When thinking about the setting behind most real-time strategy games, it occurred to me that there are two obviously identifiable styles around which this genre is centered. The first relies heavily on fantasy elements in worlds where Elven thralls battle untold goblin hordes, each army hurtling bolts of magical ether and arrows as their weapons. This style is best generalized by the Warcraft series. The other prevalent setting involves modern or futuristic warfare where plasma tanks and stealth fighters replace ogres and griffins. This style has to its credit one of the most well known real-time strategy titles of all time; namely, Starcraft. Both of these styles consist primarily of fiction, presenting quite a few ‘what-if’s.’ With the possible exception of the Age of Empires series, history buffs have never really had a real-time strategy title geared towards recreation and re-enactment. To get a proper fix of battlefield history, many players have been forced to rely on pure strategy games with little or no real action. One might think that playing armchair general would probably be more enjoyable if your orders were issued in real-time. The folks who are bringing Europa Universalis to American shores this month, have another offering in the works which easily has the potential to stand in the historical void which has existed in real-time strategy up to this point. Cossacks: European Wars is far more than another Age of Empires clone, taking much of what makes the genre memorable and integrating the usual horde of improvements and unique features.
Like so many of other titles from this company, Cossacks has a strong basis in historical fact, which makes it all the more enjoyable to play, both for people who know their history and those who are willing to do a little research. The setting for Cossacks: European Wars is between the 16th and 18th centuries. During this span of 400 years one can imagine that many famous conflicts took place aside from the one that we remember most here in America. Most prominently featured in Cossacks will be campaign style presentations of the Thirty Years War (rebellion against the oppression of Austria’s Hapsburg dynasty), Spain’s War of Succession which took place from 1701 to 1714, the Northern War of Russia’s attack on Sweden; and finally, the seven years war of expansionist terror by Prussian King Friedrich II. In each campaign you will have a large selection of long missions to complete, which entail anything from crushing rebel insurrections to besieging enemy towns from sea. When you assume command of your forces, you will most certainly feel more than a quick sting of loss when troops perish under your command. Cossacks brings home the bitter taste of war in a unique way; by tying the fate of your mission to the life of your commander.
Taking on a persona is not a new concept in real-time strategy games. Who can forget the Starcraft missions where you were presented with the nearly impossible task of keeping Jim Reynor alive on his pathetic little land cycle? In Cossacks, your commander doesn’t quite have the personality of Tassadar or Kerrigan, but your missions will suffer the same fate should he perish in the line of duty. Most infantrymen are very capable of continuing the pursuit of their orders without the presence of a commanding officer. The efficiency with which large groups function, however, takes a serious hit without guidance and organization — two qualities that officers bring to the masses of soldiery. The one lesson you will doubtless learn is that protecting your commander should be very high on the priority list, since the mission will immediately end if your virtual representation is killed. Tying players into the action via a commander is not the only addition cooked up in Cossacks: European Wars. Taking even a quick look at the gameplay mechanics themselves will tell any Starcraft series veteran that Cossacks is not your average RTS title.
Cossacks uses a highly modified form of the resource gathering/construction system employed by a great majority of real-time strategy offerings. What makes this system unique is that like more complex strategy games, you will need to establish a working economy in order to build and support a large army. There are a total of six resources you will need to draw from including wood, stone, iron, gold, coal, and food. When you discover a source of gold, iron or coal, the supply that can be drawn from the mines is infinite, proportional only to the number of peasants you assign to dig. Food, wood and stone can all be drawn from sources which are normally abundant. With older titles such as Starcraft, the general strategy was to build a large number of powerful units, overwhelming enemy defenses with little regard to economics once the entire gamut of buildings had been finished. Cossacks changes this strategy by forcing you to maintain levels of resource output.
An effective army is a well-fed army, it is said. To keep your soldiers alive and in good spirits, you will need to maintain four of the six different resources. Food is the most obvious, as your soldiers will need to eat, and as you add more bodies to your army, the surplus of food you have gathered will diminish at a faster rate. Being more advanced with regards to technology means that you will need to keep your army supplied with far more than swords and pikes. Ammunition is not free in Cossacks, leaving you to keep your army supplied with iron and coal to make bullets, cannonballs, and explosives. Some units even require a small amount of gold to attack. The economics of battle is one area that sets Cossacks: European Wars apart from the standard real-time strategy faire. The innovation on the battlefield doesn’t end by any means with the supply line.
Cossacks boasts the ability to have 8000 units engaged in combat during one scene. Though I cannot imagine ever fitting a battle of that magnitude on the screen — except perhaps in 1600×1200 — being given the option of creating huge armies and leading them into battle in multiple column formations is quite a daunting proposition. The types of military units you will be able to create range from infantry and cavalry to the more powerful artillery units. Naval support rounds the list out, giving you the option of blockading towns and bombarding the buildings with cannon-fire. Military maneuvers are complicated by the fact that Cossacks introduces some semblance of realism into its battles. For this reason, your gunmen and artillery will want to seek for the elusive high-ground, as they will be able to shoot farther and more accurately from heights. The fog-of-war is also expansive depending on unit height, and will contract and expand due to the perceived line of sight possessed by your troops.
Supporting your military will be the large townships that you will build and govern. Like with most real-time strategy games, more advanced buildings have lots of prerequisites and take some time to construct. One nice feature added with the sole reasoning of speeding up production is the ability to assign multiple peasants to one job. If you begin construction of a cathedral with one peasant slaving away, odds are that the task won’t be finished for a while. If you assign ten or eleven peasants to the construction, you can practically watch the walls fly up. The technology tree in Cossacks: European Wars promises to keep players researching new discoveries for a long time. Over 300 discoveries are waiting to be made in total, bringing advances in all forms of military and economic effectiveness. Eventually, however, your discoveries and superior tactics will probably overwhelm the enemy AI, leaving you wondering where to go next — albeit after many, many hours of entertainment. Fortunately, Cossacks also includes multiplayer for up to eight players simultaneously. Interested parties can choose from any of the 16 included nations to raise up their armies and march onto the field of blood and glory.
Overall Thoughts: Cossacks: European Wars represents the culmination of classic-form real-time strategy. Were it not for the recent expansion of this genre into the realm of 3D with titles like Sacrifice, I would say that the genre was seeing its last days of innovation with this release. So long as the memory of Starcraft looms over the past and the possibilities of Warcraft III burn brightly in the future, there will always be a demand for classic style RTS games. Cossacks: European Wars offers far more than most other products in the genre. The battles you will fight are epic and realistic in nature, giving you an experience beyond anything you might have while dueling a handful of tesla tanks in Red Alert 2. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Cossacks: European Wars is the fact that it focuses so heavily on historical events. To get a fix of accurate history in most games is nearly impossible unless you find a complex and normally tiresome pure-strategy title. Cossacks brings all the fast-paced entertainment of real-time strategy and gives it a gorgeous face-lift, complete with historical encyclopedia. This is one game that any and all fans of the RTS genre will want to keep a close eye on.
Massive battles with almost 8000 units.
Historically accurate depictions of battles.
Powerful economic system which is easy to manage.
Diplomatic as well as military solutions.
Huge technology tree with over 300 discoveries.
Realistic physics modeling.
Multiplayer support for up to eight gamers.
16 Nations, each with a unique architectural style.
From the same company which is bringing you Europa Universalis.