Date of publish: 31/10/2020 10:37 CET
“The most dangerous moment comes with victory.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Released to critical acclaim in 2001 by German publisher CDV Entertainment, Cossacks: European Wars put a new spin on the RTS genre by allowing gamers to choose from no less than 16 playable nations and have up to 8,000 units at a time battle it out on a 3-D modeled landscape. To be sure, it was an impressive game, even if it didn’t quite live up to the hype. With the release of an expansion pack – the Art of War – sold separately or bundled with the game, sales of Cossacks exceeded over 2.5 million copies.
Given Cossacks’ success, the news in mid-2003 that CDV had teamed up once again with Ukraine-based developer, GSC Game World to produce the second title in the series, Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars, was not unexpected. The game was released in April 2005.
While the original game covered European conflict from the 16th to the 18th century, Cossacks II deals with the titanic clash of empires during the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Considered a military genius by some and a power hungry dictator by others, the life and military campaigns of Napoleon continues to fascinate historians and gamers almost two hundred years after he died in exile in Saint Helena.
Yet the image Napoleon conjures up in my mind is something more than a sullen-looking French general with an itchy paunch. For me, Napoleon represents the birth of modern warfare. Fed by the industrial revolution, the Napoleonic Wars witnessed mobilization on an unprecedented scale with armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands and in the case of France and Russia, in the millions. It was a period of mobile warfare, with great clashes occurring not only across the length and breadth of Europe, but also in Africa. And not just on land, but also at sea. Napoleon and the wars he caused were a grand, spectacular event that is ideal for war gaming.
Traditionally, the Napoleonic Wars have been the stomping ground of serious war gamers, or grognards, who consider historical accuracy inviolable and prefer their game-play to unfold at a gentlemanly pace. Cossacks II, however, breaks that mold and recasts it in the increasingly popular RTS format.
But rather than just accepting the game for what it appears to be – a game of resource management and combat played out in real time – and critique it on how well or poorly it does this, this review also assesses how well it portrays the grandeur of the Napoleonic Wars. Finally, given the game’s historical setting, I’ve asked the question, “What does Cossacks II teach us about the Napoleonic Wars?”
INSTALLATION, DOCUMENTATION & TUTORIALS
“The secret of war lies in the communications.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
The game is shipped on two CDs contained in a jewel case. Once installed, it consumes approximately 1.8GB of hard disk space. Unlike many games these days, and to the credit of CDV, Cossacks II comes with an impressive 74-page manual that covers all aspects of the game and is illustrated with relevant in-game screenshots. Players are introduced to the game through a series of tutorials, which collectively – and deceptively – are called the Campaign. The Campaign comprises several missions of increasing difficulty that lead the player through the various aspects of the game from the most basic concepts such as movement, unit construction, attacking and the handling of unit formations. It’s very thorough. But because of this, players familiar with the RTS style of game play may find many of these concepts all too familiar and the going somewhat tedious. I know I wanted to speed the game play up after I understood the concept being taught so I could move on to the next tutorial. Unfortunately, however, the speed of the game can’t be adjusted.
GRAPHICS & SOUND
“The whole art of war consists in getting at what is on the other side of the hill.”
– Duke of Wellington
The game’s graphics are a mixed bag. On the positive side, what the developers have done is wonderfully implemented and pleasing to the eye. The detail on the buildings, terrain and troops is outstanding and a clear improvement on the original game. The look of men marching in column and cavalry rushing across the field goes a long way to capturing the essence of the Napoleonic period. The menus are uncluttered, simple and intuitive. The strategic map is equally attractive. Added to this are several screen resolutions to select from in the Options menu, ranging from 1024×768 to 1280×1024.
On the negative side, however, the game has been designed around outdated graphics technology. Cossacks II displays the action using 2 D isometric technology rather than employing a true 3-D graphics engine, which has largely become the standard in recent RTS games. Consequently, while the game does look good at first glance, players can only view their armies and the terrain from a fixed perspective and from one of two height settings.
So why did the developers, GSC, do this? Here’s the explanation, quoted from the official Cossacks II website:
Unfortunately, by nowadays 3D technology hasn’t yet achieved the level suitable for the creation of really mass military strategies with an expectable [sic] for us graphic quality. The advantages of using 3D in strategies are also doubtful, since very often it leads to a complication of the game, but doesn’t make it more interesting (e.g. map rotation).
I’m sorry, but 3-D technology isn’t yet suitable for mass military strategies and complicates the game? I think gamers familiar with the Total War series and RTS games such as CDV’s Blitzkrieg II and Codename Panzers, to name a few, would find this observation a little hard to believe. As for the game being too complicated to play in 3-D, it does have a Pause mode in the single player game where orders can be issued at the player’s convenience.
One reason for using 2-D sprites is to help keep the system requirements to a minimum. While this may be so, the game’s frame rate will drop dramatically – sometimes for as much as a minute or more – during certain animated sequences, such as when grenadiers hurl their grenades. Issuing orders while the game is forced into this slow motion mode becomes impossible and can have a detrimental effect on the outcome of a battle if it occurs at a critical time.
The sound for the game fairs little better. Again, on the positive side, the sounds of troops marching, cannon roaring and muskets crackling are reasonably well done. On the negative side, the background music is uninspiring – fortunately, this can be turned down or off – and the voiceovers in the Campaign and Skirmish battles are awful. The sound of American accents in a European setting seems particularly out of place.
GAME PLAY & MECHANICS
“I used to say of him [Napoleon] that his presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men.”
– Duke of Wellington
Cossacks II has several modes of play. In addition to the single player Campaign/tutorial, there is also the Battle for Europe, which is what most would recognize as a campaign, Skirmish mode and Battles. It’s also possible to play networked games with up to six players in Skirmish or Battle modes, or multiplayer games over the Internet.
The heart of the single player game is the Battle for Europe. Here, players can select one of six nations with the aim of conquering Europe. The game begins on the “global map”, which is a map of Europe divided into a dozen or so sectors. During the course of a turn, the player can move his or her commander and army into an adjacent sector, build more units, conduct diplomacy, buy and sell goods and read about important events including diplomatic proposals. All of these actions are simple and intuitive. The designers have done an excellent job in making the whole process of waging war and maintaining an army uncomplicated. Moving from one sector to another, for example, is just a matter of clicking on the player’s army and then on the adjacent sector. Red and green arrows appear, indicating whether a move is into friendly or enemy territory. My only gripe with the global map is that it will not always scroll as it should, making it difficult at times to view off-screen sectors.
One of the key drawbacks of the Battle for Europe game is that players are only allowed to create one army. This severely limits the military options available to the player by restricting the fighting to just one front. For countries such as Austria, which is surrounded by almost every other nation in the game, being attacked by more than one enemy makes defending multiple sectors very difficult. Consequently, the player may need to rely on other available strategies such as diplomacy or increasing the level of a sector’s fortification. With diplomacy, War, Peace, Non-aggression pacts, Passage Permission, and Alliances can be established, providing the player has sufficient funds to seal the deal.
Armies can be expanded and improved upon through a combination of combat experience and key national resources, such as population, food, gold, and other raw materials. The more battles an army wins, the more units a general can command. In Cossacks II, units are given the generic label of “squadrons”. For infantry, this comprises 120 men, 45 cavalry and one gun and crew for artillery. An average army would consist of less than 10 squadrons. This doesn’t sound like many troops, and really it isn’t, but any more on the map would make it difficult to play without constantly pausing the game.
When one army moves into a sector occupied by an enemy, the game shifts from the global map to the tactical map. This is where battles between hostile armies are fought.
Prior to the commencement of battle, a briefing screen appears informing the player of objectives and provides an option to play the game with Arcade mode on or off. If the former is selected, the impact that exhaustion and morale have on the outcome of battles is halved. This option is designed specifically to make play easier for newcomers.
The tactical map is typical of RTS games. The terrain is colorful, exaggerated and filled with mountains, forests and towns interconnected by roads. They can all play a useful role in the battle. Hilltops improve line of sight, forests provide cover, roads increase movement and towns can be a source of reinforcements. Areas that aren’t visible to the player’s squadrons are obscured by fog, which magically disperses as friendly troops approach. The only problem I have with the map is the fact that it cannot be rotated. There are times when I wanted to see the troops obscured by a hillside, for example, but wasn’t able to because of the game’s fixed view.
Players don’t have the option of setting up their squadrons on the map. Instead, they will be scattered across one side of the map, requiring the player to bring them together to make an effective fighting force. In one way this reflects the fact that large armies during the Napoleonic Wars often marched on several different roads towards the same objective. They didn’t always arrive on the battlefield at the same time.
Detecting the enemy will be the next step. Sometimes the computer will do this, such as when they capture a village, but otherwise the player will need to dispatch troops to find them. The best squadrons for this task are cavalry as they move much faster than infantry. Once located, the player will need to move the remainder of his or her troops to attack the enemy. When the enemy is in sight, the squadrons will usually need to be redeployed from column, to line formation. Changing formations is easy and is just a matter of clicking on any soldier in the squadron and then clicking one of the three formation buttons at the bottom left of the screen. The formation options include column, line and squares – or wedge for cavalry. Changing a unit’s facing is as equally simple, requiring a right-click and drag to the new direction. I particularly like the use of the mouse wheel to advance or retreat a squadron by a number of steps.
Attacking is also a straightforward affair. Once the player’s squadron is selected with a left click, the enemy unit to be attack is chosen with a right click. Ranges and arcs of fire for artillery are superimposed, making it easy to determine the best time fire, which for infantry can be done by ranks or collectively. Reload times are appropriately modeled, with a green indicator bar showing progress. Other information provided in the lower left corner of the screen includes the squadron’s moral, fatigue, health, number of soldiers and number of weapons loaded.
Artillery can be loaded with grape or canon balls, both of which can have a dramatic effect. As these units have a limited arc of fire, they need to be reoriented to attack enemy squadrons that fall outside this arc. There is no horse-drawn artillery in the game, so movement is extremely slow. The other downside is that they appear in very small numbers, usually only one or two guns per side. Given the extensive use of artillery during the Napoleonic Wars, this is disappointing.
On this point, the overall small number of units a commander has available during a battle, while making for a more manageable game, doesn’t quite convey the grandeur of Napoleonic battles. The sense of scale, while good, is not quite right. On a positive note, each unit in the game has an easily accessible information panel that displays historical details and additional unit statistics.
Unlike many other RTS games, buildings cannot be constructed during this phase of the game. The only exception is the construction of fortifications by engineers. Indeed, in the Battle for Europe mode, there is no need to gather resources or construct buildings. This is only necessary when playing in Skirmish mode.
Apart from the a few relatively minor shortcomings, both the game’s global map and tactical interfaces are very good, making the game simple, intuitive and mostly enjoyable to play.
I do, however, have a major issue with the stability of the game. Despite having installed the latest patch and video drivers, I found the game to be very unstable when playing tactical battles – the global map works fine, except for not being able to scroll at times. On many occasions the game has completely frozen and at least once during a single player game, the battle was concluded without the “fog of war” ever lifting from map. All of my squadrons involved in that battle were apparently destroyed without a shot ever being fired by either side.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI)
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
The game’s AI is generally acceptable. On the global map, the computer opponent can be aggressive, exploiting opportunities and also attacking when the odds are not necessarily in its favor. The same can be said on the most part for tactical battles.
Fortunately, even with many squadrons on the map at one time, the game doesn’t run away with itself. The action unfolds relatively slowly across the map as units advance, fire and retreat if necessary. But players do need to keep an eye on friendly units that are threatened as they will not always defend themselves with musket fire – but will with less effective bayonets. Artillery can be given an auto-fire order and they will continue to attack until ordered otherwise.
As cavalry moves faster, more attention needs to be paid to them. While I’m on the subject of cavalry, it’s these squadrons that appear to have the weakest AI. Even when they have a clear chance of demolishing an enemy squadron, they rarely take it. In one game, for example, I was unfortunate enough to have had cavalry follow my retreating infantry. But they did not attack, preferring instead to stand right behind my infantry than cut them to pieces.
Morale plays a major role in the outcome of tactical battles. Squadrons will take only a certain level of damage before they retreat. And if it looks as though they will be outnumbered or attacked from the flank or rear, they will head for safer ground. Finally, when a squadron’s morale drops sufficiently it can break and flee from the field. Conversely, the more damage a squadron causes, the more its morale increases. The presence of a commander, standard-bearer and drummer also help improve a unit’s morale. Religious figures can also help improve morale and heal injured soldiers.
At times the AI will try to outflank the player, but these instances are rare and appear to occur more when its squadrons are dispersed at the beginning of a battle rather than as a deliberate tactic. But the AI is relatively aggressive and doesn’t give up easily, making it a good opponent for all but the most experienced players.
EDITORS, EXPANSIONS, AND REPLAY VALUE
“Imagination rules the world.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Cossacks II doesn’t come with any editors. Additional maps – three Skirmish and one historical Battle map – have been made available for download at the official Cossacks II website. At the time of writing there are no expansion sets for the game, nor have any been announced. But if the original game is anything to go by, one could well be made available in the near future.
Despite the absence of an editor, the game does have considerable replay value in light of its various play modes. Players not wishing to wage war in the Battle for Europe are able to create their own games in Skirmish mode, which has a number customizable options including choice of nation, map, enemy, enemy difficulty level. These options can also be set to Random, providing even greater variability.
However, if the game’s stability is not addressed, the different game modes and their variable options make replay value a mute issue. A game will rarely stay on my hard drive for long if it keeps crashing.
“Large staffs – small victories.”
– Alexander Suvarov
As previously indicated, Cossacks II supports multiplayer gaming for up to six players in Skirmish or Battle modes on a local network as well as over the Internet. Internet modes include what is known as a Rating game and a Custom game. The Rating game allows two players to fight on the “global” map of Europe, while a Custom game includes the Skirmish and Battles options.
“I should have conquered the world.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Cossacks II has a lot to offer those who enjoy RTS games and have an interest in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a simple game to play, but not easy to master. The various game modes provide for considerable replay value and it offers a fresh insight into a dramatic period that has fascinated war gamers for many years. The different types of units, the weapons used and the formations employed do help inform and educate those unfamiliar with the period. Similarly, when playing the Battle for Europe, players are introduced to the main belligerents and this mode illustrates how all of Europe was engulfed in conflict. Yet while the game provides a sense of how wars were fought in the early 19th century, it doesn’t quite convey the scale of those wars. Having only one army to maneuver in the global map doesn’t reflect the fact that some nations had to fight on more than one front. And the limited number of units available in tactical battles misrepresents how large battles actually were.
There are other problems with the game. A key one is the use of outdated graphics technology. This not only makes the game look like that of a previous generation, but that it also places some restrictions on game play. Finally, there is the issue of the game’s stability. I’ve not encountered a game this unstable, even after it has been patched, for some time. I can only hope that this is an isolated problem and not commonly encountered.
But putting these issues aside, Cossacks II is a good game that offers a refreshing change in period for a RTS title. It’s suitable for both the beginner and more advanced player. If readers are unsure whether the game is for them, I recommend downloading and playing the Cossacks II demo, which can be found at CDV’s website.
Written by Andrew Glenn
Original date of publish: 27.10.2005