The first thing that always pops into my head when hearing about any strategy game where you can effectively play God with little virtual folk’s lives is, ‘’I wonder what cruel and hilarious ways I can make their lives miserable?’’ Sure, it sounds like a particularly sadistic mindset, but that is truly what such games encourage. Who hasn’t boxed in a character in The Sims? Or razed a city to the ground in SimCity? Tropico is a series that revels in a morally corrupt side of the genre, with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, but does that make it a better alternative? Well, Tropico 5 is the first in the series to appear on PlayStation and occupies something of a niche on PS4 as there are next to no strategy titles in this generation’s early days. This sets Tropico up for a warm, unopposed welcome.
The point of Tropico 5 is not too far removed from the likes of the Civilization series. You start at an earlier point in history (colonial times, here) and are given your own island country to rule and raise up through to modern times. All throughout your time as leader, there are obstacles thrown at you. From choosing to ally with the Allies or Axis and ‘’dealing’’ with problematic elections that threaten to kick you out of power to dealing with rebel militia and balancing independence, the challenges are relentless. It’s neat that the game seems to be designed to chip away at your good intentions and shape you into an uncaring dictator bent on ticking off the rest of the world with your flagrant bastardry. Of course, you aren’t some demi-god living for hundreds of years, so you need to build a dynasty along the way, prolonging your family name and maintaining the respect (terror) you’ve earned by ruling so efficiently (with an iron fist).
To handle all this requires a careful balance of management, tactical thinking, and shrewd judgement. The construction side of this is easy enough to handle, as you aren’t bogged down with shaping terrain or laying sewers, pipes, and the like.Things are simply built and require roads to link them to the rest of your country. There are small tweaks you can make, such as adding managers for businesses, upgrading them, and pumping more funding into them if you feel the need, but none of this will be overly complex to get your head around.
Rather, the deepest part of the game lies with the aforementioned political issues. It’s when you combine the building of your island paradise with having to manage political banana skins such as trade routes, treaties, constitutions, rebels, monarchy, and war-hungry foreign countries that challenge truly comes into play. It may be that you are so occupied with building up an army to combat the impending invasion by another nearby island country that you forget to build enough entertainment venues to keep the people happy. Coupled with an upcoming election, it’s enough to suddenly throw all your good planning in the air as you scramble to claw back the voting majority by any means necessary and avoid being deposed. Even on lower difficulties, you can find yourself caught out by these ever-evolving situations, but half the fun is learning from your mistakes and trying to perfect your reign next time round.
One problem I had with this dynamic is that repeating those early stages in Tropico 5 swiftly gets gratingly repetitive after a few restarts. The campaign mode offers up fresh mini-challenges for each mission, but once you’ve done those, the meat and potatoes come from sandbox mode, which is less structured but allows you to optimize the way you wish to play Tropico. Thing is, no matter how many difficulty tweaks you make, how much money you give yourself, or what shape your island country is in, the ever-decreasing enjoyment you get from starting from scratch again is hard to mitigate. Once you get to back to a certain stage, you find yourself invested in the machinations of your homeland once more and the results start to branch out as you make better (or worse) decisions. All those times you slog through that opening hour still pale in comparison to the pride that always kicks in as you survey your hard work as a bustling, successful modern cityscape. So too does the panic and anguish kick in when you find said cityscape being bombarded by enemy troops because you got a little too arrogant in trade negotiations a few months back.
There is something else that elevates Tropico 5 to the realm of being rather good, and that is the hybrid cooperative/VS mode. You and up to three other players can inhabit the same island and play as normal. But at some point, somebody is going to tread on somebody else’s toes, geographically speaking, and that’s where it gets interesting. Do you co-exist and conduct peaceful negotiation, building alliances for a way forward, or will you be the first to declare all-out war? With strangers I generally found the slightest disagreement would end in somebody getting hostile, but the build-up to that moment is consistently fascinating to participate in. The A.I. is tough, often unfair, but it does have predictable base routines. Another human being, however, is far more likely to do nonsensical and chaotic things, all in the name of ego.
Or you could have friends to play with and find a way to work together. I highly doubt that’ll happen for long, but then, the game never wants peace to last. The pretense of peace is constantly held up while Tropico avidly paws at the big red ‘’WAR’’ button.
Elsewhere, Tropico 5 doesn’t bring anything new and sparkly to the table in the technical department. The word that popped in my head anytime I thought of how to describe the technical side of Tropico was ‘’functional’”. It runs well enough and moving through all the menus and submenus is surprisingly simple, but graphically, there is nothing to write home about, and Tropico 5 falls just a bit short of our base expectations on PS4. With the extra time to work on it after a delay from late 2014, it’s a little disappointing, if not particularly important.
While strategy and city-building games are still thin on the ground for PS4, Tropico 5 still comes as an easy recommendation to genre enthusiasts. There will probably be bigger and better ones in time, but for now, we have a genuinely good starting point.