Life in a Cold War banana republic probably wasn't as much fun in the real world as it is in Tropico 3. Fortunately, this little bit of historical revisionism is one of the few complaints you can make about this city builder. Haemimont Games has nicely resurrected the Castro-esque spoof of the first Tropico, dishing out a sunny city builder with personality and politics. Being able to play a tanned tyrant instead of the usual nameless bureaucrat makes the gameplay as potent as a fine Cohiba cigar. It also gives it a life beyond the nuts-and-bolts economics that turn too many entries in this genre into exercises in city planning and spreadsheets.
Perhaps the only real barrier to enjoying all of this fascist fun in the sun is a relatively steep learning curve that isn't flattened at all by the tutorial. Because Tropico 3 is more of a remake of PopTop Software's original than a sequel to the rather odd second Tropico game that moved the setting to a fantasy pirate island, the developers seem to have gone in with the belief that players already know what to do. So, the abbreviated tutorial mission doesn't touch on many of the game's core concepts and, instead, spends more time explaining worthless instructions, such as swiveling the camera, than dealing with island economics. This presents a few problems for those without previous Tropico experience--and even for veterans of other city-building sims--because the game adds a political overlay to the standard build houses/create jobs/make money formula common to the genre. Here, you not only construct the typical roads, houses, apartments, farms, factories, churches, and the like, but you also role-play a stereotypical Latin American dictator during the height of the Cold War. Every game begins with you either creating your own despot or picking from a list of history's finest leaders, which includes Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and even Eva Peron.
Being El Presidente isn't easy, though. Each leader comes with four character pluses and minuses that affect such things as dealings with the US, gaining the respect of island intellectuals, and so forth. Playing a self-made man of the people who womanizes and loses big bucks to a gambling addiction isn't as cool as you might expect. Everything involves a tricky balancing act. In addition to making money and keeping the peasants in papaya, you have to play the USA and USSR off each other so you aren't invaded; make nice with homegrown factions so the communists or nationalists don't depose your ass; give balcony speeches to rally citizens; and make policy edicts about minor matters, such as education and littering. When you throw in such off-the-wall occurrences as bribes from foreign companies and the constant temptation to stash money in your Swiss bank account or rig an election, you've got a pretty deep political layer here to manage that just isn't addressed in the tutorial.
Still, you should be able to find your way around fairly early on in the 15-mission single-player campaign as long as you don't mind restarting a few times and indulging in some experimentation. Each scenario takes place on a separate Caribbean island that features varying landscape and goals. The difficulty ramps up gradually and provides multiple choices after you finish the first mission, so at least you aren't thrown right into the deep end. Objectives include city-building standards, such as exporting specific amounts of food and iron before a timer runs out, as well as hitting population goals. There are also innovative options, such as staying in power for 20 years while being so badly screwed by foreign tariffs that your citizens are constantly revolting. Every mission has its own storyline and is narrated by an Adrian Cronauer-like deejay named Juanito who wakes you up with loud "Gooooood morning, Tropico!" news updates. Random events push things along. You may find yourself being shoved into a corner by the Soviets, getting caught between rival fruit companies offering competing bribes for your produce, facing such dilemmas as having to increase the population without embracing an open-door immigration policy that enrages nationalists, or having to pay off kidnappers who are crippling tourism.
Economics are straightforward, with all of the commands and information screens accessible with just a couple of clicks. Key data isn't highlighted as well as it should be, and there aren't enough warnings about problems or hints concerning how to fix them. However, you will learn the lay of the land by the end of the first mission and can soon figure everything out on your own. There is very little micromanagement when it comes to operating islands. Apartments, farms, factories, offices, military bases, construction offices, and the like run on autopilot, with you only making a few decisions in key areas. Specific citizens can be fired from jobs, and you can even send your dictator to construction sites to goose production, although there doesn't seem much need to get this hands-on except when faced with a need to use the secret police against revolutionaries. You need to set wages for workplaces, along with rents for apartments. Professional buildings, such as schools and medical centers, may require more educated staffers than you can produce at home, so you occasionally need to recruit foreign specialists. Other facilities can be set to certain specifics. Military bases, for example, can be designated traditional army headquarters or selected as the home of special operations, while tenements can be given regular maintenance or a special roach-trap service that drops your costs at the expense of living standards.
Not every aspect of this game works smoothly, however. The interface is a little wonky when it comes to placing buildings. It's hard to understand why you can't build in certain areas, which makes it easy to put down a building that cannot be connected to a road. Economics are also a touch obtuse in spots. It takes a few years for farms to start producing, and they seem to go through fertile and fallow periods in later years of operation. Garages operate as public transit, sending out cars that get workers to and from jobs. These new wrinkles are just fine, though, because they add extra strategic depth that needs to be taken into account when planning cities. But, again, more detailed information about how these concepts work would have been appreciated in the tutorial.
A lot of time and attention has also been paid to making sure Tropico 3 is a full-featured package. In addition to the campaign, game modes are rounded out with sandbox options, as well as fan-made challenge missions that can be grabbed over the Net from within the game. An editor allows players to alter many aspects of the game, including historical events, so a fair number of these custom scenarios were available just days after the game was released. Scoring is tracked on online leaderboards, and you can also try to complete a lengthy series of Xbox 360-style achievements. The look of the game is colorful and detailed, sitting somewhere between a cartoonish send-up of a banana republic and gritty realism. Sound has also been given careful attention. Radio news updates from Juanito add a lot of personality to the game and serve as handy updates on the mood of your citizens. And the music is a constant Latin American rumba, with lots of happy brass. All but the most hardcore Tito Puente fans will find the tunes grating after a few hours, but they do establish an island atmosphere.
"Viva Fidel!" is a touch out of step in today's climate, although such a sentiment feels perfectly apropos after spending some time with Tropico 3. A more thorough tutorial is needed to better allow you to understand the game's political concepts, but the reward of the captivating scenarios make it worth your while to ascend this learning curve.