Back when Bullfrog was considered a big name, construction games were all the rage. The likes of Theme Park and Theme Hospital were among the most popular releases on the PSone, but as the genre increased in complexity on computers, these console ports became increasingly less common. Tropico 5, then, is something of a rarity: a simulation series somehow already on its fifth instalment, but making its PlayStation debut. As a result, El Presidente's antics will be all-new to many of you – but does this outing rule with an iron fist?
Haemimont Games' latest feels fresh almost by default on the PlayStation 4; there's nothing else quite like it on the system at all. And that earns it a few extra brownie points, because managing a nation's economical stability – while an acquired taste – offers a welcome change of pace from the tower capturing exploits so common elsewhere on the console. This is a release where you oversee trade routes, mastermind international disputes to your advantage, and stuff your off-shore bank balance with blood money. It's not your average sandbox game, then.
Make no mistake, though: this is the very definition of open world. Well, open island at least. The game's main mode sees you starting out on a newly discovered landmass of your choosing, and nurturing it from a humble banana republic all the way through to a real player on the world stage. Supplying the crown with exotic fruits will be your primary ambition during the Colonial Eras, but as you advance through the ages, you'll be able to invest in other opportunities, such as tourism – eventually hosting the Olympics if that floats your boat.
The really cool thing about the game is that you can play it how you want – and that's not just a back-of-the-box buzz quote. You may, for example, opt to make your money through agricultural produce, exporting meats and cheese – or you could cover your idyllic settlement with power stations, and get into the electronics industry instead. And all of this comes in addition to several other sub-plots: do you choose to treat your people fairly but fall victim to the limitations of an eight hour working day – or do you drive them into the ground risking an uprising in the process?
Once you understand the systems at play, it's relatively simple to build the kind of community that you want – but even then, there are always random factors such as tsunamis waiting to throw your burgeoning nation into disarray. The really great thing, in spite of the aforementioned, is that the game has structure: you'll constantly be given new quests and tasks to complete, and this enables the release to guide you, without ever clocking you over the head. It also makes the affair devilishly moreish: no sooner than you've filled one request will there be another clamouring for your attention.
And this means that, as the hours roll by, you'll watch your city evolve. You'll end up ditching the cocoa plantations that worked so well in the early game for towering hotel complexes and nightclubs; the road network that once served as the arterial network through your ranches and lumber mills will make way for a much more modern metro. The visuals change to reflect the passing of time, with dusty tracks replaced with tarmac – and cart horses making way for cars. And yet, it still sticks to one cohesive style; your settlement will be recognisable, despite inevitable change.
The newly added Dynasty continues this theme of persistent progression, allowing you to build a lineage of totalitarian tyrants irrespective of mode. Each of these can be assigned different attributes, augmenting them with various benefits to the state. Some may, for example, bring down the costs of construction, while others could increase the effectiveness of the army. It's a nice format, but it's letdown by a needlessly complex save system, which means that if you're hopping between games, there's a risk that you could end up crudely branching your data without realising it.
This isn't a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but it's disappointing to see so much effort invested into streamlining the experience – only for it to instigate headaches in other areas. Speaking of which, you may want to create an appropriately jangly Spotify playlist if you're planning to sink more than a dozen hours into the game, as the title's tropical soundtrack does begin to grate. It's not that the brass music's bad per se, but there simply aren't enough upbeat melodies to stave off the onset of lunacy; with these tunes looping, we're not surprised that our citizens are always so sad.
The voice acting, while still repetitive, is at least well delivered – the writing parodying real-world politics with a sense of humour so sharp that it's in danger of poking you in the eye. Even if you haven't got a penchant for political humour, the gags here will have you giggling; sure, it relies on stereotypes and occasional bouts of silliness, but the caricature characters – some of which are based upon real historical figures – add real charm to the experience, and inject it with the kind of personality that it needs to lift it above your average accounting simulation.
And then there's the multiplayer mode, which accelerates the advancement of the experience, but allows you to co-operate and compete with up to three other players, fulfilling quests to score points similar to the offline game. The whole component can be unnecessarily ambiguous at points, and it's not exactly well suited to the pick up-and-play format that otherwise rules the online space, but there's enough here to satisfy stalwarts, assuming that it can keep its servers filled with budding city builders for the foreseeable future.
Tropico 5 is a real treat – and not just because it's something a little bit different. The game's sharp sense of humour tallies well with its accessible yet intricate economical action, and while it's always likely to be an acquired taste, we're hoping that it sparks a swell of console construction games. If you're even the slightest bit intrigued, you should give this a go. And just so that we're clear: that's an order.