“Tropico 4” is a Sim City-style game that puts players in charge of a small Caribbean island during the cold war, and allows them to take the role of Eva Peron, Hugo Chavez, Che Guevara or any number of other famed dictators from the era and swaddles the whole situation in satirical humor. That alone should be enough to sell the game, but there’s more than just a premise to be had here.
The Tropico series, after the back-to-basics third installment, is blessed by this iteration. The simplicity and approachability contrasts beautifully with the impressive depth and engaging detail. Disasters, political maneuvering, foreign politics, revolutions and other obstacles throw a lovely mix of chaos into an already-engaging game. This is the sort of game that names the representative of the environmentalist faction Sunny Flowers. “Tropico 4” even lets you imprison, bribe or assassinate any citizen on a whim. This is dictatorship on a very intimate level. Instead of inspiring quotes on loading screens a la “Call of Duty,” there’s quotes such as “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”
Imbalance and guaranteed-win strategies that trump other efforts can cause issues in these management-type games, and make it seem boring to succeed and wasteful to experiment. “Tropico 4” handily avoids these pitfalls by making few building or political options prerequisites for others. Aside from having ministers of education, internal affairs or a power plant, there’s not much stopping the player from switching from an agriculture-based economy to a tourism-based system if there’s suddenly a drought or a tsunami wipes out most of the farms. This has a leveling effect on certain strategies, and leaves it more up to player preference and the specific island’s terrain to develop the plan.
Besides thoroughly enjoyable and well-polished mechanics, “Tropico 4” provides plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor and political satire. Every faction leader and global political figure is some manner of caricature, both in character and behavior. The nationalist leader, plastered in tattoos and wearing biker t-shirts, demands closed borders and complete isolation; the United States’ senator keeps making thinly veiled threats to bomb the island into the ground. Even the weather reports are bleeding with wit — a tornado hitting the island is brought to attention as “an enemy tornado that has breached our defenses,” and once the storm settles, another alert that describes the damage caused opens with the line “The tornado has retreated!” These people know how to write.
“Tropico 4” stands up as a nice alternative to the somewhat-disastrous recent release of EA’s reboot of Sim City by striking a reasonable balance between accessibility and depth and offering simplicity without insulting the player. It’s also appropriately hilarious in concept and execution.