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Review: Tropico 3 (Gold Edition)

I remember wanting to play the first Tropico ever since it launched, but never got around to it. Tropico 2 never really caught my eye, but when I heard of a Tropico 3, I immediately added it to the list of games I wanted to play, removing the first one from that same list a short while later. However, I still didn’t get around to playing it until Tropico 4 launched. At that point, instead of making another change to the list, I left the latest game for later and finally got around to obtaining the third one, including its expansion.
That said, you don’t make a note of wanting to play something for so long if you don’t expect to really like it, so there were certain expectations involved. Fortunately, the first few scenarios did meet said expectations, so I was hooked right away and quite willing to trudge through the few tedious moments that did appear later. Still, while I did play both campaigns and enjoyed the original one more than the Absolute Power one, I did have Absolute Power installed all along and can’t really say how the game would have been played without the changes and enhancements brought by the expansion. What I can say, however, is that it most likely was a far less interesting experience, so keep in mind which version this review is about.

The first thing that needs to be said about this game is that most of the time it’s fun and sometimes even funny. It could have taken itself more seriously, but it does not, instead maintaining a lighthearted tone even when the waters are rough and things turn sour. The wording of the important messages you receive, the names used, the brief radio broadcasts, the very limited but equally fitting music, everything keeps reminding you that it’s just a game, its purpose being to entertain. Considering the things you may end up needing to do, despite your best intentions, such a reminder is more or less required for those of us who tend to spend time thinking about the consequences of our actions.
Of course, you will need to think about the consequences of your actions anyway, but you probably won’t feel too bad about it when things go wrong. And things will go wrong, because thankfully, at least from my point of view, there are a whole slew of factors that need to be taken into consideration when developing your island, many of them being pleasantly realistic and therefore able to teach players a lesson or two, if they’re willing to notice. For example, notice how pollution constantly accumulates according to what buildings exist in an area and what edicts are issued, while a garbage dump, depending on how it’s developed and set to function, needs a certain amount of time to reduce it. Or how resources, including fishing stocks or soil quality, are depleted when intensively exploited. Or how areas plagued by poverty and inadequate housing are unsafe, while those populated by wealthier citizens who also benefit from good housing are very safe.
This kind of lighthearted, forgiving realism is, in my opinion, what makes this game addictive. And when you add it to the way some of the scenarios are created, you’ll see why you’ll probably find yourself hooked on it at least until you’ll finish the campaigns. This may actually go double for the original campaign, which tends to be based around long-term goals which are all the more rewarding when they are finally achieved. For example, I’ll certainly keep in mind how I worked steadily through my development plan for thirty game years during the original campaign’s final scenario, undaunted by the fact that, until the very end of this process, I didn’t think that I could complete it in time. However, once everything was finally done exactly according to my original plan, things instantly clicked into place and I could sit back and watch for a few years, until I had accumulated the necessary amount of money to win.

Unfortunately, the Absolute Power campaign tends to be based around short-term goals, offering you unclear objectives at the start of its scenarios and then multiple clear but less major ones while you play, requiring you to think quickly and meet them one by one before each deadline passes. It’s more stressful and less rewarding than the approach used in the original campaign, so I’m not particularly keen on it. I’m also not keen on it because needing to meet these goals on such short notice means that you’re far less able to care for your people, resulting in worse living conditions and the need to take harsher measures if you want to stay in power. I did my best to be a very democratic and benevolent leader during the original campaign, but the Absolute Power one, as the name implies, often made this impossible.
On the other hand, when I think that this approach was most likely meant to make the game more interesting, I have to look towards probably the only reason why it can get tedious and wonder why wasn’t something done about that. I’m talking about the start of the scenarios, which is more or less the same every single time, regardless of the background you’re presented with. I’d sure have liked to at least occasionally start with islands that are already developed, having objectives ranging from finding ways to develop further to making them more sustainable, improving efficiency or rebuilding after a major disaster. For me, that would have made it more interesting than throwing some weird background texts over nearly identical starting conditions and adding a whole bunch of scripted events later throughout the scenarios… Though I have to admit that some of those were nicely done too.
But while I’m at things that repeat themselves, I can’t not make note of the music and the radio broadcasts. I’m probably already nitpicking, because I already said that, even if very limited, they’re extremely fitting, but you will probably notice very quickly that the game’s soundtrack contains only a couple of songs, which are repeated over and over and over, and that you’ll be hearing either Juanito or Betty Boom say the exact same things time and time again over the course of the game, as there are apparently no alternate versions to be used, the game at most deciding which of the two will report on any given development. Not even that happens all the time, as some reports can only be presented by one of them, making it even worse.

When it comes to actual gameplay annoyances, something must be said about pathfinding. I have seen characters get out of cars some distance from their destination and then walk the rest of the way, sometimes even driving past the destination and then returning on foot. They may also choose other doors than those that face the road, sometimes walking all around a building before entering it. And they are also very determined to cause gridlocks by insisting on taking a certain route between two points even though that road is packed full but there are others available that are almost empty. During one scenario, I even made two roads exactly side by side to connect the two major developed areas, only to see that one was almost always gridlocked and the other nearly empty.
Speaking of roads, I would have really liked the option of building wider ones, with more lanes, but on many islands you can’t even connect areas with roads that are side by side, as there’s barely enough room for one in between cliffs or other such terrain obstacles. While I’m at it, I’d have really liked public transportation, tunnels and trains as well, but I guess that’d be way too much to ask when you can’t even build roads the way you want to. In fact, building roads properly is one of the trickiest parts of the game, and at times unnecessarily so. This is largely because there’s no tool to level the terrain as you need it, instead needing to make use of the tedious and unreliable process of trying to repeatedly place and remove roads or buildings, hoping that the terrain will eventually end up in a shape that’ll allow you to build what you actually want to build in that specific spot.
A minor annoyance that’s also connected to the above would be that doors aren’t clearly marked when you select something to build, forcing you to zoom in closely to make sure that they’ll be placed where you want them to if the road can only reach a certain spot. And while I’m at minor annoyances and buildings, I also need to point out that you can’t select the specific building type when there are more available, such as for fountains, gardens, trees or even farms, requiring you to keep clicking a button until the shape you want just happens to pop up. That’s unnecessarily frustrating, as is the fact that the exact reason why a protester is protesting isn’t listed if you check their latest thoughts…

In the end, while I once again rushed through the good parts but detailed even some of the minor annoyances, I have to point out that this game had me hooked for most of the time I played it. Yes, the first five or even ten years tended to be more of the same each time and there were moments when I didn’t quite feel like starting the next mission after completing one, and that Viva Tropico scenario from the original campaign was terribly difficult for something that can be unlocked so early in the game, but these moments that actually required me to make some effort to keep going were relatively few, those when I had a hard time quitting the game in order to do something else being more frequent.
It can at times be frustrating, sometimes unnecessarily so, but for the most part Tropico 3 is a fun and addictive game that can even have a few lessons to teach those who are willing to see them. You’ll see how much planning is required for sustainable development, how hard it is to run even a small country, how complicated it is to meet people’s conflicting demands, how the ends often do justify the means, how even your best intentions are constantly doomed to be twisted around and presented as hidden and dangerous agendas by your opponents… In a lighthearted, forgiving way, you’ll be put on the other side of the barricade and be shown some of the things that are wrong with our current methods of government, but also with the way we, the regular people, think of governments.
Or perhaps I played it entirely wrong and it has nothing to do with any of this, but just with keeping yourself in power by any means necessary, whether for personal gain or because it takes many years to accomplish anything important. At the very least, that should explain why supposedly democratic governments, made up of people who risk being removed from office every few years, have such a hard time getting anything done.

With Tropico 4 already released and said to be more or less just an enhanced remake of Tropico 3, I can’t tell you to go play Tropico 3 anymore, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing to at least try it, if only to decide for yourself if its successor is an actual improvement or not. I’ll probably see that for myself someday too, but probably not all that soon. That has nothing to do with what I thought of this game, mind you, but is a simple logical conclusion, considering how long it took me to even play one game in the series.

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