Tropico

It’s no wonder so-called god games are so very popular – they let you control entire worlds and huge populations of people (or creatures) according to your every whim. I admit, some of my darkest hours as the reigning dictator of the game Tropico were dominated by dreams of total control. Cast as El Presidente of a small Caribbean nation, I found the illusion of omnipotence going to my head. Tropico is the latest title from PopTop Software (makers of Railroad Tycoon II), and it’s published by MacSoft. It’s a real-time strategy game with a 3D isometric view (or three-quarters perspective). Banana republic
Tropico puts an interesting twist on the god-game genre. Rather than having you act as a deity or an industrial tycoon, you’re the dictator of a banana republic. No, not the chain of clothing stores, silly – this banana republic is an island in the Caribbean. As Tropico emerges from colonial obscurity after World War II, your puppet regime must stay in power through means – democratic or fascistic – you choose. What makes Tropico different from so many other simulation games is that, in addition to influencing economics and planning infrastructure, you must manage the political process of your country. Getting your country running is only one problem you’ll face as El Presidente – keeping it running is another issue entirely. In Tropico, you can either use a series of preset scenarios with specific goals (guaranteeing fair elections while maintaining power, or undercutting Cuba’s cigar-export business) or create a custom island of your own – determining its altitude, waterline, distribution of vegetation and minerals, and population. You can also customize your personality as a ruler, assigning yourself positive traits (hardworking, a man of the people) and negative traits (alcoholic, flatulent). These traits will affect everything from how the average José on the street sees you to how adept you are at foreign policy. As in the case of flatulence, say, a trait can even affect how much your palace guards are paid to protect you. Despite such omnipotence over your environment, you’re no Svengali – you don’t directly control what your Tropicans think and do. But you can certainly influence them through your actions (or inaction, as the case may be). Fail to build housing, schools, or clinics for your populace, for example, and you risk the wrath of socialist factions. Place too heavy an emphasis on industrial or commercial development without taking steps to beautify Tropico and reduce pollution, and you’ll incite environmentalists to rally against you. Fail to build and maintain a strong military presence, and you may be ousted by a junta. Meanwhile, you must try to balance effective relationships with the outside world, keeping both los yanquis and los comunistas at bay. Of course as El Presidente, you don’t necessarily have to play by the rules. Heck, you can make the rules. If the people demand an election, do you have to listen to them? No! At least, not for a while. And even when you do grant one, you can hire a team of “specialists” to make sure the election results are in your favour. Having trouble with a particular insurgent who threatens the stability of your regime? You can make the insurgent disappear, but you’ll have to pay for it (and the respect you lose will be damaging). If you’re serious about making Tropico a better place to live, invest extensively in improvements to the tiny country’s infrastructure. You’ll need to plant crops that can be sold or turned into lucrative export goods, such as rum and cigars. Exploit local resources, such as mines. As Tropico’s citizens grow more sophisticated, they’ll expect more from you. They’ll want better pay. They’ll want to live in houses and apartment buildings rather than squalid shacks. You’ll need to build them schools, universities, power plants, and better sources of entertainment. You may even want to consider underwriting the development of hotels, spas, and resort locations to bring in tourist dollars. Of course, you don’t have to go the humanitarian route, and for some, this is what makes Tropico so appealing. You can exploit almost every element of Tropico for your personal interest. You can divert money to a private Swiss bank account. You can keep the population under your thumb by imposing martial law and issuing draconian edicts that make it dangerous for the average ciudadano de Tropico to step out of line. In Tropico, it’s all up to you. Games as complex as Tropico can be intimidating for first-time players. The many tasks to perform and factors to observe can overwhelm. PopTop strongly recommends that first-time players utilize the built-in tutorial, and I heartily agree. You can play the tutorial for free with the 200MB demo that’s on this month’s second CD. Tropico also comes with a well-written manual that thoroughly explains the game’s major elements, and provides helpful tables explaining how it works. Another suggestion for first-time Tropico dictators is to play your first games in Sandbox mode. You create a custom scenario by lowering the political difficulty to virtually nil and providing yourself with unlimited funds. This way, you can familiarize yourself with the mechanics of the game and learn what works and what doesn’t. If not for Tropico’s Sandbox mode, I’d never have found out how lucrative a rum distillery can be or how long it can take one to turn a profit. Tropico is MacSoft’s first game to ship with Mac OS X support – it’s been Carbonized, and it worked adequately on my G4/500 running Mac OS X 10.0.4. Tropico supports hardware-based graphics acceleration, so if you have an OpenGL-compatible video card, you’ll get smoother graphics and richer colours. But if you don’t have a video card that can run Tropico in hardware mode, game play isn’t diminished with the software renderer. Tropico has no online-play component, but that’s a minor shortcoming. The game is fully absorbing, and it’s a lot of fun – even without death matches.

OUR VERDICT

Every so often, I find a game that I fear I’ll have to delete from my hard drive, lest I suffer a major productivity hit. I lost hours playing, oblivious to the outside world as I tended carefully to mi país, mi Tropico. If you’re a fan of sim games, you should definitely plan a vacation to Tropico.

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