Last week at the Kotaku UK offices we had the chance to check out Tropico 6, the latest entry in the strategy series that's all about being a tin-pot dictator. There are some big changes being made, but – and perhaps this is inevitable with a 17-year history of games – many of the most exciting involve reverting back to older entries.
If you don't know Tropico, it's basically a series of island management simulators where you play El Presidente of a banana republic. The latter phrase refers to small island nations whose economy is overly reliant on a single or limited set of exports, which of course are heavily controlled by a rich ruling class. It's the perfect recipe for economic inequality, unrest, secret police, and a dictator in charge of it all. While the games do allow you to try and keep the populace happy and make their lives better, it's always framed as a means to an end; a way to keep them in line, productive, and not trying to overthrow your very profitable regime.
Tropico 6 is the first game in the series from developer Limbic Entertainment, but it's still largely building upon the existing formula. The developer has switched the series over to the Unreal engine, and it looks better than ever – but at its core you're still trying to manage your money to squeeze as much profit from the island as possible without sparking a revolt from the unhappy masses.
One of the most obvious changes in Tropico 6 is that, rather than sticking to a single island, you're now able to control multiple island archipelagos, which opens up some interesting options for world design. The ability, for example, to keep low income housing and employment separated from the homes of the wealthy helps separate out your island into more easily visible and manageable sections, making it easier to judge what an island's specific needs might be. Wealth inequality is the default state rather than an active choice, with real effort required if you want to run an island where it doesn't occur, and the design favours laying out your archipelago as unequally as possible. If you keep poor people all together, restrict their transport options, and only place one employer in walking distance of them, then they're going to work where they can get to and not earn enough money to better themselves.
I felt like a bit of a monster while playing Tropico 6, which of course is the point. It rewards you for running this place as cruelly as possible.
In terms of new tools for players, you can now draw out bus routes which will operate across islands to help citizens reach more remote locations, though in the current build routes can only have a start and end (rather than multiple stops). The developer says this is an issue they're well aware of, but at the moment it makes public transport seem like a missed opportunity. There are also now cable cars which can help traverse more elevated areas, as well as structures we've seen before like car parks which offer more transport options – but only to citizens able to afford things like cars in the first place. You can put resources into making public transport free or subsidised, though whether that's affordable is another matter.
Tropico 6 also now includes visual indicators for when certain buildings are functioning properly, with power plants billowing steam or smoke when in proper operation, making it easier to see at a glance if parts of your carefully orchestrated world are not behaving as they should. You can also customise your grand residence, because what good is it being a heartless dictator manufacturing misery if you don't have the shiniest and snazziest fortress around?
I have to admit that, as I scanned across sordid slums and saw the widespread poverty my policies had caused, I did feel a bit guilty about the giant golden palace.
There are some other major additions which seem like an odder fit. First up, I accept that Tropico isn't what one might call a 'realistic' game; it's a satire with elements of the real world baked into it. Even so, it seems a bit of a stretch that you can now enact heists in order to steal historically significant landmarks from other nations for increased tourism income. According to Tropico 6, stealing the Eiffel Tower from Paris and putting it on show in your capital city will negatively impact your standing with France, but rather amazingly won't be a total dealbreaker for your relationship.
Seriously: I saw Stonehenge get stolen, yet somehow the dictatorship remained in pretty decent standing with the EU because they'd been buttered up by past actions. I don't care how many nice dinners you've given the European Parliament, I can't see a world where (a) Stonehenge is nicked and carted off halfway round the world without anyone noticing and (b) the UK just quietly says 'drat' and gets on with business rather than, say, sending over the military. The game itself obviously realises this is a bit of a stretch, because it doesn't even bother giving an explanation for how these landmarks are stolen. How on earth is my tiny island, which can't even manage a working bus route, half-inching gigantic monuments and bringing them back uncontested? There's no answer, it just happens.
For those who enjoyed Tropico 4's election speeches mechanic, removed from Tropico 5, you'll be glad to learn it's back. The new version gives clear indications of where your nation is strongest and weakest, and grants the ability to blame your problems on other nations, invoke religious morale, and promise a number of other future improvements. Whatever promises you make have immediate impacts on happiness in certain sectors of the populace, but you're also expected to follow through within the year and, if not, consequences follow.
Lastly, while Tropico 6 has archipelagos, that isn't the whole story of the game's environments. There are 15 different mission maps, some of which are archipelagos and some of which are solitary single islands. Each island has a different type of environment, from some with lots of mountains to those that are basically flat desert, and each focuses on a different solo objective.
I've played a decent chunk of the game's beta, and Tropico 6 feels both familiar and something of a refresh. It's a slicker and more thoughtfully laid-out experience than Tropico 5, with new mechanics that largely add to the experience and other changes that revert the feel closer to Tropico 4's pacing, and all the better for it.
You do feel like a complete douchebag when playing well, but I suppose that's the fun. I've tried playing Tropico 6 in a way that keeps everyone happy and treated equally, and the game doesn't reward that because, while the developers might suggest otherwise, the game's mechanics clearly want you to be a rich dictator that makes all the money, and it's mechanically rewarding to do so.
One of the key things I was left wondering was whether this new development team felt the need to update Tropico's tone at all to reflect how the world has changed over the past 17 years. I should contextualise this by saying that the series has always been quite broad-brush, more interested in broad parody than pinpoint references to the here-and-now. Nevertheless, the global landscape has shifted significantly since 2001, when the first game was released. Regimes have risen and fallen and the USA now has President Trump in charge who, unlike his predecessors, seems to quite admire dictators. I was given a Tropico 6 demo and the game build by Mark Mussler, senior level designer at Limbic Studios, and publisher Kalypso's Mark Allen, and took the chance to ask them about it.
Allen: I think there's the definite opportunity to take advantage in gaming terms of the political landscape, obviously there are things happening with the US politically, there's Brexit, and I think you have to keep evolving the storyline of the games and writing things into the game which make it relevant, but obviously without going too far into realism. Obviously, you have to be quite sensitive in the way that you do it, because you don't want to alienate people or upset people with it. But yes, in this game there are a few political elements in there
Mussler: Yeah, I think definitely in the missions you will now and then stumble upon references to current political topics. They're not really pinpointable or specific, but you get a slight glimpse of a reference to what is happening out in the world.
Allen: I think one of the interesting examples is for Tropico 5 one of the missions was a military junta [a military government] and at exactly the same time as the game came out there was the military junta in Thailand after their king died. As a result the game was actually banned in Thailand, and that obviously wasn't a result of any planned reference, but there's a lot of things which you can draw inspiration from that are real world events.
I pushed on whether specific nations in Tropico 6 would perhaps react differently towards this banana republic based on changes in their leadership, specifically citing the example of the change from Obama to Trump and the effect on American foreign policy towards dictatorships. What if the USA now really liked an 'efficient' dictator?
Allen: Because a lot of the political referencing in the game is quite tongue-in-cheek in Tropico, I think you can play a little bit with how you handle that. With America, you can push that humour, that political fun element a bit further. Because a lot of people see the current administration in America as a little bit more tongue-in-cheek and a bit jokey from the outside looking in, I think that you have the opportunity to play with that. I think you have to be quite careful though, because as I said previously you don't want to upset people, you just want to have that reference be a little bit cheeky. We just don't want to really upset people by going and saying "this person is not nice or what they do is a problem."
Mussler: That's my impression as well. The game works with stereotypes of particular countries and superpowers, but it doesn't really go and look at individual people up close.
Kotaku UK: It's broad stereotypes rather than specific caricatures?
Allen: Yes, absolutely. And I think that distinction is quite important, because we don't want to go down that road of finger-pointing or making any deeper political jibes at specific world leaders.
Tropico 6 has me excited for it mechanically, purely as a set of city-building systems with a malevolent twist. It's clear that Limbic Studios, while not the developer of Tropico 5, has strong ideas about where the series has gone right and wrong in the past, and has listened to fan feedback about where the games are at their most enjoyable. I'm not sure how that leads to completely daft heists of national treasures from first world nations, but hey. Whatever Tropico 6 may lack in realism, or timely political commentary, it will hopefully make up for with cable cars and golden toilets.