The Cold War is perhaps the most interesting time in the history of the Caribbean to anyone who's not infatuated with classical pirates. It was a time of great dictators, constant governmental intrigues, and really funky music. It is perhaps a surprise that the era has been so little explored by video games, with the exception of the Tropico series, which allows for the playing in — and with — the history of one of the coolest fronts of the Cold War.
In Tropico 3, players are cast as "El Presidente," a man (or woman) who has just recently risen to power in a not-so-great nation. From there, the game is basically a themed SimCity, with no shortage of little twists. As the player takes the reins of the nation, he must decide what to do with his power and where it will take him. Fortunately, the game's open structure and writing carry this potential a long, long way.
Before you start, the game has the player build an avatar or choose from several historical ones — yes, you can play as Fidel Castro, minus the internationally embarrassing prank calls). While the number of pieces is limited, the game accounts for quite a few possibilities; more significantly, you can choose traits such as how you came to power, and it's mandatory that you specify two flaws. Want to be an Asian fish magnate who bought his way into power and smokes? Sure! Want to be a paranoid liberal writer who has lived in the country his entire life? Do it! Just be aware that your looks won't matter, but your gender, flaws and other choices will — often in bigger ways than you imagined.
Once gameplay starts, you construct individual buildings, grouped into a set of wide categories. There are as many as 10 each for houses, food processing, tourist accommodations, entertainment facilities, and other categories. Each building has a cost, benefit and uniquely tropical design, so it feels like a real-world nation in the middle of being modernized. As an example, a ranch grows food more efficiently than a farm, but it won't net you a lot of money because it's more expensive by the ton, but if you throw in a cannery, you can quickly make a ton of money.
While the core of Tropico 3 is like SimCity, it still has many twists of its own. For one thing, the national populations are reduced to a reasonable number of fully simulated individual Tropicans, including El Presidente himself. You can click on and look at individuals at any time, and you even take special actions, such as firing them, arresting them or even assassinating them (in the open or via an "accident") in case they happen to be aligned with rebellions. More significantly, individuals are aligned with various factions — Capitalists and Communists, Military and Environmental, Religious and Intellectual, even Nationalist, forcing you to juggle the different factions. Too many unhappy groups could look bad in that election (assuming you don't rig it) or result in an untimely end to your regime. These factions are also influenced by foreign issues, so the capitalists can love you while the U.S. pretty much hates you. An angry U.S. is a U.S. that is likely to support a coup 'd'état against you. (The Cold War was a more subtle time, so they aren't very likely to invade you directly.)
In addition to satisfying the various factions, you also have to worry about your subjects' other needs: entertainment, faith, food, health, housing, etc. They don't just need satisfaction, but quality satisfaction. They'll build a shack, but providing them with a decent apartment or, if they make good money, a top-notch house is far better. Any food will fill their belly, but many different foods will make their palates sing. Churches are nice, but a cathedral lets you call the Pope into town.
Fortunately, you don't need to rely solely on construction, especially since it takes time. Your glorious and esteemed leader can visit any building to make it more efficient (during or after construction) or get greater respect from passersby by via stepping into their shiny presidential palace and making a speech. Further, he can issue edicts, which are kind of equivalent to the policies of SimCity Societies but a bit more fine-tuned. Praising the U.S. or USSR is different from making a trade expedition with them and is very different from making a flat-out alliance with them. A couple of these can help with your omnipresent secondary objective — your "retirement fund," stashed in a personal Swiss Bank account.
All of these concerns, while typical, are matched with a reasonably long, enjoyably ambient tropical soundtrack complete with a DJ who neatly explains general situations, including a few humorous random events when nothing's especially pressing, like the assassination of your favorite hat by a llama. Tropico 3 also sports some beautiful, if simplistic, graphics. While the game abstracts time a bit, you experience night, day and weather regularly and visibly throughout play, and you can freely control the camera. Buildings can be rotated to construct in various directions, roads bend pretty much any which way, and zooming in on little people never seems to grow old.
The game also has a few online features. Players can create custom scenarios with relative ease, taking existing maps and fitting in all the details from there. These scenarios can then be shared online via a reasonably robust system that includes map ratings by players. The multiplayer portion also includes leaderboards for all scenarios, including the custom ones, and the ability to share the end result of one completed scenario with other El Presidentes. It's no LittleBigPlanet, and it requires registration, but it can add a lot to the gameplay. (You can't log in with your Windows Live ID, as you'd expect from a game with the Games For Windows logo.)
Tropico 3 is nothing particularly special in concept — it's basically SimCity in a bunch of fictional Cuba-like nations. The historic incidents and your handling of them, combined with small touches like avatars and online functions, make for a fun and distinct experience. Hopefully, the upcoming expansion pack will help grow the game to a fuller potential, but what's already here is perfectly enjoyable for sim fans — especially those who want to be Fidel Castro for a day.
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