Crispy Gamer

Tropico 3 (PC)

If you didn't get your fill of the year 2000 with Majesty 2: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, maybe you'll be satisfied with Tropico 3, a sequel to PopTop's 2001 city-management sim. Bulgarian developer Haemimont returns the series to its roots with a tone-perfect update of the original Tropico's banana-republic themes.

You play the local strong man/woman of a Cold War Caribbean island. As in all city-building games, your primary concern is to keep your people well fed and well cared-for. But where most simcities have you focused on keeping your municipal accounts in the black, Tropico 3 gives you a couple of other things to worry about. First, your final score is partially based on how much of the island's cash you can squirrel away in a Swiss bank account. Second, you can be fired by your people -- they will form rebel groups, the army can depose you in a coup, you can get killed in a riot if you get too close ? El Presidente has many things on his mind.

One of the great innovations from the original Tropico that is kept here is that every citizen has a unique perspective on the island. They aren't clones with identical desires and priorities. One corn farmer might be a raging communist that really hates his job, whereas his colleague could be a pious man who is content with his lot in life but really needs that cathedral you keep promising. Citizens also have different attitudes toward the various factions in the game, and their allegiance to a group will further determine how much they like you. Each faction has needs, each individual has needs, and the combined needs and desires paint a picture of a deep and fascinating island. There are too many citizens for you to really care what Juan Valdez might want, but the Tropico 3 population feels alive in a way that most other city-builders don't.

Unless you impose martial law, your wannabe kleptocrat has to face the voters every five years. Because the population is often little more than a nebulous network of likes and dislikes, though, elections are uninteresting affairs. You just need to look at the island's general religious rating or economic performance and pitch your campaign in that direction. The depth of voter interests just becomes another big number to obey.

Tropico 3
The final vote is even more lopsided than this poll.

An opponent is chosen from one of the factions, but you never really see any buildup to who the opponent might be until the campaign begins. Why is this unemployed senior citizen running for president? Since you never see your opponent campaigning or rallying support, he or she becomes yet another red shirt to cream on election day.

And you will cream your opponent. For most of the campaign and in every sandbox game I played, it doesn't take too long to get your economy in good shape -- and if you do run a debt because you pay the people too much, they don't seem to care. Once the money starts rolling in from oil or tourists or jewelry or furniture, then you can spend your way into your people's hearts. A couple of early elections may look close, at least up until you deliver your campaign speech, which will always bring votes in your favor. You only need to suspend elections or rig the vote count for fun; there's rarely any real danger of losing your position through the ballot.

Therefore, the bullet turns out to be a very unnecessary alternative. Since the rocking economy usually means the people are happy, only a few malcontents will bother rebelling. Only a halfwit would let his soldiers sleep in shacks, so the chance of a military coup isn't very great past the early game, either. The only real risk is that one of the superpowers will invade your island paradise. But it's not too hard to keep the eagle and the bear pacified.

All this promised threat and danger that rarely materializes makes Tropico 3 less a banana-republic sim than a Caribbean theme park. The music and the heavily accented radio announcer reinforce this mood of lighthearted farce, with dire warnings you never have to really face unless you are asleep at the switch. And there's nothing wrong with a theme park.

The funny thing about nostalgia is that you can be nostalgic for things that were only OK the first time around. I thought I loved Tropico, but then I realized that I merely loved the idea of Tropico. Tinpot dictator of a tiny Caribbean island, hoarding the nation's wealth in my own bank account. What's not to love? A strategy game can go a long way on a theme; many of my favorite gaming experiences draw heavily on the setting and location. But there were no real incentives for you to be undemocratic in Tropico, and you could appease the people with massive government spending (though the economic game was a little more difficult, if I remember correctly). Tropico 3 merely repeats or exacerbates those original issues.

Still, the lack of challenge never really takes away from the enjoyment that is to be had. Yes, the interface is also 2001-vintage (Do we really need a multipage almanac for basic information in this day and age?), but the warm feelings I had from the first Tropico came flooding back. There are noticeable improvements, too. The addition of garages makes city planning more rational than in the original. Your citizens can drive to work now, meaning that you can have dedicated industrial and residential zones instead of a pockmarked map of Little Havana. And you can drag your presidente around town to rush buildings or assuage small protests.

Tropico 3
The botanical garden proves to be a moneymaker.

The big thing in Tropico 3's favor is its online component. You can download "challenges" from the main Web site or design your own for other players. High scores are gathered for a leaderboard, making Tropico 3 one of the most competition-oriented city-builders in recent memory. And, if you have an island you are especially proud of, you can upload your favorite tropical paradise to share with the world. These are small steps, but signs that Haemimont may understand social gaming even if many of its customers do not.

Easy success and the chance to push around little people -- even if you don't have to -- makes Tropico 3 a sweet little sandbox, if not a deep or engaging simulation of even a comic island nation. But I almost wish Haemimont had gone further from the original design instead of hewing as closely to the first Tropico as it has. The thing about remakes is that they are unnecessary, and doubly so when the remake decides to take so few risks. The few modifications Haemimont does make are welcome; a few more could lift Tropico 3 into something special.

As it is, Tropico 3 is merely a pleasant experience fueled by a love of a cool idea that wasn't perfectly executed the first time around. When money is easy, there are no real choices; and with no real choices, the game becomes more a matter of "Let's Pretend" than the type of exploration and challenge the city-builder genre thrives on. If you're fine with that, this is the game for you.

After all, if it's good enough for El Presidente?

This review is based on a final build of the PC game provided by the publisher.


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