Eight years have passed since the release of Tropico and there's never been anything like it; not even its own pirate-themed sequel! Last year Kalypso Media set out to put this right by acquiring the franchise's license and essentially rebuilding the 2001 release under the name Tropico 3.
To categorically sweep this point aside before moving onto the details, Tropico 3 is the game that PopTop Software would have made if today's technology had been available in 2001. In every element of Tropico 3 it's evident that the new developers have a lot of love for the original game and had no intention of fixing something that wasn't broken. After all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
As in the original game each campaign mission and user-generated scenario sees you taking on the role of the newly appointed Presidente of a Spanish-speaking tropical island which the game serves up as a facsimile of Cuba. You are then free to govern your potential paradise however you choose! Will your reign be remembered as a happy, prosperous time for your island nation or will your time in office terminate with you on the wrong end of a revolutionary's rifle after years of tyrannical dictatorship? There's fun to be had either way!
As numero uno you have total control of the treasury and you're able to exercise your will by choosing from a selection of 74 buildings to construct and setting the costs of the goods and services they provide, as well as the salaries of the islanders who work there. Your choices determine the happiness of the seven political factions: capitalists, communists, intellectuals, religious, militarists, environmentalists, and nationalists. It's important to keep at least a few of those groups sweet because it's their votes you'll be needing when election time rolls around.
The system is logical and easy to grasp; for instance if your island doesn't have a church then your religious citizens will be dissatisfed until you build one. If funds are low – a frequent and likely state of affairs – and you're unable to pay to have one built in the short-term then you could attempt to pacify the pious with a “promise” in your election speech. Prior to each election you are given statistics on the likelihood that your people will vote to keep you in power and at this point you can deliver an election speech to try and sway the vote in your favour. You're able to choose one issue to address, one group to praise, and you can promise that you'll perform a specific action in the near future. In our hypothetical religious disgruntlement scenario we might comment on the problem of not having a church, praise the religious faction, and promise to build that church once the funds are available. This would typically win over some of the voters who would have gone against you but if building the church happened to slip your mind you'd be in for a world of hurt later on. Of course you might prefer to use your speech to take the time to praise the most important person on the island, your omnipotent self, and deal with the ensuing anger from the populace by rigging the election to maintain your power. To go a step further, you could even declare Martial Law and do away with those silly, time-wasting elections. You know that you're the best man for the job and your well-paid, gun-toting pals at the army base agree. Or else!
Martial Law is one of 40 edicts you can enact which influence life on the island. If you're feeling benevolent you could instigate a Pollution Standards scheme to limit the environmental impact of your industrial buildings, but it would be much more financially rewarding to decide to allow the United States to conduct nuclear testing within your borders.
Set in the Cold War era, an important aspect of the game is maintaining relationships with the superpowers of the US and USSR. Their financial aid to your developing nation will vary depending on how happy they are with you and this can amount to a very significant part of your budget unless you have a well-functioning export industry or tourism empire. The stakes are even higher if you let your relationships descend into anger and distrust as their forces may invade your island in an effort to depose you!
All of this will be sounding quite familiar to fans of the first Tropico game but one welcome addition to the formula is that of the increased emphasis on you as leader. You now have an avatar which you can move around the island to perform tasks such as confronting protesters, speeding up construction, and speaking from the balcony of your palace. The appearance of your avatar can be chosen from a range of ready-made characters based on historical figures like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Eva Peron; all inheriting personality traits based on their personality, beliefs, and rise to power which will influence your standing with each political faction and sometimes produce other effects. The “Flatulent” character trait for instance will necessitate higher wages for your palace guards as compensation for sharing your air supply.
The simple character creator provides an alternative to the existing characters and has a decent number of faces, hairstyles, and costumes for your very own El Presidente. You're also given your pick of the character traits and it's a good idea to tailor them to the mission you're about to undertake to give you a headstart on meeting production targets or pleasing particular factions.
Now that we're dipping our toe in the ocean of difficulty I must confess that in the last eight years my ability to govern a tropical island has declined. I personally found Tropico 3 to be taxing to the point of annoyance at times and balancing the books often felt too much like hard work. The game's Almanac interface delivers every mundane statistic you could hope for and makes no effort to present them appealingly. If you've spent all day at work crunching numbers and looking at spreadsheets then Tropico 3 will offer precious little respite if, like me, you find yourself flipping in and out of debt every couple of minutes.
My frustrations were confounded by the length of the missions which each require a significant investment of time and don't lend themselves to being broken up into short play sessions. There are three speed settings but you may find yourself spending a lot of time on the slowest setting or even paused to keep on top of the demands of your maddeningly needy citizens.
Thankfully there is a sandbox mode which offers loads of options for adjusting the goalposts for a more casual game or for a greater challenge if you're some kind of masochist. Such players might also enjoy the 50 in-game achievements in the PC version with objectives ranging from simpler tasks that you'll complete in any typical game up to more difficult challenges that will require some focused effort, such as making $1,000,000 from tourism in one game.
At the highest graphical settings Tropico 3 looks great for a city builder with detailed scenery and buildings and animation akin to what you'd expect from the Sims games. Performance was good for the most part but things would occasionally get a little choppy when scrolling the camera and the program wasn't entirely happy with being alt-tabbed.
The camera controls give you a lot of freedom and you can scroll out far enough to really show off the beautiful scenery but my single gripe with the game's controls was that the mousewheel both zooms the camera and handles rotating buildings and this can cause a few headaches if you're looking for the best place to position a new farm for ideal banana-growing conditions.
Ultimately Tropico 3 will live or die on your reaction to its unique personality. It's a standard city builder at heart but what sets it apart is its setting in time and location and it's primarily in the soundtrack that it conveys this. Throughout each game you'll hear radio broadcasts about the opinions of your people as well as reactions to date-accurate events occurring around the world, such as the assassination of JFK. Between these broadcasts you'll be hearing an awful lot of ethnically relevant music in the form of the same half a dozen traditional hispanic songs. It's not that the songs are bad – the Tropico series has won awards for original music in the past – but if you can stand to hear the one about the mad cat that dances the rumba a few times every hour then you're a stronger man than I.