Date of publish: 08/11/2020 19:38 CET
Real-time strategy gets all native American on us. PC Gamer rates the blast of the Mohicans…
For all those who want to get fit, but lack the self-discipline, I strongly recommend a day or two at the exclusive American Conquest Health Spa. On arrival you are issued a frock coat, a tricorn hat and a muzzle-loading musket. After changing into this attire you are then driven to a forested location somewhere on the sprawling ACHS estate and told to await the arrival of a Personal Motivator. A wait of anything from five to 50 minutes then ensues before a bare-chested, buckskin-trousered maniac wielding a blood-stained tomahawk leaps from nearby undergrowth and comes at you, screaming like a banshee.
One irate injun is reason enough to make like a banana and scarper, so it’s difficult to criticise troops in GSC’s latest strategy spectacular when, faced by thousands of baying braves, they suddenly remember they left the iron on or had an appointment with a man about a dog. The outrageously outsized armies and the new morale system are, in fact, two of the best features of this cocksure Cossacks lovechild.
Combatants can get cold feet for a number of reasons. A massive approaching army is a powerful laxative, especially for inexperienced troops. Flanking fire, friendly dead and the demise of officers and standard bearers are other corrosive influences. Rather than routing en masse, formations tend to crumble as individual units lose their nerve and flee. It’s a process that’s both convincing and captivating. Roaming battlefields scattered with scared stragglers, and watching as frightened AI attackers fall back then gather themselves and assault again, it’s clear how much the already sophisticated Cossacks combat system has benefited from the introduction of the fear factor.
Like its predecessors, this is a game that takes pride in accurately representing aggro. The commander who sends motley masses moseying towards enemy lines will be soundly thrashed, while the one who uses formations and high ground intelligently, knows when his riflemen should open fire and when his pikemen should move forward to shield them as they reload, will win famous victories. A good number of the ranged units like the musket-equipped dragoon and the pistol-packing officer will unsheath swords when an enemy gets up close, or low resources deprive them of ammo. The option to force the melee attacks of such troops is there too, along with other useful tactical toggles, like a friendly-fire safeguard that prohibits soldiery from firing into mobs of friend and foe.
In pursuit of pan-racial balance, some military liberties have been taken but, with the exception of the improbably potent war-canoes, these are easy to overlook. What the eight native American nations lack in rifles and cannons, they make up for in flaming arrows, poison-tipped darts, tough melee ratings and unconvertible peasantry. In many ways, these tribes are a lot more interesting than the invading powers (England, Spain, France, USA) who, even with new characteristics like the need to supply manpower for military recruitment, play very similarly to their Cossacks cousins. The Sioux with their mine-free, farm-free, hunting and trading culture, and the Pueblo Indians with their modular towns, are among the most unusual of the aboriginals.
One quality common to all factions is the artistry lavished on architecture and armies. GSC may have missed the 3D boat but, when their own shipping is so stunning, you can’t really blame them for sticking with an isometric view. New larger buildings lend settlements a much more realistic air. Animations, from the collapse of a dying bison to the way an idling mounted officer occasionally pats his steed, are extremely effective. Watching the new visible cannon crews manhandle their guns into position, then go through the detailed loading ritual, is enough to make you think the whole polygonal RTS experiment might actually be a terrible mistake. But that notion passes soon enough as you find yourself struggling with the fixed perspective and the restrictive, two-phase zoom. The rural landscape, despite some lovely babbling brooks, cascading cataracts and shimmering reflections, has that stillness and underlying flatness that will always whisper ‘artifice’.
Subtly stitching history into the cloth of uniforms and stamping it into the steel of weaponry and technology deserves praise. Shovelling it down the throats of players in slow-scrolling textual mission briefings is less commendable. The 42 campaign missions themselves use events like Pizarro’s destruction of the Incas and the War of Independence as context, and are generally enjoyable, but they lack the attention to detail and narrative energy of the genre giants. Since Cossacks, the AI has been swotting up and gorging itself on red meat. Take it on in the well-appointed skirmish mode, and even on low difficulty levels you may well find yourself on the wrong end of a whipping. Of course, multi-player is the ultimate test of skill, and here AC has inherited all of the fine features and the feverish intensity of its forebear.
Talking of feverish intensity, as well as considering the game do bear in mind the AC Health Spa too. There’s really no better way of getting in shape, and I hear that if you book before April you now get timber wolves thrown in for free.
Written by Tim Stone
Original date of publish: 13.02.2003