Last year, we gushed about Tropico 4 on the podcast. Though it’s not a difficult game in most respects, and can get repetitive towards the end, it had enough challenge and more than enough colour and variety for me to recommend it without much reservation. Well, I had reservations about the stereotyping and character silliness. But as a game with a predictable progression, missions that could challenge you and a real separation between your tourist paradise and “worker’s paradise”, Tropico 4 married its theme to its city building mechanics and I was fine with that.
Modern Times is the new expansion to Tropico 4, and in some ways it tries to push its history theme a lot further. As you move through certain historical periods in some missions (Vietnam era, Falklands War, etc.), global events increase the likelihood of events. It’s a nice bit of chrome, but really you wouldn’t notice it much since it’s stuck in tiny white text in the lower left.
The big changes, as the name suggests, involve taking your island republic through recent decades with more advanced versions of buildings, new industries and new ways for your citizens to get around. It’s a great idea for an expansion and the visuals help highlight the old and the new, as when, for example, your humble community banks are replaced by towering national bank structures that loom over the horizon like an obsidian dagger. Most of your older buildings have new and improved versions, though you generally have to unlock some of them as you move through missions.
This interesting idea, however, is completely undone by making the improved versions so powerful as to remove any real dilemmas they might pose beyond cost. The modern apartment building holds more people and can be upgraded to produce zero crime (because doormen are superheroes I guess). The national bank can be made an investment bank, giving your treasury a return on the investments of every surrounding citizen with an income at the right level. Organic ranches and bio-farms produce more than one type of food stuff, saving you much needed space and removing any real debate over whether you want coffee or sugar in that prime location. Solar plants require no workers and produce no pollution and have upgrades that pretty much make any other energy choice silly; at least in coal versus nuclear you had to decide when you could afford to regularly import uranium.
In short, the upgraded buildings remove your problems. Modern society isn’t a mess of development tradeoffs – it’s a race to perfection.
Yes, in the original, apartments were always better than tenements. But they didn’t erase crime, the difference in population density was something you had to take into account and sometimes a tenement was ‘good enough’ for your low wage workers. The way that money rolls in in Modern Times, there is no need for low wage workers at all! Especially if the banks will give you a cut of their investments.
Not surprisingly, this takes a lot of the fun out of Tropico 4. Yes, the new buildings can be pricey, but the same old money making strategies from the original work fine, foreign powers are still generous with cash and so many of the new buildings save you a lot of money in the long run. Investment banks make you so much money that you really don’t have to worry about bankruptcy. If your housing creates no crime, you can pretty much do away with having more than one police station.
I am only halfway through the Modern Times campaign, and it seems that the only way to really slow down the Race to Amazing is be super stingy with resources, but if I can farm fish and make all my cash crops at one farm then there is a true limit to how stingy scenario designers can possibly be.
Now, as I said, Tropico 4 was never meant to be a super difficult city builder, so you can forgive a little bit of “Hurrah! You win all the prizes!” in the end game. But this entire expansion is really centered around a push to make money as quickly as possible so you can build a single awesome labor saving device that will keep you closer to the black for a longer time and then you repeat as needed. The only priority you really have is getting that first superstructure up, unless mission goals force you to do something else.
And these mission goals are where you will find the challenges in Tropico 4: Modern Times. They aren’t tied to the mechanics or to choices you make, at least not in any meaningful way. For example, in the opening scenario, there is a Panic Level that slowly increases. If it hits 100, something bad happens to you (it isn’t really that bad most of the time). You can complete missions to reset this Panic Level, and that’s really the only challenge of note once you realize that the newer hotter building is always the right choice.
I will probably finish the campaign, because I do like the colour. But I probably won’t enjoy it as much.