As the UK approaches an election for the next term of government, and the populace is inundated with leaflets through the letterbox and canvassers at the door, we spend our time contemplating which party we’re going to vote for and who’s going to benefit us the most. We’re a selfish bunch really, only concerned about what’s right for us and what we want the people in power to do, and we don’t often think about it the other way around – what they have to put up with from us. I never do. Or never did until I took on the role of El Presidente in Tropico 5.
Tropico 5 is a building and world management sim putting you as the ruler of a new island nation. Picking up the campaign mode throws you in to Colonial times on a remote Caribbean island, where you oversee a banana republic controlled by the British Crown, aiming to free yourself from the distant rule by winning the support of the population. Successfully making it through this has you tackling diplomatic ties through the World Wars, avoiding mutually assured destruction during the Cold War, and developing into a superpower in Modern Times. At all times you’ve got to please your voting public, making sure they’re got housing, healthcare, security, work and entertainment; and failure to provide these in the right measures will lose their support.
On top of this the various factions on the island from Capitalists to Communists, Rebels to Environmentalists, and Militarists to Nationalists; have needs and wants to be balanced to maintain their compliance. Similarly, if you build an embassy you’ll start the political game on a global scale, keeping warring countries on your side and acting as neutral ground, or picking a side and dealing with the consequences. This is where Tropico 5 gives you freedom to the make the alliances that suit you to shape your little world however you want – there’s no right or wrong approach, and this is what lent my (slight) empathy with our real world rulers.
You see, it’s impossible to please every faction and country. Sure, you can keep a form of truce between them all, and on the worldwide stage it can just about work, but in your own little corner of the globe things will escalate quickly. Rebels are the biggest threat to your leadership and will regularly try to overthrow you (usually without any reason); upset the Militarists and you’ll have a coup d’etat to deal with; don’t manage your striking workers and the national debt will rise faster than the rockets from the expensive space program you’ve just built. Being a dictator of hundreds of citizens isn’t as easy as you think it would be, especially if you want to give the illusion of democracy. I can’t lie, the martial law edict was instituted a few times to prevent me losing an election.
The scenarios you’re asked to tackle range from gaining your independence to researching and building a time machine to prevent the destruction of the world, and enduring all manner of natural disasters along the way. Pretty daunting tasks on the whole, but you’re not alone. Several allies and advisors are available to impart their wisdom, or in the case of your most trusted assistant Penultimo, absurd suggestions. Tropico 5 is not a serious game, and aside from making you smile pretty much every time a status report pops up, you’ll be spotting pop culture references all over the place. The cartoonish look and feel brings the island to life, and the perpetually running calypso beat with the innuendo leaden radio announcer keeps things light even when things are going down the pan. The loading screens are littered with real life dictator insanity too, so much so that I thought they were made up initially. You’ll get used to these messages by the way, the autosave system interrupts every 15 minutes or so and unceremoniously dumps you into a loading/saving screen with no warning. Quite jarring really.
Traditionally, management sim/strategy games don’t translate well to a control pad and can leave a lot to be desired. Whilst the series has been running since 2001 on PC and Mac, the Xbox 360 has been graced with the game since Tropico 3, so Haemimont Games and Kalypso Media have plenty of experience making the interface easy to use and relatively intuitive. Adjusting the view comes from the sticks, interactions from the face buttons, and the shoulders/triggers provide shortcuts to the plethora of options. You’re not stuck for menus to delve into and tinker with, but you’re not forced to either. One of the beauties of this game is that you can enjoy the construction and city building side without getting bogged down in the micromanagement if you don’t want to. Obviously, using the tools and skills at your disposal will help you get to your objective quicker, and usually with more cash in the bank. If you want to get into the nitty gritty you can even despatch death squads to kill citizens and faction members, just like a real despot.
Away from the campaign there’s sandbox mode that just lets you loose on a fresh map (of which there are a good number) and allows you to build and manage to your hearts content. Being able to pick your own setup and decide whether disasters or money will not be a factor means you can enjoy every aspect without the constraints of trying to hit a specific action with a limited budget. There is a drawback to this, once you’ve gone all the way through a sandbox game you’ve probably seen everything so you might not have as many surprises in single player. There’s also multiplayer where you can chose a development race against your opponent, or go co-operative in building the island using all the mechanics you’ve picked up in the main game.
Having not had a decent city building sim on console for some time, and being disappointed by Civilisation Revolution a few years ago, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Tropico 5. It does exactly what it needs to in a charming and engaging way, and doesn’t overcomplicate things for the casual gamer whilst still leaving flexibility for those who want more of a challenge. My main criticism is that the scenarios can get a little tedious because you’re doing the same things in the same time periods, just flicking backwards and forwards between several islands with a slightly different goal. There’s also the DLC that’s been released only a week after the game at a premium price – something that should really have been included on the disc. But, it is fun to play and easy to sink time into, especially if you’ve always wanted to run your own country, and gives you ample opportunity to shout “Viva El Presidente!” when you rig a vote to stay in power.