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Wot I Think: Majesty 2

The sequel to Microprose/Cyberlore's 2000 RTS/RPG/management game has just hit, this time handled by one of Russian omni-developer/publisher 1C's many studios. I confess I've never played the first game, but I was intrigued enough by this decade-on sequel to take a nose...

There’s something rather scathing about Majesty 2. It tears away the pretend philanthropy and nobility of fantasy heroes, leaving the terrible truth of what we really play most RPGs and MMOs for. We want gold, and we want to watch a bunch of numbers increase - because we are greedy and self-obssessed. And Majesty 2's AI-controlled, massively selfish heroes turn the mirror on us.

You don’t directly control anyone in this sorta-RTS. Instead, you incentivise. Heroes attack, explore or defend because you’ve set a reward for them to do so. You don’t select them and manually send them there – you just drop a flag, suggesting somewhere they could go or something they could fight to if they can be arsed. You make them more arsed by adding more cash, until finally someone shrugs and trudges over there.

You’re the invisible quest-setter of any and every RPG/MMO, providing cash prizes for noble deeds. And that cash is all the heroes really want – they have no interest in protecting the weak or defending the land. Sure, they’ll fight monsters if one walks right in front of them, but they won’t go even slightly out of their way unless they known their palms will be crossed with gold afterwards. Heroes? Not so much. Like selfish videogame players? Oh yes.

Majesty’s hook is that, as well as setting these quests, you also have to deal with the financial fallout. Those 500 gold coins have to come from somewhere, after all. This is the central struggle at Majesty 2’s heart – whether to spend your earnings on new heroes and upgrades, or as a bribe to make your existing lazy buggers do something for you.

Example: there’s an Ogre attacking your city. You know the sort: face like a dog's bumhole, bald head, dirty loincloth, truck-sized club. He can knock down a peasant bungalow in seconds, knock down a peasant in microseconds, and make short work of guard towers, guilds, markets and, well, whatever he run into. You have 1000 gold in the bank, which you’ve been saving to research new Leather armour – a major defensive boon to your archers and rogues. It's a long-term benefit, but you're facing a short-term problem.

So do you a) set that 1000g as a bounty on the ogre’s gigantic, bald head and (hopefully) have him sent to ogre-hell ASAP without first decimating all your lightly-clad rogues and archers b) buy the armour and hope your turrets and any conveniently nearby heroes sort him out before he does too much damage or c) use your own very limited selection of spells, your only direct interaction with anyone in this world, to zap him a couple of times with a lightning bolt?

Generally you go for option a, squeeze in b when you get some breathing space, and go for c when things get super-nasty and your heroes are flat-out refusing to pitch in. The great irony/joy of option a is that the only things heroes have to spend their money on is stuff you’ve got up for sale. Build a marketplace to flog potions, a blacksmith to sell armour and weapon upgrades and an inn to booze the night away in. Dimwits - all that gold they've earned, given straight back to its source. So, you eventually get a decent portion of your spending back…

…To then in turn spend on new heroes, buildings and upgrades. Nobody gets rich here - the money just cycles around and around. I’ll guess this tongue-in-cheek futility is deliberate, though the overplayed, sometimes irritating Sean Connery-spoofing narrator means I don’t quite trust the game’s grasp of humour.

So, it’s a wonderful idea (obviously introduced in the first Majesty) – an RTS/RPG in which you do not, cannot control anyone. It reminds me of my beloved Dungeon Keeper in that respect – your role is to alternately build and try and herd an uninterested army towards the most dangerous threats. That it’s outdoor rather than undeground makes it much trickier, as heroes will rarely naturally wander to new or monster-laden areas.

Unlike Dungeon Keeper though, the building here is almost completely unsatisifying. It’s hugely and unnecessarily finickity about where you can place structures, and there’s no rotation of buildings allowed, so you end up with an aimless hodge-podge rather than a neatly-ordered city. There’s no strategic requirement dictating this – just pointless restrictions, and an apparent decision that the building need only be functional rather than visually satisfying.

The characterlessness and messiness of the resulting cities is a real let-down, given this is billed as The Fantasy Kingdom Simulator. I want to look at my Kingdom and feel proud, not messily drop in a bunch of buildings all over the shop, purely so I can generate and buff heroes.

Which possibly hints at Majesty 2’s greatest problem – repetition and lack of variety. It's a sad surprise, given how hard it tries to stand out from the RTS crowd. Pretty much every one of its 16 levels play the same way. Fend off attackers whilst slowly accruing enough cash to build and research everything, then go fight a boss monster. The end. It really is vastly entertaining for the first few levels, as you decipher this leftfield way of interacting with an army and harbour quiet excitement about new units and upgrades. Then it gets a little annoying, as every new level takes you right back to the start, repeating the same process.

Worse, some things seem there purely to extend the experience, to mask how light it really is. Take the Inn, whose ultimate purpose is to group heroes into parties of four rather than have them vulnerably wander around on their own. To do this, you have to build the Inn – 250 gold. Then you have to upgrade your palace to level 2 – 2000 gold. Then you can upgrade the inn to level 2 – 1000 gold. Then you must research parties – 300g. Then, and only then, is it conceivable that four guys could sit around a pub table and decide to partner up. Which costs you another 500 gold. Gah.

That’s over 4000 gold all told - plus a long wait to earn it and sit through construction times - just to make four blokes walk around together. It’s absurd, it’s illogical, it's grindy, and it’s only about keeping a useful buff at arm’s length until the late game. It’s not simulating a fantasy kingdom, it’s just artificially trying to put more meat onto the game’s skinny bones.

So you build and build, again and again, and as Majesty 2 wears on it seems to realise this might be getting tedious. So, almost as if it's trying to discract you from this, it drops ridiculous difficulty spikes on to you – infinite waves of dragons or ogres teleporting in from the off map, a roaming boss who can randomly stumble across your city in the early hours of a level, at which point he’s essentially invincible. (I gave up when the Skeleton king did this to me on one of the last levels. 20 minutes in, and he wanders over and insta-demolishes my entire city). In some cases, learning the game better (largely through trial and error) will get you through; in others, it’s purely random punishment that can only be defeated by reloading a savegame.

There’s bound to be a patch or two here – while it’s generally well-presented, there is AI flakiness, and a strange but oddly useful bug that allows you to build beyond the nominal maximum of a guild hall’s heroes if you’ve got guys in the graveyard, waiting to be respawned. It feels rushed, in other words – variety and balance seem to have been tragic sacrifices in the name of realising the offbeat concept and controls.

Yet I’ve played it till 3 am for two consecutive nights., and loaded it up again immediately when I arose on the following mornings. There’s something incredibly pleasing about slowly constructing and researching everything, ending up with a city that’s continually under siege from zombies, dragons, ogres, bears and werewolves but has become self-sufficient enough to keep them at bay. Beneath the cyclic grind and wildly spasming difficulty, there is a massively charming management game trying, often in vain, to make itself heard.

I almost dread to say it, but if it had taken a few more steps towards Theme Park and a few away from Warcraft, C&C et al I'd be proclaiming it this year's King's Bounty. For the first few levels I though it might be, but then it put its feet up on my table, cracked open a beer and summarily ceased to make much effort.

I adore the concept and the essential control system, and enough to fairly cofidently recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different, a little more PC during the three months of big-budget man-shooters that currently await us, but I’m not quite as keen on the game that’s been built around it. I shall keep a greedy eye on it though - a meaty expansion pack or mod could well make it as majestic as it deserves to be.

Art thou still curious? There's a demo here, and the trailer will be along any moment now.

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