Before we begin, I feel the need to be honest; I didn’t sink a lot of time into Tropico 3.

I know, I know. But, having played the first and second games to death, I found it difficult to adjust to the heavily 3D modelled third instalment. As Tropico 4 continued to use this visual style, though, and more importantly for the sake of this review, I thought that it was about time to set my initial reservations aside. And, in some ways, I’m quite glad that I did.

For the most part, however, very little has changed from the third outing. Visually, Tropico 4 borrows heavily from its predecessor, and gameplay-wise there are only slight differentiations between any of the games in this series. Furthermore, despite this fourth title boasting several rather impressively sized development trees, they’re all entirely linear in design – something that’s practically impossible to avoid, or deviate from in any way.

Allow me to explain. As we’ve come to expect from the strategy genre in general, most raw materials can be processed into something more financially viable; and the same can be found in Tropico. Be it gold into jewels, or lumber into furniture, there’s always some way to improve upon what you can take from the land. But, sadly, in Tropico, the options for development are few and far between. Ultimately there’s very little here to quell the natural human desire for experimentation.

In Tropico, each raw material appears to have its own predetermined ‘expansion’ building, of which the sole purpose seems to be that of increasing export profits, and that’s that. You’re stuck with the pre-set route the developers created for you. There’s no alternative to the beaten path, no potential to improve your island with the finished product – just sell, sell, sell.

This problem of pigeonholing the player also extends to one of Tropico’s biggest matters of choice – whether you wish to create a thriving industrial island, or a secluded tourist resort. Unfortunately, more so in Tropico 4 than previous instalments, this choice is actually removed from play almost entirely. Although you can create a bustling industrial metropolis without hindrance, there’s such a heavy focus on tourism (particularly within the build menu – which includes structures such as ferris wheels and rollercoasters) that you’ll miss out on a great chunk of rather awesome game content if you decide to shun tourists from your island all together. And with Tropico 4 still retailing for around the £30 mark, that’s not a very attractive option.

As such, unless you’re a design whiz, you’ll end up with haphazard tourist resorts dotted around your little portion of the Caribbean, studded between farms, governmental buildings and vastly unsightly powerplants. All of these structures are important to the success of your island, granted, but they’re not likely to go down well with foreign visitors, who make the trip to your island based on the promise of sandy beaches, five-star services and a steady supply of alcoholic drinks. Or cheap drinks, if you activated those student-friendly edicts.

This design nightmare is practically impossible to avoid, too, because the key to a happy island consists of feeding, employing, medicating and housing the population, all of which requires a steady supply of farms, schools, hospitals, and cheap, unattractive tenements. And even when playing in sandbox mode, with the largest available island, you’ll still struggle for space, rendering separation between the bustling natives and eager tourists visiting your island almost impossible.

Housing your Tropicans is also a big issue. Building enough cheap housing to accommodate the population isn’t always enough to convince them to move from their tiny, run down shacks, and neither is lowering the rent price to zero. In fact, sometimes, for no other reason than that the houses you’ve made available are too far from their place of work. The natives would rather build an unsightly shack smack bang in the middle of your city centre. Obviously, you can’t plonk a housing estate amidst corn plantations or, heaven forbid, the tourist segment of your tropical island, and so housing remains very much a catch 22 situation.

And it’s for these reasons that Tropico 4 seems almost linear. Atop these hidden design restrictions, and lack of experimental value, you’ll often find yourself relying on only a handful of edicts (despite literally dozens being available) be it tax-cuts to win the favour of the people, or Mardi Gras events to attract a slew of foreign visitors.

Such linearity comes with a saving grace, however. The new mission system, by which large, colourful pop-ups litter the map, adds an element of structure to an otherwise entirely sandbox game. Accepted missions stack along the right-hand side of the screen, giving you a little helping hand towards improving your island.

This structure also helps to guide you towards avoiding civil unrest, rioting, military coups, and other unfortunate events, which are probably good to steer well clear of. Missions also have another hidden benefit: to detract from the ‘campaign’ mode, which exists as little more than an in-depth tutorial to prepare you for either your own sandbox rule, or the various challenge scenarios, made available for the bravest of players.

Despite what’s been said above, though, the core game remains very true to form; it’s a brilliant continuation of the Tropico series. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I’m actually quite glad for that. The basic premise of the series hasn’t changed all that much, which is refreshing, given that Tropico is such a unique city simulation title, offering something far more approachable, and easily accessible, when compared to the likes of Sim City. And the introduction of new, subtle tweaks to the polished core game, such as the ability to now import goods, acts as icing on an already very tasty-looking cake.

Ultimately, Tropico 4 closely resembles a re-release of Tropico 3, made available to a wider audience, thanks to a highly optimised game engine and more forgiving system requirements. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, then, particularly for newcomers to the series, who will find much to enjoy — but long-time Tropico fanatics may begin to feel the familiar pangs of disappointment before too long.

But fear not. Whilst Tropico 4 is a fairly safe, solid continuation of the series, perhaps Tropico 5 will break the mould akin to Tropico 2. Is anyone else hankering for a second Pirate Cove adventure?

Tropico 4 can be bought digitally from our sponsors GamersGate.