27 November 2011

Tropico 4: Bit of a one trick pony

Beards! Volcanoes! Lots of midgets!

Before I start, let's assume you've played the first two Tropicos. If you haven't, just play them, they're great games. They shouldn't have aged too awfully. Wikipedia tells me the first Tropico came out in 20011, and I recall that it was basically Railroad Tycoon II2 with people instead of trains. I mean literally it was the exact same engine. That is, they probably did change tons under the hood, but it looked exactly the same... But you know what? It worked. It was a perfect representation of the game- just the right amount of detail. And the interface was wonderfully designed; technical limitations never interfered with gameplay.

I haven't played Tropico 3, on the other hand, which seems to be very similar to T4. Hence, I will mostly compare T4 to T1 in this review: From what I hear, you might as well skip T3 and just play T4 (and T2, while a great game, has an entirely different setting- it's about running a pirate island in the 18th century).

And for those who are familiar with T4's predecessors, the above digression is not entirely irrelevant either. To be blunt, there's only two reasons one would want to play T4 as opposed to the previous games: Either you've already played all the others, and just want more of the same, with some minor differences thrown in, or for some reason you must have modern graphics3. In either case, T4 is just slightly worse than T1 and T2. But that's okay! Those are great games. They're amazing games! And, being slightly worse than amazing- hey, that's still pretty amazing.


Mmm... Pretty...
So what's the game like? Since I mentioned graphics, let's talk about that. Everything really looks and feels quite similar. The interface still has that charming cold war era design, the buildings and people have the same cute realistic scale, and so on. It's all fancy-shmancy 3D now, of course. It hardly makes much of a difference for me, since I only ever play at two different zoom levels of one perspective angle, but the upshot is that you can now go watch your (hopefully) loyal little subjects go about their business from any angle. The maps also do have very pretty seaside cliffs and picturesque waterfalls and verdant hills with funny critters prancing around and what not. Plus, when some random event happens, you get to watch a nice little in-engine cutscenes. The disasters, like the tsunami and the volcanic eruption (yep, we have disasters now!), especially look quite nice.


The interface works very similarly, in essence. Having the build menu pop up on a right click is a bit more annoying than the T1 method of just having a persistent tab, but I guess they had to have something that works for a console, too. The edicts seem to be a tad less numerous this time around, although still many of them. But with the information overlays, things get a bit... Ugh. Naturally, every tiny computer person has a happiness score that you must optimize- unhappy computer people may rebel or lead to other issues. Their happiness depends on a few needs like healthcare, entertainment, and so on, but also on "respect", which depends on how their politics align with yours, but their main way of figuring out your politics is to look at how well you satisfy their needs. So it's all about keeping everyone's needs as high as possible, really. But here's the kicker: There's no overlay for specific needs. You can't see which citizens are getting healthcare and which aren't- oh you can get a list in the almanac, but what good is that? I need colored arrows above people's heads! This is a crippling flaw, but I'll get to it later.

Some controls are also really weird, probably because of the console funny business. As of 1.03, I couldn't remap increase/decrease game speed to numpad +/-, and there is no key for setting absolute game speed. (Which is really what I would do- I'd rather say which speed I want than dick around with one faster, two slower, etc. I mean, that's how you use it, right? Put on fastest to make money, quickly drop to slowest when intervention is needed, deal with issue, repeat.) There also seemed to be many hotkeys, but never the ones I want- mostly hotkeys for specific buildings. I don't care about that! The menu is a right click away anyhow- where's my unemployment report hotkey? Not really game breaking, but it's just so weird to me that people miss these things that seem obvious after playing the game for 5 minutes.

Also, the voiceovers. Generally, the voice acting in this game is quite decent. It's not amazing Oscar-work or anything, but it's just the right kind of corniness. Except, strangely there's very little of it. For instance, when you get dialog boxes, they usually go "short paragraph, long paragraph, closing sentence", and only the first paragraph is voiced. Why? I'd love to hear the rest of it! Ah, budget issues, I guess. But then there's the radio. You see, the background music is actually supposed to be stuff on the in-universe national Tropico radio, so occasionally you get various characters having short discussions. If healthcare is bad, people will complain about it, and your advisors will dole out typical, slick, reassuring bullshit about how the situation is not El Presidente's fault, and it's all being worked on. If you are close with USSR, the diplomat will sometimes make an appearance. It's all quite jolly and cute... Except there's very few lines per event, and it seems conditions on the island tend to be stable, so it's always the same event, and by the time you hear the hippie woman complain about the factory on your island for perhaps literally the 1000th time you get this... This slight "twitch" impulse in the corner of your mouth, and find yourselves daydreaming about something markedly less wholesome and peaceful than sunshine and rainbows.

I understand of course that VAs don't work for free, and I realize I can turn off the radio. But the thing is, sometimes they do say interesting or important stuff on there, and I want to hear that! But the few usual suspects keep filibustering the thing with their inane spam about issues that I've decided to ignore anyhow. Why couldn't they just add a check to prevent messages from repeating too often?


Vroom vroom!
An interesting addition seems to be the garage. You build one, and instead of walking all the way to the other side of the island for work, people will walk to the garage, take a car, and drive to work. It's much faster, and also their I-don't-care radius is much wider, so there's fewer headaches with relocating residential clusters. That is to say, overall, I approve of this, and in fact it's definitely the kind of perfect missing feature that the original Tropico needed all along. But on the other hand, it's sort of pointless: Garages are cheap, they don't use up resources or require many skilled workers or anything like that. Figuring out an efficient placement pattern is also trivial. There's pretty much no reason to ever not just build garages everywhere- and then you might as well not have the garage and have everyone use cars by default. It wouldn't make any difference. So, really I don't know. I think I prefer there being a garage, though. It just feels so comfortingly organized to build them!

Aside from this, everything else seemed to me very similar to T1. Oh, also, there's disasters. They're really pretty looking pains in the butt- the event occurs, destroys a handful of random buildings, and vanishes, then you go and spend something like half the usual cost of the buildings to rebuild them (thankfully the plots remain and you don't have to go by memory) and that's that. Again, ultimately somewhat pointless, but I guess it's a nice little detail... Although I wish there was a "repair all" button attached to the disaster report. Oh, sometimes you have to clean up lasting damage- the tsunami, for instance, will deposit a tanker in the middle of your island. But you basically just pay a sum of money and it goes away, so again a nice, but somewhat pointless distraction.

While we're here, a quick remark about the elections: They're nice. They're exactly how you expect them to be, but I felt like making note of T4 meeting an important set of expectations: You get to fiddle around with votes if you want, and it affects your citizens' trust in the democracy of your regime, you can play dirty against opponents, you can even make promises (like improving healthcare) before elections and people will hold you to them! Everything is just as it should be, and this is extra-important because so many other games get it wrong.

Level Design and Gameplay

Now I should say this: There's a campaign of 20 missions. They seem to have some sort of storyline, but it all amounts to some occasional, random dialog boxes with people saying stuff, and then you get an objective to focus on this industry or that industry. The early missions serve to ease you into the game, I guess, but I overcame the initial feeling of being lost and confused in an unfamiliar game by the first 1/3rd of mission one (I hadn't played the tutorial), and had everything figured out by the middle of mission 2. At that point, the campaign became annoying, since just as I was starting to develop a burgeoning island, the mission was over! I felt like my come-uppance was cut short4.

I mean, generally speaking, once it's obvious you will win the game shouldn't force you to mop up- if you've accomplished the hard part of a mission then you'll obviously deal with the easy part, so it would tedious. However, T4's approach just adds to the tedium. Let's oversimplify and suppose you build a city in stages, 1 through 5, starting with the basic houses and food farms and finishing with the fancy ultimate endgame buildings. T4's maps go like, 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4. And it's always the last few in the sequence that are actually challenging to do in that scenario, and after a while you've done the 1-2 so many times, it's really getting to be quite a drag, and you haven't played around with 5 much at all. At least if you had to play every map to its endgame, the opening stages wouldn't feel like they repeat so often, although then you'd just be building the same "ultimate island" over and over in every map, and there's 20 of them!

You wouldn't want to solve the problem by having only 4 levels or something, of course. So one solution would have been to have actually challenging maps which really don't let you use certain easier strategies. I recall, T1 had a map where the story is that you and a bunch of other people are survivors of an airplane crash, and you must... *drumroll* Build an airport to return home5! Now, this was no trivial matter. You get no immigrants, being on an unknown island, and there were some other serious implications. You really did end up playing differently.

Another simple solution would be to have better starting conditions. This was another really annoying thing in this game: Every map starts you with a bare minimum of infrastructure. Now, when the previous  mission is about building an economy, and this one is about using your economy to expand your military, why not just start me with an island that already has a decent economy running? Why make me repeat the mission I just won? And it's not like what you get is any good: I mean, it baffles me how the devs can be so bad at their own game, but the few buildings they do place on the map, they're crap! The road layout, the horribly inefficient building placement... I have to demolish and rebuild everything at the start, and that's another paint in the ass because some things, like the construction office, must always exist. So you build a new one first, then demolish the old one. And if you want to only move it slightly? Build a second office, demolish old one, build a third one in the now freed space, demolish the second one... It all makes for a rather frustrating start, and this is every single map! Plus, there's the annoyance of delaying development by a few extra months to make up for the expense.

Now, to be fair, each map is slightly different. To represent different scenarios, you get random modifiers on things. In one map, the UN gets mad and places trade sanctions, so building prices are higher. In one map, you're supposed to focus on tourism, so they give you a BS briefing saying there's limited space (I never came close to running out of space) so you make less money from other industries because of modifiers and so on. But it doesn't really matter! The unfortunate thing is, there is one strategy which is very easy to use, immediately obvious (one of the first missions is about learning this strategy, in fact) and pretty much applicable to every situation: Just build a few factories. The exports make so much money that in minutes you will invariably have more money than you know what to do with, and every problem you will ever have in this game can easily be solved by throwing money at it. You don't even need farms or other complicated raw material buildings- you can just import them, and the profit is still outrageous.

I wouldn't say this is broken in the sense that it's too good. If the profit from industry was much smaller, there would be no point in building factories. The drawbacks certainly aren't sufficient- all you get is some pollution, which can be fixed by throwing money at it via anti-pollution edicts, building recyclers, and buying pollution reducing upgrades in factories. It doesn't completely get rid of pollution, but keeps it at a reasonable level, and then it doesn't affect anything anyway, except the environmentalists get mad. But you throw money at happiness too anyway, so at the end of the day everybody is easily at a stable 100% respect, with maybe the hippies hovering around 60-70%, which is still way above the problem-causing threshold (if you don't count the constant nagging on the radio, which seems to be triggered by the mere existence of factories anyhow). Now, you could make factory drawbacks much bigger- maybe the pollution is obscene or maybe the communists begin to dominate everything. But just like nerfing exports, that would just make me not want to use industry ever. The real trouble is, the other sectors are simply no good. They're a lot of trouble for too little gain, and not very unique.

So you have several aspects of gameplay, and each could potentially be a unique challenge and an equally valid way of succeeding, but in the end they're all very similar and one is clearly much easier and much more rewarding (in gameplay terms) so it's pointless to do anything else. By the way, this isn't just economy- the game supports a wide spectrum of regimes, for instance you can be an asshole tyrant who assassinates political opponents. But being a benevolent Presidente is just so easy, and comes so naturally, and being a despot is just such a headache whereas once you build your efficient little paradise city you can just lean back and let the money roll in without a care in the world. Why bother being a tyrant?

Now you could say, but dude, if it bothers you so much just don't build any industry. I could also tie my hands behind my back and play solely with my nose. The point stands that not every aspect of gameplay is well developed and suitable for high-level play, nor are they very different: Tourism, for instance, even if you bothered to make an efficient Tourism industry (you can just make an unprofitable one which keeps tourists very happy, by making everything free or something, and then make up the difference easily with factories) it would be just the same as building an efficient residential area, except instead of hospitals you build spas and instead of churches you build nightclubs.

This theme of self-defeating mechanics is quite pervasive, in fact. Another thing- for every mission you can select one of several avatars. You can even be Che or Castro or Pinochet! It's sort of neat. They all have their own traits, which are bonuses to some or other gameplay mechanic, and sometimes handicaps too. Also, these bonuses have 5 levels, and every time you beat a mission with one guy, that guy's bonuses level up. If someone else has the same kind of bonus, their bonus also levels up. So it's another neat, complex system, except unfortunately it's also ultimately pointless: The bonuses don't really matter. So one guy gets a handicap to communist relations. Big whoop, you just throw slightly more money at them, or just build a few extra houses, or even ignore it completely since at most it'll be 80-90% because you are raking in disgustingly large piles of dough from factories and can afford to provide top-notch services anyway.

All this adds up to a rather repetitive experience where every map is the same thing: Throw together some basic stuff, put up factories, wait a few years on fast forward to get a lot of money, and quickly build whatever it is that the objectives want you to. You do 20 times over for the campaign, and if you want to play the challenges, then god knows however more. I gave up at mission 7.


Ultimately, there's only one question: Will you enjoy this game? Again, if you liked Tropico 1, you'll like this. Not as much as T1, but you will like it a lot, and the comparison is irrelevant anyway because you can't play T1 for the first time again. And yes, T4 is very similar, but juuust different enough that that it really will feel like more of the same, but different.

If you didn't like T1, you'll hate this, unless you only didn't like T1 because have a 3D fetish, because that's really the only major way in which T4 is better than T1 (followed by cars and the disasters). And if you haven't played T1, then who knows. You'll probably like this if you like these types of city building sims, however if you're gonna like this then you'll definitely like T1, and in fact you'll probably like T1 more, so just play T1, and then if you want more, play T4.

There is also the corollary: For how long will you enjoy this game? For me, it lasted 7 maps, after which it wore me down, I used the level cheat to see how the story ends, and uninstalled. It wasn't even all in one sitting, either. I feel like sometime in the future, I'll get the autism blues again, reinstall, and do a few missions (probably sandboxes, since they're all the same anyway and I'd rather not be interrupted halfway through building my utopia). But it's hard to go on playing this for very long in one go- T4 just doesn't offer much challenge. There's not really much room for over optimizing either- unlike the Impressions games or SimCity series Tropico 4 seems to have quite straightforward strategical structure. It would also be laborious because of the lack of proper happiness overlays- I imagine you would have to gather data by hand.

Now as a sandbox, it's a whole different matter. Especially if you are into that sort of stuff, I'm very certain just building a long-lived island and running it into the 2200s would be wonderful fun. And again, you wouldn't want to do it over and over again, maybe, but you probably would feel like making a new city months or years after.

Now lastly, I've ended up talking at great length about the faults of the game. I hope the whole write-up doesn't come across as negative because of that, because I actually liked this game a lot, as it was so similar to T1, and T1 is a great game, and T4 shares many of its merits. And I'd hate to be unfair to the devs, so let me just say again: I really liked this game. I definitely think it does the Tropico name justice, and where they've chosen to innovate, the innovations have been, if not apt then certainly interesting and welcome.

Score: 4/5

Bias: I was on the fence between 3 and 4, but went with 4 because it's a Tropico game.

1: Man, it's been 10 years? Fuck, I feel old.
2: Also one of the best games ever made, especially if you are autistic. Now that I think of it, play that, too! Hell, maybe I should make a post about that as well...
3: It's a multiplatform release, so the graphics may actually be off by a couple of months or something. They seemed to me like they have all the hip new bells and whistles, but I don't really care much about great graphics- I'm perfectly happy if they convey gameplay information effectively, and maintain some basic standards of aesthetics. So don't get mad at me if these happen to be not-so-modern graphics.
4: There's this old Magic: The Gathering trick. Well, it's far older, and works for any game that can be won, really, but that's the context I first heard it stated in. Anyway, suppose you play Magic with a guy, and halfway through, you see that he's probably gonna win. And being a petty misanthrope, you don't like losing, and you don't like other people winning. What do you do? Easy: Gather up your cards and nonchalantly explain, "Yeah, looks like you've won, no point in going through the motions." While technically a surrender isn't any less of a loss, this devious little trick robs your opponent of that final blow- that ultimate moment of triumph. He won fair and square, and you both know it, but when he hasn't actually massacred your creatures and destroyed your every puny hit point, it doesn't feel like winning. And that's what Tropico 4 does- the moment you have the upper hand, it surrenders.
5: Of course, unless I am mistaken you still could somehow get imports and exports, and possibly be involved in global politics. And regardless, the game code requires the map to have a dock with a regular freighter arriving. Anyhow, all that aside, and the question of materials for buildings too, the main absurdity here is where the airplane comes from. You could handwave many things, but it's really unfeasible for 100 random airline crash survivors to just happen to have the skills to build an airplane with no infrastructure on an isolated island. And if it is, as is typically the case, bought... or something, then it knew where these people were, then why has a rescue mission not been sent? Why not build a radio station and call a ship? Wouldn't that be cheaper? Or maybe it's meant to be some actualization of cargo cult myths, and the mere existence of an airfield in effigy metaphysically summons the airplane forth. Who knows.

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