One of the great things about the Bioware RPG model was the side quest design. There was a single epic main quest and a bunch of major quests that would take you along that path, but also alternate quests that really had nothing to do with anything, were entirely optional and you could take ’em or leave ’em. If you accepted the quest and never got around to finishing it, no one really cared because you had a world to save anyway. Now, Bioware almost certainly did not invent this, but I first really learned to love this design playing through the Baldur’s Gate games with my wife.
Side quests are good because they give you a break from the main path (which might be boring you right now with repetitive monsters) but also give you a chance to gain experience against usually lesser foes and bosses, making yourself better prepared for what awaits you on the main plotline. Complete as many side quests as you can, and you will find decent loot, more gold and maybe that extra level or two you need to make the main quest a little bit easier. Side quests aren’t necessary, but are good to have around.
Tropico 4 is full of side quests, only they are called optional objectives.
Each mission in the campaign has a chain leading to single clear goal – accumulate money, export goods, suck up to whomever – and the goal is usually something that you can achieve by following very clear lines of action. But then it tempts you with side quests. Sometimes these are important things – the Communists hate you because there aren’t enough places for workers to live, so you need to placate them or face revolution. Sometimes they are shortcuts – you need to make money selling ore, and you can raise the price of ore if you do this other little thing first.
In both cases, things get quite complicated quite quickly.
Since Tropico 4 is a city builder, any progress to a major goal will require a rudimentary infrastructure, but the more little side quests you take on, whether to keep unrest down or hasten success, the less rudimentary this infrastructure becomes. The flood of immigrants meant higher wages than you could afford, plus you couldn’t leave them in shacks, and now you are finding yourself in a cycle of boom and bust as you wait for the freighter to haul your bauxite away. Then the Russian gives you the side quest of selling rum, with a cash prize for exporting enough. Perfect! Only now you find you need a power plant. And more college educated workers.
Which pushes you further into the red. Unless you accept a mission from the Americans to let them exploit your lumber resources, and they will pay you now. Though this will wipe out any bonus from relations with the Russians.
Even the optional missions that aren’t really optional (your money or your life, El Presidente?) push you along a path that might not make you stronger more quickly, but could force you wait longer than you otherwise might to meet your primary objective, because debt piles on debt. Now, just like RPG side quests, you do not need to complete these optional objectives in order to complete the mission; the important thing is the primary objective.
But you never know how long it will take to get to that primary objective, see? Rebellion, earthquakes, labor unrest, and a host of other things can interfere so the optional objectives are a sort of insurance against total meltdown. Or they seem that way. You have to choose wisely, and not take everything that is offered to you, because the wrong optional objective could be the one that distracts you or breaks you – your finances are your biggest concern here.
With a hard limit on the number of optional objectives you can take at one time, eventually you could find yourself full of shortcut tasks of financial promise but minor political importance and then suddenly the religious faction wants a cathedral or else. It’s not really about doing too much at once, since a city builder is always more fun when you are doing something than when you are waiting, literally, for your ship to come in. It’s about remembering that some side quests may make it easier to get to your main goal, but others are crucial for surviving the mission at all.
The more I play Tropico 4, by the way, the more I like it. The humor is forced and the stereotypical faction/nation leaders are just on the line between silly and “what the hell?”. But under the goofy exterior and lame jokes is a solid city builder that asks you to make decisions that aren’t math problems. This is not an Impressions game where you had to count off the number of squares you had before plopping down a market; it does feel organic, it does feel like you are responding to pressures that are evolving out of your city’s requirements and the mission demands and you have the power to say no, so long as you are aware of the price you might have to pay for it. (We talked about Tropico 4, of course, on the podcast a few weeks ago.)