Tropico 5 review: Building a modern island nation

By Steven Wong, May 22, 2014 4:00pm PDT

El Presidente returns to the seat of power with the fifth installment of the island nation building sim, Tropico 5. You'd think that after so many installments, and numerous DLC packs for the previous game, that a new Tropico would just be more of the same, but with better graphics. Although the Caribbean looks better than ever, the game has a lot more going for it than a fresh look. Playing Tropico 5 is like returning home after being away for a couple of years. The streets and buildings might look familiar, but there's a sense that something deep down is fundamentally different.

Times are Changing

As in previous games, the player takes the role of a leader that has to balance a dozen different tasks. The starting basics are generally the same. El Presidente has to make sure there's enough food, shelter, and entertainment available to keep the citizens happy. As the population grows, Tropico has to become an industrialized nation that trades with other countries. Then it becomes a matter of keeping foreign superpowers at bay while you build up your own might.

Tropico 5 adds a new twist to the familiar formula with by dividing the game into five distinct eras. Players start as a small-time governor, serving at the pleasure of a king, until they can amass enough military might or wealth to declare independence. Further complicating matters is how you have to research the technology needed to write a Constitution within the time limit of your governorship, being careful not to do anything that might get your fired from your post. It's the kind of early game stress that's usually limited to the campaign, but it's present in sandbox mode too. So, instead of patiently watching your town grow into a nation, you have to rush to succeed.

Following the Colonial era are the World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and then Modern Times. Each come with their own unique political and social challenges, but there are also numerous opportunities. You can trade with different nations around the world and set up lucrative trade routes with the world's superpowers, granted that you maintain good relations with them. This includes imports and exports. So, if you can import a low-priced commodity and resell it for profit, you could turn Tropico into a major trading port. It also introduces some interesting decision points. Will you pursue lucrative trade contracts with the Axis powers knowing which side will win the war? Or Russia during the Cold War? Or will you try to play the long game and maintain strong relations with the US? The downside to all of this is that you'll need cargo ships to maintain trade, and until you reach a specific era/technology, each of the very large and expensive docks supports only one freighter. So, your whole beach could be covered in docks, with little room for much else, to maintain a profitable trade system.

Changing eras also impacts Tropico aesthetically. It's a joy to watch the island shift from one time period to the next. Although the buildings remain more-or-less unchanged until you modernize them, the citizens change clothes and the cars look different. All of it helps Tropico feel like it's an island that does change with the times.

These changes are more remarkable in the campaign, where you switch between different islands to complete each chapter. Jumping back and forth between islands sets up a nice juxtaposition, because they keep all the buildings and upgrades you made during your last visit. So, revisiting an island can sometimes feel like taking a step back in time. The continuality also helps alleviate the feeling of exasperation that comes with always having to start from scratch and rebuild Tropico from the ground up for the sake of a new story chapter.

Other new features include a Dynasty system. Every once in a while, you'll get a chance to recognize a new family member and bring them into the ruling class. Although you can't edit their physical characteristics outside of wardrobe, you can assign them special traits like Administrator (cheaper buildings) or Celebrity (more efficient hotels), which can be upgraded with money. Then, when election time comes around, you can switch out your candidate for one that better fits your goals for the era. Otherwise, they can be used to manage buildings or embark on diplomatic missions. The great thing about family is that they don't abandon you. Dynasty members and their upgrades are carried over from mission to mission in the campaign. Although a Dynasty is a nice thing to have, it's not quite a game changing feature. It's one that tends to fall into the background until reelection time or when the occasional diplomatic mission pops up.

Bureaucratic Breakdown

Gameplay-wise, Tropico 5 received quite a few welcome updates. You start with plantations and they take up a pre-defined amount of space, unlike the farms from the previous game that would spread out into strange patterns. Parking lots replace Garages, and they now take up a nice small sliver of space. Police Stations double as Firefighters. These might not sound like much to uninitiated players, but land space is at a premium when you're developing a small tropical island.

But as with many empire building sims, the systems that keep your empire operational have a tendency to degrade over time. The Tropico series has never been an exception to this, and Tropico 5 doesn't escape it either. Unless you're very attentive, there inevitably comes a point when you realize that the apartment complex you zoned out twenty minutes ago isn't being built. Nor are the handful of other buildings queued up behind it unless you manually set them to high priority. Putting up an additional Construction Office doesn't seem to help much. At about the same time, you begin to realize that there aren't enough high school graduates around; the money you put into maintaining a factory isn't going as far anymore; the people are starving; your approval ratings start to dip; an earthquake hits, and before you know it, civil unrest becomes a full-blown rebellion.

Although Tropico 5 makes a point of making it modern times, not everything about the game feels modernized. The military, for example, is still a joke even after you throw down a multitude of army bases, barracks, and guard towers, then upgrade them with the best technology available. The military can take forever to respond to a rebel uprising, even when it happens right outside a base.

There used to be way to appease different island factions while pursuing your own agenda. Completing quests or throwing down a building could sometimes smooth over the effects of an unpopular edict. The only faction missions I can recall are either for the Rebels or Capitalists, so if there are any for the groups like the Church or Military, they must be few and far between. Even if you manage to identify troublemakers, there are only a handful of expensive options to deal with them. They include outright killing them in the streets, bribing them into submission, banishing the whole family from the island, and digging up dirt to ruin their reputation. Whatever happened to building a prison and using political prisoners as free labor? What kind of dictator doesn't have a strong penal system? While we're on the topic, why can't I pay a little extra to arrange for an "accident" instead of having them gunned down and bloodying my pristine roads?

Adding to the frustration is how it can be difficult to figure out exactly what's bugging the rebels. Was it a provision in the Constitution or an Edict? Clicking on the citizens and learning their thoughts doesn't help much either. A wealthy doctor who lived in a mansion had a decent opinion of me, but still became a rebel. I experienced a full-blown coup d'etat despite having a 90 percent approval rating and a strong economy. The radio DJ, who sometimes acts a sort of barometer for how the nation is doing, doesn't fire off many semi-witty quips. She also doesn't have as much personality as DJ Juanito.

There are remarkably few ways to win over the hearts and minds of your people. You can't order the newspaper and television stations to sing your praises, nor can you get schools to pledge allegiance to El Presidente. Granted, Tropico 4 didn't get those options until after a related DLC pack released, but I expected more things to carry over into the sequel. I guess I miss being able to build a golden monument in my own honor.

As your nation moves into the Modern Era, you'll find that Tropico is ill equipped for 21st century living. Specifically, almost everything needs electricity to run, but the power plants are woefully insufficient at supplying that need. Several fully staffed and upgraded coal plants and one nuclear plant were not enough to keep my little island steadily running, even though most of the apartments and houses did not use electricity. Furthermore, there's no obvious way cut the power to a specific structure so that more important ones continue to operate.

Conclusion

Tropico 5 itself seems like it's transitioning between eras. After experiencing everything that Tropico 4 and its long list of DLC packs had to offer, the sequel can sometimes feel like a downgrade. Or, at least, the kind of game that needs DLC to get better. But despite its drawbacks, Tropico 5 still managed to pull me in and eat up whole hours without notice. I especially like the campaign and the customizable difficulty system, which lets you separately set how challenging the economy and politics are.

The game definitely a lot going for it. Its new graphics and revitalize the look of the series, and some of the updated building make better use of the limited island space available. Additionally, the eras help take away the sense that Tropico is stuck in a time stasis bubble. Mid to late game empire management can get crazy, but that's nothing new. Still, it's hard to shake off the feeling that there's a lot missing, especially after putting in so many hours into the predecessor.

Tropico 5 might not be everything I hoped it would be, but it definitely has the potential to be something greater. While there might be a few snags, the start of El Presidente's fifth term is looking to be a worthwhile one.

Final Score: 7 out of 10.


This review is based on a downloadable Steam PC code provided by the publisher. Tropico 5 will be available digitally on May 23rd and in retail stores on June 3rd for $39.99. The game is rated T.

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