"They want 500 units of what? Smoked meat? Well, we can't afford to disappoint our European benefactors -- convert our slaughterhouses immediately!" I find it helps if you order around an imaginary aide as you play Tropico 4 --just go ahead and bark out commands as you click the mouse around. See if you can't find a second-hand military uniform to wear, too. Look the part, be the part, I always say.
And what is that part, you ask? Why, banana republic dictatorial autarch, of course! You get to run your own island in the Caribbean, driving the people into the toils of communist organization, or exploiting your island's natural resources for trade and tourism like a good capitalist. Or, you know, something in-between. The choice is yours, and Tropico 4 does a fantastic job of giving you both the tools and the training necessary to get started and go to town shaping the world in your desired image.
All gameplay takes place on an overhead map of your island, your palace at the centre of the city, and a harbour somewhere along the coast. Pretty much everything else is going to be built by you: do you want to focus on farming, mining, manufacturing, tourism, logging, or something else? Do you want your people living in hovels and shacks, or do you want to lay out the scratch to give them decent accommodations? How about your street layout and your police/military presence? These are all decisions you'll make by placing structures on the land itself. You'll also be able to decide on "global" policies like whether or not to enact environmental standards or sensitivity training for your cops, so that you can alter the overall flavour of the island as well as its quotidian details.
This is all well and good, but Tropico 4 presents you with a series of stiffer challenges, as well. A difference between this game and Tropico 3 is that petitioners from your island's populace are frequently popping up asking for favours or changes to policies and giving you goals to hit (for which you'll usually receive some reward). While you can only have 5 of these active at any given time, they serve to shape not only the decisions you make on your island, but how you play the game in the first place.
You may be the staunchest of free-market capitalists, but if the Chinese and USSR come a-calling, dangling tens of thousands of dollars for your personal fund (i.e., score) for nationalizing your sugar industry -- hell, you might be sorely tempted. It's a great system to keep each map interesting, but it seems to have come at the expense of larger, overall campaign goals. Tropico 3 had a very clear progression of campaign missions, and while Tropico 4 does have a campaign, it seems more focused on intra-mission tasks rather than overall goals.
And what that translates into, ultimately, is that this game functions better as an endless "sandbox" sim, rather than a mission-driven RTS in the traditional sense. Which is fine, but it takes Tropico 4 even further from its ostensible competition in terms of raison d'être. There's no big bad guy to defeat here, no world to save. You decide what you want to do and, mostly, find satisfaction and reward in the gameplay itself. As for that gameplay, it's a tweaked, expanded, but ultimately identical version of the gameplay in Tropico 3. The developers are capable of different things, as demonstrated in The First Templar, but this game reverts to type.
For most of us, that's great news, but for those who were put off by the wide-open nature of the strategy, or just those who were hoping for some major innovation, you won't find it here. One definite expansion, though, is the number of songs on the soundtrack. Tropico 3 had awesome salsa music backing everything up, but not enough variety of it. Tropico 4 has plenty of variety, this time without that annoying-as-hell radio announcer to bother you in between sets. Now, to the limo! I must commune with my people!