Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Haemimont games
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Disclaimer; this game was provided free of charge by the publisher for review.
It does my heart good to know that a series like Tropico can not only exist but thrive, having now managed to reach its fifth entry. But with so many sequels keeping things feeling fresh and new becomes an increasingly difficult challenge. Indeed, Tropico 4 was heavily criticised for introducing little that was new to the franchise. In comparison Tropico 5 brings quiet a few new things to table, but sadly most of them fail to change the gameplay very much.
Once again you take on the role of El Presidente and are placed in charge of small Caribbean islands, your ultimate goal being to raise them from impoverished messes to global superpowers. To do this you need to start out by producing basic goods and exporting them in order to build up the economy while supporting your people by providing housing, jobs, entertainment and food. Plantations can be placed on the map to produce a variety of different agricultural goods like sugar, corn and bananas, while logging camps, mines and ranches can also be also constructed. As you progress you can create a more industrialised island if you wish, exporting a variety of things by turning your harvested food into tinned goods, creating steel, constructing jewelry production factories and even eventually moving into pharmaceuticals and electronics. Should going down the industrialised, pollution creating route not be to your liking then tourism is a great money earner as well. Vast hotels, beach resorts, cruise liners, opera houses, stadiums and circus’ can be built to attract visitors with large wallets and considerably smaller IQs to your picturesque little island and separate them from their cash.
There’s a solid selection of buildings on offer that ensures you can always move forward, regardless of the resources you’ve got at hand, but the total is notably less than Tropico 4. Have plenty of sugar? Build some rum production factories or switch your plantation’s crops to something else entirely. Island plentiful in gold deposits? Jewelry and electronics may be the best to focus on, but be aware that deposits do eventually dry up. Regardless if your economical focus, ensuring the happiness of your people is of top priority, as allowing them to become unhappy can result in a coup or people simply choosing not to vote for you when elections come around. Of course, you could always fudge the numbers a little, or even refuse to hold an election and maintain power through military might, crushing rebellions and laughing maniacally at the screen. The Tropico series has always made it delightfully easy to slowly slip into the role of a dictator, one that may have started with the best of intention but along the way found themselves assassinating a potential malcontent for “the greater good.”
The people’s total happiness is dependent on quite a few things, ranging from basic housing, food and job needs to entertainment, religion, liberty, crime safety and healthcare. This then feeds into other systems; it may be tempting to lay down a few more factories that produces expensive electronic goods in order to provide more jobs, but if the majority if your people are still illeterate then they won’t be able to fill those positions. Likewise building several new, huge modern apartment blocks seems like a great way to solve a lack of housing, but if a large chunk of the population are still in poverty or have very little money to their name then they won’t be able to afford the rent, thus you might need to consider ramping up how much they get paid, which in turn drains your cash reserves faster, or building cheaper housing. Balancing out the various needs of your people lies at the very heart of the game, and is engrossing as it has ever been, constantly keeping you on your toes while also never damaging the relatively relaxed pace that Tropico is known for.
On top of that there’s a variety of factions at work within the game, your construction choices and other decisions altering their feelings toward you throughout the course of your term as ruthless/benevolent dictator. Again, manage to anger them and they may begin to cause you problems, dragging the overall happiness rating down substantially if they happen to make up a decent portion of the population. However, these sub-factions often fade into the background surprisingly easily. Unless you deliberately go out of your way to piss one of them off then you don’t have to worry overly much about their views toward you. Indeed, the many missions that Tropico 5 throws at you during playing often reward you with things like +10 to your relationship with the capitalists for doing something that takes minimal effort and, in most cases, you would have done anyway to bolster your island. Therefore by simply taking on and completing most of these missions your reputation with each faction tends to stick at least around neutral.
However, that’s not to say that they do not pose a danger at all. During one mission I managed to get booted out of office because happiness ratings were dropping quickly. Upon opening up the almanac, which provides a variety of detailed information on numerous subjects, I discovered that the religious portion of my island nation were considerably less than pleased with how I had drafted my constitution and the many edicts I had activated. As it turns out having a relatively free, open nation with an independent media was not going down well with what I can only assume were zealots. Reloading the mission I vowed to try a peaceful approach when tackling them. While I refused to amend my constitution or remove the edicts I had issued, I did build a big-ass cathedral in the hopes of placating them. To be sure of success, though, I simply refused to allow elections, and luckily the mission finished before anyone decided to boot me out once more. But that’s okay, because the military was firmly on my side and I wasn’t above just marching some troops in and sorting the problem out.
It’s during these kinds of moments that Tropico 5 is at it’s absolutely best, when you’re desperately trying to maintain a grip on your rule by placating angry people or just downright obliterating them through assassinations and military power. It’s perhaps good, then, major meltdowns in relations between you and sub-factions doesn’t occur too often because when they do they require your complete attention to fix. However, I would like to have to pay slightly more attention to relations than what is currently in place, because it too often felt like I could largely ignore them, and then just complete a simple mission when required.
The biggest change to come in Tropico 5 is that you now progress through eras of time, each of the four available bringing with it small alterations to the gameplay and access to new technology. In order to progress to the next era you need to achieve certain goals set by the game, providing a sense of structure and progression that was somewhat absent in previous games. You begin in the Colonial era under the rule of a king, and in order to move to the next era, the World Wars, you need to become an independent country, which means increasing your people’s happiness and supporting the revolutionary cause. However, piss of the crown too much and they’ll start to make life tougher. Complicating matters is that you’re working under a mandate, a set amount of time you have in office until you’re kicked out. Serving the king well brings many rewards, including extensions to your mandate and gifts of money, and thus advancing to the next era is a balancing act, as one month you step a little further away from the King, and the next you cosy up to him in order to gain extra finances and more time. Once you do progress to the next era new challenges await, such as drawing up a constitution, dealing with yearly elections and handling basic relations with the Axis and Allies.
It’s just a shame that Tropico 5 doesn’t take this idea and run with it. Only going from the Colonial era to the World Wars changes the gameplay in a noticeable way, while the final two eras simply unlock extra buildings and change the names of the primary two factions that you deal with. The developers missed a great opportunity to mix up the gameplay more as you make your way into modern times. For example, should you choose to form an alliance with the Allies during the World Wars all that results is a decrease relations with the USSR, which could lead to a pitiful and easily defended invasion of your island. Choosing to side with either force could have led to you becoming embroiled in World War II and hastily having to build up your military might, but instead picking one over the other leads to…nothing. Moving into the modern age of massive skyscrapers mostly just means laying down a few power producing plants and keeping an eye on the oil and mines, because they’ll likely run out of resources soon, at which point you’ll need to put more emphasis on importing.
Veterans of the series may also find the artificial limitations imposed by the new eras system to be frustrating as it locks away technology that could previously be bought outright by earning enough cash, however while it can be a touch annoying to have to achieve an arbitrary goal before you can access certain new technology I enjoy the era system, although given enough time with the game progressing through them again and again could become dull.
Furthermore there’s a second barrier in place in the form of a research tree in which points must be spent in order to unlock some of the more interesting buildings and powers. Research points can be generated by constructing libraries and science buildings. Having to research new technology and abilities makes sense, and also provides a wonderful opportunity for Tropico’s brilliant sense of humour to shine, while providing a sense of progression to the game, but it’s really no better than what we saw previously in the series, as advancing in technology through the acquisition of money gives largely the same effect as unlocking it via research points.
A simple trading system is also now included, giving you reason to construct new docks as each one provides you with an extra ship. From a menu you can choose to accept import and export deals with various factions and countries, adding ships to the contract as you see fit. There’s no complex mathematical formula constantly evolving and changing the world economy running in the background, so prices don’t fluctuate very much. Early in the game choosing to take on lucrative exporting contracts is a good way to bolster your income but generally the entire system can be left alone. It’s not until later in a game when your island’s natural resources have dried up that more attention must be paid to picking out import contracts in order to fuel your factories production, otherwise your island’s economy will come crashing down around your ears.
Sadly your presidente no longer strides the streets in person, but at least he or she has a family now thanks to the new dynasty system. New family members can crop up throughout the game in a variety of fun ways, and can then be assigned managerial positions throughout the island, as can other members of the population, bolstering a buildings effectiveness depending on the particular skills a manager brings. Your swiss bank account, which served little to no purpose in previous games, can now be used to upgrade family members, making them more useful in their positions, finally giving you reason to siphon money into your personal account. Should the president fall then a member of the family can step up to the plate, taking on the role of grand leader/despised bastard. Sadly, though, the dynasty system is completely undeveloped, barely impacting the game. Aside from putting your family members into managerial jobs they can occasionally be sent away as part of a mission, and that’s about it. They have no personality, barely any gameplay reasons for existing and are generally just easy to forget about.
Worse still is that almost all customisation options for El Presidente seem to have vanished with the introduction of the dynasty system. There’s just a tiny selection of costumes to choose from, while the vast array of perks offered in Tropico 4 which spanned several pages and which helped you craft a virtual avatar with a sense of personality are gone, replaced by just a couple to pick from.
Whenever you arrive on a new island intent on turning it into a cash-making paradise you’ll find the entire land hidden in fog, the idea being that you can send your soldiers out to explore and discover resources at the cost of $1000 a pop. It is, to put this bluntly, an utterly pointless addition to the formula that in no way enhances the gameplay, instead it needlessly slows it down. Islands aren’t very big anyway, but the system is severely hampered by two problems; you can actually see locations for mines through the fog anyway, and a relatively easy to acquire research upgrade called the Compass, available after a short amount of play time, reveals the entire map. Furthermore, placing a building near the edge of the fog doesn’t push it back, thus simply in order to expand a little bit more you need to send troops out. Why? Who came up with this?
The singleplayer does a good job of guiding new players through the basics of the mechanics, but can drag a little as things like tourism don’t even get a look in for a couple of hours. The narrative centres around a shady organisation with the goal of world domination and somehow even manages to take in a little time travelling. It’s hardly award-winning material, but it gives plenty of opportunity for Tropico’s unique and brilliant humour to shine, especially when it comes to poking fun at America. Constant missions, be they primary ones aimed at moving the story along or side-missions, gently prod you along the path, always guiding you toward the right direction. The game slips up in that it has a habit of tasking you with doing things, only to immediately reward you upon acceptance of the mission because you’ve already met the requirements, but for the most part the missions help to keep things interesting.
Outside of the primary campaign there’s the sandbox mode which lets you set up a game, determining the frequency of natural disasters along with the economic and political difficulty, as well as your ultimate win goal which can be set to either points or constructing a certain building, such as the space program. Missions do still pop up to give you a goal to gun for, but without the tighter focus of the primary campaign sandbox mode can become dull surprisingly quickly, largely because the Tropico series has always placed pure fun ahead of challenge or depth. Without the same degree of complexity or difficulty that other games in the genre exhibit one sandbox playthrough feels largely like another, especially since progressing through eras tends to follow the same pattern, although ramping up the difficulty can help significantly as it forces you to pay closer attention to the various factions and overall happiness of your people.
For the first time ever in the series multiplayer has been introduced, allowing you to get together with some friends who will shortly be despised foes. The multiplayer supports a total of four players who all start on the same island and must battle for points by achieving goals, such as exporting cigars or being the first to build a specific building. Since you’re all occupying the same island free space will inevitably run out, at which point sending in the military to blow up the opposition’s buildings will likely become the order of the day. It’s all pretty fun, at least for a while, but the relaxed nature of Tropico seems to struggle with the more breakneck pace of multiplayer, although playing cooperatively helps combat that. There’s also quite a few problems with getting games at the moment, which also sadly means that my testing time for the multiplayer component was pretty limited.
It also doesn’t help multiplayer that combat is the single weakest aspect of the game, let down by awkward AI which also somewhat hampers the building system as construction workers bumble about, leaving some things untouched for ages. When you’re invaded your military leaps into action, but the AI governing just how that do that appears to be either drunk or on holiday. Single squads will often run off to combat multiple enemies without waiting for the rest of your army to back them up, leading to losses which could have been avoidable if the game allowed you to have some direct control of your troops. There’s no strategy behind combat, you just construct lots of military buildings and generally hope it’ll be enough to win any battle, despite having absolutely no way of know what sort of opposition you’ll be facing.
One other area in which Tropico 5 stumbles is in the information it conveys to the player, and the reasoning behind some of the things that happen. The almanac is a powerful tool which grants you access to a good amount of information, but is missing some key overlays that could make determining the problems within your community much simpler. Take, for instance, employment. Despite their being a vast amount of jobs available you may discover a small group of unemployed people listed in the almanac that are seemingly dragging your overall happiness rating by far more than they should, but without a handy overlay it’s damn near impossible to find out where these unemployed people are gathered and thus solve the problem. Tropico 4 contained an overlay which clearly showed job satisfaction levels, but Tropico 5 contains no such thing. Other weird events can occur, such as homeless people constructing ramshackle huts right across the street from subsidised housing built just for them. Again, your happiness rating takes a far larger blow than what feels fair.
The entire game is bolstered by a bouncy, fun soundtrack and bright visuals. The Tropico series has never been at the forefront of technical mastery , but there’s a pleasing visual style at work here and when you zoom up close there’s a decent degree of detail to be found within the world. On the PC things run pretty smoothly, although it is worth pointing out that the framerate is still rather unsteady. It never dropped below 40FPS for the majority of the time, and therefore remained perfectly playable, but near the end of a sandbox game it struggled considerably at times.
Finally, there’s a lot of smaller changes that somewhat baffle. Numerous interesting buildings seem to have been left behind in Tropico 4 like the weapons factory and El Presidente’s childhood museum, and the cynical part of me can’t help but wonder if they’ll arrive later via DLC. Upgrading buildings no longer changes their aesthetic, which is a little disappointing. You can’t simply increase worker’s salaries now, instead their pay is included in a budget system which encompasses the entire building. Likewise rent cannot simply be increased or decreased, instead you must adjust the entire budget which in turn changes the quality rating of said building. Why cannot I increase the buildings budget, but decrease the rent, thereby providing great housing to poor families? Other irritations include no longer being able to allow a specific building to import goods in order to fuel production, or being able to set a port to only allow tourists in order to create a tourism heaven on another part of the island. There’s a host of other changes as well, but talking about them all would likely result in this review becoming a small novel. Suffice to say, a large portion of them are not for the better, and remove an extra layer of depth for those wanting to go into a little more detail in the construction of their dream island.
In order to combat the criticisms levelled at Tropico 4 about the game being largely similar to Tropico 3, the developers have clearly attempted to introduce new things in order to keep the series feeling fresh, but ultimately most of the additions feel hollow and fail to alter the game in any truly significant way. Indeed, to breath fresh life into the franchise now something drastic would have to be done, which in turn could potentially alienate fans. To put it bluntly Tropico has now been around long enough to suffer from Call of Duty syndrome.
Does this mean that Tropico 5 is a bad game? Absolutely not! This is a weaker game than its own predecessor, for sure, but it’s relaxing, completely enjoyable and offers just enough depth to keep you interested without also demanding constant micromanagement and swamping you with a million things to learn and perform. It’s the perfect game to spend playing for a relaxed evening in with a couple of beers at hand.
+ Eras work well.
+ Great sense of humour.
+ Relaxed, compelling gameplay.
– Veterans may find eras and research restricting.
– New systems don’t work that well.
The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
In their efforts to advance the series Haemimont have made several slip-ups, yet this is still a solid entry in the series regardless.