The breeze is blowing, you've just marked the leader of the strongest opposition faction for execution, your tourist t-shirt shops are making bank, your miners are back at work after you shot a few of them for striking, and you exported so much canned pineapple to China, that the Chinese ambassador called you personally to let you know how much he appreciates it. What game could you be playing except Tropico?
Tropico 4's setting is certainly unique, and the above description of events reveals how quirky the game can be, but Tropico's real value has always been how well it handles the traditional city building formula. The economic model is mainly unchanged in T4 – you can orient your economy towards raw or finished exports or tourism, and you can placate or oppress your population in a wide variety of ways, by providing them with adequate housing and food or by putting them on starvation wages and killing them if they object. You gather information and execute your decisions in the same old way you used to, i.e., by scanning the island for ideal locations for either resource extraction operations or tourist enclaves, setting up the infrastructure and experimenting (seeing which mines turn profits, seeing how your tourists travel around your island, etc.) and tweaking. Government is still handled largely through edicts, which are specific policies you can issue (Litter Ordinance, Same Sex Marriages, Free Housing, etc.) through your new council of ministers. This is all very solid, very traditional city-builder stuff.
Which sort of raises the question: what separates Tropico 4 from 2009's Tropico 3, besides a suspiciously short development cycle? I had to check Haemimont's official press materials to remind myself. Part of this is actually a good thing; the materials mentioned that they added natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, and the addition seemed so natural (no pun intended) that I hadn't noticed it when I was playing the campaign. In general, though, having to read a developer's website (after having beaten the entire game) to figure out what separates one game from its sequel is bad news.
They did add a few new buildings, like the stock exchange (which doesn't produce anything but periodically presents foreign investment opportunities) and the ministry (which lets you hire ministers, granting access to edicts), and as I mentioned natural disasters are new. The various factions on the island (the intellectuals, the communists, the nationalists, the religious) are more upfront about their demands and are more powerful; eco-activists, for example, can shut down your mines if they're displeased, and if the priest hates you he will turn his sermons on you. Yet this is barely in expansion-pack territory, and this is a sequel we're talking about.
So what makes Tropico 4 worth the extra number and the purchase price? Certainly not the new Twitter and Facebook integration that allows you to let everyone in your extended family and all your acquaintances know what a weirdo you are for playing a videogame about a banana republic.
"The main draw for this Tropico, such as it is, is the expanded single-player campaign…"
The main draw for this Tropico, such as it is, is the expanded single-player campaign (twenty missions) that makes full use of the new features and tries just about every trick in the book to keep things interesting. On one mission all of your ministers are corrupt U.N. officials, and you have to bribe them or force them off the island to be able to issue any edicts. In another mission your adviser (Penultimo is his name) tells you to divert your island from a wayward nuclear missile by building wind turbines to drive the island away from the blast zone. Other missions force you along a certain economic path: in one mission you have to build a tourist industry before you build anything else (which, in this Tropico and in all others, is tough), and in other missions you're asked to cover your island in mines or farms, or to export a certain amount of a manufactured good. Typically scenarios are composed of at least five of these smaller objectives towards some kind of greater objective. In one scenario you have to fill up Presidente's Swiss bank account, and you do so by taking bribes, shaving some profit off the top of Tropican industry, etc. In another you have to get a million followers on your in-game Twitter account. No joke.
The campaign is very good overall, even if the objectives are contrived, and the pattern is obvious from the start of each scenario (“oh, it looks like this time I have to waste a bunch of money on a rollercoaster for no reason”). Yet the fact that the challenges are frequently transparent doesn't detract from their value as challenges, and by the end of the campaign I felt like I'd really stretched myself. There's a story in there somewhere – about Presidente getting forced off his island and having to claw his way back to power – but it's just window dressing, and it's another point in Tropico 4's column that I beat the game and barely remembered the narrative.
So the verdict is that Haemimont have done it again: they've made another Tropico 3. If you're a Tropico nut, then the idea of a few new buildings and a lengthy, engrossing campaign probably has you interested already. The only ones who might want to stay back are those who felt like they'd had enough one, or two, or three Tropicos ago.