At first sight Theocracy looks like an Age of Empires clone, transplanting the action from Europe and Asia to medieval Central America, and the Aztec empire.
Look more carefully though, and Theocracy turns out to have some unique ideas of its own to offer, as well as some well-crafted gameplay. We take a closer look at what could be one of the sleeper hits of the year 2000...
Developed by a relatively unknown Hungarian company, the idea behind Theocracy was to design a game that married the best elements of Civilization and Command & Conquer, two of the most popular strategy games of all time. And it looks like it just might work...
Although Theocracy has a series of short missions with definite goals like most real time strategy games, these are really more of a tutorial to ease players into the game. The real heart of Theocracy is a massive open-ended game that covers the whole of Mexico and over a hundred years of history.
You control an Aztec faction at the beginning of the game, with a single territory under your influence. You must build up a city, gather resources, trade, build an army, and expand your kingdom into neighbouring areas by whatever means you have at your disposal (and that doesn't always have to mean a full scale invasion).
Then, after a century has passed, the Spanish invade. You must now gather your forces and fight off the conquistadors before they destroy your fledgling empire, throwing them back into the sea and changing the course of history.
The beauty of the game is that it takes place on two levels - tactical and strategic if you like.
The tactical game involves constructing buildings and units, gathering resources, and fighting off invaders - just like any real time strategy game. Maps are at least as big as in Age of Empires II, and you can have literally hundreds of units running around in them. The graphics aren't quite as impressive as AoE2, but they are still visually pleasing.
The strategic game takes place on a map of the whole of ancient Mexico, split into a number of different territories, each of which is represented by one of those AoE2 size maps, making this game absolutely huge in scope!
It's a little intimidating at first, and some of the new ideas take a little getting used to, but once you know what you're doing it's really quite fun.
Unlike a traditional RTS, in Theocracy buildings and units aren't constructed almost instantly. Instead you must switch to the strategic map and select how fast you want time to move. Then, after a few days or weeks or whatever, a little message will pop up at the bottom of the screen telling you that one of the jobs you left going has been completed.
Or maybe you will pause the game yourself as you see an enemy army approaching one of your territories. The advantage of this system is that you aren't rushed, but the game still keeps that real time feel to it. You can even train governors to run some of your territories for you if it all gets too much.
And it's lucky really, because there is plenty for you to do. There are seven different resources to gather, trade, and distribute. Your soldiers need feeding to keep them at peak efficiency. You need to build pyramids to gather mana to power your priests' magical abilities, and carry out human sacrifices if you need that extra bit of get up and go. You have to construct new buildings, and train your slaves to become soldiers or specialist workers...
Combat can be rather hectic as well, with potentially up to 50,000 units in the entire game world. Invade a neighbouring territory and you could find literally hundreds of enemy soldiers waiting for you!
It's not just a case of rushing your neighbours with overwhelming numbers though, as Theocracy has a whole range of preset formations (like AoE2), and even allows you to group troops and create your own formations. A well organised and deftly balanced defence can often fight off a superior force if it arrives in dribs and drabs or as a long disorganised line.
Theocracy is looking like it could be rather special, mixing the turn-based and real time strategy genres to come up with something almost unique. The Aztec setting is a little unusual as well, and should make a welcome change from the traditional medieval European setting of most semi-historical strategy games.
And with 50 different unit types available to you by the end of the game, as well as special abilities, heroes and magical items to add an RPG feel to things, there's certainly plenty of options open to you.
Theocracy is due out in March, and we should be bringing you a full review of the game in time for its release.