When people think of Tropico they assume you have to be a sneaking, conniving and ultimately self-serving leader of the public in a banana republic beset by corruption and constantly on the verge of revolution. That’s simply not true. You are more than capable in this long-running city builder of running a government that is fair and open, that puts the needs of the many before the needs of El Presidente’s bank account and that runs yearly impartial elections.
That’s the part where we fell down in the tutorial of Tropico 5 – trying to run things how we felt they should be run without knowing the intricacies of the systems. We lost the free and fair election. Game over. In the tutorial. So it is that you inevitably fall to the lure of corruption – a bit of an electoral tweak here, a $5,000 bribe to the leader of the rebels there, eventually you think nothing of having dissidents dragged out of their homes and executed in the streets as an example to other would-be protesters.
Tropico 5 gives you more chance than ever before to still run things properly, but the fact of the matter is that’s a really difficult way to do things. Losing an election is game over, so why not just initiate martial law, thus cancelling elections for the forseeable future? Yes, the people might not like it much, but so what? These kinds of concerns have always been at the centre of Tropico games and they’re just as interesting and exciting as they’ve ever been – they’re also some of the best-developed and deepest elements of a series that has always veered off into banality the more time you put into it.
Tropico 5 is, unfortunately, hit with the same affliction. It’s initially fun, fairly funny and its systems of corruption and deceit will have you grinning an evil grin throughout (unless you opt out of taking advantage of them, naturally), but a mere few hours in you’ll hit a wall – and the experience doesn’t recover. There are a number of new additions to Tropico 5, like citizens having individual roles, both beneficial (managers for your factories upping production levels), and antagonistic (the aforementioned rebel leader). This is interesting and it’s fun to see the dissidents spread throughout your township as the police (secret or otherwise) uncover them, but beyond putting a face to the rebel and automating some micromanagement processes, it doesn’t change the experience much.
Similarly the reworked and improved trade systems bring to Tropico 5 a good deal of simplification to a very important system – but this amounts to you clicking a few different icons then watching as some numbers grow (or shrink) here and there. It’s not captivating, it involves little in the way of strategy and it lacks real depth. While trade has an effect on diplomacy with world superpowers – and diplomacy with world superpowers has an effect on trade – that is, again, little more than numbers and icons.
One new element we were really hopeful about was the addition of eras: beginning in the colonial era, players move through the world wars, the cold war and into modern times. Each era brings with it new technologies and upgraded buildings, as well as new concerns from the citizens of Tropico – the religious make way for the communists, the need for environmentalist thinking begins to outweigh the need for llama wool and so on.
Reacting to the changing times and the changing needs of the people should have been brilliant. Instead it’s just bland. Not bad, per se, but nowhere near as captivating – or, again, strategic – as we had originally hoped. And it doesn’t help that your people change their minds on a seemingly minute-to-minute basis, with real digging needed to find out that everyone seems to hate you because you forgot to build a restaurant in one particular residential district.
It’s that transient nature of things that really harms the experience though. While incredibly careful management – or outright cheating – will get things sorted in the main part, there seems little you can do to stop the tide of negativity forming in front of El Presidente. Were there more definite, measurable and – dare we say – predictable responses to your decisions, it would add to the experience and make for deeper strategy. As it stands, the game almost appears to work on impulse and overreaction, your people punishing you for the slightest of infractions with a rebellion, your armies suddenly understaffed for no discernible reason and 200 homeless people walking the streets while subsidised, affordable housing sits completely empty across the road from their shacks.
Throw on top of all of this the completely pointless additions of fog of war and El Presidente having a dynasty and you’re left feeling that these additions – while ultimately well-meaning – have mostly missed the mark. There’s a lot to like about Tropico 5 in its early stages, and the addition of multiplayer – cooperative and competitive – is likely to make the game last a lot longer than it otherwise would. But all too soon the experience becomes bland and, just as it often has done in the past, Tropico 5 veers off into banality the more time you put into it.
While the great entries to the Sim City series, the Civilizations of the world, even Ubisoft’s Anno series and Galactic Civilizations II all give more back the more you put into it, Tropico 5 is unable to do that. And a lack of longevity in a game that should last so very long is just, ultimately, disappointing.