The tropical Dictator-'em-up returns for a fourth installment of city building fun. Kind of like a cross between Sim City and your dream vacation, the city-builder gives you the chance to have more fun with town planning than you have any right to! The satirical-cum-serious game gives you the reigns to a small Caribbean nation and allows you to be as virtuous or corrupt as you wish. Dropping (or vastly reducing) the micromanagement of its peers, the Tropico series is a tongue-in-cheek city builder that on the surface offers more enjoyment than grind.
Initially the game is fun. The tutorial is the first improvement you'll notice over previous installments, with a nice humourous narration coupled with plenty of guidance in how the game and interface work. City building is ALWAYS better with a mouse, but the 360 pad makes a decent enough substitute and while you don't have the fine-grain control that a PC would give you the developers, Haemimont Games (try typing that when less-than-sober), have ensured that the console experience is eminently playable.
However, what IS lacking is the almost complete lack of innovation on show. Haemimont may have given twenty new types of building and spruced up the experience for new players but other than that anyone who has played Tropico 3 will be left hugely disappointed. Minor improvements don't make up for the complete avoidance of fixing the real problems with the previous game. There are nods to development and technology trees, but they are so shallow that it makes that strive for new concepts and ideas throughout the playing time moot. The new buildings offer very little scope for more inventiveness - in fact, most are more decorative than useful.
While you're free to build what you want where, the truth is you're really limited to what the maps give you and it's a sad fact that the game is far more 'on rails' than first impressions give. You can exploit natural resources, but only to a limited degree - trees lead to timber for construction. It's a simple model and works in games like The Settlers or the Anno series where there is more charm and drive to explore, but here it's the major part of the game and it's really lacking.
City building games often suffer from reaching a point where there is little room for enjoyment. The grind of playing such a game puts even the most hardcore RPG to shame - even the leader of the pack, Sim City reaches a point where the player just can't find any enjoyment in building their city and would rather just decimate it with natural disasters than try again; this usually happens after a few days of play, but Tropico 4 sets a new low bar in reaching this point and you'll find the urge to start all over again hitting you within the first couple of hours! There are attempts to shake things up, but internal rebellions or invasions don't really help to add the variety that they're intended to bring.
On top of the sandbox mode, the game offers a twenty mission campaign providing a little more variety, but it again becomes clear that what we really have is just a case of rinse and repeat, just with different objectives. You can also create your own scenarios and the tools provided are decent enough, but there's little fun in playing your own creations.
Graphically sumptuous, the game does look better than most in the genre and the Caribbean soundtrack really helps to evoke a strong atmosphere, but the presentation feels like it has been lifted from another, much better, game. The Tropico series shows so much promise but fails to deliver on all but the most superficial counts. Combining the series trademark quirkiness with a slightly more rounded interface and a slight graphical polish might have been enough a few years ago, but in 2011 we expect a little more from our updates.
Tropico 4 is more of an expansion rather than a reinvention - to the point where at times is is almost indistinguishable to its predecessor. What we get here are tweaks that for the most part could have been provided via an update to Tropico 3 and to release a whole new iteration of the saga is certainly overkill to the detriment of fans of the franchise. There is no real value in upgrading. For newcomers, this isn't as big a problem but we're still dealing with a game that is extremely limited in scope, and in a genre as well served as this, there are so many far better options. If the additional content here was provided as DLC, it could still be considered as lacking and to release as a full new iteration in the series is close to unforgivable, on a par with EA releasing the next FIFA with no gameplay improvements and just half a dozen new teams.
Newcomers - add a couple of points to our score, but as a new game in an established series this is a real disappointment.