WARNING: I have not actually completed the game. If you firmly believe in fully completing an entire game's worth of content pre-review, don't read this.
SECOND WARNING: I've only played the game with the "Absolute Power" expansion, which adds a few policies, a new campaign, and Free Tropico Radio, among other things. If you only have the base game, and I mention things you don't know of, that's why.
Feel free to check the screenshot sources to view them in 1920*1200 glory.
"The following international news has been taken off air due to recent amendments of the Positive Broadcast Act! Now, let us enjoy some music! And next, the 'How Big is Your Banana Talk Show'!"
-Juanito, TNT Radio Deejay
The Tropico series is an economic city-building strategy game series in which you control a small island nation, and maintain housing, industry, tourism, among other things that an island nation deals with. As you play, it constantly pokes fun at its source material with a dry sense of humour that won many gamers over. The original, made by PopTop Software, was released in 2001, followed swiftly by a sequel in 2003 (also by PopTop). Six years later, in 2009, after the untimely consolidation of PopTop and Firaxis, Haemimont and Kalypso took up the reins and made Tropico 3 (and its expansion pack, Absolute Power, a year later).
Tropico 3 is a perfect sequel. All sequels should be done this way.
Allow me to explain.
One of my favourite strategy games is Tropico. It had a great sense of humor about itself, was engaging, and poked fun at the Banana Republic. You played a dictator of a Carribean island and dealt with many of the same issues that current Banana Republic dictators face (while inadvertently also explaining why so many of these nations go down in flames). It was dragged down, however, by some pretty annoying design choices. Roads took forever to build, and served little purpose anyways beyond occupying your builders. People would walk EXCRUCIATINGLY SLOWLY from place to place. There was little indication when you were in trouble, and the game was very slow.
The amount of graphical detail is immense.
Its first sequel fixed some of these issues (such as the infernal road building, as well as better pacing), but I personally didn't like how its focus shifted from Banana Republic to eighteenth century piracy.
Instead of selling goods for money, you used everything you produced and all your money came from raids, ransoming hostages, and generally being an evil person, but the game seemed to lose something. I wanted to see more Banana Republic with the more refined interface and gameplay, and with less raids.
Then Tropico 3 came out and made all my dreams come true.
The game takes ALL my issues with the first game and fixes them. Then it adds more content and more humour just to spice things up. All of this is tied together with great balance and execution that makes this game a "must-play" to strategy fans, and worth looking at even to people to don't play strategy games.
But here I am, praising the crap out of the game, without even telling you what its really about, what's particularly strong, what its flaws are, or anything about how it plays. So, let's get into THAT.
Tourist paradise on the lip of a volcano? You can do that in one scenario!
You start the game by selecting/creating an avatar - you can select a classic Real Life avatar, like Fidel Castro, or make your own. Each avatar requires two positive qualities (like Administrator, Entrepreneur, Empathetic, etc) and two flaws (such as Kleptomania, Tourette's Syndrome, Pompus, etc), as well as a generic backstory (Harvard Graduate, Farmer, etc) and a rise to power (Velvet Revolution, Bought the Election, etc). All of these have humorous descriptions and statistical ramifications. Some are obvious (buying the election lowers expectations of future elections, a Coward will lose respect of the Military faction) and some are funny (someone with Tourette's Syndrome will lose respect with both the US and USSR, lose respect with one random faction every election speech, and gain $1000 a month in Pay-Per-View revenue). It's really quite in depth for a character creation screen in a city-builder, and allows for adjustment for play-style/role playing.
"You're so ugly they call you Moses, because every time you step into a lake, the water parts. You don't have any mirrors at home, they all committed suicide. When they introduced you to your future wife, who was as blind as a bat, she ran away screaming and swan all the way across the ocean just to make sure she'd never have to encounter you again."
-Description of the "Ugly" flaw
The interface is simple enough - click to select, right click to enter build menu, everything else is accessed via menus/hotkeys. Edge scrolling, rotation around the cursor, zoom with mouse wheel. Classic city building interface. (Note: I don't know how smooth the interface is on the Xbox 360.) Building things is done the way Tropico 2 did it - roads are cheap and instant, buildings can be planned out but must have a set of workers nearby to actually build them. The road-building tool isn't great, but it does its job after some getting used to.
Haemimont Games also got a bright idea that circumvents the plodding pace of everyone in the first two games - cars! This is 1950 and on, after all! If a citizen wants to go from point A to point B, and there's a good distance between the two, they'll just go to the nearest garage and get a car to drive over to their location. None of this no-clip speeding, either - you can end up with some major traffic snarls if you plan your roads and garages badly. Not only does this add a new dimension of strategy, it also makes the game much more fluid and less frustrating, as well as raising the pace.
We also have the edicts. Each edict has a different cost, but they cause temporary/permanent changes to how your island runs. They also range from practical (Social Security, Anti-Littering) to questionably humorous ("Shoot Juanito", I'll explain that later). The descriptions for each edict can be anywhere from straightforward to utterly hilarious, almost all of them written in the tone one would expect for sucking up to the Great and Powerful Oh-So Merciful and Humble Leader. It contributes to the game's constant piss-take of the Banana Republic, and everything you'd expect from that is there (especially in the Absolute Power expansion, which introduces National Holidays and brainwashing education that, interestingly, ONLY works on Loyalists).
The graphics in Tropico 3 are utterly spectacular. There's no denying this. They can be quite resource-heavy - while the minimum requirements are very forgiving, cranking it ALL THE WAY up is a task for a quad-core CPU and new generation graphics card. If you have these, it's worth cranking up, simply because the aesthetics are so green, natural and inviting.
The premade islands are utterly breathtaking.
Speaking of aesthetics, someone truly earned their pay on the graphic design team. Paved roads naturally break off into dirt roads. The grass sways. People scurry realistically from point A to point B with more than functional animation. The water constantly moves. Buildings have cracks and textures in them - all of which you can look at by zooming WAY closer than most games of this type would even consider. The level design is also worth mentioning - all the pre-made islands are carved with immense care. Giant cliffs hang over the ocean, footpaths wind their way through jungles and up rock faces onto gorgeous plateaus. A volcanic crater or two can be found. Giant rock arches create a corridor for foot-travelers. One of the islands is shaped like a foot. It's these fantastic visual details that really make the levels fun to play on.
The random generator isn't really all that amazing, often scattering sand absolutely everywhere and generally wrecking your dreams of being a farm tycoon, but it's still functional. Just enter your parameters and go. There's no level editor either, which is a shame, but maybe they'll improve on THAT in Tropico 4. You CAN, however, play sandbox on the premade hand-crafted islands, which is a great idea. What WASN'T a great idea was referring to each island by name (while often not telling you in the campaign mode what island you're on) and not giving you more than a small photograph of one piece of the island. Often, you'll have to select several islands that all look the same in the select screen to find that awesome one you just played in the campaign.
A growing Tropican city.
Speaking of the campaign, while I haven't finished it, it's proven itself to be varied and interesting. It's not simply "Build city, make money, repeat", but (in true Tropico style) the missions typically consist of "Survive twenty years" or "Raise happiness to this level", or something like that. Not very many city-builders have the objective "Survive"! Of course, there's many, many different ways to measure success - How happy the people are, staying in power for as long as possible, make an efficient economy, embezzle as much money as possible (yes, really), keep all the various factions happy, or attract as many tourists as possible. Or a mix of any of the above. What gives each campaign scenario its spice is the pre-determined events and context of your rule. One scenario starts with you washing up naked on the beach and promptly getting elected Presidente (???), and as the scenario continues you find out that you're a clone of a CIA superspy, have a microchip in your butt that "accidentally" embezzles funds every two years, and you get the opportunity to start a love/hate romance with a KGB assassin. It's these bizarre and funny scenarios that really make the campaign special.
There's only three ways to lose the game - rebellion/uprising/coup gone horribly right, getting voted out, or getting invaded by a foreign power (since the game takes place mostly during the Cold War, the foreign powers are the US and USSR). The first scenario(s) come from not balancing happiness very well - if you make any one person mad enough, they'll dash off into the jungle and join the rebels. If a sizable rebel force grows, they'll attack you and your soldiers. If they kill you or all your soldiers, it's game over. A military coup happens if you treat your army badly, and they'll rampage through the streets to your palace and get rid of you. Or, if you manage to tick everybody off at the same time, they'll rise against you. (I doubt you'll survive.) If you make several factions mad, they'll all vote against you and threaten to vote you out, and no amount of election promises will save you. Thankfully, you can commit election fraud, or just get rid of elections all together if you detect this happening. This will make many citizens and the US mad at you, however. And if you get the US or USSR mad at you... well. The end.
The way to keep your skin intact is to keep happiness of the various factions up. Everyone assigns themselves to one or more general factions - environmentalists, militarists, capitalists, etc. - and its up to you to keep them happy. This creates some pretty nifty and organic puzzles, as you might, for instance, need money, and while cutting salaries, building a factory and raising rent might get you money, you will also make the communist faction really mad, which you don't want if 70% of the island considers themselves communists. The factions are fairly well balanced, and while you can pretty much always tell the loyalists where to go and it won't affect anything (it's hard to get a large population of loyalists), the factions keep things interesting.
Then, we have the Deejays, the only two voice actors of note (which, for the record, are very, very good).
Oh, those crazy, crazy deejays.
Just. Look. At. This. Scenery.
The first deejay, Juanito of Tropico News Today (TNT) Radio, who blindly follows everything you do with all the spunk and eagerness of a particularly cute puppy. He's fairly annoying, yet simultaneously hilarious as he spouts off propaganda that he believes so very fullheartedly. Thankfully, in the Absolute Power expansion pack, we also get Tropico Free Radio, an anarchist radio station hosted by Betty Boom.
Betty Boom is absolutely incredible.
She'll do ANYTHING to trash El Presidente, and constantly denies her previous logic in order to make you look bad. She's loud, annoying, and constantly threatens the people of Tropico. She's also utterly hilarious, at one point actively threatening to EXPLODE whoever ate her cat (I can't make this up). Many players think she's the most annoying game character since Navi (many think of Juanito this way too), in which case, the expansion gives you the "Shoot Juanito" edict, which does exactly what it says. Betty Boom retires pretty quickly after issuing this as well. If you don't want to take such drastic measures but still think they're horrible, you can turn them off in the options screen.
However, I wouldn't recommend turning them off, as they function as an in-game hint system. If you're floundering around and don't know what to build next, having Betty Boom tune in and decry El Presidente for trying to keep the common man down by not letting them get educated (add conspiracy here for good measure), it functions as a great big "Build a High School" nudge. Plus, keeping ahead of Betty Boom's rantings feels very good, and heightens the hilarity when she has to resort to accusing you of hoarding all the toxic factory emissions to yourself (she actually does this).
"When things start stinking to high heaven, you know you're in Tropico. Our pig-headed leader has decided to build a garbage dump! I say, construct the damn thing in place of his palace, it's much more fitting. Enough with trashy leaders!"
Overall, I highly - VERY VERY highly - recommend this game to anyone who likes city-builders, and I STILL recommend it to everyone else. This is easily the best game of this type I've ever played, and with the Gold edition being twenty dollars on Steam, you have no excuse to not give it a shot.
Here's hoping that Tropico 4 is just as great.
TL:DR - BUY. THIS. NOW.