What’s your favourite Castro moment? Mine’s Castro the weatherman. When a hurricane hits Cuba, Cubans can rest assured that Fiddy will hit the airwaves to guide them to safety, energetically waving his arms around and informing them when and where it’s going to hit. So I couldn’t help but grin when Juanito, the game’s adviser cum-political commentator informed the people that tonight’s weather was going to be alright because I said so. Tropico 3 is aiming more or less at being Castro: The Official State Endorsed Game.
First task is to create an avatar who will represent you in the island. Mine, Greg El Grego; a casually dressed former farmer, ushered in on the wings of promises of socialism and equality was roughly modeled on Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Being of left wing persuasion myself, I quite like the idea of trying my hand at a little wage equality. You start with a basic set of buildings, first and foremost your mighty palace, and usually a dock, farm, construction/teamster offices and if you’re lucky a tenement or two. In campaign missions you’ll be tasked with a specific goal; usually amass an amount of a specific resource. In sandbox, you just build the island of your choosing. This is all quite well handled. Building is simply a matter of placing the relevant structures down, and waiting for your construction workers to hit the site and get it built. There’s a wide range of building types; government structures, housing, resource buildings etc, each with a largely vital role in running your island nation the larger it gets.
Over time your citizens, being the ungrateful sods they are, will demand certain building needs; churches, housing, and jobs are the primary needs. If you want electoral success, you’re going to need to approach these desires. Or just fraudulently fix the polls and beef up your armed forces against dissent. The problem is however, it’s very hard to know what people want; relevant statistics are all tied up in a rather obtrusive interface; indeed, the statistics are there, they’re just not terribly intuitive to access; I think Tropico 3 could learn a lot from Democracy 2’s elegant handling of public opinion. Fortunatly, economic success is quite obvious; whatever building you haven’t got yet, or many of, you should probably think about building. Generally that’s enough to get public opinion above the 50-60% popularity mark. And generally, if you’re playing it down the route of the benevolent dictator, it’s a very set path of building to follow, and once you’re set up it’s very hard to come under any major financial duress unless you decide to do something mad, like doubling the minimum wage across the board. It’s a little simplistic, basically, if you want to play it “right”. Am I doing it wrong maybe? After all, at the end of a scenario, a hefty chunk of your “score” is linked to your “Private Swiss Account”, filled with tasty ill gotten coins abused out of the system. Perhaps I’m just too genuinely socialist for a game about crooked socialists, eh?
I feel Tropico 3 really lacks a sense of competition. As the island’s only politician of worth, there’s rarely a sense of opposition to your rule – tyrannical or otherwise. Rebels appear with varying degrees of regularity, but the process isn’t terribly well explained, and there’s not much you can do in response except build more military facilities and hope your fatigue wearing goons can get the job done. It feels very cursory and subsidiary to the main task of building up an economy – the real enemy. Even here though, I can’t help but feel that once you’ve got the ball rolling – a couple of industrial buildings, basically – you can largely get along swimmingly. In fact, one of the easiest missions I played tasked me with building a decent economy despite an “export tax” imposed by foreign powers. I powered through it without any real duress. It also means you’re not really tied to any ideological plane, which I feel takes away from the pitch somewhat; a little more extreme left/right wing divides would add more depth.
Long term appeal comes in the form of sandbox levels – either pre-made or randomly generated – as opposed I feel to the campaign, which is dominated by only slight variations on the standard theme. Each has various restrictions placed on you, and will occasionally forward various situational events to deal with, within the character of the mission. I do feel that this area could have been expanded somewhat. More unpredictable happenings would spice things up a little more. Keeping at it however can irritate. Sooner or later, Juanito will drive you nuts with the same repeated phrases, and every time I hear El Presidente’ stating “I am but a humble servant, and you are my masters” in election speeches I die a little inside. The satire thus wears and repetition does erode at Tropico 3’s long term prospects.
Tropico 3, all this said, does a good job of patching over the cracks. It looks wonderful, and there’s plenty of incidental details when you move in close. I think the best comparison would be with Children of the Nile: It’s a slickly presented, but relaxed and not too taxing on the mind. There’s a sense of genuine pleasure in idly building up your island. For all its fault, it’s an undoubtedly well made and generally enjoyable experience. So is it really the comprehensive Castro simulator we all secretly crave? Even if it has most of the pageantry, charm and dubious approach to politics, I don’t feel it’s quite all the way there. But if you’re looking for a city builder with a little extra flavour, Tropico 3 isn’t a bad choice. Just not a brilliant one.