Review from The Zero Review

by: Peffy
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What are you talking about?’ cried Lukashka. ‘We must go through the middle gates, of course

Imagine that the year is 2003. It was a simpler time, back when the 9800 Pro was arguably the best graphics card on the market, with its whopping 128 MB of memory, and Valve released the very first stable version of Steam. The world of PC gaming looked very different than it does today. WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne, Homeworld 2, Command & Conquer Generals: Zero Hour, and Rise of Nations were all released over the course of the year. Age of Mythology and Stronghold: Crusader came out the year before, and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War the year after. It was a time when strategy games were king, having reached the zenith of their popularity a few years earlier before slowly drifting and giving way to other genres that were more easily accessible by the growing number of gamers who favoured consoles and the advantages that they offered.

In today’s gaming scope, an RTS being released has become somewhat of a novelty. It fulfills the same sort of nostalgic call-back that a lot of Kickstarter campaigns do, promising the experience of yesteryear while staying true to the scope of technology that the industry boasts today.

Cossacks 3 is such a game.

THE GOOD

If you are at all a fan of real-time strategy games, and are the sort of person who laments their fall in popularity and subsequent replacement of tactics games in their stead, then you will feel right at home with Cossacks 3. GSG Game World, recognizing that their fans wanted a return to form for the original Cossacks rather than its sequel leant itself to Cossacks 3 being, technically, a remake. Nonetheless, it successfully manages to capture the early 2000’s and place it in a bottle to savour, with special attention given to remaining true to the original game without overly simplifying or streamlining it.

What Cossacks 3 sets out to do, it does very well. Namely, it is a game that attempts to get a feeling for large scale battles in the age of musket and gunpowder. It is, first and foremost, a strategy game that seeks to perfect the art of battle, and it does so in a number of unique ways. For one, there is an emphasis on building a large number of units that are then grouped together into regiments, which have the added benefit of being placed into different formations – rank, column, and square – which offer different benefits in different situations. Square being optimal for defense, for instance.

WHAT COSSACKS 3 SETS OUT TO DO, IT DOES VERY WELL.

This mode of organization lends itself to a tighter control once one gets to the fighting. In a game where battle populations can reach into the thousands per encounter, you’ll be grateful that this feature exists a way to smooth the gameplay out and wade through the chaos of it all.

Furthermore, it is a game that offers a satisfyingly deep aspect of strategy as well as the aforementioned tactics. Buildings, which can be either captured by infantry units or destroyed by artillery or units that use fire, offer some sense of player choice of what to do with an enemy base that moves away from the traditional scorched earth tactics that other games in the genre offer. And if a player survives by evacuating their peasants from an advancing enemy, rebuilding their base may prove to be difficult, as most buildings actually go up in cost as more and more are built. Your second or third town centre will always cost more than your first one, and when one considers that food will constantly drop until there are peasants harvesting grain to stave off starvation, it lends itself to some pretty interesting scenarios that may potentially play out.

Resources are also used in a wider capacity than is typical of the genre. While primarily acquired to expand a player’s base and create their army, some resources – namely, iron and coal – are consumed while fighting. If your stockpile of the two is low, then your musketeers, dragoon, and cannons will not fire at the enemy, rationalized by the game as lacking the means to produce ammunition. Likewise, mercenary units are available, and will constantly drain your gold until they are either disbanded, kill or you run out. If the latter happens, then they will rebel against you, at which point in time you should hope that you have enough forces to withstand them.

IT IS A GAME THAT OFFERS A SATISFYINGLY DEEP ASPECT OF STRATEGY AS WELL AS THE AFOREMENTIONED TACTICS.

This is all wrapped up in a wonderfully concise – if somewhat lengthy – tutorial that, for the most part, gives players a thorough understanding of the game’s mechanics without being overwhelming. It is incredibly approachable for newcomers to the series, something I honestly feel was a priority over at CSG Game World. How effective it is in generating interest among people who are not fans of the series or the genre, however, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the developers have done a good job of making the age accessible, which is something that really deserves, especially when the game in question can be rather dense.

The animations are largely hit and miss, but more often than not, I found myself enjoying the little touches they add to the game. Ferries will actively lower their ramps to let soldiers dock, drummers will beat their hands to a tune only when moving, and clouds of smoke billow up as cannon balls impact opposing structures. Issuing a “move and attack” order has pikemen lower their weapons as they march, which is great! Individually, units are individually detailed enough so that you can determine what they are at a glance. But, while they do look fairly good, nothing looks spectacular by itself. Individual models may be ok at best, but when everything is brought together, it looks good enough to appeal to most graphics sticklers. Just don’t expect to be blown away by next gen tech while playing.

There is a lot to like with Cossacks 3, particularly if you are a fan of the genre. Everything that you may expect an RTS to have is all there. It looks decent and it feels just right, which is honestly enough to say the barest of my expectations were met. The game, however, managed to include enough depth, complexity and enjoyment within to make me think that it is a worthwhile investment of time, especially when compared to its elder brothers. Combat feels good, and economic management is just the right amount of challenge as it should be. On its surface, Cossacks 3 does everything right.

On the surface.

THE BAD

Whew, boy. Where to begin.

The thing with Cossacks 3 is that it is a termite mound. Termite mounds look really impressive. When you stop to think about it, the fact that they exist as they do, having been built in an environment that is hostile to them, is something impressive. The same sort of reaction that I had when I found out an old-school RTS was being released in 2016. But the problem is that, being impressed is usually enough to spark one’s curiosity, so you look inside. And that’s when you realize that it is crawling with bugs.

I played the pre-release beta briefly before a day one patch was dropped to alleviate some issues – like having the cacophony of two of the game’s music tracks playing at the same time over top of one another. And while, yes, the game did improve, it is still…well, a termite mound. Peasants not following commands despite being clicked to do so, a glitch where the “pause” screen will occasionally pop up and I will find no way to circumvent that aside from reloading a previous save, broken lines of text (“In order to do an attack move, press %hotkey|unit|attack%”), graphical glitches where cloud reflections on water slide over them when the camera is panned…the list goes on. I’ve been fortunate enough to not experience and desktop crashes while playing, but other users have reported that, so its something else to consider. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it feels like a beta game that was shoved out the door, but the sheer number of bugs indicate a product that is extremely rough around the edges, demanding some fine tuning and some polish.

AND THAT’S WHEN YOU REALIZE THAT IT IS CRAWLING WITH BUGS.

And quite honestly, one thing that is in absolute need of fine tuning and polish is the enemy AI. It can be laughably stupid at times. My crowning achievement was a total victory against four other opponents on an islands map, in which my fleet of yachts and galleys bombarded each of their coastlines continuously without any opposition whatsoever. In a move of strategic brilliance, my enemies’ armies all stood their ground, only shifting slightly to move away…except for the cavalry, which thought it prudent to charge the battleships and stand on the coastline until the sailed into melee range. They didn’t. Needless to say, it was really easy to capture my enemy’s respective town centres without an army to defend them. And the process STILL took me an hour to complete…which earned me the “Angelic Patience” achievement, which is awarded to someone for finishing an hour long random map game. How aptly named.

Oh, and did I mention that in all of that time, the only ships built by ONE of my three opponents were ferries and fishing boats?

To be fair, on a game without the navy as a factor, the computer will give you a reasonable challenge, even on the lowest difficulty. Just don’t expect it to make the smartest decisions. Its enough to make a few games here and there worthwhile, but when it does make bad decisions, those bad decisions really stand out. It does leave quite a bit to be desired, overall, which really is a shame considering how vital it is for a game of this genre. “Competent enough in most situations” is not really something you should be aiming for when making an RTS.

[THE A.I. BEING] COMPETENT ENOUGH IN MOST SITUATIONS” IS NOT REALLY SOMETHING YOU SHOULD BE AIMING FOR WHEN MAKING AN RTS.

Luckily the campaigns are heavily scripted enough to avoid this issue. Unfortunately, that opens up a new series of problems, as the campaigns are mediocre at best. That’s not to say that they’re boring, or poorly paced, or just unfun to play…nothing of that nature whatsoever. The issue is that the campaigns are serviceable – which is fun, but they aren’t memorable. They lack any sort of real charm or means of standing out as strong experiences that leave lasting impressions about the game. I will never walk away from Cossacks 3 with the same sort of giddy laughter that a line like “We’re laughing at you, Red!” will leave, or anything as impressionable as “We are without a leader. The dead king of Scotland has no heir.” There’s no sense of gravitas or real charm to it, which is a shame, because I feel the campaign could’ve been something truly special in that regard, as this is a historical time period which lends itself to a lot of those moments. There is some replay value to them in the sense that GSG Game World included dialogue options which ostensibly offer gameplay changes depending on your choices, but they leave no real lasting change on the gameplay at all. It’s a nice touch of flavour, but that’s really about it.

There are other, smaller things that bring the game down a bit, though nothing too shattering. Researching technologies doesn’t queue up in the same way that units do, despite being all produced in the same building. This means that if you are producing a large number of soldiers and research an attack buff, the technology queue halts all production and begins to research right away, rather than lining up behind the units you already have selected.

A big feature missing, however, is the lack of diplomacy options in-game – a la Age of Empires II or Rise of Nations. Historically, this time period was a bit of a golden age when it came to diplomacy and the establishment of the nation-state, which itself laid the foundations for modern-day international relations. Seeing some of that translated into the game would’ve been a feature that, I think, would be seen as welcome, despite the game’s primary focus at being really good at big battles and less good at stuff like economic management and what not.

All in all, it’s a rough experience. There’s a fine line between remaining true to the heart of the original (a game that came out 16 years ago, mind you), and overlooking new developments in gaming that have raised the bar for the genre as a whole. I feel that while Cossacks 3 really does a fantastic job of the former, it really needed to push the envelope when it came to the latter. As it stands, however, it’s a buggy game that needs a lot of work to really bring it up to snuff, but I’ll be damned if I think that it doesn’t do a good job of making me feel all warm and nostalgic inside for a neglected genre that I’ve lamented over.

ALL IN ALL, IT’S A ROUGH EXPERIENCE.
 
THE TAKEAWAY
 
Cossacks 3 has the potential to be a great game. It truly does. There is nothing fundamentally broken about it, as most of my complaints are things that can be polished up with some time and effort. From a technically standpoint, it is a bit of a mess, but there is enough of a solid core there that, even with the bugs and the rather hectic release that it faced, I still very much enjoyed my time playing it.

It is a game that is very much a love letter to the past as it is an attempt to open the doors of it to a new generation of video game fans, all while not getting caught within the muck of restrictive design choices or catering to popular trends, instead emerging as a project that the studio responsible for wanted to make. And for the most part, they succeeded. Sure, its rough around the edges, and it absolutely needs to be fixed, but there is enough already presented to be an enjoyable experience. I’m not certain I would recommend it to anyone just getting into real-time strategy games, as I think there are much better “gateway” games out there readily available. But for someone who is a veteran of many wars across many battlefields, and really wants a return to form, Cossacks 3 really is something worth considering, even with a lot of the issues plaguing it.

A very trying experience at time, but if you can get over the rough edges that the game has, a really rewarding old-school RTS awaits you. With a few patches, it can be great. For now, it’s a decent amount of fun, and I would recommend it if you’re curious, or if you’re a fan of the genre.


More images from the review:


INFORMATION ABOUT THIS CONTENT:

Originally posted: The Zero Review (LINK) (ARCHIVED)

Date of publish: 09.29.2016

Author: Frank Nosic

Language of publish: english

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