice touches. The in-game interface is cleverly designed as a crumbling stone wall along the bottom of your screen, and pop-up alerts and year-end reports are all displayed as official looking political documents. There are dozens of commands and buttons and each are graphically intuitive and feature descriptive text explaining their functions. Some commands require prerequisite structures, staff, or policies and these are presented in a clear and concise method.
The sound and music are excellent. The Caribbean-style music is authentic and very easy to listen to and never gets repetitive, much like the music you would hear in your favorite Mexican restaurant (unless your favorite is Taco Bell). The music is so good in fact that you can get the soundtrack to the game if you really like it.
Sound effects are minimal except for the clamoring of hammers as your construction crews build the various structures. As you zoom around the island you can hear the occasional seagull near the beach, the sounds of waves out to sea, or tropical birds chirping in the forests. The narrator who instructs you throughout the very informative tutorial has a rich accent and offers some very humorous dialog and insight into your upcoming career.
The pre-designed scenarios have objectives that can be achieved to end the game and you can download additional scenarios from the Pop-Top website. You can establish the length of each game you randomly create while always reserving the option to play until you are either exiled or die of natural (or unnatural) causes.
I wouldn't even want to put an hourly figure on this game. The highly addictive nature of the game will keep you playing and replaying until you either get bored (not likely) or something new comes along. Either way, make sure to reserve plenty of spare time for late night sessions with your computer. Tropico is truly a game with no end.
Tropico is one of the most fun and addictive strategy games of the year and perhaps the best strategy game to date. Building upon the success of Railroad Tycoon 2, PopTop has delivered one of the most intricate and detailed economic and social models ever seen in a strategy game such as this.
If you enjoy the planning aspects of games like Sim City or the Theme Park games, or enjoy the intricate social monitoring of individuals like in the Sims then you will love Tropico. It combines the best of all these previous titles into one slick and addicting dictator simulation that just might have you neglecting your "real life".