Version tested: PC
I am shimmying as I write this. Why? Because listen to this! Hooray! The Tropico 3 soundtrack makes life better. You can eat to it, shower to it, go to Tescos to it, play games to it - and I'd estimate that doing so improves your daily lot by at least 25 per cent. Find the airport level in Modern Warfare 2 disturbing? No longer a problem! Just ramp up the Tropico beat, and mow down those innocents with a smile on your face and a bounce in your step! Activision didn't need an in-game warning, they just needed a Latin beat toggle!
Beyond watching a cigar factory being built while tapping your feet and twitching your mouse hand to the music though, Tropico 3 is a superbly designed city-builder - placing you as the Castro-esque revolutionary leader hell-bent on either creating an idyllic society of socialist freedom with a lovely beach, or a corrupt and sinister autocracy - also with a lovely beach.
It's a revamp of the first Tropico game - where Sim City and Colonization collide, mixed in with a warm and humorous approach to the ways in which you can turn yourself into an utter cigar-chomping bastard - from nobbled elections all the way to Swiss bank accounts and your personal secret police.
Along with a collection of sandbox islands to build upon, the game's initial release contains 15 different islands that open up to you - each with their own resource issues, topographical extremes, local demands and campaign targets (like staying in power for a certain number of years on a cursed island, exporting a certain amount of oil, embezzling a certain amount of money - all that cool stuff). The plates you have to spin as benevolent dictator, meanwhile, are many and varied.
For a start, there's the familiar resource management stuff - keeping your cigar/canned pineapple/posh furniture industry in motion from farm, to factory, to export from the dockyards. Then there's matters like education, health and crime to consider - each with associated buildings that need constructing, and various option chains that open up ever more expensive and improved services.
Then there's the balance between your manufacturing industries and the filthy rich American tourists that need money bleeding out of them. What's more, you can't forget the variety of people that you'll have to attract as immigrants to keep your economic engine turning - and the fact they'll need nice/grotty accommodation, and that the greedy swine will want more and more money out of your coffers for filthy plebeian desires such as food, entertainment and accommodation. The scum.
It's a fascinating and well-paced balancing act. At first you rely on investment from the US or USSR (or an unlikely-to-last mix of the two), but as the years roll past from a 1950s start-off you'll hopefully get the right mix of production-line exports and wallet-bearing tourists and begin to move out of the red (or further into it, I guess) with the potential of swimming in your own personal Scrooge McDuck-styled piles of cash.
Even if you've got a nicely developing slush-fund though, chances are there'll be clouds on the horizon. There are many and varied factions within your island paradise - religious types, nationalists, capitalists, Guardian-reading liberals, good old traditional communist nutballs [surely the same thing - Ed], and they all want their personal needs met. If you fall out of favour with them then at best they will not vote for you when elections roll around, but at worst they'll turn rebel.
Of course, after a failed election you can encourage the miscounting of votes, and continue to up your military presence to chase the rebels back into the hills like the dogs they are, but it becomes an increasingly difficult tightrope to walk.
Then on top of this again there's the arch rivals of the USA and USSR to placate and/or get into bed with to keep that investmest cash coming in, and to avoid the threat of circling battleships and possible invasion. It turns out that being a revolutionary leader isn't all motorcycle diaries, blowjobs and exploding cigars.
What could have been vaguely terrifying though is rendered less so by the developer concealing reams of statistics so casual players can skim over them. Play styles, meanwhile, are initially dripfed through the opening campaigns, while a welcome four-gear speed system (well, three gears and a neutral) means that time can be frozen if things get hectic. You'll rarely need anything apart from pause or fast-forward, but speaking as someone who craves being given time to breathe in games of this ilk (and who suffered slightly with the pace and slight lack of hand-hold moments in developer Haemimont's recent Roman city-builder Grand Ages: Rome), Tropico certainly sits on the right side of the brain-tease versus frenetic frustration divide.
This said, it's certainly far better at telling you what buildings your increasingly stroppy people are demanding (or having its ever-broadcasting radio station DJ dip his elbow into public opinion to see just how incandescent with rage they are) than actually explaining just what's gone wrong with the structures already built. As ever, it's a learning process - albeit a fun and engaging one, with a few decent gags smuggled into both DJ patter and UI info alike.
Another problem is that neither campaign success nor the shock of invasion and electoral defeat are ever particularly dramatic - and the imminence of failure could sometimes be flagged up a mite more clearly. Quite often you'll be in full flow and jiggling to the music, only for a "Sorry!" screen to appear alongside your own personal internal feeling of utter emptiness.
An area in which Tropico 3 certainly does win big though are the rich seams of scripted politics that run through each island's campaign, alongside more random terrorist threats and natural crises like earthquakes. As you play you'll get story nuggets fed through about foreign investors who a little later down the line will turn out to be undercover CIA operatives, strange attacks from voodoo killers or an insolent drunken tourist you can choose to have executed who's revealed to have more important connections than you'd imagined.
With each event you make a decision, and then the story spins out in whatever direction you've sent it in - invariably having you either reap the profits of your clever politician ways, or seriously piss off a world superpower. These are then peppered with smaller events to deal with caused by your populace's more extreme reactions to your (mis)rule - a bomb in a factory, for example, tourists taken hostage, or a good old-fashioned military coup. It's a great way of adding flavour and tone to what could have strayed towards samey scenarios.
It's arguable that extreme fans of the city-build artform might feel limited by technology trees that don't extend all that far. They also might find the concept of having their own cigar-chomping avatar (of which there are many famed revolutionary types with different traits to choose from, or design yourself) wandering around the place to chivvy along construction work a little silly.
Maybe also, whereas I quite like my statistics hidden away so I can peek at them every now and then but generally avoid stomach-dropping sensations of economic fear, there's no doubt that hardcore strategists would rather have their graphs a little more loud and proud. Overall, however, you can't help but feel that the sheer charm, visual allure and fascinating setting more than straddles the genre-enthusiast divide.
And, of course, there's the music. Which, as we've already is discussed, is awesome. The fight to have this music piped through every PA, loudspeaker and radio station in Britain begins now. Viva la revolution.
8 / 10