Date of publish: 29/10/2020 18:49 CET
Playing Cossacks II can be a lot like seeing someone riding in a convertible with the top down and the windows rolled up. You might understand why it’s done, but you’re still left thinking “why the heck?”
First and foremost, Cossacks II isn’t a bad RTS, just a bit quirky. It can be challenging and fun, but it can also be confusing and much, much too long. Some of the game feels very deep, but most of the game is surprisingly shallow.
Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars, as its title suggests, takes place during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the classic era of tactical warfare where horses were still a large part of the arsenal, and gunpowder was just beginning to become useful. Maneuver and formation were more important than initiative, and gaining surprise on an enemy was nearly impossible. It is the era of Clausewitz that inspired countless board games, from Risk and Stratego, to the more detailed cardboard-counter based wargames. The era has also inspired its share of computer games, most notably the Battleground Series. With all this history and precedents behind it, Cossacks II has some big boots to fill. It fills one of them.
“Maneuver and formation were more important than initiative, and gaining surprise on an enemy was nearly impossible.”
Real-time strategy games have a massive challenge facing them: how to be original as to not feel like a clone of some other game, and yet have a streamlined, familiar interface. During combat, Cossacks II succeeds in not feeling like any other RTS game, and the interface is streamlined and reasonably familiar. The downside is that there always seems to be something missing from the game. The command buttons are HUGE and while that makes them easily identified, they take up an unreasonable amount of screen real estate. While there are numbers floating above each soldier’s head as they take damage (this feature can be turned off) those numbers are presented without context. A cloud of numbers floats above your platoons as they take damage, but you never know the total strength of your men, except for their morale. In other words, a -10 might be worrisome if your soldiers can only take 15 units of damage. A -10 can be brushed off if each can take 100 units. Since you never have an accurate assessment of the relative health of your soldiers, the damage numbers are meaningless.
Cossacks II is true to the era, however, successfully involving maneuver and formation into the game. It is more important to correctly position your men, and hold your fire until it is at its most effective, than to try to dump loads of men into combat. A well-ordered, well-formed platoon can easily hold off wave after wave of poorly- or dis-ordered men. Tactical considerations must be much more carefully considered before engagement. The implementation of battlefield tactics is handled better in Cossacks II than in any other game, up to and including the Total War series. In other games, formations are almost for show, disintegrating into a morass of humanity once the enemy is engaged. You can march your men in any formation without too much trouble. Woods can be navigated in good order. This is not the case in Cossacks II, and it is a welcome change. The only effective way to move men around the map is to organize them into columns and march them down roads. You must then find a way to order your men into files prior to engagement, without them being in a choke point, and before the enemy can take a knee and send shot tumbling down your ranks, breaking your men. This is a tall order, and can be very difficult to execute successfully against a prepared, entrenched, formed-up enemy position.
“Cossacks II is true to the era, however, successfully involving maneuver and formation into the game.”
The problem is that your men become disordered almost by habit. If you’re not careful at organizing your soldiers while they are created at the barracks–something very hard to do when you are trying to direct combat–they stumble out of the barracks like so many drunks on new year’s eve, and form up into whatever blob your video card deems convenient. Your barracks does not produce squads as much as it is a humanity factory, producing endless streams of cannon fodder.Forgetting to “shut off” the order for soldiers can leave several hundred men standing around your barracks in no formation and without any commanders to successfully lead them into combat.
At other times, your men and the enemy will just stand around, looking at each other. Even with the melee button turned on, no combat will occur. Even when you expressly select some men and expressly select the enemy to engage, they will just stand around. There are no immediate visual cues to tell you what the problem is, so it is sometimes better to just let these orphans be and continue to conduct the campaign somewhere else.
“Your barracks does not produce squads as much as it is a humanity factory, producing endless streams of cannon fodder.”
The AI is very good, even in the “normal” mode. In one instance, an AI platoon in file formation was facing a player platoon likewise in file formation and with artillery support. Another player platoon was approaching from the AI’s right flank, down a road walled on both sides by steep hills. The AI went into a square formation. This forced the player to fire early and in column formation to try to take advantage of the turned flank. When it takes a minute to reload a rifle, firing first can be fatal. The AI immediately returned very effective, short-range fire down the roadway into the approaching column. This broke the majority of the column almost immediately, rendering them useless. The AI is very good at doing something unexpected forcing you to be creative at stressful times, and ruining your best-laid plans.
On the downside, the AI never seems to need resources. The player must continue to harvest resources, particularly food and coal, or the army will grind to a halt. Dominating the resource points does not choke the enemy’s supply, however, and it can continue to fight to the last man. One could argue that the armies would be supplied from a greater nation, but that questions the entire inclusion of resource harvesting to begin with–it seems included because every other RTS has it.
Sometimes in Cossacks II it is difficult to determine friend from foe. The maps have small villages interspersed throughout. These villages have militias that must be defeated to occupy them. When you occupy a village, the militia becomes friendly, but their uniform stays the same. So late into the game, sometimes the little green guys shoot at you, and sometimes they don’t. It’s up to you to remember which little green guys have been conquered or not. Also, your own divisions have differently colored uniforms. You may be waging a campaign of terror on one side of the map, scroll back to your barracks to create more riflemen, and the AI seems to be sneaking a canon into your town. Immediately recalling some divisions from the front to defend against this threat, you find you cannot engage the cannon whatsoever. Only after several abortive attempts to attack the cannon, during which your men at the front are being neglected, does the realization come that you can click on and move the cannon. Even though the uniform of the artillerymen is light blue and your sappers and musketmen have red uniforms. Even though the enemy you’re fighting is wearing blue uniforms, your artillerymen are wearing light blue. The player is left to somehow decode that the unit is friendly.
“Sometimes in Cossacks II it is difficult to determine friend from foe.”
Combat is easy to execute, but can get confusing in the heat of battle. Determining which platoons have been given permission to fire and those that have not becomes a difficult exercise. In battles that are mostly decided by effective fire and goading your opponent into an inopportune reload, managing your fire orders is of prime importance. When you select a platoon, the fire command is highlighted either maroon or grey, indicating whether they are permitted to fire or not. Until you get used to which color represents which order, you might have to click through several times to determine what the order is. When you select a unit, a series of concentric rings, green, yellow, and red, spread out from your formation, giving you a good visual queue of what damage you’re likely to inflict. It’s a nice addition.
The building, peasant producing, and resource gathering is as every other entry in the genre and is so rote it truly needs no other description.
Cossacks II has four basic modes of play: multiplayer, campaign, skirmish, and a conquer Europe strategic game. The campaign and skirmish are pretty much as above, although the campaign starts you off fighting off a French invasion of England . The conquer mode looks to be the most promising, offering a Total War style map which you can move around and conquer territory over territory “zooming in” to skirmish mode to duke it out. In implementation, though, the strategic mode is lacking. You basically get one army to move across the map, and you can only improve defenses in any particular territory. What should have been the way to play Cossacks II instead feels like a tacked-on afterthought of a shell to launch into skirmish mode.
Cossacks II thankfully comes with a tutorial that most RTS players will be able to master quite easily, even if the tasks required to complete the tutorials are disjointed and do not flow logically from one mission to the next. However, the cutscenes, which basically load another map showing a campsite and giving an inane voiceover describing your next task, take an unforgivably long time to load. Playing a tutorial that loads a cutscene, then asks you to walk across the map for fifteen seconds and produce five more soldiers out of the barracks, then takes three minutes to load back the cutscene seems like a little too much window dressing went into Cossacks II. In fact, the entire game has the same feel: a lot of good ideas ruined by odd implementation.
For every great thing Cossacks II does, there is a strange twist or quirk that takes away from it. Every “wow” moment is followed up by an annoyance. If you have the patience to work through the quirks and play the immensely long missions, Cossacks can be a fun diversion.
“If you have the patience to work through the quirks and play the immensely long missions, Cossacks can be a fun diversion.”
Cossacks II’s maps are very pretty. The buildings and environment looks great. The towns have interesting architecture and cobblestone streets, and have varied enough structures to be able to tell which building is which at a glance. The buildings, which are made of stone, look to have considerable heft. Destroying buildings is satisfying as they catch fire in unique ways and crash to the ground in a nice display of rubble.
The game is able to handle hundreds, if not thousands, of units. Seeing that many units march around the map is impressive, even if the soldiers look a little fluorescent and cartoonish. Wheeling the formations around and setting the artillery and cavalry into position is fluid, well animated, and fun to watch. Unfortunately, once melee combat breaks out, Cossacks II rapid degenerates into a mash of colored pixels so prevalent in other RTS games.
The frame rates in Cossacks II are very high, even at the top resolution and with the detail cranked up. A decently-equipped machine should be able to handle the game without problem, and even a low-end or older system should be able to accommodate Cossack II’s slight demands.
The music is well done and adds to the overall spirit of the era and of the game. The sound effects are reasonably well done, but the sounds of battle are lacking. In other words, what is there is well done; there just isn’t a lot of what’s there.
The voice acting, particularly in the tutorial cutscenes is horrible–a lot of Masterpiece-Theatre-style melodrama in bizarrely upmarket 18th century accents. In reality, RTS games are not played for the voice-overs, so this isn’t truly a consideration.
The game is nicely realized in multiplayer. Included is a land-conquering option that rewards you a small parcel of an enemy’s country with each battle you win. This is a great reward system that really encourages you to go out and fight. Also, co-operative mode really helps alleviate some of the quirks of the single-player game as one player can manage the resources and unit construction while the other wages the campaign. This allows for a much more intelligent production of units and officers.
REPLAY VALUE: 7
Cossacks II is hard! With an intelligent AI, missions take a long, long time to complete, and a multiplayer option that actually improves on the base game, Cossacks II was built to be played over and over. The only question is would you want to?
“Cossacks II was built to be played over and over. The only question is would you want to?”
Fans of the era will find the time invested getting over the bumps and bruises of Cossacks II worthwhile. RTS Fans that expect an experience inline with recent releases will be left wanting. A good-looking game that is sometimes difficult to control. Recommended? Sure–if (like everything else in Cossacks II) only half-heartedly.
– Very challenging AI
– Large Armies
– Streamlined Interface
– Toned-down resource gathering
– Nice multiplayer components
– Control and Pathfinding issues
– Can be frustratingly long
– Lack of in-game information makes management difficult.
– Feels very shallow
Written by jf3t
Original date of publish: 18.05.2005