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Theocracy

Windows - 2000

Alt name Aztec: Empire of Blood
Year 2000
Platform Windows
Released in United Kingdom
Genre Strategy
Theme Fantasy, Pre-Columbian Americas, Real-Time
Publisher Ubi Soft Entertainment Software
Developer Philos Laboratories
Perspective Bird's-eye view
0 / 5 - 0 vote

Description of Theocracy Windows

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Theocracy is a game I first saw some two years ago at the I-Magic stand at one of the big game shows. At the time, I-Magic were very much into relatively innovative, if not top-selling, strategy games, Seven Kingdoms being a good example of their wares. But then I-Magicdecided to go with an on-line only focus, and as a result Seven Kingdoms 2Shadow Company and Theocracy all got punted to Ubisoft. With the recent release of Theocracy, all three games are now out, at least in some part of the world.

The problem that Theocracy faces is that, due to the publisher shenanigans, it didn't make it out before Age of Empires 2. Given Microsoft's release is a multi-million selling blockbuster, and the theme, or at least the appearance, of Theocracy is somewhat similar, Ubisoft are up against it. Theocracy is not a bad game, but it's also not a great one. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the design, but a handful of clever new features doesn't manage to prop up the gameplay quite enough for my tastes. The setting is novel; post-Aztec Mexico, around the 14th Century. The game's objective is to lead your tribe to control of the 50 or so provinces that make up the strategic map, and to prepare for the invasion of the Spanish once a hundred game years have elapsed. The most obvious way to can gain control of new territory is by military conquest, but you can also use diplomacy; a province allied to you for ten years will join your tribe automatically. As with most empire-building games, you have to balance military expansion with resource gathering, so that you can feed your people, put up new buildings, and train new workmen, priests or warriors.

The game works at the strategic and tactical level. At the strategic level the clock ticks by continuously at a speed of your choosing. You can see the whole map and watch armies and caravans on the move between provinces, and watch those provinces change hands as events unfold. If you choose to zoom in on a single province, time stops. You can then issue orders for your workers at your own leisure, for example re-assigning slaves from farming work to stone mining duties, or you might decide to build a new military training barracks. Only when you return to the main strategic view can time be restarted. The rather odd result of this design is that you can watch workers harvesting food in the province map, but they're not actually doing anything; the graphics, which are very well animated, are merely representative of what's happening. Resources in the game include grain, meat, wood, stone and gold. These can be gathered where present and then held separately in each territory. They require storehouses to be stockpiled. If you want to shift resources around, you need to use caravans, formed from teams of llamas and llama masters. It's here that you get the first hints that the game has a few cracks in its design. Not only is there no way to get an overview of resources, armies or buildings in all your provinces, but tasks such as allocating workers to duties and setting up caravans of people or goods are painfully intricate. The game graciously gives you a glut of hot key options, one of which selects all idle workers, but panning around the province map to put them to work is a bigger chore than it should be. Part of the problem is that there's no happy medium between the zoomed out view (where all units are unrecognisable one-pixel dots) and the zoomed in view (where navigation is made hard by the lack of a mini-map).

There is an auto-governor option for each province, but to get a governor you need to spend real game jewels, which are very hard to come by early on. Excessive micromanagement is thus rather forced upon you, when it need not be. A governor should give a reward such as a production bonus, rather than being the means by which to make playing the game more pleasant.

The graphics are certainly not bad, in fact many of the animations in the zoomed in province view are very high quality. I particularly like the dancing priest who marks the sacrifice of your slaves (such sacrifices gain you mana for spell-casting). But all the cute looks in the province view don't really gain you anything gameplay-wise; sure you can watch them at work, but time is frozen and their "representative" movements don't really mean anything, as nice as they are. In Age of Empires 2 a worker carrying a stone is giving you new resources. In Theocracy you get a certain annual resource income based on the number of people working at a certain building type. In reality, the only important screen is the province information screen. When you find yourself string at these frequently, the lack of a "next province" button, another interface weakness, strikes home. The feeling of the Mexican/Aztec setting is captured well. The looks do share, at first glance, a more than passing resemblence to Age of Empires 2. Of course, Theocracy has a strategic wrapper that AoE 2 lacks, but at the same time it fails to deliver the polished, slick feel of its shelf rival. While territorial expansion can be achieved diplomatically, quick success lies in combat. Here Theocracy falls short. It does offer combat formations, using leaders who you can promote from the more experienced troops in your own military ranks, and the ability to customise those formations to one of four presets. However, as soon as battle is joined, the formations are lost and their worth apparently lost with it. More problematically the path-finding is poor, with some troops getting stuck and others taking exceedingly long detours. But the greatest weakness is the lack of variety of combat units - you have infantry, spearmen and archers, and that's about it. No cavalry, and certainly none of the inter-unit type nuances of AoE 2. Perhaps the unit choice reflects history, but it doesn't make for good gameplay.

The game attempts to make up for the limited unit variety by offering a sprinkling of magic types and the ability for wild jaguars to be used in combat. The latter are somewhat gimmicky. The magic falls into five categories or "spheres" - sun (fire), moon (protection), star (black art), nature (healing) and soul (a mixture of each). Priests can belong to only one of the five spheres, and can learn up to 4-6 spells. The problem with magic users, much as with the leaders and heroes who can wield special items, is that in combat it is very difficult to control and make use of these valuable units. There is no combat speed control, nor any ability to pause the real-time action to give orders. As a result battles tend to degenerate into massed brawls, rather than being the set-piece formation-dominated affairs that I would expect the designers had intended. With military units, and in particular the special units, taking a fair while to produce, to have them so vulnerable in combat is frustrating. Perhaps a turn-based combat system would have been more appropriate; anyone who would take to the staretgic game would likely have the patience to resolve battles in a more relaxed fashion. The game has some trade and diplomacy options, but these are very minimal. Diplomacy is of the "war, peace or ally" variety, while trade (via caravans) is focused on shifting your own materials between your own provinces. As with province governors, it seems trade can only be automated by creating a special unit, the trader/merchant. This makes the interface again more complex and click-heavy than it need be. The interface is also lacking in some other areas. One is that getting information on a province involves some clumsy mouse movement. Another is the lack of a mini-map in the province view, which I find baffling; this causes considerable disorientation in battle (made worse by the fact that you can't alter the battle speed).

The game tutorials are quite well engineered, and the manual is relatively thick and helpful. The strategic map of Mexico is fixed for each game, and you can only play as the same empire each time, so your opening moves will always probably be the same. While Philos argues that each game can unfold differently, the reality is that unlike the majority of strategy games that offer a random map option, or at least a number of scenarios, the replay value is going to be rather limited for most people. 

Theocracy is a game with a number of interesting design features, and it boasts a very novel, and rather appealing, historical setting. The graphics and animations are of a generally high quality, comparable in most areas with AoE 2. However, the gameplay itself is found lacking, particularly in combat where the hectic battle pace, poor path-finding, the meaningless formations, vulnerable special units, and the lack of unit variety combine to leave the gameplay feeling rather flat. The unnecessary micro-management of provinces and lack of useful summary screens also bog the game down. After 100 game years you have to fend off the Spanish invasion. Unfortunately none of my games lasted that long, and once you've restarted five times, your desire to play out the same fixed scenario yet again begins to fade.

On paper an intriguing game, in practice, a disappointment.

Review By GamesDomain

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