Sunday, September 20, 2009

Majesty 2 Review

Majesty 2, developed by 1C:Ino-Co and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Kingdom management through building and bribery, well developed heroes with good AI, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Light on content and depth, repetitive strategy, no random maps or editing tools
What say you? This superficial sequel lacks innovation and variety: 5/8

Classic real time strategy games aren’t exactly realistic. I mean, would the battlefield commander have intricate control over every single unit under his command? Of course not, which is part of the reason a lot of contemporary RTS titles put units into squads where you give general directives to a subordinate officer. Taking the formula a step further was the classic title Majesty, which actually gave you no direct control over units, instead allowing you to bribe them into completing missions. Real world economics at work! Well, the series is back under the tutelage of another developer, 1C:Ino-Co (responsible for Elven Legacy), and hopes to recapture that unique energy and update it for the masses.

Not surprisingly, Majesty 2 has similar graphics to Elven Legacy, mainly because it’s developed by the same people. The bright graphics fit the theme of Majesty 2 well, complimenting the fantasy setting. There is a minor amount of variety in environments, as some levels take place in “plains” as opposed to “forests,” but the range is not as grand as I would like it to be. Everything in the game world is quite small, and Majesty 2 prevents you from zooming in too far; this may be an intentional limitation, as the textures might not be up to par. The effects could use some work, especially magic, and the animations are erratic, leading to some inadvertently comedic death sequences. The interface is pretty good, as the game displays the health, level, and current task (collecting treasure, going on a mission, fleeing) for each hero at all times. The overly dramatic voice acting, especially from the narrator, can get annoying after a while; the game seemed to be much more subdued in the original Russian audio tracks. Majesty 2 does not look or sound terrible, but it also does not differentiate itself from the mass of other fantasy settings.

Majesty 2 comes with a sixteen mission campaign, which sounds like its lengthy enough, but it’s not that long when you consider that you will most likely be playing with accelerated time waiting for something to happen. I think the most disappointing missing feature of Majesty 2 is the lack of randomized map layouts. There is no mystery with enemy and creep locations when you play a map for a second time, and considering the lack of an editor and the small suite of maps available, this would be a common occurrence. The six single missions could have been randomized, but are not, and multiplayer offerings, while fun in a competitive environment, have eight maps for varied team and free-for-all modes. Again, multiplayer could have greatly benefitted from randomized maps, but I suspect people getting Majesty 2 purely for the multiplayer will be amused for at least some time since online matches are far less scripted.

The first thing you’ll need to do in Majesty 2 is construct a majestic kingdom of majesty. Buildings are divided between economic structures like the marketplace and bazaar, defensive towers, unit-creation buildings, and temples for access to higher level units. Your options are really quite limited with only five economic buildings, and apparently the people of Ardania have never heard of walls to keep rats, bears, and skeletons out. Establishing a good economy is trivially easy: just place all of the economic buildings (which can be done immediately in most scenarios with your starting funds), search for a trading post, and watch the money flow in. Majesty 2 also needs much better defensive options, as simply placing puny little towers makes defending your sprawling kingdom essentially impossible. The economic and defensive aspects of the game certainly leave a lot to be desired. You also can’t build everywhere, as there seems to be a lot of invisible places blocking things (paths, I think). This is probably why you do not have access to walls and gates. Personally, Stronghold offers much more compelling resource management and more interesting defensive options.

The best part of Majesty 2 is the hero units, the part of the game that borrows heavily from role-playing games. Once you construct the appropriate guild, you’ll have access to a range of different units designed for specific roles: rangers for scouting, dwarves for whatever they do, and wizards for magic magicness. You can even recruit units from previous campaign scenarios that have been promoted to lord status (you can choose one new lord after each completed mission). Each hero has their own equipment (weapons, armor, potions) and increases in skill and learns new abilities through combat experience. Once you have researched it, you can create a party to take advantage of the strengths of each hero. This is the most complete aspect of the game that plays like any good role playing game should.

Unlike, well, pretty much every other computer game, you actually do not have direct control over your units. Instead, you get things done the old fashioned way: bribery. You place quest flags for exploring, attacking, defending, or avoiding enemies, and assign a monetary reward for competition. Your AI heroes will then decide which is most interesting and most profitable and go on their way. Luckily, the hero AI is pretty intelligent: they flee when hurt and choose the quests that are most appropriate for them. The enemy AI is less intelligent, but they are mindless creeps, so it’s OK. You can have some direct influence through the spells you can research (for healing or attacking, mostly), but most of the game is out of your hands and it feels like you are managing instead of controlling, for better or for worse. Majesty 2 would have failed miserably if the AI was poor, so thankfully this is not the case. You must budget quests correctly since there are no refunds, so there is an interesting game of management here that partially offsets the lack of true resource management in the game (but only partially). Unfortunately, you can use the same build order each game and every scenario plays out the same since the building list is small and you have access to the same general units each time. The lack of randomized maps hurt, too, since you know exactly where you will encounter pesky enemy units. You can thankfully accelerate time, since there is a lot of waiting for quests to finish and funds to accumulate once you get your basic town layout finished (which happens rather quickly). While Majesty 2 retains the goods of the original title, the limited resource management, disappointing defensive options, and short campaign make for an ultimately disappointing game.

Majesty 2 takes the original formula and adds…nothing new. For extreme fans of the first title, this is no problem, as repeating the same mechanics will maintain the unique approach of the original. However, Majesty 2 feels like an incomplete game, where the developers decided to replicate the original game, update with shinier graphics, and make some money. The content leaves a lot to be desired: a sixteen mission campaign is repetitive, the six single missions are not randomized at all, and the lack of an editor is distressing. The semi-random maps of the original game are no longer present, a distressing limitation that seriously cuts down on replay value. Multiplayer offerings are equally limited, with only eight maps to go online with, but can be fun if you get a good group of combatants together. Majesty 2’s lack of variety extends to the basic gameplay, as the same strategy will function in any scenario, as there is no advanced resource collection at all: just build some marketplaces and do some trade for extra income. Only if your kingdom is razed to the ground does money become an issue. There are upgrades for pretty much every building, but the lack of a sophisticated economics model leaves a lot to be desired. The units of the game are nicely varied with equipment and experience, but no more than a traditional role-playing game. The city management of Majesty 2 is simplistic, and the role-playing portion makes you feel like you are simply watching Majesty 2 instead of playing it. The one thing that Majesty 2 has going for it, the unique bribery ordering system, does make it stand out, but no more than the original game did almost 10 years ago. I prefer Stronghold for a more varied and similar experience at a fraction of the price.