Monday, September 28, 2009

Majesty 2 (PC): Impressions

In March of 2000 (can it have been that long ago?), Cyberlore Studios released a game titled Majesty that was billed as a "fantasy Kingdom Sim." The reviews were middling-- an average review score of 76 (thanks, with 28 reviews.

The reviews were wrong. So wrong.

Majesty was one of my favorite games of the year, and in many ways, it's still one of my favorite RTS games ever. Instead of the precise micromanagement required by many RTS games, Majesty used a different mechanic. To control units, you set reward flags for different kinds of actions, and you attached a bounty to that action.

If the bounty was sizable enough, based on the difficulty and the danger of the action, heroes would be attracted to fulfill your request. So instead of precise control, your role was to influence behavior.

If this sounds like a minor distinction, believe me, it isn't. It was an absolutely wonderful gameplay mechanic that made Majesty feel entirely fresh. And in addition to unique gameplay, the entire game was full of a sense of whimsy. It was a very funny game, and very clever.

It was also quite measured in terms of pace. It wasn't a frantic game by any means, and he gave you time to appreciate just how cleverly everything had been designed.

When I heard that there was going to be a sequel, but with different developers (Ino-Co, located in the Russian Federation of Krasnodar), I had mixed feelings. I was looking forward to having another chance to play in that world, but I've grown weary of Russian development houses.

Don't get me wrong--some of the best games I've ever played (hello, Space Rangers 2, you wacky bit of genius) have come from Russian developers. And I've been extremely impressed with their creativity. The problem, though, is that Russian developers seem immune to public pressure to fix game- breaking issues. They do it on their own impossible-to-decipher schedule, and often it's not done at all.

So if you get lucky and get a finished product, it's likely to be outstanding. If you don't, you are likely to be banging your head against the wall in frustration. I've done both.

Yes, in many ways this is a description of the entire PC development world, but it seems more acute with certain publishers (1C, in particular) and developers.

I'm happy to report, though, that Majesty 2 seems complete and stable, at least for the first 10 hours of play. I'm also quite happy to report that the whimsy and sense of humor that defined the first game are still present. Even better, the game mechanics have been expanded slightly in terms of available buildings and actions that you can perform.

Here's a simple description of how the game works: there is a relatively conventional layer of gameplay mechanics that consist of generating revenue through marketplaces to fund buildings and the hiring of heroes. So at one level, you're managing a simple economy. The unique layer consists of influencing the behavior of heroes indirectly through the reward system.

When you're only capable of influencing behavior indirectly, there are interesting complexities that emerge, particularly when you need to manage multiple goals. For instance, you might need to have an area explored, a building defended, and an enemy attacked, all roughly at the same time. Prioritizing the bounty amounts and adjusting them based on how your heroes respond is tremendously engaging, and it's fun.

One worthwhile change (I believe it's a change, although it has been almost a decade since I played the original game) is the addition of Lords. Lords are heroes that you select at the end of the mission, and their skills carry over during the campaign. A special guild building is available, and when it's completed, you can hire Lords in addition to regular heroes. The downside is that they are much more expensive to hire, based on their skill level.

If you're thinking that this has been very positive, you're right. In general, I think this is a very worthy sequel. I only have one concern, and that's with the pacing. It seems that certain missions spawn enemies at such a rate that they become very difficult to survive. The measured pace of the first game, in these missions, is entirely replaced, and I don't like that at all.

For fans of the first game, this is definitely a buy. For those of you who never played the first game, though, a "gold" version (including an expansion pack) is only $10 via Impulse. Compared to $40 for the sequel, the original is a much better deal.

When I finish the campaign, I'll put up some final impressions.

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