Date of publish: 10/10/2020 11:10 CET
Last year’s Cossacks: European Wars earned itself plenty of praise in the strategy gaming world. With campaigns based on the actual events of European military history and the ability to have up to 8000 units knocking around at any one time, what impressed most about this game was its scale. After you had built up your forces in very Age of Empires fashion, huge battles would take place with massed ranks of pikemen or musketeers advancing upon each other, cavalry rushing down the flanks and heavy artillery raining cannonballs on to anyone unlucky enough to come within range. In a genre where combat usually ends up in an undignified, messy scrum, it was refreshing to see that the Cossacks developer (Ukrainian outfit GSC Game World) had at least attempted to inject some tactical realism into their product with unit formations and the like. That isn’t to say that Cossacks was without it weaknesses. Trying to control the larger armies in real-time was far from easy: while you were concentrating on one part of the battle, the computer (which doesn’t share a human being’s multi-tasking shortcomings) would be slaughtering your men elsewhere with ease. The game was also devilishly hard, even on the lower skill settings, and the learning curve was particularly unforgiving towards
newcomers. In the year or so since release, GSC has had the chance to remedy these shortcomings – and this is doubtless one of the reasons why an expansion pack has been released.
The Art of War doesn’t set out to drastically change the nature of the original game. There isn’t any need to do so, and the purpose of
this package is merely to add plenty of nice things on to an already solid product. And add it does.
First of all, the list of nations available to the player has been expanded by two – Denmark and Bavaria – taking the total to sixteen. These aren’t particularly spectacular in any respect, but manage to fit in very well with the others. Both new nations have their own
original building architecture, one unique unit, and a few basic strengths and weaknesses in particular areas. America, which has been requested as an additional nation by hundreds of US Internet users, looks set to be included in a future add-on. There are also several new units in the game, including six new warships such as the Ketch and the 18th century Ship of the Line, which can fire a salvo of shots instead of just one at a time. There are also two additional unique Prussian units, the 18th century Infantryman and the Hussar.
There are plenty of additions when it comes to single player missions. The original wasn’t exactly short on these, but GSC has
added a lot more nonetheless. There are six standalone missions (see box), and five campaigns (featuring a total of 30 missions), each of which is purportedly based on actual events in Europe’s turbulent history. The countries featured in these new campaigns are Prussia, Austria, Saxony, Poland and Algeria. If this isn’t enough, there are also six historical battles to re-enact in multiplayer mode. Just as with the original game, these short multiplayer clashes thumb their collective noses at resource gathering and settlement building, giving you instead two ready-made armies and a battlefield and leaving you to get on with the important business of fighting.
As well as the numerous additions, GSC has implemented a great deal of amendments, clearly designed to improve gameplay by either fixing an existing problem or by simply giving the player more choice about how he or she plays the game. One very simple change that affects the whole of the game is that you now have the ability to issue orders toyour troops and peasants while the game is paused. We have seen this feature put to good use in games such as Shogun: Total War and Baldur’s Gate. When you unpause the game, your charges immediately go and do whatever it is you – in your infinite wisdom – have told them to. This may not sound all that significant, but it completely obliterates one of the main problems that people had with Cossacks: maintaining control of large armies. Whereas before it was impossible to properly co-ordinate attacks or simply to keep an eye on all your forces at once, especially if they were located at several different points on the map, it is now a matter of the utmost simplicity. The game is all the better for it, and it means that you no longer need to rely on having superior numbers to win battles – you can now attempt previously near-impossible tactical manoeuvres such as pincer movements and outflanking the enemy with cavalry while infantry
occupy them at the front. Simply put, you now feel like you have real control over your troops, something that was rarely the case in the original game.
Those who enjoy playing the random map skirmishes, either against the computer or against a friend, are well catered for by The Art of War. There are a whole host of new options available when playing these games, such as the ability to begin the game with an army. Various sizes of force can be chosen, and this is good news to those who had spent the best part of a day trying to build up a force and invade the enemy’s settlement, only to be rebuffed with ease again and again. If you start off with an army, you don’t have to worry about the time-consuming process of building up your village, resources and tech tree. Obviously, the enemy has the same advantage, so you may have to be on your guard from the very beginning of the game. On the other hand, you may not: another new feature is “peace time,” which effectively represents some kind of treaty between you and any enemies on the map. For a length of time (definable by you, and anything between 10 minutes and 1+ hours), the enemy will not be able to attack you, and vice versa. This enables newbies or simply more laid-back players to build up their forces and defences in peace before the inevitable hostilities commence. Other options include the ability to ban certain unit types (such as Montgolfier balloons) and prevent the enemy from capturing peasants and enslaving them.
Troops can now be given orders to patrol an area or to guard specific units or buildings. This was quite a glaring omission from the
original game, especially as certain powerful units (artillery, for example) could be captured by the enemy if left unprotected. Now you can simply assign a group of troops to look after them. There are also new formations for cavalry, which can help determine how well they perform in certain situations. Artillery, meanwhile, can be ordered to shoot at a piece of ground rather than just at a unit; this is presumably intended to make it easier to attack large infantry or cavalry formations.
A game editor has also been included, allowing users to create their own maps and missions. As editors go, this particular one is well
above average: it is very simple to use and most players shouldn’t encounter any difficulties when trying to create their own maps.
Terrain and textures can be altered with the mouse, and trees, units and buildings added in where needed. Editors like this one, where you don’t feel immediately lost, help to greatly extend the life of any game.
The Art of War, as I’ve said, doesn’t drastically change Cossacks. It maintains very much the same feel as the original game, with only the added ability to give orders while paused having a real effect on the way it is played. One thing that seemingly remains the same is the steep learning curve. The new campaigns and single missions have four difficulty levels for you to choose from, but setting them to “Easy” will provide all but the Cossacks veterans with a more than worthy challenge. If you are new to RTS games, you may want to bear in mind that Cossacks is exceptionally unforgiving in a way that say, Age of Empires II is not. Practice helps a lot, but the boys at GSC would have been doing themselves – and us – a favour if they had tweaked the difficulty levels slightly, or simply added a new “Very Easy” option.
Written by Sam Kieldsen