Tropico 5 is a tin-pot dictator – careening from crisis to crisis, trying to assert its authority, while always in the shadow of the previous regime. Like the miniature tyrants it tries to spoof, Tropico 5 is more ridiculous than impressive. That bluster and charm hides insecurity. It’s a game that knows it’s the ruler of a tiny empire because there isn’t anyone else to rule in its place.
After the jump, Tropico 5 has always been the leader! There was never a Tropico 4!
Tropico 5 is the latest in the city-building series about managing a third-world paradise. The franchise distinguishes itself from other genre staples by its tongue-in-cheek presentation, and by making the player balance the desires and needs of the populace with pleasing the off-map superpowers. Ignore a faction for too long, and you could have a rebel uprising. Displease a superpower too much and you may find yourself in your own Bay of Pigs. Tropico 5 puts this balancing act front and center. You won’t be ruling a banana republic as much as you’ll be answering requests from a constant stream of quest-givers.
Most city-builders keep players building through the push and pull of economics and population. You find out about some need and you construct the correct building to solve the issue. Too much crime? Build a police department. Not enough food? Build more farms or import more produce. People are angry? They need more entertainment. The challenge usually lies in uncovering what’s wrong and getting the funds to solve the problem. Tropico 5 took away a lot of the discovery for me by having pop-up quests tell me what to do. Build an apartment building. Now. Good boy. Here’s an extra $5,000.
Tropico 4 was criticized for being too easy. Once you played the game a couple of times, it was simple to have a build order that you could follow every time. As long as you stuck to the plan, you’d hardly get into any trouble. Tropico 5 is easy, but for a different reason. Haemimont Games took the criticism of Tropico 4 to heart and revamped the gameplay to direct attention away from the simplified city-planning and more towards the politics. Whether in the campaign or the sandbox mode, I was plagued by multiple requests. Build two cathedrals to please the religious faction! Export 50,000 units of pineapples to Russia! Fend off the pirates! It’s a never-ending array of boxes to tick. It was interesting at first, but eventually I just wanted them to go away and leave me to the building. But they just kept coming. I couldn’t just ignore them because I needed the rewards. You can’t follow a build order because you’ll be fulfilling random quests. Mission accomplished, Tropico 5!
The game divides the setting into four eras. Each one locks off parts of the tech tree and has its own set of demands on El Presidente. In the colonial period, I was at the beck and call of The Crown, while I nurtured a growing sentiment of independence among my people. During the world wars, I balanced the wants of the Axis and Allies. In the Cold War, I schemed my way between the USA and the Soviet Union. Finally, in the modern times, I was called on to work within a global economy.
Tropico 5 stumbles here as much as it succeeds. The first era is more chore than anything else. There aren’t many building options and survival is tied to a time limit. There’s nothing to do but progress quickly. The demands don’t vary much between eras. Shipping 10,000 units of meat as a subject of the motherland feels the same as shipping it to China in modern times. Replacing one foreign power with another doesn’t change the game enough to matter. Anachronisms abound breaking any sense of immersion. Tricorn hats and pilgrim dresses don’t mesh well with electric lamps on buildings. Despite what Tropico 5 tries to do, it all still feels like it takes place within the same campy Cold War nether-period in which previous Tropico games have been set.
On the topic of immersion, remember how neat it was to see your little avatar strut around to personally direct workers in Tropico 4? That’s gone. El Presidente is still on the map, but he doesn’t actually do anything. He doesn’t give speeches before an election, and he doesn’t have any way to directly influence a structure. It’s a mystery why the game makes you play dress-up to create a leader at all. Your ruler has a global power that gives some small boost, and can gain a “dynasty” of up to six more family members with their own traits. Dynasty members advance levels and improve skills so you can use them in other scenarios. What used to be a set of options when you started a new game in Tropico 4 has become a level mechanic that spans multiple play sessions in Tropico 5. The connection between the player and El Presidente is sorely missing. Historical leaders are gone too. El Presidente will always be a generic mishmash of player-chosen cosmetic options and a randomly generated name.
Speaking of your cosmetic options, Tropico 5 offers a lot less than Tropico 4 does. I fired up Tropico 4 with no mods or DLC to check I wasn’t going crazy and Tropico 5 is definitely a step back at launch. The previous game’s dozen outfits for the ruler have been reduced to five – six with a pre-order bonus. Things are just as limited in the city. The decorative flourishes that a player could add to their city have been culled to a handful of gardens and small parks. Gone are all the statues and monuments that a budding dictator should have. Where would despots be without their grandiose statuary? It’s obvious why some of this stuff isn’t here at launch. Going by the track record of Tropico 4, publisher Kalypso Media wants players to buy a lot of DLC. Each pack will undoubtedly come with more cosmetic stuff for the game. Wacky new outfits for your rulers! Decorative options for your city! DLC names have already been uncovered in the game files by curious fans, so we probably won’t have long to wait for these items to come back.
The economy in Tropico 5 is balanced around the pulses of money and resources you get from the trade routes. Docks come with ships that can be assigned to trade routes with foreign powers. The trade routes bring much-needed money, immigrants, and can improve relations with other countries. Since the ships’ schedules work on a cycle, savvy players will plan their city expenditures around the periods when the treasury is flush with cash. It’s the most interesting mechanic Tropico 5 has to offer. It can actually be a little tense watching your money drain slowly as the weeks pass – hoping you don’t run out – until a ship pulls in with its bounty. Each dock can only accommodate one ship at first, (upgrades allow multiple ships in later eras) so early games can bounce between feast or famine as ships ply their routes. Later on, you’ll have no problems with the flow of money if you’ve built enough docks and office buildings.
The most scarce resource in Tropico 5 is educated citizens. I was constantly running out of high school and college graduates to fill higher paying jobs. It takes years for students to graduate high school and enter the workforce or move on to college. Because each school can only handle 15 students at a time, I found that I needed a new high school for every two hundred citizens if I wanted to progress. Despite how they look, high schools in Tropico must be the size of closets.
Multiplayer is a feature that Kalypso was keen on including this time around, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Up to four players can compete or work together in a game. Unlike the half-baked method that SimCity uses, Tropico 5’s multiplayer takes place on the same map. Multiplayer matchmaking was broken at launch thanks to server overload, which I guess follows in the spirit of the game. Once I was able to get a multiplayer game going, I was faced with a daunting task as there is no way to save the game and come back to it. Multiplayer scenarios have to finish in one go, which makes playing kind of hard when a match can easily span a few hours. There’s the start of something that might be good someday in Tropico 5’s multiplayer, but you’ll probably never see it. Playing cooperatively is boring, and playing against another player is bad because combat is so awful.
I can’t begin to stress how bad the combat is in Tropico 5. I want to learn other languages so I’ll be able to say how bad it is in different ways. “Combat est terrible!” In the beginning, it’s all about placing a guard tower every couple of blocks. Attackers will either land on your shores and move inland or armed rebels will spawn in the middle of the city. Like the dumbest tower defense game ever made, the enemy will run back and forth attacking towers as your Keystone Cops army stands around or takes the longest route possible to fight them. Later, you’ll just want to build enough Army Bases so that your brain-dead tank groups won’t have to travel far to get to the hostiles. That’s it. There are rudimentary commands you can issue to your forces, but they won’t obey so why bother? I don’t know if the commands actually have any code behind them at all. For all its stress on putting down insurgencies and fending off foreign invasions, Tropico 5 has no idea how to make combat meaningful.
Tropico 5 has just enough city-building goodness to keep it above travesties like SimCity, but that’s mostly because it’s built on the third and fourth games in the franchise. It also helps that there really isn’t much competition in the modern city-building genre. The basic formula is still solid. Building a tropical city, placating superpowers, and suppressing rebellion offers enough challenge to remain engaging. Tropico 5 just doesn’t do anything with its new mechanics to advance the franchise. It’s an old man, wearing a shabby uniform, drunkenly partying in the palace. Sometimes it has moments of brilliance, but it’s mostly just waiting for the next revolution.