Version tested: PC
Tropico 4 is a lot like taking an extended two-week holiday to the resort where you spent your honeymoon. At first the familiarity is wonderful and comforting. You slip back into old routines and it's immediately enjoyable.
But then the days start to drag. You realise there's not much to do. You wonder if the management has bothered to improve things at all, or if they're relying on tourists like yourself, returning out of nostalgia. By the time you leave, you're feeling strangely disenchanted. You couldn't say you didn't have a nice time, but the magic you remember has long gone revealing something rather ordinary underneath.
Tropico 3, released in 2009, was a welcome update of the 2001 original. Taking the city building, resource gathering gameplay of Sim City and The Settlers and giving it a cheeky satirical Cold War twist, it cast you as the dictator of a small Caribbean nation, free to be as corrupt or idealistic as you wished. Driven by catchy calypso rhythms and with a flavour all of its own in a genre not known for colour and personality, it was a deserving hit.
It's hard to blame developer Haemimont Games for sticking with what works, but at the same time it's quite galling just how little has been changed in the two-ish years since the last instalment. This is, to all intents and purposes, the exact same game. There are a few new wrinkles in the old cloth, but none of the changes or additions go deeper than surface detail.
There are 20 new building types, but most are dead ends in gameplay terms. Tropico 3 suffered for its stunted technology trees, which where more crude stump than towering palm, so to repeat that shallowness again is a particular disappointment.
So you build a logging camp to make use of the forests on your island. Then you build a lumberyard to transform the wood into usable timber. Then you build a furniture factory to drive up your exports. That's it. Rather than opening up new aspects of gameplay, it's a simple A-B-C process with no room for experimentation or personal choice. The same is true of the natural resources you find. Oil, gold, copper - all lead to one or two additional steps, then run dry.
Rather than address this limitation, Tropico 4 instead offers theme park rides like ferris wheels and roller coasters. A shopping mall for tourists should open up dozens of interlocking retail opportunities, but instead acts in much the same way as a zoo or restaurant - it's there to give your tiny figures somewhere to go, not to give the player more to do.
Similar missed opportunities can be found in the new Ministry building. This lets you pick citizens (or hire overseas experts) to fill your government, but once again the impact on gameplay is minimal. You'll be issuing mostly the same edicts as in Tropico 3 - anti-littering, tax cuts, gay marriage - but now you'll sometimes have to hire the relevant minister first. Sometimes a minister will do something that benefits your island, or embarrass themselves horribly. You then have the option to fire them and hire someone else, but the change is meaningless.
Imports must now be juggled with exports, but like discovering that the new Star Wars movie is about a trade dispute, it's hardly the sort of thing worth getting excited about. At best, it's a way to get your hands on raw materials early in the game. At worst, it's another menu option to click once your own economy is self-sustaining.
Also new are natural disasters, introduced a mere 22 years after Sim City unleashed earthquakes, volcanoes and tornadoes, and the ability to post your screenshots and achievements directly to Facebook and Twitter. Doing this crashed my game every time, with the posts themselves taking hours to appear, but I'll be generous and put that down to pre-release review code.
Tropico was never the deepest strategy game around, but it was one of the most fun, and the humour returns as strong as ever. Radio broadcasts poke fun at your decisions while cruel caricatures pop up with their requests for specific buildings, more exports or just a sackful of cash. These requests now appear as floating exclamation mark icons that can be clicked, then accepted or dismissed as you see fit.
The weakness of the game is that it still struggles over the long haul. You run out of new building types to exploit all too quickly, while the game's flaky factions and citizens tend to make the challenge stupidly easy or maddeningly difficult depending on their whims. You can build a series of lovely air-conditioned apartments, and offer free housing for all, but shantytown shacks still spring up all over your island.
You can go out of your way to placate every faction, balancing out your capitalist excess with concessions to the environmentalists and placating the intellectuals while pandering to the religious, but the game is always happy to plunge your ratings for murky reasons, forcing you to spin more plates ever faster.
City simulation is a genre with an in-built plateau where the grind eventually overpowers the fun, but Tropico fares worse than its peers at staving off that inevitable moment where you scrap everything and start over. With just 20 campaign missions and a sandbox mode, there's really not a lot of content on offer, and the option to create and upload your own scenarios, while welcome, isn't enough to compensate.
It's hard not to like Tropico 4, because it's based on a solid foundation that is naturally engaging. It was and remains an enjoyable if slight take on a dry genre. Its tragedy is that it hasn't bothered to build anything worthwhile on top of that foundation, preferring instead to coast on jaunty music that makes you feel like you're playing in Nando's and broad satire that fails to sustain the game beyond the first few days of play.
Newcomers to the series will find much to enjoy, but existing fans may wish that El Presidente had made a little more effort.
7 / 10
Tropico 4 is out now on PC. A Xbox 360 release is planned for next month.