Tropico 5 first-look: become a dictator and build a despotic dynasty in this reformist sequel

Phil Savage

They say that power corrupts, but I suspect it also ages. A once freshfaced candidate, swept into office on an upswell of hope and enthusiasm, will inevitably leave as a wearied, greying husk. In that sense, Tropico 4 was the outgoing incumbent.

The last game in the politically parodic city-building series didn't introduce new ideas, it merely provided additions to existing features. It brought more buildings, more edicts and more superpowers for El Presidente to deal with, but the telltale tiredness was starting to show. To rejuvenate the franchise its developers, Haemimont Games, were in need of a systemic revolution.

Tropico 5 feels like that revolution. It's still built on the same foundation, but massively expands and develops the infrastructure of the game. Throughout the demonstration I was given of the preview build, producer Bisser Dyankov showed off the variety of situations and problems that players might face.

It's a sign that the team recognise one of the limitations of their previous games. While sandbox construction is usually thought of as the heart of city-building sims, earlier Tropicos were designed around scripted missions. When left to their own devices, players could all too easily settle into a comfortable routine, regularly deploying the same handful of tricks to ensure the smooth running of their island. While Tropico 5 will still feature a campaign, the real focus is on that sandbox. Haemimont want to unsettle dictatorial rulers through dynamic events designed to prevent them falling back on tried and tested solutions.

The most obvious example is in the challenges thrown up by the game's four eras. The series is no longer trapped in an indefinite Cold War. Instead, players progress in stages through to the 21st century. Each time period has not only a different architectural sensibility, but a distinct set of goals to meet. In the colonial era—Tropico 5's starting point—you're not the island's glorious leader, but a governor appointed by the crown. Here you extend your stay in power through shows of loyalty to the motherland, rather than through elections (or election fraud).

That loyalty is feigned. You leave the colonial period by declaring your nation's independence, which means your real goal is to prepare for that separation from your imperialist masters. The challenge is to balance outward obedience with internal rebellion, reaping the benefits from the tropical commission while laying the groundwork for solo rule. Naturally, your colonial overseers will be unhappy about this act of secession when it comes. Survival depends on the readiness of an island's military, and the stability of its economy.

As an example of the choices players must make, Dyankov showed me an early event completion screen. Throughout the game, factions and rulers will ask you to perform certain actions. In this instance, a specific building was requested to help boost the island's ability to harvest raw materials, thus increasing its economic growth. As a reward for following orders, the governor's mandate – his ticking clock of time in power – was extended, and an extra boon offered. The issue became whether to choose an additional number of immigrants, a deposit in the island's treasury, a further mandate extension, or to make a donation to the governor's Swiss bank account. All are desirable: the player's choice will serve to determine which shortfalls will need correcting further down the line.

Even here, there are further considerations in the long term. Immigration will be a key factor during the early game, as new workers for your industries are in short supply. But while the promise of growing your population is appealing, any new citizens will be of the royalist faction – loyal to the crown, and thus damaging to your attempt at independence.

While each era has a distinct set of goals and considerations, they combine to form a continuous timeline for your city. By the time you get to the modern era, an island's history is written into everything from its layout to its architectural variety. A stately colonial mansion might border a block of mid-20th-century concrete tenements, both in the shadow of looming modern skyscrapers. It's not simply an aesthetic touch, but also a question of efficiency, cost, infrastructure and resources.

Many buildings can be upgraded over time, provided players unlock the relevant technology through the new research system. Improve a farm, and the large fields requiring manual labour are replaced with a more efficient and more compact greenhouse. As always, there's a downside to the reduced real-estate. High-tech buildings require both electricity and skilled workers, which means the effort to get them running may outweigh the benefits.

Some buildings can be repurposed in later years. A military fort can be both the bulwark of a colonial city, and the tourist centrepiece of a modern one.

In this way Haemimont hope to enable players to experience the development of their city, and to imbue their choices with far-reaching consequences. The effects of one era can be felt in the next, as the political and societal landscapes shift. Based on the dilemmas I was shown, it seems unlikely that careless play will completely sabotage the late-game stages, but the number of possibilities suggest that sound planning will be rewarded, and that small variations can lead to a diverse set of problems to solve as the game unfolds.

An island's constitution provides another way for players to define their rule. After leaving the colonial era, you enter the World Wars phase, where your tiny banana republic must thrive amid the turmoil of warring superpowers. It's at this point that the game starts to more closely resemble previous Tropicos, as the island's ruler takes the familiar title of El Presidente. It's also here that players set the founding tenets that will come to shape their future civilisation.

The constitution is designed to be a lasting and slowly evolving document – alterations to it are only possible after a ten-year period. Once again, your choices will have a lasting effect of positives and negatives. Male-only voting rights might ensure easier election victories and a stronger military, but increase the chance of a revolution from the disenfranchised population. The changing eras have an influence here too. The religious faction will initially be thrilled and further bolstered by a declaration of theocracy, but even they will become unhappy if it persists through to the modern age.

Certain game systems will ask you to make difficult decisions within individual eras. Trade offers enable players to take advantage of timelimited offers of increased value for goods and resources. In the World Wars era, steel is a key resource that will be in higher demand during periods of international conflict. The dilemma lies in whether you want to gear your industrial production to take advantage of the economic potential, only to be lumbered with a less efficient industry when the demand lowers. Trade can bring further unintended consequences. Bootleg liquor is another valuable commodity during this early era, one that can be smuggled to the USA as it struggles to enforce prohibition. It sounds profitable, but comes at the cost of an influx in organised crime.

If this is all starting to sound distinctly un-Tropican, it's more a case that these new features are designed to build neatly onto the series' familiar elements. The returning systems have been fleshed out to provide an added purpose to their role in the game. A case in point is the Swiss bank account, which in previous Tropicos served only as the player's score. Here, the money that you embezzle can be used to level up El Presidente's dynasty.

Rather than a single ruler, in Tropico 5 you're responsible for an entire family. Not only will they walk and work around the island, they can also be selected to trigger an election and take over the presidential role. Each member of your dynasty will have different, upgradeable attributes that can be beneficial at certain times throughout the life of a city. Maybe you'll want an economic leader to make the most of a particular trade deal, or a diplomatic one to cool tempers and hold off a foreign invasion.

During one such election, Dyankov was trailing heavily in the polls. The resulting workaround was a promising example of how the new systems will enhance the old. On course to lose the election, his only solution was to enact the martial law edict. To do this, a city needs three barracks—something time and economy wouldn't allow. Dyankov was able to raise the necessary funds by borrowing bonds from international capital markets. With the barracks ordered, he could speed their construction through new, expanded options for building management. Increasing funding for the construction office ensured quicker build times on the barracks – enabling a declaration of martial law before the election results were called.

It was a classic Tropico move. The economy was in ruins, the people were incensed, but, most importantly, El Presidente was still in power. Tropico 5 may be the energetic young reformist with fresh ideas and smart innovations, but it seems set to be as delightfully corrupt as ever.

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