Tropico 5 is the latest dictator strategy game from Kalypso Studios. Having become such a storied series, you might expect Tropico 5 to be the series reaching its apex, with few flaws to speak of thanks to the developer's constant refinement of the base gameplay. Unfortunately, Tropico 5 falls short of such lofty expectations, but it will still manage to deliver on your dreams of dictatorial conquest.
I began my playthrough with the tutorial, which allows you to get to grips with the game's main mechanics. It's a well fleshed out tutorial that does a great job of showing you how to build an infrastructure, find out how Tropicans are feeling, and generally get used to how you'll progress through the game. It is also here that newcomers will learn their first lesson: Tropico 5 can be a harsh mistress. Towards the end of the tutorial you're tasked with winning an election to show just how much you've learned, but even in the tutorial defeat is commonplace, and you will be rewarded by being sent straight back to the main menu if you don't make the grade.
The main campaign, meanwhile, sets you out on a lengthy journey built around progressive missions. Each campaign chapter is centred around one main mission which you must work towards completing. In the first mission, you're tasked with declaring independence for your little island before your stewardship expires on the island. This is no easy task, but once done, you'll complete the campaign mission, allowing you to progress into world wars-level technology (factories, electricity, etc.) and another mission. This new mission must be played on another map, which can initially be quite jarring given that you'll have already built up an island. On the other hand, though, this scenario allows you to experiment with different layouts and different methods of building your island up from scratch.
The technology ladder of Tropico 5 is centred around different “Ages”, from the initial age of being a colony to the crown, to the world wars period, and finally the modern ages. Each age feeds into one another, with your first age being about making and providing raw materials to the crown and your people, like farming and ranching, which is necessary for the development of society and its technology. With every subsequent age, you’re able to take these raw materials and put them to better use and then net yourself better prices on the international market. For example, my initial island had a few iron mines, which I then combined with the coal I had already been gathering to produce steel. With this steel in hand during the world wars ages, I was able to then produce cars, which would sell extremely well on the world market.
Everything about Tropico 5 is precise and detailed. Each citizen on your island has his or her preferences as to what should be done next on the island, or what's bothering them, which, given the fact you have an election every few years, means you really should cater to their needs. Your factories and plantations also have needs, from the workers within them being to a certain standard (some workers may have to have a high school education before working in some locations), to the amount of raw materials going into them to ensure they can continue their output. There were many times throughout the campaign that I’d see white badges above factories, indicating that they didn’t have enough of the required raw material needed to make their canned goods, and it was all because I didn’t have enough teamsters to transport the items to the factory in the first place, but this is exactly what Tropico 5 teaches you to do; to be precise and efficient with everything on your island. This can all get a little frustrating at times, especially when you're sure you've set everything up correctly but factories are still out of order, and it's usually because the game isn't communicating precisely enough what it needs from you.
Throughout the course of the campaign, whilst working towards one main mission, you’ll be given a few side missions. These are there to increase your wealth or improve your relations with other countries and are given out by different characters that you learn to like throughout the game. From the clumsy friend, to the communist lady, they’re all charming and have personality. In fact, it was in the moments after researching a new technology to use that I found Tropico 5 to be at its most entertaining. Having an advisor discover how to make planks of wood from hitting themselves with it continuously until they realise the plank constant is a fantastic joke for this world that you’re trying to manage (the plank constant is 7, for those of you who want to know) is hilarious. These characters are your narration through the ages, and also your friends.
Given that this is a strategy game, you’ll rarely come across another person talking to you directly, so the advisors are a welcome addition to the game. One problem these advisors present is that they restrict your freedom within each game. Each campaign mission starts to become a task of waiting until an advisor gives you a mission, asking you to create something so as to ensure you continue to get little incentives such as money or free buildings to tide you over. I didn’t mind this myself, but for those of you who are looking for a more free and open campaign, where you can do pretty much as you like, you may not like Tropico 5’s campaign structure of just following orders.
Fortunately, if you get tired of the campaign mode and constant following of orders, there’s always the sandbox mode, where you can just build to your heart's content. Here there is no story, and no people pestering you to build them stuff. Beyond that, you can always try Tropico 5’s multiplayer mode, where you verse other players in making the most economical island you can given its resources. These modes are nice to have, but don't add a spectacular amount of replay value (I only played a couple of games of each before getting my fill).
The graphics of Tropico 5 are lovely and dynamic, with an overlay that does its job in presenting you the information you need. You can zoom in as close as you like to citizens or buildings to see everyone going about their daily lives, or zoom out far enough that you can see most of the island to get a better view of constructions currently taking place or the layout of your growing metropolis. In this coming current generation of high graphics selling a product (for better or worse), Tropico rests on its laurels, and although it looks fine, it won't blow you away.
Tropico 5 had a lot to live up to; its predecessors managed to carve out a section of the market unique from other strategy games. Tropico 5 succeeds in delivering the same core experience, but could have been better in many aspects, from its lack of context at times, to a lack of freedom in its campaign mode. The end result is a good game that is held back by the very thing strategists come to this genre for: the freedom to use your own planning and tactics to win the game. Tropico 5 only allows you one way to succeed - its own way.
This review is based on a digital copy of Tropico 5 for the PC