We all have those moments where we feel completely out of control, usually in the pub after a few post-match pints when 'Hot Stuff' comes on the jukebox. You wake up the next day with a killer hangover, a stale taste in your mouth, and vague, terrifying memories of dancing on a table with some hairy scouser called Kenneth. Majesty 2, the follow-up to 1C's original fantasy sim, has similar moments - although thankfully nowhere near as painful or traumatising.
The story of Majesty 2 starts with a rather hasty king, whose main concern is that the absence of any worthwhile opponents will leave him with a rather dull legacy. To spice things up with a challenge worthy of the history books, he summons a demonic overlord from the depths of hell, an act which ends in rather predictable tragedy. The overlord takes his place on the chargrilled remains of the throne, and it's down to you as the last of the royal bloodline to kick his fiery arse back to hades.
Thankfully, you're not alone in your quest. A rather handy advisor (who sounds just like Darrell Hammond's impression of Sean Connery from Saturday Night Live) fills in the backstory, and provides you with helpful advice throughout the single-player campaign's 16 missions. The first couple of trials act as simple tutorials, to introduce you to the interface and controls, as well as the host of buildings and structures you can use to form your kingdom. Simple tasks such as clearing out a group of weak enemies or establishing a base for trade are quickly accomplished, and ease you into the game at a perfect pace. Build some guilds to attract and train groups of heroes, then add in a blacksmiths to upgrade your weapons and armour, a marketplace to sell potions and charms, and an inn to provide rest and refreshment. Some defensive towers and a big fat statue of yourself finish the town off nicely, and at this point you'd be forgiven for thinking, 'so far, so familiar.'
Things get really interesting when you set out to explore the map or conquer the enemy, thanks to Majesty 2's interesting and unique gameplay mechanic. As already mentioned in our preview, the main difference between the Majesty games and other strategy titles is the method of control. Typically, the player has direct influence over their armies. Select a unit, click on an enemy, then sit back and watch the fireworks. However, Majesty 2 uses an indirect control method, which means your heroes actually have a will of their own. Try ordering them to attack a cluster of hell demons, and chances are they'll just wander to the nearest inn and strut their funky stuff while your castle gets blown to tiny bits. You need to offer them an incentive – for example, a large bag of gold - in order to actually get them interested.
The way you provide these monetary incentives is via four different 'flags', available at any time in unlimited number. Lay down a flag in any part of the world and attach a reward amount, and any hero that fulfils your request gets the money you offered up direct from your coffers. The more money you offer, the more heroes are likely to be interested. Don't worry about offering a high amount if required, as the successful hero is liable to return that money straight to you through your town's inns and marketplaces.
The four flag types are:
Explore – Slap this down in virgin territory, and your heroes will hike out there and check the place out.
Attack – Attach to an enemy to get your heroes to attack it.
Defend – The first of two new flags, which enables you to order your heroes to protect a particular structure or character for a short amount of time.
Fear – The second new flag, and certainly the least-used. Keeps your heroes away from a certain area for a certain period.
Thankfully, you do still have a modicum of direct control over any battles that take place, which helps to ease any frustration created by the control scheme. This comes in the form of spells developed by your guilds. Some, such as the healer spell, allows you to protect and restore some health to any injured heroes. Others, such as the lightning bolt, give you the power to inflict damage on particularly troublesome enemies. The spells can get you out of a tight bind if needed, whilst never tipping the balance firmly in your favour or overriding the usefulness of the heroes.
The original Majesty contained a variety of different heroes, such as the combat-hungry warriors and the versatile clerics, and most of these return for the sequel. Thankfully, the different races are no longer quite as intolerant of each other and will even band together to form a party, although some animosity does still exist. The new party system is a helpful way of grouping together heroes with different skills, to ensure they last a little longer on the battlefield. For instance, pair up a warrior with a cleric, and you have a formidable fighting force that can heal itself indefinitely.
Majesty 2's maps actually feel like living, breathing worlds thanks to the eye-pleasing graphics and impressive detail. Wildlife livens up the forested areas, with birds soaring across the screen and rabbits hopping around munching on tufts of grass. Towns actually feel real, with a population that gets on with their lives completely independent of you. Tax collectors go about raiding peasants' homes, guards patrol the boundaries, and heroes complain that they're bored or express a sudden concern that they left a pie in the oven. These random sound bytes provide a great deal of the game's light-hearted moments, along with your advisor's comedic remarks and general banter.
Although Majesty 2 is a highly enjoyable game, one area that could have perhaps been improved is the heroes' AI. On the whole it isn't bad – they'll heal themselves when in trouble, and flee if they're out of potions or generally outnumbered. However, there are instances where a guard or peasant stands around twiddling their thumbs while a demon shoots fireballs up their arse from afar. Either these guys are wearing asbestos underwear, or something isn't quite right. It's also quite common to see your heroes charge straight through a huge group of enemies en route to a flag, and not even notice until they're completely surrounded and beaten to a bloody pulp. All the more frustrating because of your total lack of control over them.
Once you've finally finished the campaign, which takes a good few hours even if you're a strategy maestro, there's still some other modes to keep you entertained. A number of standalone single-player missions can be played out, which are just as strong as the campaign's quests, and you can play a multiplayer versus match with up to three other players over a LAN or the interwebs. Overall, there's a lot of content here for your hard-earned pounds.
Majesty 2 doesn't do things a whole lot differently to the original, but the additions it makes are welcome ones and the game itself is fantastically fun. Just beware of the high system requirements – a powerful processor, preferably an Intel dual core, and an absolute minimum of 1GB RAM is needed to ensure a smooth experience.