My, my, aren’t I topical, reviewing games from 2001? Still, I just got it on Steam (For convenience. I’ve owned the disc since it came out.) so I’ve been thinking about it a lot and playing through the missions. Personally, I still think it’s a great game.
You run a space station, together with your assistant VAL. The station consists of three levels: the biodeck, the pleasure deck, and the engineering deck. The biodeck is your farm/park area. You can grow crops here, and your visitors will come here to enjoy the views, go swimming, and visit the local temple to confess their sins. The pleasure deck is where your entertainment facilities go, from stores to bars to casinos. And the engineering deck is where all the necessities go, like your hospital, factory, and port.
It’s up to you to satisfy your visitors’ need and stay profitable. They’ll need food, love, fun, medical attention, &c., and if they can’t satisfy it, they’ll leave, either through the port or the pearly gates. To do this, you’ll need to construct buildings and hire aliens to staff them. If people need love, you’ll need a love nest with some Sirens to provide beams of hearts. If they need spiritual solace, you’ll need some Zedem monks to build a temple for them. Until you really get a good station going, though, money will always be tight, so you have to pick and choose how best to spend it. You might think a hospital isn’t worth the cost until you have a giant insectoid monster turning visitors into goo.
I personally don’t really like the sandbox mode, as I prefer having a goal, so I stick with the missions. Each mission presents you with a goal. In one, you need to rehabilitate one hundred prisoners. In another, you need to outlast your rivals by making sufficient profits per cycle. Each mission adds another piece to the game’s mechanics, until by the last two, you have full access. Really, they function as tutorials for the last mission, which tasks you with taking over the entire station.
What I really like about the game is its depth. There’s a lot of cute little easter eggs and jokes buried in all of the aliens’ CVs. Despite every member of a given race looking identical, except for the Sirens, who get two genders, they still feel like they have a lot of personality thanks to their hobbies and their expressive ways of answering questions. There are lots of different ways to go about your task of running a great station, too, although in practice, it’s extremely easy to multitask. You can try to attract hospital ships for the rewards, or building a trading post that buys low and sells high, or you can just make your station the tourist destination in the galaxy. However you play, there’s a lot to keep you busy.
My biggest criticism is that the game is pretty opaque. There’s absolutely no way to tell how profitable a building is, or even whether it is profitable. The roulesse wheel for instance, an enormous roulette wheel that allows visitors to gamble, is extraordinarily expensive, but you’re only expected to make a profit once every sixteen spins. I did the math, and if you buy the roulesse wheel as cheaply as possible, and it stays at full capacity as soon as you open it, you’re expected to make a profit only after 14 minutes. I usually find it at half capacity, though, and sometimes I wonder whether it’s even worth the purchase. Does raising the price of entry help or hurt? No one knows! You can spend all your time obsessively watching all the transactions that go on, but that’s it. It would be wonderful to be able to click on it and see how much money it’s made overall, and over the last few minutes, as you can in Tropico 4.
Another thing that bothers me is that combat feels so detached from everything else. The way combat works is that you tell all your guys to shoot things. That’s about it. You can’t really better your odds besides hiring a lot more guys, and maybe stationing a few sentry guns to help you out. But despite a large tech tree, you can’t research better weapons, nor are there any officers, nor are there any special traits your soldiers can have that might allow them to perform certain tasks in battle. You tell them what you want shot. They shoot it.
Other than that, though, the game is very complete. There’s not much that you could add to the game, and nothing feels extraneous. It’s all very tight, and it still holds up, 14 years later. I wish there were more missions, of course, but there are a few fan-made ones online, although I prefer the ones that come with the game.
Overall, it’s a fun game, pretty cheap, very deep, and if you enjoy management sims at all, I recommend you give it a try. And if you need any help, there’s a great guide here. Enjoy!