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  Review: Tropico

Reviewed By: Bill Stiteler

Review Date: September 3, 2001


Genre: Sim
Format: CD
Developer: PopTop Software
Publisher: MacSoft
System Requirements: Mac OS 8.1, 200MHz processor, 32MB RAM, 850MB hard drive space, 640x480 display
Network Feature: No
3D Support: OpenGL
Mac OS X Compatible: Cocoa
Retail Price: $39.99
Availability: Out Now
Rating: Teen (violence, suggestive themes)


I consider myself a fairly typical Mac users, but I do harbor a few heresies that can start an argument, usually with Kirk. First off, I have never seen the use of Conflict Catcher. I tried the demo once and all it did was what I was doing anyway; turning extensions off and seeing if that solved the problem. Reminded me of when I worked a summer wiring phone bays with my dad. We'd wrap several hundred pairs of wire and then test them all manually, telling him for every pair if the test light was coming on. A full summer of this, just so your lazy butt could dial into and hack someone's hardcore character. You're welcome.

The other area in which I diverge from most computer users in general is my dislike of SimCity. Don't like the original, don't like the sequels, don't like the card game. I've built this city (on rock and roll, no less), and now what? Does anyone invade? Do I find out it's built on an ancient Indian burial ground or it's a spaceship from a long-lost civilization. Nope, it's just a city. Big fat deal.

For this reason, I'm very careful to make sure that any sim I'm playing is actually a game as well. This is why I avoid any title out of Maxis. Their manuals are funny, but every manual they write is ten times more entertaining than their games, and that ain't right. So, I was a bit leery of PopTop Software's Tropico. The premise sounded good; you're the dictator of a small island, trying to maintain power by whatever means necessary. Then I remembered, with minor changes, that could be the description of SimAnt as well.

I played Tropico on my wife's iBook while on vacation in Virginia Beach. Tropico is a fictional island where suntanned peasants hack their homes out of a lush jungle waiting to swallow the land back up. In this respect, Tropico is a lot like Virginia Beach, and I had to stop myself from going out onto our balcony to sing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." The player, after selecting a persona from the files of history's despots which will give him bonuses in certain areas and penalties in others, sets about determining the fate of his kingdom. Will he build up the countries industry, or go for "Yanqui" tourist dollars? Have free and open elections (or "reinterpret" votes) or maintain a police state to keep himself in power? Tropico is not a sim about building your country as it is about the management of resources, and how your citizens react to it. Making the decisions about property and policy is only one part. Making everyone else like it is the real task.

There are several factions on your island, and any one of them, properly motivated, could overthrow you. Making them all happy is a virtual impossibility. If you build factories to please the capitalists (and line your Swiss bank account, natch) the runoff and pollution will anger the environmentalists. If you build churches to fulfill people's religious needs, the communists start breathing down your neck. And then there's the desire of the people in general for better wages, without too much difference in pay for different jobs, even though you have to pay the University-skilled workers more just so they'll take the jobs...that is if you can get people to go to college.

Suddenly, Imelda's shoe collection makes much more sense.

In Tropico, someone's always carping at you. It's like this theory I have that if we cured all disease except ingrown toenails, and only one person in 1,000 years died of it, we'd start seeing these slow pull-out commercials with the narrator telling us that "Ingrown Toenail Syndrome, or ITS, is the number one killer in America..." Yes, things could be better in Tropico, but then, Tropico is a crap hole. But factions are always looking for an opportunity to hurt your popularity. You try to appease them by giving them what they want; increasing wages or building houses or clinics, or you can get medieval on their butts and build police stations and armories on every street corner, suppressing intellectuals and issuing fascist edicts to crush your enemies. Alternately, you can play it like Gore won the election, encouraging free votes and giving people their liberty.

But you only have so much control. Tick them off too much, and the people will rise up against you, or worse, one of the Big Two (Russia or the US) will invade. That's long term. Short term, you only have so much control over the day to day lives of your people. The happier they are, the more they produce. One aspect of this I found particularly maddening was watching some crucial buildings go unbuilt, even when set at the highest priority. The construction workers were too tired or hungry, or the structures took too long to get to. Even the things you think you control, you don't. The ship of state steers best when you have your course laid out and don't make many sudden turns. Also, don't let Charo sneak aboard.

Fortunately, the interface of Tropico makes handling all this information a breeze. A simple point and click with cleanly-laid out options (a la The Sims) gives you everything--and I mean everything--you need to know to spot trouble in your country. The interface stays out of your way when you don't need it, and gives you every bit of information when you do.

The graphics of the game are beautiful when set at the maximum magnification. There, it's sort of like an ant colony, with the little Tropicans going about their lives in exquisite detail. Kind of like the Sims without all the consumerism. Each person has his/her own name and his/her own needs. But in the end, this is a game about the Big Picture, and you are the director. So, should you be good, or evil? Having played the game both ways, I have to tell you that playing the benevolent democrat is dead boring. It's a bit like trying to be an anger management counselor in Unreal Tournament. Sure, you're making the right moral choices, but are you having fun? Tropico is a game best suited to blood thirst. Like Rick Nelson sang, "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself," just before he ordered the burning of all "Ozzie and Harriet" episodes in the town square.

Tropico can end in several ways. One, your people can get tired of you and boot you off via election or coup. Two, the time can run out and you get a certain number of points. Three, you can get tired of listening to everyone complain all the time, and quit. Three was my big favorite, until I did something I very rarely do with sim games...I played the scenarios. With very clear-cut victory objectives, I actually found these to be much more fun than the free-style play because I felt I had a goal to attach myself to, rather than some vague notion of "points." Be warned, though, that the difficulty level on those scenarios is no joke--"hard" means "hard." I played one in which I had to make 2 million dollars in cigar exports within 50 years. With 10 years left, it was apparent I didn't have the capacity to make it, so I restarted the scenario completely, reworked my plan to accommodate my previous shortfalls...and still came up a million short. I can't imagine how long it would take to get the "ridiculously hard" scenarios right.

Speaking of trying to get it right, an OS X native version of Tropico is available on the CD. Seems Apple's right about crashing applications not taking down the system, as Tropico froze up the System when installing, and only after force quitting the Finder did installation continue...successfully. The game also "unexpectedly quit" the second time I launched it, but never did so again. The animations would occasionally stutter within the game itself, but otherwise ran fairly smoothly. A patch or two and the OS X version should be running as well as the classic app.

For about the first week that I played Tropico, I was disappointed in it...nothing interesting was happening. And then I realized that this was because of the way I was playing it. I was trying to make everyone happy, acceding to every demand. What the heck sort of dictator was I? To heck with the Church and the Environmentalists! If the people want more money, then they can work harder! I didn't become El Presidente to make friends, I came here to drag this country, kicking and screaming, into the...well, the twentieth century, at least! Where is my personal bodyguard? Someone get me an execution order!

My advice when playing Tropico is to leave your morals at the door and grasp power with both hands, choking the life out of anyone who might try to take it from you. The game is supposed to make you happy, not the other way around. Seize the moment, and imagine you've put your secret police on the trail of the makers of SimEarth. Trust me, no one will march for them.


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