Cavalry charges! Cannon barrages! Ships with sails! Wave upon wave of infantrymen willing to march into certain death at your request! Yes, welcome to the wonderful world of Cossacks: European Wars, a terrific new strategy game that is bound to come as a marvellous blessing to mental ward patients everywhere who think they are Napoleon, and a terrible curse to the brave men and women in the psychiatric field tirelessly trying to convince them otherwise.
From the Ukraine with love
How does a game coming from a completely unknown company in the Ukraine, with almost no publicity or pre-release hype, rise to become the top-selling strategy game in Europe, edging out formidable competition like Black & White? Especially considering that the storyline seems largely to be a celebration of the national heritage of the Ukraine, and that the game itself bears an, ahem, uncanny resemblance to a certain family of Microsoft strategy games.
Actually, Cossacks is part of a growing trend of quality titles coming out of Eastern Europe – Serious Sam and Operation Flashpoint being other notables. So what exactly makes Cossacks good? Well, let’s see. The graphics are a plus – in fact, it’s quite possibly the best looking 2d sprite-based game ever made. The terrain is smooth and lifelike, and the artwork, particularly for the ships and buildings, is incredibly rich and detailed.
The setting is one I haven’t seen used on an RTS game before, even though it’s so obvious it’s practically a no-brainer. Cossacks takes place in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, a great period of bloodshed and upheaval. There are four single-player campaigns to choose from, each one depicting a different war, which allow you to play as Britain, France, Russia or Ukraine. The individual missions generally take a long time to complete, so all said, you’re bound to get plenty of gaming life out of Cossacks. The only downside to all this that Cossacks tends to get difficult quickly, and even more so towards the end of the campaigns. So if you plan on finishing it through from end to end, you might get a bit frustrated.
The campaigns themselves are enjoyable enough to keep you going at it, although the storyline could have used some work. There are times when it all starts to feel like the script was culled straight from a history textbook. While historical accuracy is impressive, I wish it could have been presented in a way that had more depth and personality. Admittedly, there are times when Cossacks tries hard to this, but with varying success. For example, there are a few instances when you can expect to stumble upon a peaceful peasant village, only to witness a squad of enemy horsemen come riding to loot and pillage and burn everything to the ground. Moments like this are inevitable followed by lines that could have been culled straight from Braveheart – “Nooo! Those bastards! They’ve killed me’ wife and child! I’ll fight to avenge them, yeh’ hear?”
Overall, the single-player is a mixed bag, which has it’s moments. But if you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of Cossacks, don’t dismiss it before playing it in multiplayer mode. Because it is here that Cossacks truly shines.
Bigger, longer, uncut
What makes Cossacks so impressive in this area is its scope. Everything about it is bigger! and better! and feels like it should have an exclamation mark coming after it.
To give you some idea of what I’m talking about, I’ll throw some numbers at you: there are 16 sides to choose from. 6 different resources to harvest. The maps are huge, and there is an infinite amount to play on thanks to the game’s random map generator. There are 300 different types of technologies and upgrades to research, ranging from faster pistols to a reconnaissance balloon. And if it’s numbers you’re after, just wait till you see how many peasants you can have toiling for you at once! It’s unbelievable how big your economy tends to get after a while.
And if you were reading this with horror, thinking that it all sounds like “too much”, then you’d be wrong…because as big as Cossacks is in scale, it still doesn’t wind up being the Texas limousine of strategy games. Rather, it has an elegant, flowing sort of gameplay, that will become second nature in no time.
“But wait, there’s more, and more, and…”
And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet – the battles. Like everything else in Cossacks, they tend to get big. Really big. Hypothetically, battles involving thousands of units are possible, though pretty rare. On the other hand, battles involving mere hundreds of troops are commonplace, and addictively fun to command.
It’s a pretty whacked idea. After all, most strategy games are moving in the other direction, towards micromanagement. “Squad-based tactics” is becoming more and more popular as a genre. Cossacks feels almost quirky for moving so heavily in the opposite direction, vaguely like it’s trying to be a retrograde Warcraft II clone.
And yet, Cossacks still manages to pull it off. The “hundreds of units” aspect doesn’t feel like a gimmick at all, but rather the natural offshoot of trying to make the game as realistic and historically accurate as possible. In real wars (particularly during that era), individual soldiers were almost completely insignificant. What mattered for generals then, and what matters in Cossacks now, is putting those soldiers together into a cohesive army. And interestingly enough, doing so is surprisingly simple. There is very little hassle to the task of commanding your army, even when it has reached critical proportions.
Indeed, it is at times like this that Cossacks is at it’s best – lines of pikemen resolutely holding their ground against enemy charges, musketeers formed into neat little squares and marching about, batteries of cannons blasting away happily, the cavalry racing around the back to harass the enemy’s retreat – at times like this, the whole game just comes together beautifully.
Better than a poke in the eye with a musket
A word of warning, though – Cossacks tends to be quite long. Multiplayer Cossacks games usually last around an hour, at least. Compare that to Starcraft, which typically takes about 30 minutes, or Red Alert 2, which allows you to get to the top of the tech-tree in ten minutes flat. In a sense, Red Alert 2’s frantic action and Cossacks grandeur and scale are opposite sides of the same RTS coin. But where as Red Alert 2 feels like some cheap harlot whom you pick up off the street and have your fifteen minutes of fun with, Cossacks is the real deal. (That’s not to say that rushing is impossible in Cossacks. In fact, it can often be very effective.)
What is wrong with Cossacks? A number of things. The sound is the game’s single worst aspect. It just isn’t there – and I mean that literally. There are times when you want to turn your speakers up, because you feel like you should be hearing things that are going on, and you just aren’t. For example, there are no unit responses or confirmations when you give an order. The sound problems, unfortunately, are a pretty big downside as they make the game far less immersive than would have otherwise been the case.
Second to that, there’s the control system, which could use some work. More emphasis on the keyboard, and less on the mouse, would be a definite improvement. Also, there are one or two really dumb things I just can’t figure out. Like, why on earth does the game only have one tileset? Things would certainly be a lot more interesting if there would only be a change of scenery from time to time. Playing the game, a friend of mine exalted; “This game is supposed to be taking place in Europe, for Pete’s sake! Where’s the snow?” But I’m hoping that a future expansion set might fix some of these issues.
Still, despite these problems, I found myself really enjoying Cossacks. There are lots of reasons to like this polished title. But the big one that really won me over is this: Cossacks is the first game I’ve seen a long time that puts the “strategy” back into “RTS” again. Not “combat”, not “tactics” – real strategy. And with it’s historical detail, it’s epic proportions, and it’s unashamedly gargantuan battle sequences… hey, what’s not to like?
Binge and Purge: 8,5
Overall score: 7