Date of publish: 31/10/2020 17:57 CET
The bodies of your soldiers litter the battlefield, a food shortage has befallen your men, and you are low on gunpowder. With the enemy standing their ground on a formidable hilltop position, you decide to make one last desperate rush for glory. Preparing the men to charge, you command your grenadiers to soften the defenders with a barrage of explosives. Rearing back, the grenadiers eye their targets, then let loose a..a…a…
Oh, apparently there is a problem – the game is freezing. Let’s wait it out, maybe there is another program running in the background or something.
Fifteen minutes, and sporadic slow-motion explosions later, the game kicks back in.
Unfortunately for gamers craving some Napoleonic War action, they will have to put up with several situations like the one detailed above if they want to conquer Europe. The original Cossacks was a fairly straightforward real-time strategy game that made its name with its massive unit formations. Cut to several years, and releases, later, and CDV has decided to refine their formula to compete with some of the bigger releases in the genre. Now there are both turn-based and real-time elements, and the game feels like a mix between Rise of Nations and Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!, but it can’t manage to best any of its inspirations.
As Prussia, Russia, France, England, Egypt, or Austria, you can embark on the conquest of Europe, facing off against other internet generals or those of the computer in a story-based campaign. For the traditionalists out there, the skirmish is exactly how the original Cossacks is. The campaign is a tutorial of sorts, with a slight backstory, that is extended and not bad at all. There are also historical battles, but these tend to be extremely easy. The main problem with the historical battles is one that permeates the other modes as well, which is that the computer never seems hungry for victory. Instead of trying to reinforce lines or break my artillery with a flanking maneuver, the computer would let me break through their lines, take full advantage of the holes in their defenses and fail to stop my long-range arms from decimating their formations. Cranking the difficulty up makes it tougher, but it doesn’t make it that much more fun. The heart of the game, though, is the Conquest mode.
In Conquest, the nation you choose has you as the leader of the military at that time, complete with background information. As you fight, you will gain experience, and the experience will allow you to climb up in the ranks and have more men under your command. The troops are broken down into infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The game makes a pretty big deal about each nation-specific unit being individual in their characteristics, but I found them to serve better as a show of pageantry than anything else. Watching grenadiers in their bright yellow coats, Highlanders in their kilts, and the Black Corps in their black and blue uniforms parade around the battlefield, with debris flying up from cannon shot and gunpowder thickening the air, it’s for a satisfying sight. As the men fight they will gain morale, and because of the tactics of the day morale is much more integral in Cossacks II than in most other strategy titles.
The planning phase is done on a Risk-style map. The pre-battle portion plays like Rise of Nations (sans the playing card aspect) in that each nation only has one army and that army makes one turn per move – although, there are times when the weather might slow down movement or morale speed it up. Territory under your control is protected by garrisons that can be strengthened by allocating more resources to them. Defense of an invaded territory without the presence of the main army isn’t up to you, though – it is computer-controlled. A downside to this is that the computer seems to be able to bowl over all but the mightiest of defenses after the second or so try. During this portion, embattled nations will offer money for you to attack others, for peace, or for treaties to allow for things like moving their army through your territory. Every now and then the repelling of or victory over an enemy army will cause some of the territories belonging to the defeated foes to switch allegiances over to the victor. Once a main army is brought into the fight, the game starts to turn towards a more Gettysburg! style, with its linear combat formations.
At the start of a battle your men are lightly concentrated in one spot, with others spread about in single and multi squad clusters. What is crucial at this point is resource gathering. To gather resources, your men must simply kill the militia of a settlement. While all the materials are important during the map portion of the game, since this is when gold can be traded for necessary items and the other materials can be used to raise troops, the battlefield only requires two goods: food and coal (gunpowder). When food runs out, a famine begins, and those are absolutely devastating. Running out of gunpowder means using spreading out your shots to make them all count, then rushing with bayonets. The resources gained on the battlefield won’t count towards your bottom line, they simply slow down the depletion of your stockpile, so there is always an artificial timer for every conflict.
Now, resources play a much larger role in the strategy, instead of simply being used to amass troops. If the enemy army is vast, it is entirely possible to cause them to retreat by holding all the settlements without food, causing the onslaught of starvation. The defenders don’t really have much of an advantage, either: while their stockpiles tend to be greater, they must also chase down an assaulting force running through, taking settlement after settlement. Because the battles cannot be saved, meaning it’s either victory or defeat (retreat), stockpiling resources during the map phase of the utmost importance.
When you have all your soldiers’ needs met as well as possible, it’s time to begin the fighting. Troops have either a column formation for faster movement; a line formation for offensive maneuvers (with an automatic defense boost if left for too long as they go into Stand Ground mode); and a hollow square defensive structure that cannot be moved, but is very powerful. Road networks connect the settlements, and moving off of them causes a severe fatigue penalty (once troops get too tired, fatigue can drain their morale), so battles tend to come quickly at random spots as troops make their way across the map. There are combat engineers who can build towers and forts to defend with cannon and rifle shot, respectively, as well as priests to give aid to fighting troops. The rest of the combat will be done by the three standard types. Because of the time necessary to properly setup troop movement, in both regrouping and amassing forces to meet the enemy, the game becomes less real-time and more quasi turn-based, with frequent pausing occurring so orders can be issued. A real method would’ve been nice, other than pause-order-pause-order, but it’s a start.
What makes Cossacks II enjoyable, and the game unique, is the setting. The strict formations require some methodical movements to ensure that troops aren’t left with their back to a cavalry charge or their flank open to a volley of fire. This is where morale comes in. Morale allows for a company to take a full blast – troops can be ordered to fire one line specifically or all at a time – at a relatively close range and either counter fire or charge, without breaking rank and running away. This means that it is absolutely crucial to keep squads alive, because as the game goes on the other generals will have armies capable of sustaining heavy damage and the ability to continue fighting. Captured settlements produce replacement troops, so battlefields tend to have a fierce front line with logistics being handled in the background. The computer never seems to get the hang of this, unfortunately, and tends to go with a waiting game, or tries to use its cavalry to outmaneuver the infantry. As the front lines bristle with fire, cannons will be popping off in the background, causing rows of men to fall as the balls roll to a stop (which is pretty humorous) and unsuspecting assaulters to fly in the air as they surround the exploding shell. All the while, gunpowder and food are dwindling rapidly. Since the resources are used so quickly, battles can be fairly short with one side withdrawing, or both sticking it out for twenty to thirty minutes battles that normally end in hand-to-hand combat. With terrain causing chokepoints and offering advantages (cannonballs tend to diffuse around water), luring an opposing army into a well-placed trap can be an extremely satisfying endeavor – cannons can be a bit unwieldy on hilltops, though.
While all of this is fun, and a nice change of pace, it doesn’t help the fact that the game doesn’t feel finished. Aside from non-technical eyesores, like text spilling out the sides of the menus, the game is fraught with technical problems as well. After being defeated as Prussia, I went ahead and tried to restart the campaign. Then the game crashed. I tried again, and again, the game crashed. And so on. I ended up having to create a new profile to try bringing Prussia to its rightful glory again; instead of a standard menu offering to restart or quit or to only quit, it’s like the game skips the middleman, concludes that you suck, and kicks you out. After starting the new profile, I went back to the map, got into a fight, began to load the battle (the game also has lengthy long load times) and the game crashed. Then it crashed again on my next attempt. After a handful more times I was finally back in action. Then came the extended periods of freezing.
For whatever reason, the game simply cannot take grenades. Any time I used grenades the game would literally stop for anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes at a time. After a few minutes there would be half a second of movement, and the only perk of that meant there was an additional half second of sound that was added to the loop. The game is also sluggish – since there is a patch already out to increase game speeds by 25% for those with less than 512MB of Ram (not me), it seems as though they are aware of the problem.
Selecting troops was also a daunting task. Several times the selection simply wouldn’t register, and other times it would select all of that one unit type or all of the units around them. Since so much damage can be taken from a volley at an optimal angle, accidentally sending troops turning around during the middle of a fight meant the loss of some hard-earned experienced men, which just isn’t acceptable. The only way I could somewhat alleviate my problems was by constantly pausing the game – another pat on the back for whoever’s idea that was. Pausing didn’t stop the problem of units not being selected, or being deselected, but it did allow for there to be less dire consequences. Rotating the troops is handled well, consisting of simply choosing the formation you wish for them to take and holding down the mouse and dragging the arrow to show which direction you want them to face. There were ways of making the experience easier, but they seem to have just gotten bogged down in the game’s sluggishness.
Also, a bit of an anomaly is the usage of full-motion video. Despite being out of sync vocally, they were just kind of weak. Whenever an order is issued, a small screen in the middle or so shows a re-enactor bellowing out the order and at the bottom a window opens up to show re-enactors carrying it out the orders. It’s novel, but also pretty distracting. There are some nice on-screen indicators, like damage radius when selecting an attack (melee or long range) and lines showing which roads traveling troops will take, which add to the clutter but are very useful. Maybe a bit more time in Q&A was needed.
I actually spent a lot of time with Cossacks II. I can see where the developers were going with this, and I really like the direction. They took line combat and made it fairly fast paced and enjoyable, with enough small, interlinking factors to really give the game a synergy. The problem is that the premises were never totally delivered on and the game is so slow and buggy that it will easily turn people off. Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars has promise, and is enjoyable, but it’s an experience that isn’t ready for your attention just yet.
Written by Ryan Newman
Original date of publish: 25.05.2005