El Presidente is back for another bite at the political apple. How's this latest campaign shaping up?
Tropico needed something new. The main criticism levelled at the previous title in the series wasn't anything to do with mechanics, or graphics, or content. Instead, it was concerns that the franchise had become stagnant, that Tropico 4 wasn't a significant enough leap over Tropico 3. Fans of the series will, therefore, be delighted to hear that Haemimont Games has listened to the concerns of fans and has acted on them. Tropico 5 looks like it's going to be the big step forward that the series has long needed.
The new features and ideas that bring about this revolution are many, but they're all underpinned by one major shift of emphasis; time. In Tropico 5, the strategy is being spread out over distinctive eras, and each era brings with it a new and unique set of challenges.
That alone is a pretty monumental change of tact, but there's more. New and improved gameplay systems and mechanics will now feed into this new approach to historical player-driven storytelling and simulation. One such change, born out of necessity as far as I can tell, is the introduction of a dynastic through-line. Now, instead of El Presidente ruling over his island through the Cold War era, over time we'll control a succession of characters from the same dynasty, each with different strengths and weaknesses, some more suited to particular tasks than others.
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This means we're talking about more potential directions for the game to flow, and with more possibilities comes more variety. Beyond that major shift there's changes coming across the board. Executive producer Bisser Dyankov calls it "a new game in its guts", and when you see the laundry list of new features, it's easy to believe him. New art is being rolled out for everything, and there's plenty of new buildings representing the different eras that we'll be playing through. There'll be battles, new random events, an improved interface, resources that change value as the game progresses, more trade options, and - perhaps most significantly - there will be cooperative and competitive multiplayer where up to four players will be able to share an island and either work together or against each other. At a glance the only things that look like enduring are the series' irreverent sense of humour, and of course the samba-tastic soundtrack and island setting.
That assessment might sound both overwhelming and overly positive, but we came away from our hands-off introduction impressed with the potential on display. They're taking the basic concept and injecting it with new mechanics and ideas, and in the process they're making a Tropico game that we can envision losing hours in.
"There are no separate gameplay mechanics. They connect with one another, so we have constantly changing gameplay conditions," Dyankov tells us. "We have the eras, that have separate gameplay objectives within each era. But also we have the changing factions; some factions disappear, new factions emerge, internal balance between factions changes. We have the dynasty, which helps the player to choose different gameplay approaches at the cost of forfeiting the current to choose a new one."
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The producer continues enthusiastically: "We have research enabling new gameplay aspects. We have the constitution, which not only has immediate effects, but really changes the way core concepts of the game operate. And we have the trade, which is unique time-based opportunities for the player to exploit the game at the longterm cost of constantly reinventing their economy, and we also have this passively changing and fluctuating prices of resources. All of those things connecting to one another gives a diverse gameplay experience."
Diehard fans of the series needn't worry too much. While revolution is in the air, many of the core elements that have served the franchise so well up until now will remain. You're still in charge of building your island into a thriving, profitable hub of trade and tourism, you can still be as righteous or as corrupt as you wish, and the game still holds its tongue in its cheek throughout. It doesn't feel like a wholehearted departure, but rather a much needed expansion and update.
The campaign game, which this time will feature 15 mini missions (instead of 4's 20), looks like it will once again fuse city building and political simulation, but in Tropico 5 we're hoping that the aforementioned new features and events will add increased depth to proceedings; more variety, more intrigue, more fun, and by the looks of it, more for the player to get their heads around. Previous entries in the series were by no means simple affairs, and if Haemimont Games are to really deliver on their vision, then the UI will need to be the best in the series to date. With so much new content, even veterans will have plenty of new ropes to learn.
Dyankov eagerly explained the features to us, and there were so many and time was so short, it was difficult to keep up. But we came away with a sense of what the studio are hoping to deliver; a game packed with dynamism and emergent possibilities, where there's more for the player to think about and a wealth of different strategies to contemplate and employ. They want to move away from the games of old, where players had a certain number of tricks that they could employ to get them out of many different situations. Old political dogs are going to need plenty of new tricks if they're going to avoid invasions and coup d'états.
The changing time periods are a large part of this. New eras will call for new tactics, and something that worked in one period will not be as effective in the next. Trade prices will alter, incentivising the player to adapt and employ new technologies, and more flexible tech trees are being touted as the means of doing this.
Individual buildings will be micro-manageable, allowing players to improve efficiency. Members of your dynasty will even be able to head up specific jobs for increased effectiveness. Research will open up more options as different areas are explored, while trade and diplomacy will work hand in hand with each other.
Games will start off in the colonial age, and it's here the seeds of El Presidente's dynasty will be planted. Straight away players will be faced with a fail state that they have to avoid. Starting off a governor of their island, there will be royal paymasters to satisfy, all the while wrestling for control and independence. There'll be a governor mandate that players will need to extend if they're to stay in power, failure to keep the wolf at bay will end in game over. That'll mean a balancing act, keeping the boss happy and the island thriving, all the while positioning yourself for independence further down the line.
Beyond the colonial period there's the World War era, with players constantly striving for balance in the midst of a global battle. Favour one side and risk the ire of the other, with invasion a possibility if you stray too far in one direction over another. Later, the Cold War era we're all familiar with will make a return; now a passage of time in a larger self-made history, rather than the singular experience that defines the whole. Finally we'll enter the modern age, with all the challenges that this period presents. It's a lot of history to cover, and it'll be interesting to see how the studio stitches it together. Much will depend on their success in this area, because without a steady flow, it could feel like a disjointed experience.
All in all it's a lot of game for players to get their collective heads round. The tutorials are going to have to be up to scratch, and the visual representation of the game's inner workings are going to have to be communicative more than any entry in the series to date. But, ultimately, we're pleased with what we've seen so far. We walk away hopeful that the vision is achievable. Haemimont Games looks like it's on the right track, and that by bringing change to the series, it'll make it more interesting to play, and more diverse with each return visit. They're taking a risk by introducing so many new elements at the same time, but if they get it right they could and should reap the rewards.