Version tested: Xbox 360
Who wouldn't want to live on the island of Tropico? Anyone who's been on an all-inclusive package deal to the real-life island it's inspired by and forced to eat boiled tongue and microwave pizzas for two weeks, that's who. And anyone who has suffered under the US-imposed sanctions on the communist dictatorship it's inspired by, presumably. Still, at least the music's jolly.
If you feel like you've read this article somewhere before, that's because Will went on about Tropico 3's superb soundtrack when he reviewed the PC version. The music in the Xbox 360 version is just as likely to make you want to shimmy, sway, smoke cigars, pile the contents of the fruit bowl on your head and call yourself Miranda. Forget Il Divo and Leona, Simon - what recession-hit Britain needs now is a chart-topping calypso band. And more reggaeton.
There are plenty of other similarities between the PC and Xbox 360 versions of Tropico 3. Once again you take on the role of El Presidente, the ruler of a pretty tropical island in the Caribbean sea. At least it starts out pretty - if you want you can despoil the entire area with everything from lumber yards and tenements to oil wells and condominiums.
The game is a city-building sim in the classic style, with lots of resources to manage and variables to consider. You begin by establishing industries such as farming and meeting the population's most basic needs for food and accommodation. Once the money starts rolling in you can start building better facilities, invest in education, keep people happy by introducing a social security system and so on. Or you can put all the cash into strip mining, set up a secret police force, siphon taxes into your personal Swiss bank account and generally not give so much as a thought to the island's inhabitants - until they start trying to assassinate you.
The banana republic theme is what sets Tropico 3 apart from other city builders. It's much more colourful than the grey and gloomy Sim City titles and more contemporary than all those games set in boring old ancient Rome. Plus there's much more scope for humour and silliness, and developer Haemimont takes full advantage. The result is a game with real personality, charm and a unique style all of its own.
However, it's a style you'll recognise if you played the first Tropico. This third instalment isn't really a sequel, more a remake of the 2001 original. The good news is this means they've dumped all the daft pirate nonsense that was introduced two years later with Tropico 2. The bad news is that if you played the first game to death, you'll find yourself wondering what's new here.
In fact, the same applies if you've played any city building sim extensively in the last 10 years. Tropico 3 doesn't push any boundaries, present any new ideas or attempt to move the genre forwards. It's the same old story - build stuff, earn money, build more stuff, get more money, deal with random events (attempted coup d'etats, hostage situations etc.), repeat.
If that's all you're after, Tropico 3 delivers. It's a solid, well-balanced game which can easily eat up hours of your time. There are a few niggles, as Will pointed out - sometimes it's hard to tell what's going on with your buildings (such as why construction has stopped or why no one's living in those new apartments), the technology trees are limited and events can repeat themselves a bit too often (are three llama fever threats in four years really that likely?). But none of these are big enough problems to ruin the game and the good design, decent AI, pretty graphics and cheery soundtrack are enough to make up for them.
That said, if you have a choice, be sure to pick the PC version of Tropico 3 over the Xbox 360 game. There's the obvious and inevitable issue of lower-quality visuals, for starters. The game looks that bit more jaggedy on 360, the lighting is brash and unsubtle and textures are considerably less detailed. They've still managed to do a lovely job with the the sea, mind.
By picking the 360 version you'll also miss out on the option to design your own missions as the challenge editor only features in the PC game. But that's probably only of interest to a minority anyway, and the console version does feature a fully-fledged sandbox mode along with all 15 of the campaigns.
The real problem, as is so often the case with strategy games on consoles, is the control system. The design team has done its best but there's just no getting around it - a mouse is much easier to use than a control pad when you're dealing with such a huge number of buttons to click, items to place and statistics to view. There's a particular issue with the screens which have six or more options arranged in a circular fashion. It can be fiddly to highlight your chosen option using the analogue stick as you have to get it right on the diagonal, and the game sometimes struggles to recognise which one you want.
Attempting to lay down roads can also be frustrating. The automatic pathfinder seems to be a bit mental, often assuming you'd rather build a big curvy road than just lay one in a straight line. You end up having to put roads down in increments, stopping and starting again at every turn - time-consuming and annoying.
Once again, these issues are by no means enough to make the game unplayable or even unenjoyable. But frustration does build up over the course of a few hours and you can't help wishing you were playing with a mouse. This is a real shame as Tropico 3 could have been a great introduction to the city-building genre for console owners who are new to it.
That's if it also had a proper tutorial mode. The one it's got is pretty terrible, boiling down to 15 minutes of a man with the most bizarre comedy Spanish accent you've ever heard reading out a manual. You can only progress through the tutorial by completing each instruction the man gives you, and you can't make him repeat any of them - so if you miss one, you're stuck with randomly pressing buttons in the hope of hitting the right combo or starting the whole thing again.
The game is easy to play if you've got city-builder experience but if not, you might feel bewildered by what seems like an awful lot to remember (button presses, resource management, construction, politics, Swiss bank accounts, etc. etc.) when it's all thrown at you over the course of 15 minutes.
So Tropico 3 can't be recommended as an introduction to the genre. Nor can it be said to match up to the PC version, thanks to the lower-quality graphics, slightly poorer mode selection and inferior control system. All that said, it's impossible not to like this game. Maybe it's the classic, solid city-building gameplay. Maybe it's the unique style and sense of humour. Maybe it's the fact that, despite all the niggles, the game is still so absorbing you can spend hours on it without realising just how much time you've wasted.
Nah. It's probably the soundtrack.
7 / 10