Welcome to life after the Cold War, El Presidente. Tropico 4 has been dragged into the future with Modern Times, an expansion that moves the Banana Republic simulation into today's high-tech world of cell phones and Facebook. But ditching the golden age of Caribbean dictators doesn't work out too well, due to a boring campaign that relies far too much on phony obstacles to make the same-old, same-old challenges play out any differently than in last year's game. Instead of revamping your life as a tropical tyrant, the expansion recycles the core concepts that powered both Tropico 3 and 4, making for a tedious, vaguely irritating experience for all but diehard fans of the franchise.
An all-new solo campaign forms the heart of Modern Times. You get 12 lengthy scenarios (expect at least 20 hours of play) spread among the numerous tropical islands that make up El Presidente's Latin American fiefdom. There's a new story about the big guy battling a mysterious cabal called The Conclave that is instilling chaos across the globe, but the challenge remains the same as it always has in the Tropico series. So you build the same little nations, plant the same farms, dig the same mines, suck up to the same powers-that-be in the USA and USSR, and appease the same mix of battling island factions. The goal is to stay on top of an unstable seesaw, keeping the citizens just happy enough with their miserable lives to not revolt and kill you.
Instead of being stuck in the good old days of Kennedy, Khrushchev, and pals, however, the expansion moves from the '60s through the current day. By the second mission, you're into the 1990s and able to build modern apartments, bio farms, fish farms, borehole mines, and telecom offices to enhance cell phone range. You even get to mess around with a space program in the later scenarios, which take you into the 21st century. Edicts embrace the modern age, too. Ten new orders for El Presidente let you ban social media like Facebook and Twitter, toss some money at China for 100 instant immigrants, reform the healthcare system, and even throw a Festival of Love that sends women into the streets to kick off a baby boom and entice tourists.
New buildings give the game a face-lift, but in many scenarios the old mingles with the new so much that the expansion comes off as something like a half-there mod that changes some of the setting but not all of it. This results in an odd mix of techs and times that give the game a Neverland atmosphere where space shuttles exist alongside dirt farms and shotgun shacks. A lot of new goals are structured around the modern building options, at least. The main theme here is, not surprisingly, modernization. So the armory you built back in the '70s gets replaced by the ominous SWAT HQ in the '90s. The old concrete apartment blocks of the '60s are bulldozed for nicer and almost avant-garde contemporary replacements, complete with helipads on their roofs.
Meanwhile, traditional farms go out of vogue and are replaced by bio options that produce multiple types of crops simultaneously. Some advancements are simple swaps and some are more esoteric, such as solar farms making wind turbines obsolete and the metro coming in as the modern take on the garage. But nothing really changes how you play. Building your island paradise remains the same, and you need to only slightly alter your strategies to embrace some of the new buildings. Much of the time you don't even need to do much, since the new are straight-up swaps for the old, with only cosmetic differences marking one from another.
Modern edicts don't add much, either. They are grouped in a tab of their own, which is pretty convenient since you spend the majority of your time never even looking at them. Edicts from the core game are far more useful than the gimmicky options here. Blocking access to the likes of Twitter sounds interesting, but it doesn't much over over the secret police options of the good old days.
One obstacle to getting involved in the campaign is its off-the-wall structure. As in most expansions, the difficulty in Modern Times has been cranked up in comparison to that in the original game. But the design seems slapped together. The Conclave operates like Get Smart's KAOS, with all sorts of kooky plots ranging from bioengineered hiccupping diseases to cloned human beings. Scenarios lurch around in such bizarre ways that you never know the difference between a smart move and a dumb one that will bankrupt the treasury. So, do you give that Tricky Dick look-alike $50,000 to spill the beans? Is it worth buying off the CIA with a yacht? Will building the bungee jump for the mad professor really stop all that damned hiccupping?
Everything is so strange that you can never tell at any given moment what you need to do to emerge victorious. Even worse, scenarios are often dragged out with extra busywork. In the hiccup mission, for example, your mad scientist advisor hits you with one crazy expensive demand after another, like the aforementioned bungee jump, a roller coaster, and water filtration plants. You know they're mostly nonsense, but you still have to go through the motions for a good two or three hours to bring it all to a close.
Missions also rely on flat-out cheats, such as random events and constant crises that instantly destroy buildings, send resource values plummeting, and deplete your treasuries. You constantly battle with natural disasters and foreign economic pressures like runs on your currency that can cut the value of your cash by two-thirds instantly. Granted, this sort of thing has been done in Tropicos past. But Modern Times revs things up so much, courtesy of its zany "world gone mad" storyline, that you constantly keep guessing and reacting to sudden shifts in the economic landscape. Still, there are just enough challenging additions to keep you interested…if you were a fan of Tropico 4 or are a masochist who can't get enough of volcanoes destroying that hugely expensive chemical plant you just built after two years of saving. Those looking for more of the same with a little something extra in terms of difficulty and frustration will likely stay interested, if not enthralled, for the duration of the campaign.
Bugs are another issue for a fair number of Modern Times players. Just starting the game might be impossible, due to problems with an Nvidia video driver that causes crashes on startup. Updating to the most current video driver might partially help, but only at the lowest graphical settings: changing the resolution may cause an instant crash to the desktop. Bug problems seem to be fairly widespread; the problems began with the recent Tropico 4 updates, and didn't exist in the original release.
Little flaws exist within the add-on, as well. Sometimes you are given goals that cannot be completed because they involve technology or buildings that have yet to be invented. Miss Pineapple has a tendency to ask for that telecom building to improve her cell phone's range a good decade before cell phones were on the open market, for example. Objectives sometimes do not clear even after they have been completed. If you do the Communists' bidding and issue the new Fertilize! edict, the objective might just stay on the main screen long after the choppers have sprayed everything down. And there are a few fit-and-finish problems, too, such as secret police wearing miner helmets in building info screens.
Despite the promise held by moving Tropico 4 past its "been there, done that" Cold War setting, Modern Times is about as annoying as the CIA was to Fidel Castro back in the 1970s, with all of their out-there assassination plots like the one with exploding cigars. The campaign wears out its welcome fast by repeating virtually all of the tasks that you faced in the last two Tropico games, albeit with minor face-lifts like groovier apartment buildings and organic cattle ranching. With that said, the core of the game is based on an addictive concept with some lingering appeal held over from the past two games. So fans of the franchise can still find themselves sucked into spending a few more hours in the presidential palace, even while realizing that so much more could have been done with this concept.