Date of publish: 28/10/2020 18:18 CET
I’ll be the first to admit that I had the wrong idea about GSC Game World’s Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars before I got my hands on it. Being new to the Cossacks series, I naively imagined a hexagonal, turn-based strategy akin to a modern-day Civilization. I was wrong, to put it directly (most notably because Cossacks II is real-time, not turn-based). Cossacks II turned out to be an interesting title that surprised me in several ways – some surprises were pleasant, others less so.
I’m no history major. I’m just a regular Joe who loves his videogames more than anything else (eating and sleeping included). And as a conservative guess, I’d say there’s a slim chance even half of Gaming Horizon’s readers are currently professors of history. That being said, I shall lift the suspense and unveil the meaning of the word Cossack: a guerilla or adventurer (send all “not exactly” letters to firstname.lastname@example.org). Trust me, I read it on some random Internet site, so it must be divine truth.
Don’t worry, people. You don’t have to be history majors to appreciate Cossacks II. As the name subtly implies, this here is a real-time strategy war game set in the European era of Napoleon fame (mid 1980’s, I believe). It’s not very history-heavy, though, and not knowing the exact play-by-play of the real-life battles that occurred in Europe 200 years ago won’t stop you from enjoying this game. In fact, it might be beneficial, as history buffs might take offense at the game’s very liberal retelling of the tales. Creative license, anyone?
The game begins when you return home from officer training only to find that your old town has been ransacked by attackers and your father taken captive. Once you take back your hood, you’ll progress through various missions, mainly expanding the size of your forces and influence, taking over small villages, and pushing the enemy forces back. Those darn French will be tough to beat once you get far enough along, even if the A.I. isn’t all that advanced. You can choose between six European powers in Cossacks, including the Russians, French, British, Austrians, Egyptians, and Prussians. There are some minor distinctions between the nations, but for the most part we’re talking different names for their units and unique architecture.
Cossacks II includes a sizeable Campaign mode to trudge through, as well as the option to play a skirmish match on several different maps, and a Battle for Europe mode that adds some aforementioned turn-based elements to the game. Basically, it’s a large map of Europe that you’ll take over piece by piece, battling each move out in real-time, then choosing another move. It’s like the board game Risk, only you command the battles rather than rolling the dice. I’m making no sense now…moving on. Anyway, you’ll also find LAN play and the option to find opponents online if you so choose. Land War is an interesting concept for online lovers – it lets a bunch of players work together (in separate battles) to control entire countries. Unfortunately, lack of time has kept me from really exploring the continuity of Land War. It’ll take a lot of wins for an entire country to be taken, but in theory it’s a nice twist on the status quo of online RTS games.
If you’re used to playing strategy titles like Starcraft, Warcraft, Dawn of War, or the C&C series, you’ll notice that Cossacks II has a totally different feel to it. While it does incorporate some base-building, it is limited. Also, building a bunch of tanks and rushing the other guy’s base really isn’t an option here. Instead, it forces you to play a bit more cautious. You’ll need to take things into consideration including ammunition (running out in a siege is detrimental), fatigue, morale, and food. Rather than single units, you build squads of usually 120 soldiers. Your barracks can mass-produce these little buggers like a candy factory, but they’re essentially useless until you have enough to create a squad. Once you do, simply click the button that melds them into a single squad, and you can finally control all 120 men like a single unit.
You’ll find yourself paying close attention to your squads. You can change their formations, which is a very important lesson to learn. While in a column, they will want to stick to paths/roads when traveling. This may take them in a roundabout way to otherwise direct destinations, but it doesn’t fatigue them. On the other hand, the line formation is what you’ll want to use in most battles for maximum effectiveness. Firing is not automatic in Cossacks. Instead, you command your squads to fire their rifles, and there is a strategic element to this in a few ways. For one, you’ll need to watch your ammunition in some situations in the later levels. Also, when you hover your mouse over the fire icon, circular overlays will appear surrounding your squad. You’ll see three colored layers, green, yellow, and red. Red surrounds your unit very tightly, and firing at enemies that close will deal serious damage. Yellow is medium, while the green area yields some minimal damage. This is made even more important because your units take about 60 seconds to reload their single-shot rifles. If you ever get more than one volley of shots in during a confrontation, you’re lucky. Often a squad versus squad battle is decided solely on the timing of each side’s first volley, as the opening tutorial missions will demonstrate. You can also use the terrain to create advantages. When your units are in the forests, they are partially shielded from bullets, and their range increases with elevation. These little details and timing issues feel strange at first, but quickly become the most enjoyable aspect of Cossacks II.
the bad & ugly
Although the combat in Cossacks II is oddly addictive, it’s a strange title in some respects, with some odd pieces that don’t always seem to fit into the overall puzzle. In the single-player game, you won’t need to worry too much about your base building, especially in the early levels. Eventually, you will need to build a few structures and manage your towns and, to be honest, it just doesn’t fit with the style of the rest of the game. It eventually becomes so engrossing managing your armies, setting their formations, deciding where to place them along the roads, and how to manipulate them to organize the most effective attacks, that by the time you need to worry about base building, you simply won’t want to be bothered by it. It almost felt belittling to have to suddenly concern myself with the trifling life of some lowly peasants, and to make sure they were chopping away on some trees or building some more homes. As I said before, the base building aspect of Cossacks II is limited, and much of the resource gathering is automatic. I simply wish it had all been automated because it seems unnecessary in this particular game. Using your armies to conquer small resource-producing villages seems like enough resource management. Plus, when playing a LAN match, some peasants (on both my side and my opponent’s) simply stopped working near the beginning for no explainable reason. And in single-player, they sometimes react insanely slowly, causing you to issue them the same order five times only because they take so long before actually starting to walk towards their assignments.
You armies are also sometimes slow to react to commands, and have some frustrating path-finding habits. Sometimes they’ll want to take the long way around a town just to stay on the road as long as possible, when they could get to their destination in a quarter of the time simply by walking through a field. Some babysitting is sometimes required to get the AI to do what you’d like it to. The enemy AI, on that note, is also pretty bad. It’ll second-guess itself sometimes, and back out of your firing range on occasion, but for the most part, the AI doesn’t do much. What I mean is that, 80% of the time your squad comes across an enemy squad, it isn’t moving or doing anything at all. Even if you get it in your sights and then walk away without attacking, you’ll usually just see it sitting there until you decide to attack. Basically, the first few levels consist of a few squads that simply wait for you to make a move. The chance of actually being attacked by the AI is slim, unless on a level where you must defend against a scripted attack.
The game has horrendous loading times on a 3200+ Athlon, which is certainly shocking. It also occasionally hangs indefinitely, and my LAN game I talked about above was never completed due to this very issue.
The rest of the game’s problems are mostly dealing with aesthetics and polish. The game looks much better than some of the older historical strategy titles (Cossacks I included), but they’re still decidedly outdated by today’s standards. This is an entirely 2D game made up of sprites. They are detailed and sufficient on the higher of the game’s two detail levels, but significantly less so on the lower setting. There is also no zoom function, and while animations are detailed, this is one of those cases where it looks a little strange when 120 soldiers standing almost right on top of one another move in perfect sync when reloading their guns or marching. Some variety would have been a nice touch. Meanwhile, the musical score is fitting if a little generic for a war game. Drums and horns are the ticket of the day.
Although I don’t mind in the least that the game’s campaign mode is a tale of fiction, the voiceacting is laughable. First of all, you know there’s a problem when the very first line of dialogue doesn’t match the captioning. This is a common occurrence in Cossacks II. Also, the actors say their lines with little to no feeling, and it feels like most of the recordings were done in a single take. And accents? Nobody seemed to even try to recreate an accent – not British, not French, not anything. Most of the characters sound more like a G.I. Joe cartoon than anything else. A lot more effort could have been made in the dialogue department. And knowing is half the battle, folks.
I’ve never played a historical strategy game based on the European battles in the 1800’s. There’s a reason for that: there aren’t many. So Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars certainly has that going for it. It isn’t up against much competition. While it certainly doesn’t stand up against the mainstream RTS games available on the PC, it isn’t a bad title in its own right, and anyone fascinated by the era will find an enjoyable strategy title in Cossacks II. It has its flaws, but they’re excusable seeing as how there’s virtually nobody doing it any better at the moment. In the end, this is a valid purchase for strategy gamers looking to fill the pre-21st century gap in their library.
Written by Chuck Landry
Original date of publish: 05.05.2005