If you thought that Eastern and Southern Europe had been politically messy over the last few years, it’s had nothing on the turmoil that engulfed the whole continent between the 16th and 18th centuries. Assorted parts of Europe seemed to be permanently at odds with others and it is this historical melting pot that Ukrainian developers GSC Game World have taken as the setting for their new real-time strategy game.
The inspiration for the game comes from a very famous painting (famous in the former Soviet Republics anyway), The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV, by Ilya Repin. It depicts a vigorous outdoor meeting as the Cossacks determine precisely what they should be saying to the Turkish Sultan, a detail from which is to be used as the game’s artwork. The nuances of the depicted debate are lost to me, but will undoubtedly be included on the full historical encyclopaedia that will be accessible from the game.
Historical accuracy is one of the key components of the game, its four campaigns taking in the British naval dominance of the period, Ukrainian independence, Peter the Great’s “Window To Europe” and a long campaign as the French attempt to build an empire across Europe.
The intention of the developers was to take Age of Empires and introduce a higher level of realism. These efforts are focused in three ways: the graphics, the resource use and management and, most importantly, the combat.
Graphically, the choice was made to go for a 2D engine using sprites to represent everything on the terrain from soldiers to fortresses. That said, the landscape is fully 3D and, as the level editor shows, very malleable. This allows for maps featuring small escarpments, huge hills and other landscape features, which can be brought into play tactically by the player.
Any moveable object, be it a ship or a mortar, enjoys a minimum of 64 frames of animation. This avoids that ugly effect of a ship or four-wheeled vehicle apparently moving sideways as it turns or moves around the landscape, which is caused by the use of only eight frames of animation. This is especially noticeable at sea where the bigger vessels are delightfully drawn and glide over the waves with some elegance.
The resource management system tries to go a little bit deeper than some other games. There are six resources and players will have to be careful to keep a constant supply of all of them coming in, as any action continually drains valuable stocks. It will cost stone to maintain walls, coal and iron every time a gun is fired, food is constantly needed by an army and mercenaries need a continual supply of gold to keep them happy. Because of this the economic side of the game must be perfected, but initial plays suggest that it isn’t difficult, just demanding of time and attention.
The combat engine is where the game stands out the most. Military combat during the period of the game was very formal, run by generals in the manner of a chess match. Formations and the correct placing of units were crucial to success. Other games have featured formations before of course, but never before have I seen 196 grenadiers move so swiftly into a hollow box formation, and more importantly retain that formation under fire, just as soldiers would have during the period. Two other formations feature – the solid square and the line. With these three, along with orders such as “stand ground”, it is possible to enjoy warfare at a truly tactical level. High ground plays a huge part in tactics, as does playing to the strengths of the available units. With 16 nations and their armies available to play and ally with during the game there is a deal of variation in the way each individual unit plays its part in combat.
It is possible to arrange whole armies of hundreds or thousands of men very easily, and they do seem to do what they are told. It seems probable that even with the claimed 8,000 men and units on screen that will be possible to control one’s army effectively. An extended play of the finished version may yet reveal some flaws but so far all the armies, units and formations hold their cohesion very effectively. This is equally true of the naval battles – a tight formation of weak yachts is capable of holding off a lone battleship long enough for reinforcements to arrive. As with the land battles, proper arrangement of expendable frontline units and the stronger more expensive units is crucial to success. This is important – in Cossacks, units won’t just charge in and enjoy a massive scrap. Tactics and strategy are vital.
If the AI is as strong as it seems after an early play and the number of different units and upgrades doesn’t become overwhelming, then Cossacks has the potential to deliver a rich experience. Cossacks can bring some of the scope and sophistication of tabletop war games to the PC, and along with a challenging economic system, it may give Age of Empires a run for its money.