Sunday, October 18, 2009

Review: Tropico 3

"Power doesn't corrupt people, people corrupt power." - William Gaddis

I often thought I might like to play the first two Tropico games, but I never got around to it. When Tropico 3 came down the pipe, I snagged the demo and was immediately hooked. So I had to get the full game. It's right up my alley - an economic/political simulator with a sardonic flair for depicting Caribbean banana republics with a tongue that never strays far from the cheek.

The game places you in control of a small island nation in 1950, and depending upon the map you are playing and the difficulty options you have set, you have until anywhere between 1980 and 2000 to turn a small collection of huts and farms into a thriving modern city-state. Along the way you will be beset by rebellions, military coups, worker strikes, earthquakes, hurricanes, political unrest, humanitarian crisis, imperialist foreign superpowers, assassins, elections, protests, national debt, slovenly tourists and lazy workers. A multitude of variables will affect your play session, ranging from the selection of natural resources on your island to the particular aptitudes and personality flaws of your avatar Presidente.

You can choose from a list of famous historical presidents and dictators, or you can custom design your own. I recommend designing your own avatar, because then you get to pick the bonuses and penalties you get that will most compliment your playing style. Every Presidente has an "origin story," two positive traits and two flaws, which will affect the productivity of your citizens and alter their view of you as a leader - for instance, the "Administrator" trait will increase productivity in your factories, the "womanizer" flaw will decrease your popularity with educated women and those of a religious nature, and the "Generalissimo" origin story will increase your popularity with the militarist political faction.

The duration of your administration will be a balancing act between the financial needs of the island, the various political factions of the residents, and of course your own need to pad your retirement fund in a swiss bank account. An easy and cheap investment early in the game would be to build a lumber industry, later maturing with addition of a furniture factory, but this would upset the environmentalists in the population. Agriculture is, of course, an important component of feeding your populace but the financial allure of exporting tobacco, sugar and fruit makes for a compelling option as well, and being on an island you have very limited space in which to conduct agriculture. The communists in the populace want cheap housing and health care, the capitalists want upscale entertainment and high wages, and your appeasement of one or both of them will affect the attitude of the two global superpowers, governing how much foreign aid money you receive from them... or how likely they are to invade!

Space on the island being limited and the ground not always being ideal for construction make building and expanding an often challenging prospect. Everything you do takes up space on the map, and some endeavors (such as farms, ranches, logging camps etc) even need to be in proximity to a large amount of undeveloped territory which is suitable to their purpose, further limiting your ability to build. Additionally, you have to plan and construct roads between distant parts of the island, copiously supplied with parking garages - because time spent travelling between buildings is time not spent being productive.

You can also spend money to issue edicts that alter the variables of the game. These edicts can run the gamut from providing social security to the unemployed and retired, to promoting literacy, to enacting martial law or instigating book burnings. You can also praise a superpower, garnering goodwill from the one while hurting relations with the other, organize trade missions to increase revenue, or even allow nuclear testing around your island for a payoff. Every edict has its cost and its payoff, with those with the largest beneficial effects also incurring the largest costs or penalties in other areas.

As for the little people, the citizens themselves, you can micromanage them as much or as little as you care to do so. Each individual "Tropican" has their own priorities (some want a good job, others want good housing, others still think access to good health care is what is most important, and some even cannot be happy unless they have a leader they can respect, etc). You can click on any person living on the island to see "need" bars, much as if this was a sims game, to gauge how well his needs are being addressed. You can fire or evict people from any building you choose, you can listen to the thoughts of your citizen in real time for clues about how to make them happier or more productive... or you could just ignore them like the ants they are and continue to govern from an ivory tower, because sod the plebes, YOU know what's best for them.

I do, however, have a couple gripes about the game, as enthralling as it is. I don't know if it is because the game is supposed to simulate dictatorships exclusively, or if it is satire, or if the designers just didn't know any better, but the entire game's mechanics function in a manner that belies a hard leftist's understanding of the world around him. Even though everything else about the game is configurable and has a price, food, health care, higher education and transportation are all provided free to the people, entirely at government expense. While you can set wages for individual buildings, entire career types, or entire levels of education, you can't actually set wages individually or based upon merit, effectiveness, experience or productivity - it doesn't matter to the game whether the people working in your factory are new and untrained, or 20 year veterans with triple working speed, everybody in the building gets paid THE SAME. Setting wages is really only used to incentivize people applying for jobs that are vacant or to increase general happiness. Every depiction of communism is that of championing the people (they want housing and health care, remember?), while every depiction of capitalism is of excess or misanthropy - they want fancy houses, expensive entertainment, and high economic disparity (though no mention is made of the capitalist benefit of high economic MOBILITY, which is so taken for granted in our culture that even in this game it exists as a matter of course which has no bearing or influence on anything else in the game).

There are other less abstruse annoyances in the game as well - and at the top of the list of "things that will irritate everybody" is the grating repetitiveness of the in-game radio announcer. If you go more than 2 games without going into the options to find out how to shut Locutor Juanito up completely, I'll be surprised. Another source of displeasure is the shortsightedness and seemingly limited attention span of the two most crucial workers in the game - the construction workers and teamsters. If a building site isn't within easy walking distance of your construction office, often it will often go untouched by your construction workers, even though the office has a built in garage for driving to distant construction sites. Often the only way to overcome this is by either micromanaging to raise the priority of the job (though, if EVERYTHING is top priority, doesn't that really mean NOTHING is?), or building extra construction offices until you have a triple redundant workforce... that STILL often enough won't drive a quarter mile to build an apartment without it being micromanaged into "top priority" status, and sits around soaking up wages when there's no construction work going on. Teamsters suffer from much the same problem. They have a garage in their building, so they should be able to drive to anywhere quickly, yet often enough materials will not get hauled from one place to another, or finished product won't make it to the dock in time for export, which directly hurts your bottom line.

And speaking of problems with driving around, the representation of vehicularized transport in Tropico 3 is downright surreal. Nobody actually owns a car, they are just all communally supplied at no charge from parking garages or from the attached motor pools of specific buildings. Furthermore, every trip by auto is one way - a teamster traveling to a factory to take a shipment of goods to the dock will be driven to the factory by a truck from the teamster's garage... but the truck will drop him off there and head to the nearest parking garage (or if one is not built yet, just go right back to the teamsters office). It is, for some reason, incapable of waiting the 15 seconds it takes for the teamster to walk into the factory and come back out with a wheelbarrow full of stuff. He then has to either go to a nearby parking garage to pick up ANOTHER one-way-trip vehicle to the docks, or just walk there overland with his wheelbarrow. Even more confounding is this also happens at buildings with attached garages - the teamster getting ore from a mine will not be able to get a car from the mine's attached garage, presumably because those vehicles are only usable by miners. So really, a mine may as well not even HAVE an attached garage because you're going to have to build a parking garage near it ANYWAY for the teamsters to use.

And I have one more peculiar observation of perplexing paradigms - gender identities in Tropico 3 are a little arbitrary. Sure, only women can get pregnant and have children... but for some reason, the game enforces certain gender roles for certain jobs. Despite the fact that either men or women are capable of being construction workers or work in factories, only women can be high school teachers, journalists, engineers (who work at oil refineries and power plants), bureaucrats or cooks. Meanwhile, only men can be teamsters, police officers, or college professors. Why can't a woman instruct at a collegiate level? Why CAN a man, despite his inability to teach at the high school level? I could see being indiscriminate about gender in the name of political correctness I suppose, but this just seems random.

Speaking of arbitrary, there's an overlay in the game that enumerates the "scenic beauty" of every square inch of your island. This "beauty" variable is important to many buildings intended to cater to tourists (beach resorts, botanical gardens, etc). But confusingly enough, this "beauty" doesn't seem to have any actual connection to the topography of the island. Oh, certainly heavily wooded areas are always very beautiful, and crowded urban areas are always ugly, but the most bewildering thing happens on a beach. A certain square meter of beach can be rated absolutely gorgeous, while it sits immediately adjacent to a square meter of beach that is apparently the most hideous thing since cystic acne, despite that with the overlay turned off there is actually no discernable difference between the two spots. And frankly, I think the whole "beauty" dynamic is overdone. Any tourist who lays eyes upon a poor tenement on your island is apparently going to burst into flames and write scathing letters to every travel agency in the world - but I've been to a couple Caribbean places myself, and despite the proliferation of ramshackle huts and dirty tenements I saw in, say, Progreso, I would still rate it an extremely enjoyable place with a great tourism industry... though perhaps that is because of the copious amounts of extremely cheap booze available there.

All that aside, the game is still very addictive to people who like economic or political simulators. Replayability is very good, as there are both sandbox and campaign modes, with the "campaign" consisting really of a large selection of islands, each of which has its own permutations to the game's setup to make it a unique challenge (island A has no farmland, and has to rely on fishing and mining, island B is oil rich but politically turbulent, etc). Multiplayer doesn't really exist, but there is a "challenge" mode where you and others online can compare scores against each other after playing identical scenarios. The graphics are detailed, bright and colorful, and the game's soundtrack consists of 15 jaunty latin tunes that really set the atmosphere (though you may get tired of them after a while).

All in all, despite its flaws the game is an enjoyable addition my collection, and one that ranks up there with some of my other favorite economic/management sim games such as Startopia or Dungeon Keeper.

Grade: B+.

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