Let's face it: Everyone has reached a point in his life when he just wants to pack it up and move to an island in the Caribbean. Of course, very few people actually ever do this, and even fewer go on to become the leader of the island nation to which they emigrate, but that's precisely the premise of Tropico 3. And as it turns out, running your own country — even an itty-bitty island nation — is quite fun, even though it can be overly frustrating at times.
Tropico 3 places players in the shoes of "El Presidente," the fictional leader of a tiny island that must try and find its way as an underdog in a world full of superpowers. Players can take on the persona of one of a number of well-known Central and South American leaders such as Fidel Castro, Perón (Juan or Eva), Che Guevara or many more. Most folks will likely prefer creating their own dictator from the ground up, selecting cosmetic options like gender, outfit and accessories, as well as elements critical to success in the game, such as the character's rise to power and individual strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, some games can be won or lost in the character creation screen, as crafting an avatar that is massively disliked by one of the island's many factions could make life incredibly difficult right from the start. The careful choices needed in character creation are a sign of things to come, as the rest of the game echoes this careful balancing act of trying to be all things to all people in order to prevent revolution or invasion.
The main draw of Tropico 3 is its Sandbox mode, where players can set parameters such as political stability, starting population and likelihood of natural disasters or spontaneous rebellions. From here, your goal is simple: Hang on to power for the duration of your selected term of office while stashing away a healthy allowance for yourself in your secret Swiss bank account. Of course, all this is easier said than done, as your island is populated by a collection of citizens with disparate desires and needs. When the religious folks are clamoring for a chapel while the intellectuals are crying out for a college, which will you build if you only have the cash for one? Can you afford to keep one side waiting a bit longer, or are you inviting an uprising by ignoring their demands for too long? All the while, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (the game is set during the Cold War) are keeping a close eye on you, basing foreign aid packages on how well you treat your people and potentially even invading and ending your game prematurely should relations deteriorate too far.
It's all a lot to balance, and for the most part, Tropico 3 does a good job of keeping it all straight for you. Each faction has a rating from 1-100 to let you know just how highly they think of El Presidente, and once the number dwindles too low, they'll begin causing unrest around the island and possibly inciting open rebellion. Thankfully, there are numerous options for dealing with each group, from building structures that please them and issuing edicts to soothe their anger, to bribing leaders or even arranging "accidents" for the most subversive members of society. Of course, if your army's big enough, you can always ignore the pleas of the people and put down every uprising with a gun, though that tends to upset Uncles Sam and Lenin. One thing the game doesn't do that really would have been helpful is provide a convenient way to show which factions are most numerous and therefore the most powerful. While you can dig down into the game's almanac to figure out how much support one ideology or another has, it's a lot of extra work and can be a bit time-consuming comparing the numbers and influence of one group against another. It would make things much simpler if you had a clearer picture of which groups hold the people's hearts and minds so you could tailor your policies to keep those folks supporting your rule.
For those not wanting to be all things to all people, Tropico 3 also offers 15 different challenges with very specific objectives. Some levels may task you with simply exporting a set amount of goods before your term expires, while others will put you in a tense political situation and force you to hang on to power when basically everyone on the island wants your head. While all the lessons learned in Sandbox mode apply to the challenges, each event requires a specific strategy in order to pull through successfully. The ability to create and share challenges online also adds a great deal of longevity to the game, though most of the tasks available on Xbox Live are definitely geared toward the more accomplished players.
That slant toward the hardcore actually hits on one of Tropico 3's biggest weaknesses: This game is not friendly to newcomers. In order to create a true port, the developers kept all the aspects of the PC franchise, which is great, but the game's tutorial does a terrible job of explaining how to play effectively. While it teaches you all the buttons and provides a few very broad strategies for how to run an island, the game does absolutely nothing to hold the hand of newcomers and get them acquainted with the title's mechanics. While help messages may pop up in game from time to time, most of them only come after situations have deteriorated to a totally unacceptable level, and other tips are utterly counterproductive (encouraging players to build an immigration office on an already overpopulated island). Furthermore, some really important concepts — such as building factories for manufactured goods, which fetch more money at export, and upgrading structures — go completely unexplained, leaving players to discover such things for themselves as they fumble through the menus. If you can stick with the game long enough to learn the tricks to playing on your own, then Tropico 3 is quite enjoyable; however, this is one of those titles that will likely turn off a lot of users before they get the hang of it simply because it's not interested in easing you into the experience.
One technical aspect of Tropico 3 that's decidedly worth mentioning is the music, which fits the experience absolutely perfectly. The buildup of your nation will be accompanied by some hot Latin rhythms, so catchy that you'll likely find yourself dancing around the living room even as the rebels pull you from the palace and drag you to the gallows. Hey, it's hard to be upset about losing when all you can think about is where you put your maracas. Adding to the flavor is local radio DJ Juanito, who keeps players apprised of the current political situation on the island and also jumps in with some funny quips from time to time. Unfortunately, the musical track selection is rather limited, so you'll be hearing the same handful of songs over and over again, and Juanito also has a very limited script, making his broadcasts extremely repetitive after you've played the game a couple of times.
The game also suffers from a couple of technical deficiencies that bring down the experience a bit. For one, Juanito always refers to El Presidente as "he" even if you create a female avatar, which feels like an issue of laziness in a time when games record thousands upon thousands of lines of gender-specific dialog. Furthermore, trying to pinpoint a specific building in high-density areas can be irritating because the cursor isn't exactly built for precision. It's rather annoying when you want to know why your cigar factory isn't producing but you keep accidentally clicking on the Teamster's office or an apartment complex. It isn't a tremendous problem, but when you're already stressed out over protesting citizens and a dwindling treasury, the last thing you need is trouble figuring out why one the buildings critical to your economy is sitting idle.
While the Tropico franchise has existed on the PC for a while, Tropico 3 marks its first appearance on consoles, and for the most part, it's a solid first outing. The series exists somewhere between Civilization Revolution and Supreme Commander in terms of complexity. It's a mildly deep game that requires some micromanagement, though not an excessive amount. While this isn't a title for the casual strategist, it might also be too simple for hardcore nation-builders. In that sense, it's very hard to pin down who exactly is meant to find the appeal of Tropico 3. For those who take the time to learn the game but don't expect too much out of it, it's a very enjoyable experience. This may not be the absolute best strategy sim on the market, but on a console with limited options, it's still a fine choice.
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