It’s a good time to be a dead PC strategy gaming franchise. Between this game (the last installment of which was done six years ago) and Majesty 2 (seven!), it seems like we’ve officially arrived at the point when everything worth remembering about the last generation of strategy games is being remembered.
The tough thing here is to decide how much credit the developers deserve for making a decent game. Does it mean much that they had a proven design they could basically lift entirely from an older game and drop into their newer one? How great would a carbon-copy of Tropico have been?
Haemimont was aided considerably by the fact that the Tropico formula has always been obvious. Place the player in control of a small, impoverished Caribbean island as the newly installed “Presidente,” give him the rudiments of an economy to manipulate, and let him run wild. The starting conditions are only vague suggestions of where the island can ultimately end up. Presidente can become a ruthless dictator or a compassionate democrat who holds elections and looks after the needs of his people. The island itself can be changed into a resource-extraction racket or a tourist mecca, and the population of the island can become educated, run off into the forest to rebel, or continue mired in their abject poverty, living in shacks and farming corn. All of this plays out in the context of the Cold War, so added to internal concerns there is the ever-present threat of Uncle Sam invading. The player can either pledge fealty to him, seek aid from the Russians, or chart a middle course and forgo the development aid both of them dangle in front of his cash-strapped economy from time to time.
The options at the player’s disposal have always been obvious as well – they’re the standard city-builder toolkit, including the ability to build power plants, tenements, farms, mines, and roads; to pass laws which can reduce pollution; to promote foreign relations or increase adult literacy, etc.
The people themselves were always the key element. Every one (then as now) had a name, a personal history, opinions on issues, and needs that had to be satisfied. You could poke around in charts to find out what was making people angry, as you can in most other city-builders, but in Tropico you could ask the people directly. And they would tell you, in painful detail, exactly how you were screwing things up. They are born, they seek medical care, they change jobs (and become better with time), they move around, get married, have children, get educated, work, and die. And you can track each and every one of them throughout their time on your island if you wish.
"Some of these areas Haemimont has recognized, and others they’ve continued to ignore."
Haemimont has not strayed terribly far from the source material, but that’s probably because Tropico was a great game and only in need of improvement in a few areas. Some of these areas Haemimont has recognized, and others they’ve continued to ignore.
One of the areas that they’ve improved is transportation. Tropico had no roads or vehicles anywhere; buildings were plopped down, and the only roads that appeared were the foot-paths people made when walking between the cafe and the mine and their homes. One of the effects this had was making the development of the entire island (especially large islands) frustrating. If you told your workers to build a shack on the far end of the island from where their office was, they would walk there, poke the dirt a couple of times, and return to their offices because the journey there (on foot) had consumed the lion’s share of their shift. This is no longer the case. The entire island can be settled from the beginning, because you can now string roads all over the place and plop down garages, which provide workers needing to travel long distances with cars and trucks. It’s a more rational way to handle the problem of getting Tropicans around, and it’s probably the biggest change Haemimont made.
Other things Haemimont has added include the radio station, which provides tunes and timely updates on the island’s situation, a more robust tourism industry, oil, some new edicts, and the ability to design your own Presidente and have him walk around the island. The overall effect is a sharpening-up of the original design, a kind of update reflecting the “progress” made in city-builders since the time of the original Tropico. I think the focus on transportation might have something to do with the fact that SimCity 4 turned every city-builder into even more of a subway-and-freeway-obsessed freak than he’d been previously. Releasing a city-builder in 2009 where people are expected to walk around on dirt paths just would not have cut the mustard.
Not everything Haemimont added is welcome, though. The 3D upgrade is unnecessary. One of the most important features of the original Tropico which gave it such longevity (I’ve still got it on my laptop for the odd round) was the random-map generator. The maps the developers have included with Tropico 3 are enough to keep you going for a couple months of solid play (which is perfectly fine), and the campaign missions will chew up a few long evenings easily. However, after you get tired of the soaring bump-mapped ridges and cliffs of the included maps, you’ve got to find a way to make your own. I think I prefer the robustness of the random-map editor to picking from a selection of pre-made maps (which have considerable amounts of essentially useless terrain – the ridges and cliffs, for example).
The music isn’t as good as it was in the original Tropico, either. But the Tropico soundtrack was a rare and singularly beautiful thing, so I’m not crying too much over it.
Tropico 3 is not only a faithful adaptation of a classic idea, it’s also the best game Haemimont has ever made. It would have been very easy for them to not improve anything about the basic design and simply rely on nostalgia to move units, and it would have been even easier to stick to the ancient Roman mold they’d used previously and churn out another middling bore like last year’s Imperium Romanum. They’ve done neither and have instead produced one of the best city-builders in a year surprisingly filled with them.