Conspiracy. Rumor. Misinformation. The Majestic-12 papers. Project Bluebook. For the last few decades, these topics have infiltrated our society, being raised again and again by extremist theorists, who all point their fingers at the sky claiming either to have seen aliens, or seen the government covering up aliens. Those who truly believe speak of a shadow government, which exists everywhere and nowhere, orchestrating their hidden agenda to control the nation, and perhaps the world. Anything that would expose their truth is a threat and those that would threaten their secrecy are considered ‘expendable.’ Truly ruthless indeed, it may even be detrimental for me to be writing this review.
Majestic, a new online game from Electronic Arts, plunges you head first into this world of espionage and conspiracy, where your actions help uncover the workings of a secret government that has been pulling strings behind the scenes for many years. Episodic in nature, Majestic puts you in your own shoes, as a player of a game that becomes more than just fiction. Completely driven by content, it is very difficult for me to speak about the storyline behind the game, as that would just... give it away. Hopefully, by illustrating how the game works, I can impart a sense of what it is like to play. Since it is driven entirely by its story, I wouldn’t want to give anything away for potential players.
Starting with a tutorial, Majestic teaches you how to use its versatile interface to collect clues, manage your notes, and even communicate with other players via instant messenger. You don’t play Majestic so much as it plays you, by communicating with you via instant messages, email, phone calls, faxes, and even video clips of in-game events. As you participate, you uncover clues and are called upon to act quickly, lest you endanger other in-game characters.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
To truly understand Majestic’s gameplay, you first need to understand that it isn’t a traditional game. Although you do have a Majestic Alliance program, it serves merely to keep track of the allies you’ve made and the clues you’ve gathered. The first thing that you’re introduced to is the Majestic homepage, which lets you manage your progress, receive voicemail and faxes (if you haven’t signed up to get these features on your phone or fax machine, but more on that later), and keep up to date on news and links important to Majestic and your quest within it.
I said previously that instant messenger was an important part of the experience. Majestic Alliance, the program that ties all of Majestic’s elements together, maintains a list of allies that you can instant message for help with clues and puzzles in the game (provided they’re online). Also, in-game characters make frequent use of IM, sending you messages with important information, conversing with you as the game progresses. The characters can also send you email, faxes, and even phone calls, all of which you can access with your email program and the Majestic homepage.
Even though the detail I’ve put down is a mere fraction of what the game actually feels like, the part that should seem clear enough is that you don’t play Majestic as much as you actually interact with it. For some puzzles, you’ll browse the web and call a phone number or email someone for a critical piece of evidence. Characters contact you just as if they were people you knew, asking questions about the problems you’ve solved, and even asking your advice every so often. The phone calls you receive can illustrate other plot points, or could even be sent straight to you, like the intimidating phone calls that warn you to stay away from certain clues, lest you provoke a response from the various thugs that the shadow government can call upon.
During the game, you’ll have a status indicator that prompts you to do certain things at certain times. When the game needs you to gather clues and move towards your next plot point, your status will be Acquire. You may need to visit websites, listen to new clues, or even wait for another character to contact you to get the information you need. Following Acquire is Act. Act indicates that the game feels you’ve gathered enough information to proceed and must finish your current puzzle to progress the plot. Once you’ve acted, if the game needs to think a while to prepare the next part of plot or you need to wait for time to elapse (more later), you’ll go into Standby. Standby means that you can’t do anything to force the plot to move, but you can still keep up your investigations. The deeper you go, the more rich the experience.
If at first it seems like this all might be hard to understand, remember that the pilot episode is free and can give you a good idea of how the game plays. A truly content driven interactive experience, Majestic lets you interact with a world just slightly out of turn with our own and build and interact with the story therein. Using a captivating mix of fake websites and links to a few real ones, they make the game feel more realistic and help suspend your suspension of disbelief through the entire experience. Of course, there is a Pause button if you want to suspend the game shortly and come back to it at a later time.
While not truly a multiplayer game, Majestic encourages you to make allies of the other players and message them often to provide clues or ask for help with the next part of the game. This is one of the parts of the game I enjoyed the most, because people go out of their way to avoid giving out spoilers, which would ruin the experience. That said and given that people assist one another with small clues, it really seems like a lot of people are ‘in-the-know’ and assisting you in joining their ranks.
As a side note, it is very important that you read the FAQ documents provided for Majestic. Because the game doesn’t make it obvious which one of your allies are people or game characters, people can ‘grief’ the game, by pretending to be a game character, leading you on a wild goose chase for their own amusement. While I haven’t seen this happen myself, it is possible given the way Majestic is constructed. The FAQ documents lay out the ways in which the game will feed you clues and contact you, and that, combined with some simple observation skills, can help you identify who is a player and who is a game character very easily. It is always a shame when a game can be exploited in this way, but the developers have thought ahead and included a reference on how to handle that sort of situation.
Majestic contacts you. Remember that. You can even sign up to get phone calls and faxes with your phone and fax machine so that you don’t have to visit the website to get the items they’re sending you. Although that part of the game is fraught with warnings before you sign up for it (some of the character phone calls can be threatening), signing up for this feature really makes the game seem more real. Given that it rides on content, the more real the game can appear, the better, as that only serves to heighten the experience.
Oh, and one more thing. The game progresses whether or not you interact with it. If you leave it alone for a few days, you might come back to a different puzzle than the one you would’ve gotten a day before. Of course, you’ll discover this for yourself as you play.
Because Majestic plays out using your web browser and a few simple utilities, there aren’t really any kind of graphics to it. The most I could say is that the developers of Majestic have a good sense of simple design and functionality, as all of the websites and graphics they’ve come up with are attractive, unobtrusive, and functional.
Aside from calling you on the phone (but only if you sign up for it) and sending you audio messages to listen to, Majestic does have a small soundtrack, played by the Majestic Alliance application. Somewhat dark and moody, it is a collection of electronic music that sets a subtle background for the game, enhancing its feel.
Room For Improvement
There isn’t much I’d say that should be changed about Majestic, but there are a few sticking points that are sure to cause some contention. First, when you enter Standby mode, that means that you won’t be able to advance the plot until it goes back to Acquire. Majestic doesn’t play like a real game in that you can’t just power through it in a few hours. If a character says that he needs to drive a hundred miles before he can contact you again, you’ll need to wait the time it would take him to travel that distance. This can be somewhat frustrating, but it also sets a pace for the game, a very deliberate pace. Just remember, for those times you jump into Standby, have your favorite first person shooter or RPG ready to go.
When you’re talking to characters, you might find that they don’t always respond the way you’d expect. Majestic uses a game engine called Synthetic to handle its instant message characters, emails, clues, and websites. While they’re probably the most advanced AI characters I’ve had the pleasure to have conversations with, they’re still not perfect and can make some mistakes in speech.
Windows 95, 98 or Me, 166 MHz Pentium, 32 MB RAM, 3 MB hard drive space, 4 MB video card, Minimum 56K Internet connection, Flash 4, RealPlayer 8, AOL Instant Messenger 3 or AOL 5, IE 4.01, Netscape 4.75 or AOL 5 (Majestic does not support IE 6 or Netscape 6.x), and an HTML capable email reader.
Majestic draws you in and doesn’t let go. Captivating, compelling, and even thrilling at times, it draws you into a strange and mysterious world where your individual actions have a definite impact. The gameplay style is absolutely unique, and is perhaps the most refreshing thing I’ve seen in quite some time. I wish I could speak volumes about the game and its story, but having gone through it myself, I can understand why it would destroy the experience to find out about the story ahead of time. Majestic is currently published by Electronic Arts, and is available as an online play game through http://www.ea.com, with an EA Platinum Subscription.