Shouting "Viva Fidel!" doesn't come quite as naturally as it used to in Tropico 3. The world's leading banana-republic-in-a-box simulation may have moved its groovy green caps, aviator shades, and stinky cigars from the PC to the Xbox 360, but the transition has not been an entirely smooth one. Even though the city-building gameplay and cheesy references to the Cold War remain habit-forming and often hilarious, this port can be as cranky as the US's least favorite bearded Communist. A few glitches have been picked up while shifting from one platform to another, resulting in some instability, a hiccuping interface, and frame-rate slowdowns. There's a good game in here somewhere, but it's buried beneath enough problems that you might give up before you find it.
What makes everything so entertaining and absorbing is the unique focus on running a shabby Caribbean dictatorship during the Cold War. The solo campaign, one-off challenges, and sandbox modes of play all focus on donning the sash and megalomaniacal ambitions of a tyrant running a corrupt tropical island of the sort typified by Fidel Castro's Cuba from the 1950s through the middle 1980s. This is a city builder at heart that shares a lot of concepts with traditional games in the genre, such as Caesar and Pharaoh, albeit with a thick layering of political cheese on top of everything. You start off either by creating an El Presidente-by-the-numbers from a selection of often-iffy personality traits (yes, you too can be a moronic womanizer) and selecting from various wardrobe options, or by picking from a rogues' gallery boasting the likes of Castro, Papa Doc Duvalier, and the man who launched a million hipster T-shirts, Che Guevara. So, as you might expect, this game isn't just about racing around keeping everybody happy with roads, schools, factories, and the like. Although commerce and citizen satisfaction are key, you also spend a lot of time playing God. Like those despots of decades past, you indulge in a lot of questionable-yet-fun activities, such as handing down draconian edicts, bribing opponents, diverting cash to a Swiss bank account, sucking up to island factions that include the entire political spectrum from nationalists to communists, and buttering up the US and USSR to weasel money out of the gullible superpowers. The main goal is always to stay in power, because the tropical paradises you rule are cesspools of anarchy filled with rebels plotting coups. As Pinochet and Peron could tell you, it's not all fun in the sun.
At its very best, Tropico 3 is a unique political sim loaded with chuckles. At its worst, it's a relatively generic city builder in which you're afforded a lot of economic freedom without having to deal with tedious micromanagement. Scenario objectives fall between these two extremes, so gameplay sometimes feels fresh, sometimes too familiar. Routine objectives, such as meeting a set goal for happiness on your island and hitting targets when exporting resources like oil, exist side by side with spicier options, such as sticking a ton of money into a secret bank account in Zurich or staying one step ahead of the rebels for a few decades. Sometimes you win by avoiding retirement at the wrong end of a gun. Every mission is set up with a storyline--typically preposterous claptrap about your twin or about being a former spy with a dark secret--and is then given personality courtesy of postcard visuals and the constant accompaniment of a Latin American radio station that mixes the propaganda of deejay Juanito with mambo music. It gets to be a bit much after the first few hours, because the playlist of tunes and the lineup of jokes are a little brief (you'll be hearing the story about the llama assassinating El Presidente's favorite hat in your sleep). Atmospheric sound effects are brilliant with a good surround system. Zoom in on your city streets, and you can hear the boos of the crowd around the presidential palace, the clank of workers off in the distance, and the vrooming of cars. Visuals and sound combine to create a real place that you wouldn't mind visiting, at least after the rebels stop storming the palace and the secret police have disarmed the bomb in the lumberyard.
A smart design lets you appreciate the depth of this sociopolitical mash-up without delving into any micromanagement. Resources are automatically collected, sorted to factories if you have them (such as a cigar factory for tobacco, a rum plant for sugar, and a canning processor for fish), and then shipped out via freighter, and the profits are tucked in the treasury. You just have to keep an eye on the bottom line and make sure all your buildings are stocked with employees. All of your moves seem to weave together, with everything you do setting off a chain reaction of events for good and ill. Appease the nationalists by choosing a "Love it or leave it" policy at the immigration office, and you can find yourself lacking the educated manpower needed to run power plants and hospitals. Go whole hog for the economy and build farms and mines in the beginning, and you might find yourself facing a coup even while your bank balance is growing to Madoffian proportions. Throw in your lot with bullying militarists by building army bases and jacking up their salaries, and you risk financial ruin, which always seems to bring down a US invasion when you get too deep in red ink. Balancing all these factors and still maintaining some mustachioed flair is challenging and rewarding. The only major flaw is the introduction, because the brief tutorial skips over core concepts that are vital to success.
As much as Tropico 3 can easily turn into a compulsion, there are a number of niggles that bring the whole experience down a few pegs. The game isn't entirely stable, causing it to feel a bit rough and ready. Crashes occur every so often, and you might lose a fair bit of unsaved progress if, for example, the cursor takes off on its own for the edge of the screen and resists all efforts to bring it back. Random lockups regularly freeze the controls when you're scrolling through build menus. One moment you might be queuing up a condominium or a cigar factory, and the next your left stick is frozen for four or five seconds while the music and visuals continue as if nothing is wrong. Button responsiveness is another problem. Many commands require numerous pushes, especially when you're trying to order up a special worker to the island for an educated position requiring a high school or college graduate. Frame-rate slowdowns are constant, especially when you scroll across an island or when a building is onscreen about to be placed. The controls don't feel natural, and they rely on some off-putting choices, such as using the right trigger to activate a sub-menu that allows you to call up functions like edicts or the almanac that details island stats. It's also weird to use a combo of the A button and the D pad to set wages and perform other functions in building menus. Granted, it's not that easy to set up a gamepad control scheme for a PC game of this kind, but this feels a little slapped together. It's hard to ever get comfortable.
Even in this somewhat hamstrung form, Tropico 3 is still a good way to spend some time pretending to be a Caribbean strongman with delusions of godhood. This is one of those "just a few more minutes" games that can keep you up so far past your bedtime that you might as well grab some breakfast. It isn't the best way to experience the game, however; the PC version is clearly superior technically and otherwise. Just keep that news hush-hush for now, in case the phones are tapped and El Presidente is listening.