I, Penultimo, your trusted and loyal adviser, understand that you have ordered copies of Tropico 4 not be imported to the island and stated, in your wisdom, that not enough has changed from Tropico 3 to this latest sequel to acquiesce on requested import taxes. Although you are correct on many, many levels, I humbly note the following changes that may shift your perspective.
On the surface, Tropico 4 is almost identical to Tropico 3. It looks the same, controls the same, the UI is similar, art is reused, you'll still have to put parking garages (seriously!) everywhere and it's difficult to initially discern what's changed at all. But, once the game begins, it becomes clear that this is the game that Tropico 3 should have been. Could it have been called Tropico 3.75: We Fixed It? Absolutely. However, publisher Kalypso Media and developer Haemimont Games went with Tropico 4, so here we are.
For new players to the series, Tropico 4 is a great place to start. So much of Tropico 3 has been streamlined in terms of pacing and direction. The core game is still the same, but presentation is where all the effort went to in this sequel. Almost every mechanic that felt like unruly information vomit in the previous installment, like faction balance or each citizen's personal statistics, is still there, but this time around the game clearly explains these details through the campaign. Each of the 20 missions has a clear theme, teaching players how to build the basics of the Tropican lifestyle, boost tourism and handle import/exports. Later on, the game begins to explain the factions and the global politics at play that you, oh glorious El Presidente, must deal with.
Tropico 4's pacing is maintained by a constant stream of mini-missions, the biggest newcomer to the series' formula. The nature of these objectives is fairly diverse -- one, for instance, tasks you with placing two churches next to a rum factory, passively enhancing both your religious satisfaction and creating an export resource. The missions can also be spawned by specific buildings or people; you may receive a mission from the trade office to gain a better standing with China for exporting a specific desire, or you may be tasked with arresting the communist faction leader by building a new prison. These missions are constantly happening and always give the player something to do.
Any given level in Tropico 4 can take around two hours (or more) to complete the main task, and each task can be broken into several chapters, so the mini-missions help fill the time void. They also help keep a focus on what's really needed, compared to trying to figure out what is wanted. Another nice touch to the game is that there is a running narrative through the campaign, with elements from prior missions and (crazy) characters returning to brighten your day or drop a hurricane on your parade.
The game adds several natural disasters, including droughts, tornadoes and tsunamis. There's nothing you can really do against these acts of nature (initially), other than hope your economy is stable enough to repair the damage or the UN relief aid sent after the disaster covers most of the damage cost.
The Council of Ministers is another significant change to the game. The five appointees, who need to be hired from foreign shores if you don't have experienced Tropicans, will allow certain edicts to be carried out (like the Secret Police). The ministers can also cause internal and international faux pas that will need to be dealt with. They are also another cause of mini-missions and headaches.
As the campaign continues, the lessons learned in detail on previous levels make it clear what needs to be fixed when something goes wrong. There was a clear progression of overall themes in Tropico 3, but this iteration takes those themes and focuses them into specific lessons that are easier to recall when El Presidente is tasked with keeping the populace, tourists, factions and global power players at peace -- or, at least, placated.
El Presidente, as you can see, it is beneficial to your experience to allow Tropico 4 into your life. It's not a sequel that's trying to change the game, it's just trying to make sense of all that extra stuff in Tropico 3 that had very little explanation. The pacing and presentation of objectives is what's really different: They make Tropico 4 feel fresh, despite the truly remarkable ripeness of the franchise's core mechanics.
Your humble toady,
This review is based on the final retail version of Tropico 4, available now.