Date of publish: 23/10/2020 15:08 CET
Elegant uniforms, marching in formation, and getting blown away by massed gunfire — welcome to war in the 18th century!
The early 19th century occupies an unusual spot in military history. The revolution of gunpowder was already a few hundred years in the past, meaning that no nation that aspired to military greatness could afford to field an army without guns. Despite the omnipresence of guns on the battlefield, though, they did not yet rule the world. That’s because there weren’t any bullets. Instead, guns fired shot that had to be hand-loaded and tamped down. Since it could take a decent soldier two or three minutes to reload, that gave rise to a curious hybrid strategy in which commanders would move large formations of men around the battlefield, trying to get them in position to fire a volley, and then charge into hand-to-hand without losing too many men to return fire. This kind of warfare was as much about getting into the right position in the right formation as the actual fighting itself.
Russian developer, GSC Game World, has virtually owned this period of history for some time via its Cossacks series. For all the critical success those games have enjoyed worldwide, though, it’s never developed the high-profile cache that many other RTS franchises command. Part of that may be because Napoleonic-era warfare just doesn’t have the same “sexiness” of other eras (this was, after all, the time for which the term “set-piece battle” was coined). Part of that might also be because when it comes down to the divide between more casual and mainstream-friendly RTS games and the hardcore titles, the Cossacks games have always fallen firmly on the hardcore side of the fence. That may change with the release of Cossacks II.
The first thing that Cossacks veterans will notice is that while much is familiar, the game “feels” a bit different this time. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the impression that the game’s big new feature, “Battle for Europe” was inspired by the success of Rome: Total War. The Battle for Europe is a turn-based gaming mode played out on a map of Europe divided into territories. Each territory, of course, provides men and material that the players will use to fuel their imperial ambitions. Every turn the player gets an opportunity to move their army around, to go to market to buy and sell needed resources, and to use the diplomacy screen to negotiate agreements with other regions — everything from getting permission to move troops through to buying their allegiance outright. They may also receive “missions” within the game from other countries that can provide badly needed resources or other rewards.
In their position as commander-in-chief, players will also take on the identity of a famous military leader of one of the great powers of the era. Personalities available include the Duke of Wellington, Prussian Marshal von Blucher, and, of course, the Little Emperor himself, Napoleon Bonaparte. As the game begins, you’ll gain control of these historical figures at the start of their career. As such, they won’t have much ability, rank, or recognition. As players bring Europe under their iron boot, though, their generals will grow in skill and reputation, adding to the sophistication of the forces they’re able to lead (and adding things like engineers, cavalry, and eventually, artillery).
Naturally, all of this strategizing and political maneuvering is all in service to one goal: getting your troops where they need to be in order to bring it under your benevolent protection via an RTS battle. This, of course, is the heart of the game. And it looks (and plays) pretty well so far.
Combat in Cossacks II is all about formations and position. Each unit has three basic formations: “Square,” which is an immobile defensive position; “Column,” which is a fast, tight formation best suited for road travel; and “Rank,” a slow moving formation designed for one thing: launching a solid wall of lead at other people. It’s in this formation that your men will do most of their fighting.
Players familiar with other RTS games shouldn’t presume they know too much about the way this works, though. You can’t just order your troops to attack and forget about them. Every individual conflict will require serious strategic judgment on the part of the commander. In this, Cossacks II seems to do an excellent job capturing the key elements of the era’s warfare. To start, every unit has a morale level that’s increased by killing the enemy and decreased by taking fire and casualties. Formations whose morale falls too low will break up and start running. This was often referred to by seasoned military leaders as “a bad thing” since soldiers out of formation in this era were often referred to as “targets.” Terrain also plays a critical role in the game, as forests can help shield formations from an initial volley long enough to either reload and get off another shot, or fix bayonets and go all “stabby” on the other guys.
That makes every battle a fascinating dance of maneuvering formations. In the above example, a commander may want to continue to fire to keep the column distracted long enough for another formation to move into position. Players can order only the first line of troops to fire, hopefully enticing the enemy formation into moving closer where they can then be peppered by the second and third lines. Should you change to a column formation to get your men down a road faster or will that make them too vulnerable to an ambush from around the next hill? What’s their fatigue level? Are they experienced enough to take on a column of hardened Germans, or should you give them a little seasoning by hitting up one of the local militias?
In fact, after playing the game in single-player mode for a couple of hours, I’m quite intrigued by the many novel, strategic challenges this kind of warfare offers. Unlike games set in earlier or later eras, the object of Cossacks II seems to be as much about breaking the spirit of the enemy as killing them. While there is some base building and resource gathering in the game, the economic model that’s under your direct control seems deliberately incomplete. Several resources can only be acquired from villages that are spaced around the map. Keeping and holding these villages is vital, since without them, players will quickly find themselves starved for things like gunpowder and food to build new units. During the game, then, blocking certain resources can easily drive down enemy morale, making their formations easy prey.
At the moment, I only have a few reservations when it comes to Cossacks II. The first is how the game will play out in multiplayer. I’ve been having a blast moving my little tin soldiers around the battlefield. I do find that battlefield success requires quite a bit of micromanagement, though, especially once you have 15 or 16 separate formations zipping through the countryside. While the game comes equipped with an “order while paused” feature, it obviously can’t be used in multiplayer. The other is whether the subject matter or the slow pace of gameplay might serve to limit the audience — and that’d be the real shame. The Napoleonic era isn’t one that’s been utilized all that often and it’d be wonderful if a larger audience of strategy gamers could enjoy this unique period in history. Maybe Cossacks II will be their ticket.
Spiffy: New “Battle for Europe” mode; original economic system; excellent morale system.
Iffy: Lots of micromanagement; pace could be improved.
Original date of publish: 10.02.2005