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EGM Review: Tropico 5

Posted on May 28, 2014 AT 08:00am

Time for a coup

Not many city-builder games are worth the time it takes to install them, but Tropico 4 was good enough to earn a permanent place on my hard drive. I liked the mix of economic balance with political intrigue. I enjoyed the personalities of my advisers. I even forgave the game for its relatively low challenge and interface limitations, simply because its personality that overcame its shortcomings. In theory, like all subsequent sequels, Tropico 5 should be better. It’s more refined, the gameplay is deeper, and it retains the personality for which the series is known—however, a great personality can’t overcome every transgression.

In Tropico 5, just like in the rest of the series, players take on the role of “El Presidente,” the “elected” leader of the island nation of Tropico that has, fortunately for him, no representative legislature and no term limits. As the leader of this fledgling nation, the player must designate new constructions, enact new laws, woo foreign powers, and placate internal factions, all in an effort to keep Tropico prosperous. If you fail to keep it all balanced, your economy can fall into a downward spiral, rebellions can spring up, and foreign countries can invade faster than you can say “Bay of Pigs.”

Players of earlier Tropico games will find much of Tropico 5 very familiar. Extremely familiar. In fact, most of the strategies used in Tropico 4 will still work in Tropico 5 without much alteration. The UI may be more polished, but the game still feels the same. Even the limitations of the previous entries are still there: Placing roads remains haphazard, you still can’t rebind keys to move the camera, and many of the more useful tools are hidden under multiple tabs with no rapid way to retrieve them.

The differences from previous versions come more from changes to the game’s infrastructure. Perhaps the most notable of these changes is the addition of a tech tree and the creation of eras. The four playable eras range from the Colonial Era that predates the Industrial Revolution up to the Modern Era (more or less today). As the game progresses and more technologies are unlocked, the eras advance, and the rules of power change.

In the Colonial Era, for example, you’re the royally appointed governor and must complete tasks for the crown in order to lengthen your rule until you can finally declare independence. In every era after that, you must play politician in order to win regular elections. The tech tree in all of this is linked to the era system and feels much more like part of a proper strategy game, unlike in Tropico 4, where you’d unlock new buildings on demand with money from the treasury.

In Tropico 4, you’d create or choose a person to be “El Presidente,” selecting a few stat modifiers from a list of traits to give your ruler. Tropico 5’s Dynasty system changes that around; instead of creating a single ruler with many traits, you make a family of up to seven people, each with one trait. Each of the members can manage buildings for different effects or go on select side missions throughout the game. The new system also makes the Swiss bank account, previously a sort of “high score” for the game, into a useful tool to spend on character leveling. Practically, it’s very similar to the old system, but it feels like a more integrated part of the game here.

While the dynasty system functions well, the character-creation screen is, frankly, abysmal. Not only are there a dearth of options for customization, but the available options are all too over the top and ugly. This is one of the few large black marks on the game, and it’s made all the more stark because Tropico 4—even before the DLC—had better and more varied options to choose from.

Other, smaller changes add a few variables to the game. Docks now function as part of a trade network and can only have up to two ships at once, forcing the creation of large harbors with support buildings. In the early game, there’s a fog-of-war that halts construction until expeditions are sent out to reconnoiter the area. And the tech tree brings new research buildings necessary to gain Research Points and to provide some jobs for the more educated of your citizens. None of these are earth-shattering changes, but just like the tech tree and Dynasty system, they fill out the experience well and fit smoothly into the normal course of play.

The single-player component of the game is limited to either sandbox mode or a short 16-mission campaign. The story in the campaign is more cohesive now, but still contains the humor so prevalent in previous games. You control two islands at a time, choosing between them for each pair of missions. A flowing story is good, but this now means there’s no mission-select screen or easy way to revert your progress. Therefore, if you’re unlucky enough to fail, the autosave is too recent, and you didn’t manually save prior to your blunder, you’ll have to restart the campaign.

In lieu of a more expansive single-player game, Tropico 5 offers a multiplayer option. I was excited for the potential here, but this is the first time any form of multiplayer has been included in the series—and it shows. The multiplayer lobby is worse than useless, and it floods the chat window with posts for every event. Hosts have no way to kick players or force the game to start, and when you create a game, there’s no way to isolate your room from the global chat. There’s also no way to obtain ping information, and the server browser is prone to listing errors and showing empty rooms. It’s impossible to rebind or to even find a guide that tells you the in-game chat key (which is Enter). It’s as if the design of the multiplayer lobby was never meant to cater more than a handful of people, globally, at one time.

I’d be able to look past a lot of this and chalk it up as severe teething problems for the new system if the online gameplay were competent in any way, but it’s difficult to assess when I haven’t been able to last more than thirty minutes in the game without the entire system failing. When it does work, the multiplayer is exactly what I hoped for: adversarial SimCity. When it doesn’t work, which is most of the time, it’s plagued with heavy lag, constant crashes, and few, if any, indicators as to what’s wrong.

In theory, Tropico 5 is an improvement over its predecessors and a decent strategy game in its own right. The simulation of your island is deep and it controls well, allowing you to flex your creative muscles as leader.

As a product, however, Tropico 5 is flawed. To enjoy the “game” part of Tropico 5, you have to overlook glaring issues not directly influencing gameplay. You have to live with a truncated single-player, a limited character-customization screen, and a completely broken multiplayer lobby. In a couple of months, after a few patches, some of these issues may resolve themselves, but right now, the game’s many charms and its personality simply aren’t enough.

Developer: Haemimont Games • Publisher: Kalypso Media • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 05.23.14

Tropico 5 is a noticeable, if subtle, revision on the Tropico formula. The new Eras and the Dynasty system create additional gameplay layers without disrupting the balance of the experience. The multiplayer, while fun when it works, mostly doesn’t.

The Good The new systems feel like they should’ve been in the series from the beginning.
The Bad The character creator is more limited than Tropico 4’s and has few options that even look like human beings.
The Ugly The multiplayer lobby. It just does not work.
Tropico 5 is a time PC exclusive, with later releases coming on PS4, Xbox 360, and Mac. Primary version reviewed was for PC. Review code was provided by Kalypso for the benefit of this review.

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