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Posts Tagged ‘Tropico’

It’s been mentioned before on this blog that Tropico is my favourite game/series of games in the world. Shortly I will be reviewing the recently released Tropico 5, but before I do that, lets quickly recap how the series has developed thus far.

Taverns of Tropico

The taverns of Tropico, Top left – Tropico, top right – Tropico 2, bottom left – Tropico 3, bottom right Tropico 4

Tropico – 2001

It’s important to remember that the Tropico series dates back to a time when building/management sims were actually AAA games. Games like Sim City, The Sims, Railroad Tycoon and Rollercoaster Tycoon were all serious franchises that dominated shelves and discussions.

Tropico was from the makers of Railroad Tycoon and came into that market offering a quirky island version of a sandbox management sim. You picked a historical dictator (or created one of your own complete with backstory, talents and flaws) and tried to survive ruling a Caribbean island, complete with lush plants and impeccable Cuban music for the allotted 50 years. Your final score was based on not only how big and wealthy your island was, but also how much you managed to stash away in your Swiss bank account.

It was a remarkably deep simulation. You were forced to adapt your approach to economic growth in each game based on the skills of your dictator and the available resources of the island. As your island took off, immigrants would arrive looking to take advantage of the jobs and general idyllic lifestyle offered by your tropical paradise. Every one of these migrants had needs, a family and political leanings And so began your political problems. You needed to find ways to keep enough of them happy to survive regular elections, or risk being voted, Survivor style, off the island and into an instant game-over failure.

It was also a very small game. Unlike other similar games which could go for weeks, a game of Tropico was a pleasant 3-4 hours. Your island and population were also very small, around 200-600 citizens. It felt like everyone and their family mattered. With such a small population you seldom had enough time, money or construction workers to build everything the game had to offer.

This gave the game an amazing truthiness, you really felt like you were running a small, petty little island. Rather than gaming everything to min-max your economy and work out the perfect build order for everything, you instead would spend the whole game dealing with a list of strangely realistic problems. These might include winning a string of elections through micromanaging faction politics or dealing with rebels who would hide out in the jungles before attacking your favourite cigar factory. Most feared of all was trying to wrestle control over the economy back from the World Bank, who insisted on taking control of citizen wages (and hence general happiness) if the island went too far in the red. None of these were preset challenges or scenarios, they were just what happened to occur due to whatever area of the island’s development needs you weren’t quite able to keep up on.

Your problems might also be much smaller. In keeping with the island feel, Tropico managed to capture the idea of lazy tropical island life. Rupert the dockworker was going to go to the pub, go home, go to church and get his shots at the clinic no matter what. If that meant he wasn’t around when the trade ship came in, well, he’d help out on the next one. This made you care, to a ridiculous degree, about Rupert’s daily life.

Unfortunately, that significance of individual citizens was also the source of the game’s biggest frustrations, as an entire regime could be brought down because Pedro the 48 year old teamster died of a heart attack while pushing his wheelbarrow containing two years of cigar production down to the docks.

The combination of a quick, deep game that just felt perfect made Tropico being what I described as a “booty call” game. I would just get these random cravings to play one or two games, and then put it away for another couple of months.

 

Tropico 2: 2003

Tropico 2

Tropico 2 – completely different look and setting to the rest of the series.

In hindsight, Tropico 2 is very much the odd one out in the series. Unlike all the others, which take place primarily between the Cold War and today, Tropico 2 was set during the golden age of piracy.

Essentially you played the role of a pirate king. You provided a safe port and various ‘services’ to pirates who would go out, plunder the seas and bring back their treasure to spend and store on the island. By making them happier, and providing merchants to kit them out with cutlasses and parrots, you increased the potency of the pirate fleet, who in turn would be more successful and bring back more loot.

To complicate things, you essentially had two different populations. The aforementioned pirates stayed on the island, drank, visited bawdy houses and generally desired a good amount of “anarchy”. The other population were captives, who actually did all the work serving the alcohol, building buildings and providing, well, personal services. They were borderline (perhaps not so borderline in some cases) slaves who needed to be kept in check with “order”.

To explain the quotation marks, “Order” and “Anarchy” were actually a kind of aura generated by buildings and decorations. Brothels and taverns created the “anarchy” atmosphere that the pirates craved. Alternatively, making the place look like the set of Game of Thrones with the gratuitous placement of gallows and skeletons provided the necessary “order” to keep the captives in line. It was frankly a strange system, which was downright problematic with respect to captives who had to work in the pirate areas. It is a good thing that this design feature didn’t make it into any of the other Tropico games, but it did at least have the aesthetically pleasing effect of making you develop areas of the island a bit like a theme park.

A final, tiny creative flourish which I particularly enjoyed was the ability to name many of the buildings on the island. This allowed you to really add character to your game as Pirates visited the SCUMM Bar or the Llama and Pickle.

Most important in the context of the Tropico series was that Tropico 2 was primarily built around a campaign. The campaign was a series of islands and scenarios that took you from your first little island through to a bustling pirate stronghold. This was to be an idea that would dominate subsequent games.

Tropico 3: 2009

It had been a long time between rum-based cocktails when Tropico 3 was released in 2009. PopTop the original developer ceased to exist in 2006 and it was generally assumed that we would never see another game. Somehow however the Tropico franchise found itself in the hands of a Bulgarian game developer called Haemimont Games.

Tropico 3

Tropico 3 – a visually stunning reboot/reskin of the original

Much as I loved the original two games, I was very nervous about how good the game could possibly be. Although I was somewhat encouraged by the fact that it was now coming out of a nation with relatively recent experience of dictatorship.

Fortunately I had no need to be worried. This was still Tropico, lush, green and infected with a terminal case of the mambo. Haemimont had been extremely faithful to the original, and most of the buildings, edicts and mechanics were identical to what they had been in 2001. As we wrote at the time

“It looks better, runs better and has ironed out a veritable fruit stall of little quirks and bugs”

Of course, after 8 years, presentation was a notable upgrade. The game was now fully in 3D and had an impressive day/night cycle. There was also a bunch of really nice touches. Your Presidente was now an entity in-game who could visit buildings to improve production, or stand on the balcony of the palace to deliver speeches. And OMG the radio. I loved the addition of the radio. Tropico had always had amazing music, but now it was delivered interspersed with quirky radio DJ commentary on how life was going on the island. Simply awesome.

El Presidente

El Presidente is now a customisable avatar who appears in the game world. Here he is portrayed by a greaser in a top hat.

Then there was the addition of vehicles, which completely transformed the game cosmetically and structurally. By dramatically reducing travel times it solved the “Pedro’s heart attack” issue mentioned earlier. Vehicles also made it possible to develop an entire island, rather than being trapped in the tiny corner that Rupert could reasonably walk to. Incidentally, and a little ironically, it also finally enabled your island to look like the opening sequence to the original Tropico.

There were negatives to the change however. With larger islands and populations, now easily over 1000 people, faction politics became significantly less personal. The game transformed from being about appeasing 200 or so people on an island into a game about supply chains and traffic management. Essentially it went from being a ginormous game of The Sims into being a tiny version of Railroad Tycoon.

The balance was also completely different. Where previously a larger island made life really tough politically, in Tropico 3 your island could just keep growing in a state of perpetual happiness once you nailed down the economy and traffic flow. Now you pretty much could, and would, build every possible building and solve every possible problem in each game. Tropico had turned from a pretty but flawed banana republic into an utopia.

This probably would have made for quite a dull sandbox game, which may be why they decided to take the scenario idea from Tropico 2 and run with it. The game now became very much about building an island according to the requests and parameters provided by the game, more so than the resource availability or needs of the island.

Despite these changes, it felt like the developer had Tropico 3 was a refined but faithful homage to the original game.

Tropico 4: 2011

Tropico 4 felt like it was when the developer really started to commit to the idea that Tropico could be a significant commercial franchise.

Despite the fact that the two games looked very similar, Tropico 4 was a lot more sophisticated in almost all areas. The roads and traffic elements were balanced and no longer needed the obsessive control that they did in the previous version. The campaign was longer, more detailed and structured around a cast of jokey voice acted characters like Reverend Esteban the drunken priest and Brunhilde Van Hoof, a spoof of Margaret Thatcher.

The game also had a large amount of downloadable content (DLC). The previous games, going all the way back to the original each had expansions, but this time there were also ten small $5-15 packages that typically provided a building, a new scenario and some cosmetic changes.

In terms of actual gameplay, not much was different. The main change was the introduction of progress over time. Certain buildings would only become available later in the game. This continued the trend of increasing the potential island population size and reducing the importance of the island’s resources. By the end of the game you replaced your traditional resource gathering and dwellings with aesthetically ridiculous biofarms and ziggurats which enable you to house and feed a population the size of Shanghai on Nauru.

Tropico 4 ziggurat

The ziggurat – a visually ridiculous addition to your island utopia.

Another change, not huge in terms of gameplay, but significant in terms of the series was adding a sense of character development to your Presidente. While previous games had you pick a series of talents and flaws – eg an administrative genius with flatulence and a gambling problem, you now picked from traits which would “level up” and provide more powerful effects as you played more games. Now even Presidente could be perfect.

Conclusion

Tropico has evolved and developed much like one of the islands it lets you run. At the beginning it was a tough, tight little political simulation in which, like Civilization 5, you had to balance the strengths of your leader with the resources available to you. Islands were small and your objectives were focussed purely on satisfying the needs and desires of each citizen if you hoped to finish the game and not get voted off the island.

Over time the gameplay has experienced somewhat of an urban sprawl. By Tropico 4 it has become a game about managing traffic and supply chains to build incredibly large and densely populated cities. Winning/finishing the game is now achieved by completing a series of pre-ordained quests. It now feels like an anachronism that it is possible to lose the game instantly by losing an election, not that it is ever likely to happen since it is now also possible to build a tropical utopia ruled by the most talented person on the planet.

That could be characterised as an evolution into a more focussed, tightly designed game with a defined and desirable objective. All of which are good things and make Tropico 3 and 4 games I love to go back to on a regular basis. And to be honest the original Tropico, like many retro games, is now practically unplayable due to its old bugs and limitations.

But I do miss the days of seeing if an entrepreneurial former-nightclub singer with a severe case of kleptomania could survive ruling an island of 150 religious nutters.

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This is the second part of our Top Ten Games of the Year 2009, please see numbers 8-10 and the unlucky ones that missed out here.

7.  Tropico 3

Tropico 3 offers the player the chance to experience life as “el Presidente” of a small Caribbean island.  It’s an experience which is remarkably complete.  You engage in diplomacy with the USA and USSR; set domestic policies such as social security, contraception bans and martial law; and even micro-manage your island’s daily running down to the placement of every house, wage of every worker and bribing of every faction head on the island.

Tropico 3 is more a remake than a sequel of the original Tropico from 2001, also known as “my favourite game of all time”.  Some of this man-love is because of my natural predisposition to anything that simulates politics and political decision making.  But is also because unlike other attempts at political games, such as Peter Molyneaux’s Republic: The Revolution, Tropico actually delivered on its campaign promises.

Personally, I’ve never ruled an island of 300 people, but this has to be what it is like.  Every citizen has a life of their own, a personality, home, job, family and preferences of which of their constantly depreciating needs (religion, entertainment, sleep etc…) they care about most.  Everything, absolutely everything matters.  Elections can be hard fought; bribing, denouncing or eliminating problematic faction leaders, making promises you could never keep, and possibly giving a massive tax cut in the final months of the campaign.  Or, you can avoid them entirely and declare martial law if the people don’t like it.  Assuming the military still like you, of course.  In short, it “feels” real.  All of this was possible in the original, and still is, and that’s why I love it.

Tropico 3 - amazing attention to detail in both graphics and gameplay.

I was shocked when I heard of the Tropico remake, and doubly nervous when I discovered it was made by a completely different company.  But I needn’t have worried.  The game has refined the original on every level.  While still being a really faithful remake, it looks better, runs better, and has ironed out a veritable fruit stall of little quirks and bugs.  An example of this is the introduction of cars to the game which transforms everything for the better.  With goods and people moving more rapidly, chains of production are a lot more predictable and entire islands are now open to exploitation, rather than just a small pedestrian-accessible corner.  Never has a change of vision and leadership worked so well, viva la revolucion

6.  Patapon 2

Patapon 2 epitomises everything that portable gaming should be – enjoyable in short bursts, simple and great looking.  I don’t even know why developers bother with 3D games on the PSP with games like Patapon 2 around.  Patapon 2 is a crazy-ass catchy hybrid of Real Time Strategy, Rhythm and looting.  It’s premise is this; you play a ‘deity’ who leads the patapon (affectionately known as eyes on legs) to battle along a 2D horizontal scrolling battlefield by reciting drum beats that correspond to an action.  For example, Pata-Pata-Pata-Pon, denoted by X, Square, Square, Circle instructs your army of Patapon to move forward – with seperate beats corresponding to defends and attack.

The brilliant thing about Patapon has always been that at its most basic level it’s a fun rhythm game that gradually progresses into a genuine strategy title.  What starts as an entertaining task of mastering a series of increasingly complex drum beats soon turns into a personal mission to construct the ultimate army of Patapon.  This well established strategy-rpg element makes it easy to spend hours and hours playing to the beat of your own drum (no apologies for that pata-pun….).

Nothing if not distinctive.

Patapon 2 doesn’t do a hell of a lot over and above what the original did in terms of graphics and yet was still one of the best looking portable games in 2009.  These visuals are something the player is thankful as they settle into the (admittedly now well tuned) grind.  Replaying levels is almost essential in Patapon 2 to collect raw materials necessary for crafting new weaponry and evolving new Patapon.  Like Phantasy Star Online (or Diablo in Senortubbs speak) before it, the game makes this replaying fun through a compelling random loot system that provides the possibility that an enemy will drop a rare precious metal or weapon.

Patapon 2 doesn’t offer a lot beyond the original, but it certainly gave me enough of a reason to put well over 20 hours into the game.  It looks great, it has great tunes and more importantly, its amazingly addictive fun.  A standout performer in what has otherwise been a fairly weak year on the portable platforms.

5.  inFamous

inFamous’ combination of comic book style, Sly Racoon-esque acrobatics and an incredibly interesting and realised world made it one of Oldgaulians favourites of the year.  A particularly solid achievement given it had to compete against similar 3D action-adventure games such as Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed 2 and inFamous’ own separated-at-birth twin Prototype.

At its core, inFamous is a tale of good vs evil.  A catastrophic explosion has left the three islands of Empire City under the control of different factions and it is up to protagonist Cole to take them back.  It’s not a new idea, this is the plot of every GTA ever made (except the good and evil bit), but the story does its job and the conclusion is well worth the effort.

inFamous is two things.  Firstly, it is the best Spiderman game on the current generation of consoles.  This open-world affair plays out like a super-hero comic with the main protagonist, Cole, as nimble as Spiderman, climbing buildings, jumping from unsurvivable heights and generally traversing the city in what looks like an effortless manner.

Of course it doesn’t have web slinging – but when inFamous allows you to slide along railways and powerlines, who needs it.

This guy has serious issues with static electricity.

Secondly, inFamous is the best Star Wars game, period.  If LucasArts could make a Star Wars game where being a Jedi (or a Sith, if you’re so inclined) was as nimble, controllable and ultimately as satisfying as controlling the main character is in this game, they would have the greatest licensed game ever created.  The game gives the player the ability to wield an array of, frankly, kick-ass lightning skills, and manages to make all of them fun, easy to use, and most importantly amazingly cool.  And yet it still manages to give the character a sense of vulnerability.  Oh, and did I mention you can be good or evil?

4.  Dragonage: Origins

It seems that every year there is room for an 80+ hour sword and sorcery RPG, in 2009 that niche was filled by Bioware’s Dragonage: Origins.  Without going into too much detail about the history of Bioware, it is important to say that back in 1998 Bioware released one of the seminal games of this type in Baldur’s Gate, so any attempts to build on that legacy are a very big deal indeed.

Dragonage thrusts the player into the troubled land of Fereldan.  Although the actual world itself represents original IP, there is nothing particularly original to be found in any parts of the story.  The land is in the grip of a “blight”, a semi-regular invasion of creatures called “darkspawn” that look and behave rather a lot like Tolkeinesque orcs.  You’ll become one of the last of an order devoted to stopping them and on the way will complete a set of equally cliché quests such as an Arthurian Grail quest and a heart of darkness chase of a mad dwarf into the mines.  Where Dragonage does gain a smattering of originality is in combining these “high fantasy’ ideas with some decidedly “low” plot elements.  Xenophobia, rape and general abuse abounds in Fereldan, and just to make sure you know this isn’t actually Tolkien, the elves in Dragonage don’t walk around singing to trees, they’re an underclass living in inner city ghettos.

The bulk of the 90+ hours of Dragonage is spent fighting and exploring alongside your 4-person party.  The character skill trees, inventory management and general strategy borrow heavily from the MMORPG genre, so it’s all about finding that set of armour that will help the main tank keep the monsters off the healers.  Seemingly also borrowed from MMORPGs is the ongoing side-story/task of keeping your party together.  Each character that joins you has a different personality, backstory and opinions on how things should be done.  Treat them well, give them gifts and make decisions that they approve of and yours will be a relationship of cheery banter and monster maiming with perhaps a bit of extracurricular “action” on the side.  Destroy the last mortal remains of the god that they have devoted their life to worshipping however, and they will instantly attack you and/or leave your party forever.

Dragon Age - you can tell it's mature from all the (near) nudity.

It’s certainly an upgrade to the crappy good-evil based systems that have become so common in recent RPGs, and once I worked out how it worked I enjoyed the pragmatic focus on keeping people happy.  The consequences were so severe however and critical decision moments so regular that I found it to really detract from other areas of the game.  The constant threat of party members leaving you simply doesn’t work well here.  Parties of four are small to start with when you need to cover the tank-dps-heal trifecta, replacements for lost skills are not easily found and many of the combat skills are designed to work symbiotically with those from another class.  Watching a development video after completing the game I heard them mention a number of skills and item combinations that “will be enjoyed more by players on their second playthrough” when players know what is coming and how to build around it.  Seriously guys, you’ve written a 90+ hour, story driven adventure game.  A little more devotion to making sure that the game is more accessible and rewarding while the story is still fresh would have been appreciated.

Overall, a magnum opus like this is the sort of game that belongs at the top of a game of the year list, there is simply more game in here than anything else released in 2009.  Read what you will into our decision to put it here at number 4.

So, what will be the top 3?  Wait until next time, in the meantime feel free to make your tips in the comments below.

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