Tropico 3 Review

By Morgan Webb - Posted Feb 16, 2010

Tropico 3 is a city building simulator that takes place during and after the Cold War. You are the dictator of an island nation and your people depend on you to take care of their every need--everything from housing and entertainment, up to forging alliances with foreign superpowers.

The Pros
  • Controls are surprisingly simple and intuitive.
  • Campaign, side games, and challenges can keep a player busy for hours.
  • Conflicts and challenges set up an enjoyable and engaging city-building sim.
The Cons
  • Steep learning curve,if you're not familiar with genre.
  • Statistics are in small font and initially tough to understand.
  • Suffers from limitations of game controller vs. keyboard and mouse on PC.

Tropico 3 is a city building simulator that takes place during and after the Cold War. You are the dictator of an island nation and your people depend on you to take care of their every need--everything from housing and entertainment, up to forging alliances with foreign superpowers. You will often start with nothing more than a palace, a couple of farms, a dock and a construction office to build your empire. You start by catering to your citizens’ basic needs of food and shelter, while trying to produce enough surplus goods to export for profit. You can then move from shipping simple raw materials such as ore, agricultural products and oil, to processing the materials into high margin exports such as jewelry, cigars, furniture or canned goods. Or you could also stake your future on the tourism industry, which puts you in charge of a beach-front mecca surrounded by high-rise hotels - and that means money in the bank.

Tropico 3

Penny-Pinching Pinochet

While you do attend to the needs of your people, you‘re not in this for them. You are a dictator, so don't forget to act like one. Everyone wants to retire (or flee the rebel scum, as the case may be), so while it’s nice to satisfy the people’s need for housing, socking money away into your Swiss bank account becomes even more important. You can, for example, issue an edict to demand crooked building permits and skim profits off the top of each building constructed. This action has consequences, however, as this will raise the ire of the intellectual faction. You will spend some time in this game trying to please and appease several different factions, such as the nationalists, and militarists. Ignoring the needs of the religious faction could spell disaster in a close election, but building them churches and cathedrals will keep them happy and on your side. If they're getting really uppity, you could enforce a contraception ban to make them love you again. Just beware of the exploding population of your island.

You will often be asked to choose between liberty and control. Do you want to befriend the US? Hold free and fair elections at reasonable intervals, and protect your citizens’ liberty by refusing to bow to the clerics’ demands for a contraception ban. If you don't feel like a great dictator such as yourself needs the approval of the people, you could rig or even cancel the elections, raise your army, violently suppress revolutions, and side with the USSR. Remember, however, Mother Russia will be displeased if you do not look after the needs of all your people.

The charm of Tropico 3 is that there aren't just these two paths. You could play the US and the USSR off each other the whole game, remaining independent and gaining support of the nationalists. You could take care of threats to the government through wiretaps and secret police assassinations rather than military might. You could make industry your focus and buy the love of the people. Different situations will call for different strategies, and you will find yourself constantly changing tactics to take care of new threats and opportunities.

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Don't Ig-Noriega Me

You don't play as a nameless, formless city-planner in Tropico 3 and instead you can choose between a number of real life dictators for your avatar, one more notorious than the next. While no mention is made of their police states and misdeeds, trust me, these are not good people, and it’s borderline inappropriate to make no mention of this, even if many gamers wouldn't know who Trujillo is. Each dictator has negative and positive attributes that affect your tourism rating, building construction speed and diplomatic standing with one or both sides. Your choice definitely helps your chances of winning. You can also create your own avatar with a custom set of attributes.

You can also take control of your avatar within the game and, while this feature is somewhat limited, it has benefits. Your presence speeds up construction at sites and boosts service quality at establishments. You can make speeches from the balcony of your palace or talk a protestor out of his objections to your rule. None of it is a huge part of the game, but it's an enjoyable addition.

Tropico 3

Trujillo's in Complete Control

Traditionally, strategy games shine best on PC due to the number of choices and options available to the player. Tropico 3 has been converted to console as well as could be expected. Once you tap a button to pull up the build menu, you can tab through pages of radial menus with the right and left bumper. It can get a bit annoying to tab through all the pages when you are on a building spree, but it’s a good compromise. Road construction can be fiddly where segments have to be demolished several times to get it to hook up to the desired building. Secondly, when you want to change the attributes for a structure, such as the rent for an apartment complex or factory wages, you use the d-pad and never quite end up selecting what you want. Fortunately, these are small complaints, as the controls are, in general, easy to use.

Tropico 3

Brain Drain

The in-game tutorial is useless. Reading the manual is a must with Tropico 3, as you'll learn about abilities you would otherwise never discover. The booklet does not, however, offer any help with player strategy, so initially you will starve some of your beloved people and skate through elections by the skin of your teeth. With or without the booklet, most of your advanced understanding of Tropico 3 will come from trial and error. While it is enjoyable to make discoveries and learn something new about the game's workings, if you aren't familiar with the basics of this type of game (e.g. SimCity or previous Tropico games), then you may find it initially frustrating.

Crucial statistical information is hard to understand and only compounds the frustration. There’s an almanac which supposedly contains all you need to know, but it’s both difficult to interpret and woefully small. When you play a game of this type on PC, you’re close to the screen, so it's easy to read the text. In normal conditions for console gaming, it was hard to read the almanac or parse general statistical information. I could never tell if I received a +10% or a -10% modifier, so I would have to extrapolate the information from contextual clues. Upon testing, I found the information would have been easily readable from about 5 or 6 feet, so be aware that this is not a game where you can recline on the couch while you play, especially if you are playing on a smaller screen. And even if you’re close to the TV, again, the information takes some time to parse.

I Won't Cry for You, Tropico

On console, Tropico 3 offers a number of game modes and enough nuance and strategy to keep a player busy for a long time. While there is likely not a large audience for a city building game on the Xbox 360, if that's what you're looking for, then Tropico 3 is a great bet. Just remember to read the manual and expect to lose the first few games - but don't lose heart! With a little practice you'll soon be having a blast ruling your island nation with an iron fist and, of course, robbing peasants blind. After all, they don't call us dictators for nothing!