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Tropico 3 (Xbox 360) artwork

Tropico 3 (Xbox 360) review

"Sometimes, the amount of control that you have over your island is overwhelming. Tropico 3 was released first as a PC game, where sorting all of the available options and information must have felt quite natural, but the Xbox 360 controller has fewer buttons at its disposal. Face buttons bring up menus, which you can then further navigate using the bumper buttons."

If I were feeling especially lazy and you asked me to describe Tropico 3, I would probably say something like "It's SimCity set in Cuba and you're Fidel Castro."

If the conversation ended there, you would leave with a working idea of how the game functions. You'd know that it's a tycoon game, for instance, which says a lot about the basic flow of things. You'd probably anticipate some tropical scenery, maybe some feisty Latin music. And of course, you'd be right. You might even expect some underhanded dealings, the chance to push a communist or capitalist agenda. Again, that's what the game delivers. There are times when lazy summaries are actually useful.

Tropico 3 deserves more than such a summary, though, because it's more than just a clone of Will Wright's ode to urban sprawl. At the very least, Tropico 3 is an improved clone of the well-loved city builder. Considering fans have had to wait since the last SimCity release--too many years--that accomplishment practically makes Haemimont Games' effort worth a look all by itself.

Island rule begins simply enough. From the title screen, you can choose from either the 'Challenge' mode, which presents you with a handful of missions and objectives delivered from a bulletin board, or you can go to the 'Campaign' mode. The latter is the mode that I found most interesting. Clearly, it was intended to serve as the heart of the Tropico 3 experience. Choose it and you will be asked to select one of several islands. Each island features unique objectives, environmental hazards and benefits that will shape your experience on the relevant island. There are a total of fifteen islands to clear.

Any stage that you attempt to clear begins with a handful of buildings positioned in the middle of your island paradise. Typically, roads lead somewhere to a beach where there's a dock for imports and exports. Your presidential palace will be located somewhere nearby, along with an assortment of other ramshackle dwellings that you'll eventually want to remove. They're an eyesore and they most likely get in the way of a more useful structure, such as a police station or a clinic or high school campus.

As you get your bearings, the game's announcer will provide you with all sorts of information that can set you on the path to greatness. Whoever did the voice acting really got into the lines and delivers them with flair, but you'll hear the same stuff far too frequently if you find yourself truly hooked. The first time there are reports of a llama who successfully assassinated el presidente's hat, it's amusing. The twentieth time lacks that initial impact. Another problem with the voice acting--and with the ethnic Latin music, for that matter--is that it tends to cut in and out a lot as the Xbox 360 streams content from the disc. There's a welcome lack of load times once you begin a campaign, but it's extremely jarring when your talkative aide starts stuttering and repeats the same word three or four times before resuming his speech... which you've probably heard a bunch of times, anyway.

Once you've settled on a plan of action, you'll need to put it into action. That means settling on optimal placement of buildings and roads, a skill that is truly mastered only after you've played for quite some time. A lot of that comes down to realizing how much control you have over your perspective, then putting all of your information to proper use. It's possible to pan out so that you'll see large portions of the island at once, as you might expect, but you can also zoom into any are of your city and glide along the streets at shoulder level. You can get so close that it's possible to make out the expressions on your citizens' faces as you pass them, or if you prefer you can zoom out so that those same individuals look like dozens of ants crawling across a trash heap. If you want, you can even press a button while hovering your cursor over a character or dwelling and see just what needs are and aren't being met.

Sometimes, the amount of control that you have over your island is overwhelming. Tropico 3 was released first as a PC game, where sorting all of the available options and information must have felt quite natural, but the Xbox 360 controller has fewer buttons at its disposal. Face buttons bring up menus, which you can then further navigate using the bumper buttons. It's easy to bring up the wrong menus until you've memorized how everything works, which features require you to hold down the 'R' trigger and which ones don't. That'll likely take a few hours, so the going can get rough in the early stages.

Once you've figured out where to find what, though, the game becomes a true pleasure to play as its potential is properly realized. You aren't limited to just a few buildings or a single solution. There's usually more than one worthwhile approach to any problem that you might face. Need to keep people entertained and informed? Perhaps you'll opt to erect a television tower, or put a newspaper office into position. Are your exports doing you no favors? Maybe you'll start growing tobacco on a plantation, then send it to a cigar factory and ship that out from your port. Or maybe you'd prefer to start a cattle farm, or a fishing operation. The number of possibilities is astounding and goes a long way toward ensuring that you have something new to try even after many hours of play.

If the game has a real problem, it's the initial lack of accessibility. I had a lot of false starts on nearly every new island I accessed. There are too many exciting things to try, too many potential approaches and too many ways to fail. The impatient player--someone like me--will likely go broke many times over before finally discovering the proper rhythm of expansion that keeps citizens happy, rebels at bay, rival nations intrigued by the prospect of trade.

It's hard to hold any of that against the game, though, especially since it manages to do so much all at once. If you still enjoy putting the fictional lives of an entire city in your hands, Tropico 3 provides a wonderful new chance to live that dream. Between its ambitious production values, its captivating complexity and even its occasional sense of humor, the game has more than enough to keep an armchair Castro busy for dozens upon dozens of thoroughly enjoyable hours. Forgive the game its problems and create your tropical paradise!


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (December 22, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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