Date of publish: 26/10/2020 18:59 CET
Sequel to a complex, involving 2001 real-time strategy game set in the 17th and 18th centuries, Cossacks 2 brings the same concepts of large unit combat and complex resource management to the Napoleonic era. It’s not a real-time strategy game for everybody, and certainly has its shortcomings, but there’s enough positive and unique aspects to make it worth considering.
In Cossacks, resources don’t usually come from structures you build — instead, they tend to be generated in small villages spread across the map. These villages have a small militia force capable of holding off attacks for a short time, but they’ll quickly fall to a determined attack. Each village only produces one type of resource (there are six in total), so you’ll need plenty of land for a balanced portfolio.
You’ll also need to budget for upkeep — both in food to support your troops, and in ammunition, which is consumed with every volley they fire. Gunpowder (or coal, as the game bizarrely puts it) doesn’t go far, and supply problems can often be decisive in longer battles.
Once you start building troops, you’ll be surprised at the speed they come piling out of the barracks. Well, until you realize the standard size for an infantry unit is 120 men — and you might have four or five units this size in a moderately sized battle group. Cossacks 2, like its predecessor, throws around much higher numbers of soldiers than other RTS games.
Marching your troops across open ground isn’t a bright idea, regardless of whether they’re under fire or just moving from place to place. They’ll rapidly get tired and start losing effectiveness — instead, all but the shortest movements need to be made along roads, and in column formation rather than the more effective combat lines. And so the map becomes an easily understandable network of defensible alleys and choke points. It’s a smart move.
Fights usually start with the units exchanging musket fire. This isn’t a simple matter; reload times are considerable, and shots are far more effective at close range. Often there’s a period where each unit attempts to outmaneuver the other, trying to trick them into wasting their shot so they can close to point-blank range in impunity.
Morale, rather than casualties, is usually the deciding factor when units fight. It’s increased by killing enemies, and decreased by taking losses, being caught in disadvantageous positions, or marching too far. If it drops too low, the unit will break and scatter, eventually regrouping back at your barracks to be reformed. Just one really good volley can break a fresh enemy unit, so it’s important to understand how to manage and control the morale of your troops.
Battles in Cossacks 2 are surprisingly fast-paced. So much hangs on giving that fire order at precisely the right moment that troops need to be babysat almost permanently. Not that this is a bad thing, of course — hovering over that “fire” command waiting for the perfect shot is when the game’s at its most tense and compelling. It forces you to take advantage of the pause button… and thankfully, you can give orders while paused, because otherwise this game would be unplayable.
The AI handles these fights well, and can be a real challenge up close. There are shortcomings, though — it can’t deal with artillery well, and fixed defenses sometimes seem to bewilder it. Judging by its behavior, we also doubt it’s playing by the same resource rules as the rest of us, which is disappointing. But it’s certainly a stiff opponent, even on the lowest difficulty level.
Graphics are basic, but undeniably appealing. Watching a unit of 120 men march in perfect lock-step into an unsuspecting village makes for visual appeal beyond the fairly mild technical capabilities of the engine. Here, it doesn’t matter that all the troops have the same animations — they’re supposed to all look like they’re doing the same thing.
Another nice visual touch are the video clips that play in small windows at various times, showing soldiers dressed in period costumes shuffling their feet, lining up for battle, or reloading their muskets.
System requirements are strangely high. Something prevents Cossacks 2 from running as fast as it should, and it’s not clear what.
Cossacks 2 offers a single-player story driven campaign, where you’ll witness the deep, deep silliness of having an English commander, with British English subtitles, but an unmistakably gravelly-toned American doing the voice-over. Add on uneven difficulty and dull, lengthy missions, and sadly, this mode misses the target.
Luckily, that’s not all the single-player game has to offer. In addition to the usual skirmish mode (which can also be played online), and a set of maps based on real battles, there’s a Total War-like mode where you can plan campaigns and move troops around in a large-scale, turn-based way. It takes place on a map of the whole of Europe — when an invasion happens, you play a shorter, simplified version of the real-time game to determine the outcome.
But hang on. Wasn’t one of the decisive moments in the Napoleonic Wars when Nelson’s navy defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, preventing an invasion of England? Cossacks doesn’t have naval combat, so troops are assumed to float over the water. Keep your eye on the upcoming Imperial Glory if you want something a little more lifelike, at least in the historical accuracy department.
Thanks to the pace and generally strong AI, Cossacks 2 puts up a stiff challenge to even the most experienced player, and you’ll enjoy having to approach RTS gaming in an original way. But on the whole, this is a game that manages to be less than the sum of its parts. With more polish, a better campaign, and a little more attention to detail, it could have been a real winner. In the end, it’s creative and novel, but its flaws prevent an unreserved recommendation.
Written by Mike Smith
Original date of publish: 03.05.2005