It’s hard being El Presidente. My people are never entirely happy, demanding better homes, medical care, or even better entertainment. Don’t they know that the money for those things is far better sent to my Swiss bank account? They want to hold elections to vote me out, now? They should try telling that to my (very well paid) army.
The best aspect of the Caribbean city-builder series Tropico has always been that it lets you play how you want to play, and the fifth instalment is no different. Democracy will keep your people happy, but you might find it hard to meet export targets when your factory workers only work eight hours a day. Meanwhile, totalitarianism lets you treat your Tropicans as statistics, but you’ll need to divert a lot of money into a strong army to quell any uprisings that may occur.
At its core, Tropico 5 is a city-builder, and a fantastic one at that. At first you’ll rely on raw materials to run your economy (farms, mines and ranches providing goods for export), but you’ll soon develop more profitable industries. Maybe you’ll create factories stretching to the horizon, or a tourist hotspot – it’s entirely up to you. These industries have to have an infrastructure to work from, so you must place roads and build teamsters offices to get goods from A-to-B. Then your workers need houses, churches, hospitals… the list goes on.
What’s great about Tropico 5, though, is how organically your city will develop. Early on it’s easy to set aside an area for agriculture, or lay roads in a neat grid, but as you poke and stretch the edges of your city; it grows like a living thing, developing spars to far off mines, or clearing a farm to create a new arterial route through the centre.
Layered on top of the city building and the domestic politics on your island are the eras you play through. Typically you’ll start a level during the Colonial Era, where you are a colony of the British Empire. As Governor, you have a tenure determined by the crown, and must meet various objectives to extend it further. Gain enough popular support and you can declare independence, progressing through to the World Wars era, and so on. There are four eras to play through, each with their own overseas political factions and technologies for you to research. This provides a nice context for your actions: do you export oil to the USA or the USSR during the Cold War – and your domestic policy will start to reflect this. Let relations sour enough with one side and you may be left with an invasion on your hands.
A story campaign takes you from building basic cities and exporting goods, to managing a space programme. The objectives in each mission are typically logical progressions of previous ones: the Crown may demand a ranch for goat’s milk, then you must build a creamery for cheese, etc, and tend to be fun to complete. As a whole the campaign forces you to try different methods of ruling depending on the mission, which is a brilliant showcase of what you can do with the game.
Sandbox mode gives you free rein to govern an island as you see fit. You can adjust the starting conditions (including the island itself), as well as the difficulty of the economics and politics to however you see fit. You can even set a goal, like amassing $1,000,000, so it doesn’t have to be open-ended. After the constraints of the campaign it’s great to be set free, and there are still optional tasks that appear that will provide various bonuses.
There’s also a multiplayer mode. Setting up to four-players on one island, you’re given tasks three at a time. The first player to complete a task gets a point for it, with the first to fifteen points ending up the winner. It’s surprisingly fun, although there’s no way to check how your opponent is doing and no performance breakdown at the end either. In quick-match I’m not even sure if you find out your opponents name.
Providing continuity between modes is the Dynasty mechanic. When you first start the game you’ll create a character that acts as the head of a Dynasty. As you play, new characters will be added to the Dynasty though a birth or an adoption – each with their own trait. You can send these out to perform certain objectives or have them manage your buildings (which is a new mechanic in itself), and this upgrades their performance. Compared to previous entries in the series where you could create distinct characters, here they each feel a little dry with only the one trait. Using the same Dynasty at the same time between two save files (easily doable if you drop out of the campaign for a bit of sandbox or multiplayer fun) means the same Dynasty can branch off, leaving you with different two copies, which is a messy oversight.
Where the Dynasty feature may lack a little character, Tropico 5 as a whole has it in spades. The art style is bright and clean, and the detail that goes into the little things is amazing. You can watch produce being moved around, trucks driving from a factory to the dock, and all of your people will make sensible commutes between their home and work. Each of them have their own political views, and you can even check out their family tree. The audio matches up with the visuals as well: traffic noise, machinery and the sea, overlaid with cheerful fiesta music. The series’ signature humour is in place, with over-exaggerated voice work and some genuinely funny writing adding that extra spark – even if the jokes do wear thin the twelfth time of asking.
Playing this on PS4 means I should mention the controls. Strategy games tend to struggle on console due to the lack of a mouse, but here the controls are brilliantly mapped to the pad, with the triggers combining with the face buttons to bring up all the extra data you may need, and edicts and buildings selected from a radial dial.
In truth, not much has changed from Tropico 4, but that isn’t a bad thing. Improved graphics and a more in-depth foreign policy system are well worth it, and while the Dynasty mechanic may not be great, at least Kalypso are trying something new.
Era system adds a new dynamic.
Different play-styles all work.
Dynasty system not brilliantly implemented.
Multiplayer could be improved.