It may be as revolutionary as a hipster in a Che Guevara t-shirt. A lack of originality means that Tropico 5: Waterborne doesn’t wring much more life out of the latest edition of Haemimont Games’ dictator-in-a-box city builder. Much like the main game, which slightly stretched the familiar Tropico formula with new historical eras and nastier politics, this expansion barely broadens El Presidente’s possibilities with a series of glub-glub gimmicks that lets you take Caribbean corruption into the actual Caribbean. Enough new content is provided with a new campaign, buildings, and window dressing to get diehard fans of the original game interested for a couple of days, but there isn’t anything essential here, and the $20 pricetag is a little steep.
The premise is pretty simple. El Presidente decides that being the boss of a banana republic isn’t satisfying enough, so he goes the Bond villain route and heads to the sea. Quicker than you can wonder why every other 007 bad guy in the 60s and 70s seemed to have some kind of watery HQ complete with submarines and pet sharks, you’re expanding your tropical dictatorship from the traditional island jungles out onto the waves. All of this wet and wild action comes in the form of a new Lord of the Pearl campaign centred on the various kooky oceanic activities necessary to secure the legendary Black Pearl. Forget about giving out any brownie points for originality.
Pirates attack your towns, taking advantage of the terrible in-game combat system featuring troops that are virtually impossible to control.
Most of the new campaign storylines and quests focus on the high seas, although there isn’t anything here all that interesting, save the odd geeky reference to things like discovering R’lyeh and then sending good old Penultimo off to meet with Cthulhu. Unfortunately, the developers don’t do too much with these out-there plot points. At the very least, they could have had the simpering toady devoured. That said, sending canned goods to R’lyeh for the bonus of importing what have to be Deep One immigrants is kind of nifty, even if there isn’t anything here beyond the textual references. Still, the goofy sense of humor on offer in Tropico 5 is strongly present, adding chuckles to the yawns. This remains a charming and very likeable experience thanks to cornball humor, the great radio broadcaster, and the fantastic soundtrack with its peppy Latin beats and guitar plucks.
The campaign is something of a snoozefest. Waterborne scenarios play out pretty much exactly like they did in the original Tropico 5, with you continually being pushed along from one directed goal to another, given various trade quotas, and so forth. A stream of advisors and flunkies shows up basically to give you orders about exporting this or that resource, building this or that facility to please the great unwashed, dishing out an edict to please a foreign power or suck up to an island faction, and so forth. The only difference is the watery flavour of the plot, although it really doesn’t make much difference if you’re trudging through the same old goals on land or on the high seas. Dull is dull.
The oyster farm is one of the few new buildings offered up in Waterborne.
New game mechanics are few and far between. There is a paltry number of new facilities to construct, none of which is any sort of stop-the-presses addition to gameplay. You can now set up oyster farms to gather pearls, which can be a hot commodity on the export market. Smuggler’s docks let you play up to pirates and open up black-market trade routes, but at the cost of occasionally being invaded by gangs of pirates that do little but expose the chaos of the core game’s combat system.
Some of these features get a little more interesting as the years fly by, but even then, there isn’t much to recommend such amenities as the glass-bottom boat, tidal power plants, bathysphere, and floating apartments. You can build nuclear subs in the modern era, at least, although these aren’t exactly a show-stopper given the poor combat features of the core game. Most of the new features are minor variations on existing buildings that add nothing aside from a nautical flavour to your dictatorship. About the one positive is that there is something for everyone here. The new water-based structures feature in every aspect of your city-building, from core infrastructure like food production to tourism to military defense. They do add a sprinkling of variety that should liven up sandbox games.
Combine Popeye with Papa Doc, stir in the usual city-building procedures of Tropico 5, and you’ve got Waterborne, an expansion short on imagination and implementation. Nothing here adds any meaningful content to a game that was already pretty well-known to long-time followers of the franchise. Another half-dozen or so hours of peasant-oppressing, Swiss Bank-building fun is provided for the truly dedicated, but there isn’t anything here with lasting value or appeal.