The Caribbean islands you build in Tropico have always felt a little, well, dated. The buildings available felt stranded in the 60's (or earlier) – crummy apartment blocks, radio stations, and simple docks were about as far as technology went. The “Modern Times” expansion aims to bring your island into the near-present with new buildings and edicts, a new timeline and a campaign to use them all in.
The buildings are the first thing that will strike most players. Some buildings are straight-up upgrades of the old buildings. Fish farms, for example, provide more food than the old fisheries yet do not pollute. Modern apartment buildings house the same number of people as the older, standard apartment building in the same space and can be upgraded to produce no crime. The subway is particularly neat and rather handy.
Other buildings are entirely new, but fit naturally into the general feel of the place. The National Bank is another way to generate income by allowing foreigners to launder (ahem, invest) money in your tropical paradise. The Sanatorium provides your wealthier citizens and tourists with the option to obtain higher quality healthcare for a price. These buildings update the look of your island without creating a jarring incongruity with the overall theme and provide more options to the later stages of a chapter.
There are some buildings, on the other hand, that can be described as a mixed blessing. For example, the solar farm is a more powerful replacement for the wind farm which can generate up to 400 MW of electricity (compared to a windmill's 40 MW at best). The problem is that the solar farm is huge – the benefit of the wind farm was that it had a small footprint that could be squeezed into remote areas to power that one factory that was way off the power grid.
The new buildings become available on a regular timeline. One can view the timeline at will and plan ahead for a particularly good advance. It can be very useful to be able to hold off on building a standard apartment building if the modern apartment buildings are going to be invented in a few months. Other events happen on the timeline, also, including such reality-based events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and Reagan's bombing of Libya. These have effects on the game itself which a good ruler will plan ahead for.
Overall, the buildings provide more and better options for the budding planner. The same can be said for the new edicts. Banning social networks bumps the island's productivity by 5 percent, while implementing the Internet Police provides advance warning of rebel activity. Each edict comes with an associated cost (e.g. the Internet Police cause a decrease in the Liberty rating, which hurts overall happiness). The benefit/cost tradeoff is clear, and the situations when the edict would be a good idea are also sensible, so the wise ruler will have no trouble knowing when to, for example, impose a Police State.
Which brings us to the problem at the heart of the Tropico franchise – it is not that challenging. This reviewer is not a fan of difficulty in games just for the sake of difficulty – the stories that games are becoming able to tell (and the experiences they can offer) should be open to gamers of differing levels of ability. Every game should have at least one difficulty level on which a poorly-skilled player can complete the game. Not get all the accomplishments or uncover all the goodies, but be able to say they finished and had an opportunity to enjoy the core of the game.
Tropico 4 has run into the end of its engine's ability to provide much challenge under “standard” play. To make things more challenging the scenarios impose arbitrary problem – get rid of all your fishing boats, build some expensive colleges, handle an influx of criminals, or the like. Instead of the challenge arising from elements inherent to the scenario, unreasonable demands are placed upon you by external actors such as the U. N. or foreign industrialists.
For a while this is fun. The new challenges come with new buildings and edicts to meet them and the first few scenarios are fun and new. It does not take long, however, for the standard Tropico island-building pattern to settle in. First, figure out how to get enough food (fish, corn, or other). Next, find an exploitable natural resource – mines are good, as are cash crops. Then, save up enough money to set about winning the scenarios – start building a tourist destination, or maybe an industrial base.
Don't get me wrong. This is a fun groove to settle into. There are interesting decisions to be made along the way, and the environment itself is graphically interesting. It's just that it comes to feel a bit repetitive. It looks like this engine has reached the end of its life.
In summary “Tropico 4 – Modern Times” is “Tropico 4”, but more so. This is a good thing – the Tropico series is the best city-builder out there right now and deserves mention alongside SimCity and Caesar.