Date of publish: 25/10/2020 16:59 CET
Is this overdue RTS sequel a no-pull-you-in dud or Napoleonic dynamite?
Cossacks and its series of expansions have been popular among the armchair strategist end of the RTS-fan spectrum. Although we’re not entirely sure what Cossacks have to do with the Napoleonic Wars, we’re certainly pleased to see an RTS set outside the confines of fantasy, high-tech future warfare and, yawn, World War II. Thankfully, Cossacks II brings a pretty decent game along with its relatively uncommon setting.
Cossacks II is the work of GSC Gameworld, previously responsible for the official movie licence of Alexander. Although a quick glance may suggest a very similar game, aside from a few gameplay quirks – Alexander was not only an RTS, but used the same engine – Cossacks II is happily a far superior effort. Using the same engine was a brave move in a market packed with fully-3D polygonal RTS titles, but Cossacks II’ quasi-3D approach doesn’t really impinge upon the gameplay in any significant way at all. While some may complain at being unable to have free control over the camera, we found the set camera (with an option to zoom) perfectly functional.
It’s always a welcome sight to see a decent selection of modes on offer when you first load up a game, and Cossacks II doesn’t disappoint in this area. The skirmish mode offers a good chance to play around on a few different maps without worrying about objectives, or to practice for the multiplayer mode (which we’ve yet to try fully, as the game hadn’t been released at the time of review). There’s also a set of battles from the era pre-set ready for you to jump into, which is a nice touch. As you’d expect, a campaign mode is also present. As well as offering some fairly decent tutorials explaining the basics, along with a few finer points of battle tactics and how to get the most out of positioning and so forth, a full set of objective-based missions are also on hand.
The Battle for Europe mode is the one that’ll most likely take you by surprise though. Someone at GSC is obviously a fan of the Total War series, as this mode basically offers a 2D turn-based map of Europe for you to perform manoeuvres, do a bit of trading, and spend money on craftier tasks such as sabotaging enemy governments. The problem is that this part of the game is neither as refined nor comprehensive as its Total War cousins. It’s not hugely user friendly either, and is needless to say blown out of the water by Rome: Total War, leaving behind a nagging feeling that it was only really included to court comparison. Nevertheless, it’s a brave effort that holds some water, and still playable enough to have some appeal, but ultimately the implementation leaves a little to be desired.
Let’s not get sidetracked though – the main name of the game is the RTS action, and what there is here offers some good tactical play. The selection of units on offer conform to the well established notions of unit matching and balancing, as each game involves you controlling several well-populated brigades, but several extra layers are added into the mix. Formations play an extremely important role in your success. There are three main formations available – one for marching, one for lining up to face a particular direction, and a third that forms your men into a box to allow a compromise between attack and defence. Some planning is needed, as leaving your men positioned in their offensive formation for a short while grants them a “stand your ground” bonus defence – effectively, they’ve dug themselves in.
The maps have been designed well in that roads play a crucial role when shifting your men around. Ordering them into travel formation will see them actually form specifically into a marching formation on the road. As well as moving more quickly, they’ll also tire far less. Tired men are bad news when it comes to battle, as this can hit their morale – another cleverly implemented system which can play a major role in any given battle, particularly as (in another nod to Rome: Total War) men whose morale drops too low will bugger off sharpish.
One element that Cossacks II does hold over Rome: Total War is that resource collection is a factor. In addition to ordering your peasants to collect wood, rock, iron and so forth in a fashion similar to Age of Empires, they can knock up buildings, from which a stream of men will appear, ready to be formed up into a brigade. Falling short of certain resources can be rectified by simply sending your men to capture villages, the occupants of which will continue turning out supplies to their new masters. Don’t expect to play in the Command & Conquer style of knocking up a base though – thought is required here.
Some effort has clearly been put into the presentation, with re-enactments of the era played out at opportune moments in a mini window, for example when reloading muskets. It doesn’t add much to the game though, and neither do the disappointing graphics – okay, we freely admit they don’t hurt the game’s playability, but this is 2005. The voice acting is generally fairly embarrassing across the board too, although the sound effects are suitably clangy in the right places. We noticed a few glitches while playing – nothing more serious than the odd bit of surprising pathfinding or failure to respond to orders – but again, nothing too serious.
There’s certainly a market for this type of game, i.e. a tactically sound (the RTS part, at least) historical RTS that’s bound to appeal to enthusiasts of the period, not to mention fans of the previous Cossacks titles. Nevertheless, we can’t help but feel that it’s all a little on the dated side. An RTS that hasn’t been designed for the C&C; crowd isn’t a bad thing, but Rome: Total War has already demonstrated that more tactical offerings are capable of crossing the boundaries and appealing to all sub-sets of RTS gamers. While Cossacks II doesn’t achieve this lofty status, it is still a good option for the strategists – judged on those merits, it’s unlikely to disappoint.
Written by Michael “Parallax” Filby
Original date of publish: 11.04.2005