Tropico 4 Hands On
Developer: Haemimont Games / Publisher: Kalypso Media / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Not Yet Rated / Release Date: August 30, 2011
Pulling the Tropico 4 preview build out of the mail sparked a peculiar sensation… sort of similar to watching a small bug try and drag an oversized fruit back to his nest. ‘Aw that’s cute in an inspiring way,’ I thought. ‘Good luck lil’ buddy.’ I figured playing the preview would not so much answer the question “did the experience of Tropico survive to the console” but more “how short does the console experience fall?” However, after some time with the latest in a franchise that keeps plugging away, I have to fully eat my presumptions. This game is the real strategy deal, and makes no compromise for the sake of a controller.
Tropico 4 is the latest in the decade-old series that puts you in the shoes of El Presidente, the dictatorial ruler of a Caribbean island during the Cold War era of the 50s. As El Presidente, you have to decide what structures to build on your island, establish your imports and exports, ensure the happiness of your civilians, and generally make your island run as lean and clean as it can. As you’d expect, doing all of that successfully is much more complicated than your average console game run-and-gun. The fact that Tropico 4 seems to execute its strategic depth with relative aplomb is surprising.
I’ll hit the controls first, because that’s commonly where dense sims fall on their faces on consoles. The twin sticks control the pitch and focal point of the camera, which can be zoomed out and in to a surprising degree (you can go from a cloud’s-eye view to seeing what color shoes a pedestrian is wearing). The face buttons–X, A, and B–select different objects that are under your cursor. A selects buildings, X selects pedestrians, and B will activate any quest under your cursor. Should there be more than one of those items under your cursor, tapping the button repeatedly will cycle through the items of that category. It’s very easy to select what you want. This may sound trivial, but this is the basis for the whole game, so it’s vital that Tropico 4 nails getting you involved in all facets of state management in such a clever way.
Interacting with buildings–setting the wage for jobs, the produce of farms, etc.–is all done via an informational window that pops up on the right side of the screen. You navigate this window with the d-pad rather than the analogue stick, which helps you mentally separate cursor control from menu navigation. It’s rare in a game like this to see a pop-up menu and intuitively know how to get there, but segregating navigation does the trick.
The rest of Tropico’s controls find clever solutions to control issues with varying success. I particularly enjoyed the game’s radial build menus. Tapping Y brings up a circle of building categories, each of which bring up a sub-menu of specific buildings. While constructing buildings through this system isn’t as direct as clicking a mouse, it reduces the clumsiness of more typical vertical menus. Associating pictures with each category and building make it much easier to find what you need as well.
Drilling down deeper in to the nitty gritty of how your island is running isn’t quite so smooth, but odds are if you have the inclination to make sure your fish cannery isn’t employing too many line workers for the amount of fish they’re getting from your docks, you’re willing to read a screen of text or two. Pulling up your island’s almanac will dump a near-absurd amount of information on you. The first screen gives you a general overview of your island’s status, while tabs separate out information regarding your populous, foreign relations, and production. Most of this info is color coded, so your eyes can easily find the bright red numbers that need attention.
Despite my assumptions about the game, Tropico 4 is legit. I admit I have a soft spot for empire management games dating back to the original SimCity, and Tropico 4 navigates all the typical console hangups that plague that genre with grace. On top of that, the game sports a bangin’ soundtrack that had my ears salsa dancing for hours. If you’re burned out on popcorn console experiences, give Tropico 4 a try when it launches for the PC and Xbox 360 on August 30.