Ever since Sim City first gave gamers severe sleep deprivation problems, game developers have been adding new twists to the basic formula of building and managing a virtual metropolis. Some of those twists have delivered stunning gaming experiences, like Dungeon Keeper, whose genius touch of giving you a lair full of evil minions to keep happy rather than a city full of civilians made for a wonderful gaming experience. Two years ago, PopTop gave us its own take on the genre with Tropico - a management 'simulation' which saw you taking on the role of a dictator in charge of a banana republic somewhere in the Caribbean.
Although not without its flaws, Tropico was a lot of fun - helped along significantly by a great soundtrack and a quirky sense of humour. Now that the sequel has rolled around, it's good to see that the game (with new developer Frog City at the helm) has changed significantly - a new setting, new game mechanics and new interface make this far more than just an update - and hopefully without losing any of the things which made the first one fun.
Shiver me timbers
As the name suggests, Pirate Cove transports you back to the age of buccaneers and piracy on the high seas, placing you in charge of the secret Caribbean island base of a group of ferocious pirates. Your task is to build an island community which supplies everything needed to keep your pirates happy, and of course to fill your coffers with gold by sending out ships on raiding missions - while at the same time striving to keep your location secret from the fleets of the British, Spanish and French, who are obviously keen to shut you down so you stop nicking their pieces of eight.
The work on your island is primarily done by captive slave labour, with a force of mainly shipwrecked unfortunates or people captured by your pirates in raids. These captives need to be kept in a docile state through a combination of intimidation and order, and it's also a good idea to keep them relatively well fed and housed - less desperate captives are less likely to attempt escape. Captives gradually acquire skills as you put them to work in the different installations around the island, and you can also recruit new pirates from the captive population by press-ganging them into service on a ship.
At a management level, the game focuses mostly on supply chains, with raw materials being processed several times before they become something useful. For example, raw iron is extracted by a mine, then processed into pig iron by a smelter, then finally turned into cutlasses for your pirates to use at a blacksmith. At each point workers are required, and a supply chain must be set up between the different factories using workers trained as haulers - with the last link in this particular chain being the hauler who brings cutlasses to the dock, where they'll be loaded onto ships that require them.
Pieces of eight?
There are many such supply chains in the game, and almost every element of the game requires a chain to work. Keeping your pirates happy consists of a number of factors - with Grog and Grub being two major ones (along with Wenches, Gambling, and for the female pirates, beauty products). Providing beer isn't just a matter of building a tavern though - you'll need a brewery to make beer, and a supply chain between the two in order to keep your bar well stocked with the frothy happy-juice.
To begin with, your pirates are simple creatures, but as you advance through the game, you'll discover that higher-level pirates (defined by their experience, notoriety and the amount of gold in their pockets) are a little more demanding, and you'll need to make sure that your entertainment and accommodation is tailored to their requirements or they'll become unhappy. Like the original Tropico, and indeed The Sims, you can click on an individual pirate or captive and see detailed information about him or her, with one of the most useful panels being the one that shows you what that character is thinking. Much of this is amusing nonsense (such as pirates pondering why pieces of eight aren't pieces of nine or ten), but occasionally a highlighted thought will point out a failing of your island that needs addressing.
One of the best aspects of the game, in fact, is the gradual change in the complexity as you progress. Obviously the central single player campaign offers differing objectives which increase in complexity as you move through the missions, but even in the "sandbox" free-form gameplay mode, you gradually find your objectives changing as you play. Early in the game, setting up basic supply chains is essential; later on, you'll spend much more time concerned with keeping your pirates contented, and shoring up diplomatic relations with the three local superpowers. This kind of variation, and the gradual opening up of more and more aspects of the game as you play, is an excellent way of holding the player's attention as they progress.
Walk the plank!
As you might expect given the setting of the game and the nature of the first title in the series, Tropico 2 is a game with a healthy sense of humour and a welcome willingness to poke fun at itself. There's plenty of speech in the game, and it's littered with clichéd pirate sayings [a bit like this review, then -Ed] and tongue-in-cheek comments. The thought processes of some of your captives and pirates are occasionally hilarious, and the whole style of the game is - dare we say it - slightly reminiscent of LucasArts' Monkey Island games, with cheesy pirate paraphernalia around every corner.
The soundtrack is also a lot of fun - full of Caribbean calypso-style rhythms that definitely enhance the atmosphere of the game. The graphics, however, are distinctly old-school - firmly entrenched in the 2D sprite way of doing things. However, this is more than made up for by the level of detail on most of the buildings and characters in the game, and we can't help but feel that the addition of 3D would have been surplus to requirements here, and applaud Frog City for sticking to 2D and focusing on the gameplay rather than a new engine.
Davy Jones' locker
All that being said, Tropico 2 isn't without its flaws. There are certain elements of the game which we'd like to have had more control over - such as which workers or pirates to assign to certain jobs, or the division of produce between two factories which use the same raw materials. Like so many other games of this type, it's also possible to end up in a situation where everyone on the island is unhappy with you and it's not apparent why - leaving the gameplay experience sometimes feeling like you're trying to keep 20 plates spinning at once. While blindfolded.
These are relatively minor problems however, and overall we're delighted with how Tropico 2 has turned out. Any fan of management games is bound to enjoy the game, and it's a definite candidate for causing some very, very late nights in front of your PC screen. Graphics whores will inevitably be put off by the old school look and feel of the title, but if you can get past that, this is one of the best god games the PC has seen in quite a while. Plus, for those of you with terribly decrepit PCs (and we know you're out there), the low system requirements of the game will undoubtedly be a bonus.