If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Bruce Shelley and the crew at Ensemble Studios should be deeply moved by Cossacks: European Wars, Warlord’s Style. Cossacks, GSC Game World’s interminably-named homage to Shelley’s Age of Empires series games, attempts to build on that series’ success by bringing the action forward into the 17th and 18th Centuries, and setting it firmly in a European context.
It’s an audacious goal. GSC Game World, a heretofore unknown game company in Kiev, is going basically head to head with the talented Ensemble team (not to mention Ensemble’s backers, a little company called Microsoft). They are contending in the context of historical Real-Time-Strategy, which many would say Ensemble has essentially perfected.
While it’s usually unfair to compare games directly against their competition, with Cossacks it’s inevitable. The gameplay is so similar, and the functionality so directly mimicked, that I cannot see consumers purchasing both.
Comparing the two side-by-side, initially Cossacks comes off pretty well.
Cossacks is a feast for the eyes, with visuals comparable to the impressive set found in AoE2. Every one of the sixteen nationalities has a different set of meticulously crafted buildings and units portraying accurate period details and features. It’s not uncommon for new development teams to field a good game, but they usually can’t afford an art team that can compete with the resources of the big developers. Such is not the case with Cossacks. Artistry is evident from the first units you see, and is of a consistent standard of excellence throughout. Resolutions range from the pedestrian 800×600, up to a stunning 1600×1200, giving you a huge view of the battlefield.
The sound is good, if not quite as memorable as the graphics. A varied soundtrack supports the usual cast of grunts, clanks, and whinnies that are by now standard for these games.
The interface is mostly functional, and suffers from a distinct lack of finish. This was the first point at which GSC seemed a victim of their circumstances. Ensemble had access to Microsoft’s massive usability labs, and AoE (2 especially) showed it. In Cossacks, there is at base a confusing inconsistency of right/left clicking required, controls that seem clunky and awkward, and little feedback. This leads to confusion at critical moments. Further, there’s no clear confirmation that a unit has been given orders, so in the height of action it’s frustratingly common to either miss-issue a unit’s order or have to re-issue it several times to be sure that some order is given – a problem when everything’s happening at once.
Cossacks allows you to have up to 8000 units (total, so between 2 players that’s 4000 apiece and so on) which is magnificent to see; it would be more fun to play if there was more than rudimentary unit handling. Units can be formed, but only at certain quanta of individuals (16, 32, 64, etc.) not including the requisite drummer and officer. For example if you had 31 soldiers and formed them into a unit, you would get an organized body of 16 and 15 would remain unattached. Units cannot be mixed (pikemen and muskets), nor can they be formed of cavalry units at all. This isn’t a huge problem as long as you recognize it early and can construct to this plan, but it can be a pain if you are reorganizing your soldiers after a big battle.
Units can form line, column, and square but there isn’t much AI management of these formations, so you have to manually keep an eye on units in column lest they enter combat and get slaughtered. Lines are more useful for fire combat, columns are better for movement, fairly standard military dictum. However, cavalry charges don’t make a unit form square, so the attention-demand of the formation management is almost more trouble than it’s worth. Their only utility is ultimately a slight combat bonus ‘organized’ units get over mobs – whether this is worth the time and resources spent to build officers and drummers is a decision players will have to make.
Gameplay itself is essentially identical to Age of Empires. You start with a bunch of peasants who immediately must build a Town Hall (which in turn becomes a source of peasants). Then your peasants are tasked with gathering the basic resources – in Cossacks they are food, wood, stone, gold, coal, and iron. Cossacks introduces a more plant-and-forget food handling mechanism, less tedious than the sow-harvest-resow-repeat system in AoE2, which demanded routine (and rather excessive) amounts of attention. In Cossacks your peasants build a mill which sows every flat terrain tile within 7 squares with a wheat-like foodstuff that grows, ripens, and turns harvest-golden with no attention from the player. The other resources are also eternal, there being no limit to the amount of minerals from a mine, nor stone from a quarry, nor wood from a forest (although the wood at least LOOKS like it’s disappearing, careful clicking can keep your peasants hewing away and gaining wood at that same empty space forever).
Like AoE, the buildings really represent technology; the construction of different buildings allows not only technological advance, but opens up new branches in the construction tree – you must have a blacksmith before a barracks, and you must develop an academy and some of the individual advances contained within before being allowed to construct a battleship.
The long time player of AoE will have to add powers of ten to their resource calculations: Cossacks likes big numbers. It’s not uncommon for tech advances to cost tens of thousands of units various resources. This isn’t just adding extra zeroes; it has a real game consequence. Because significant achievement later in the game is based on such huge resource accumulations, even a minimally-equipped mine (no tech advances allowing more than the basic five miners on staff) can quickly accumulate a tremendous stockpile. The net result? Cossacks seems to actually encourage early and frequent rushes (something clearly a heavily-used strategy for the AI), forcing players to confront the unpleasant necessity of spending critical early-game manpower time on building palisades and walls to provide even minimal defense. Unfortunately, while the encyclopedia says that they can, I found that some nationalities weren’t able to construct fixed defenses of any kind, making them particularly susceptible to aggressive opponents armed with cheap, quickly built troops.
This early emphasis on the offensive is made even more pointed as you realize that Cossacks isn’t about destroying the enemy, it’s more about capturing and turning them to your own side. Any civil building – including your (defenseless!) town hall – that doesn’t have a fighting unit nearby can be captured almost instantly by any hostile force. What’s more, not only can buildings be captured, but so can your peasants. Lacking anything like the AoE2 “town bell” makes it an ironclad certainty that once your operations take place on a larger area that the screen can cover, you will lose outlying peasants and structures to roving bands of enemy raiders.
Is this a good thing? It depends on what you’re looking for. The vulnerability of your non-military forces requires either a significant investment in fortifications (if available) as mentioned above, or the implementation of a tripwire military strategy, with a dispersion of your forces all around the perimeter. If you prefer a heart-pounding running gun battle as your skirmishers fend off raiders while reinforcements rush from either side, then you might find this exactly your cup of tea. Either way, against the almost recklessly aggressive AI or against humans in multiplay, you’re not going to get much time to explore the tech tree. This is not so bad; it lessens the impact of the scanty report system, by which you’d have trouble keeping track of what’s going on developmentally anyway.
One feature of Cossacks that seemed to impact the game much less than I thought it would was the implementation of actual height and physics rules. For example, guns higher up shoot further than identical guns on lower elevations, and units located up high can see further than their comrades below. In truth, there isn’t really a ‘line of sight’ calculation going on – it’s simply that higher units clear the fog of war at a further radius than lower ones. And the advantage of guns on heights is limited, when most of the siege weapons and cannon can fire further than those mounted in fixed fortifications. Place a fortified tower on a promontory overlooking the enemy’s main route of travel? Doesn’t do much. You’ll quickly find that enemy infantry (or worse, grenadier infantry) moves to the base of the hill, in the blind spot below your tower and promptly blows your tower to smithereens.
The terrain does lend itself to chokepoints, and a focus on seizing and holding ground where you can bring firepower to bear on an enemy with limited options to attack in return. In this sense, Cossacks is a real time strategy game that forces players to take some tactical realities into consideration. It’s a real pleasure building fire lanes atop hills with batteries of cannon, sweeping the approach routes to your home area with impunity. Cossacks makes an effort to be historical, with extensive army lists and a large variety of troop types. The historical text – and consequent design decisions in terms of unit strengths, construction costs, etc. – has a strong Eastern European slant that might make it questionable for some. Be that as it may, it’s apparent that Cossacks lacks a lot in terms of balance, for whatever reason. Not to dwell on it too long, but a brief explanation of a few issues will be a useful illustration of the point:
The “balloon” unit (which clears all fog of war on the map) is a handy example. While its origins are rather baldly acknowledged by calling it a “Montgolfier”, it is nevertheless a ‘free’ improvement for the player of the Ukrainian (!) side. This is because, as the historical background states repeatedly, ballooning was really invented by a Russian monk in 1731, more than 50 years before the Montgolfier brothers took their first flight in France. In some cases, they appear to have gone the exact opposite direction from their own background text: the historical text refers to the Russian army as typically massive but with few good officers, which is a pretty standard analysis of Russian troops throughout history. Yet for some reason, Russian officer units are CHEAPER than all the others (150 gold to 200)?
Cossack units (coincidentally?) are some of the most efficient (in terms of resources spent to fighting power gained) and most quickly produced combat units in the game – again, available almost exclusively to Russia and the Ukraine. They might only be melee troops, but ironically in Cossacks this turns out to be a good thing. Since mines are so easily captured (or, if destroyed, they sit in a ‘wrecked’ state for a while before you’re allowed to build them again), you will soon find that upgrading to a mostly-firearm force – paralleling the real-world 17thC to 18thC military development – will leave you screwed in the face of persistent, intelligent raids. Firearm units, while potent, have an Achilles heel not suffered by their more primitive brethren: all cannon, muskets, etc. drain your coal and iron stocks as they fire. Fast. If you mistakenly build large fire-combat forces without a huge stockpile of coal and iron and then actually use them in combat, you’ll soon see your helpless musketeers running pell-mell from the enemy. A little popup will remind you that, lacking coal or iron, your units CANNOT FIRE. (Eek!) Battleships are the worst, their high rate of cannon fire making them deadly to enemies but depleting your stockpiles (especially when they are in combat while your attention is elsewhere) so fast that they can bankrupt you before you realize what’s going on. Worse still, without being able to fire they are no more dangerous than parade floats. They can be quickly captured, putting you on the receiving end of this nasty vessel you scrimped and saved to build moments before.
Further frustrating the player, units seem to have a single AI driving them, either as fire-combat or melee combat units, and never shall they cross. Those ultra expensive King’s Musketeers are deadly, as long as they can shoot. If they cannot, they must only wear those swords for decoration since they refused to enter melee combat at all (someone apparently told D’Artagnan to quit the swordplay).
Archer units, who obviously don’t suffer from the coal/iron dependency, are a glaring example of imbalanced unit design, implementation, and effect. For a game based in the 17th/18th centuries, archers should be marginal, second-rate troops. Yet their flame-arrows and high rate of fire can quickly destroy any structure in the game. Yes, that includes stonewalls and gun towers. The units are so cheap that they ultimately are a better investment of resources than cannon. While this is a weak point in the game design, it’s a credit to the AI that the computer players aggressively exploit this, preferentially attacking your mines with waves of archers and wrecking your economy like an intelligent human player would.
With all the historical research obviously invested in this game (although the bibliography is quite narrow), they had a wealth of opportunity to carefully balance the combat units of each side. Each unit has a number of variables that could be used to tweak them vis a vis each other or in an effort toward historicity, but it doesn’t seem much effort was expended either direction. Cossacks falls squarely between chairs. If they were going for verisimilitude, they missed it; if they were going instead for balanced play, they seemingly missed that too. I was most surprised by the lack of an editor. It’s long since the time that editors or customizers or other user tools were considered optional; by now, they should be considered required in any professional quality game. The single player scenarios and campaigns (of which there are quite a few) for the game show creative design and it would have been a pleasure to have been able to build some scenarios and big battles myself – especially like the monster set-piece battles shown in the demo. There is a randomizer, allowing limited variety in single- and multiplayer scenarios, such as general map type, resource density (careful with this, since the “rich” setting means different things in different contexts!), number of players, etc. In single player, you cannot even control your color – you’re always the red guys.
In the end, Cossacks is a game that at first blush is really quite beautiful and fun to play. But after a short while, players will begin to notice deficiencies in the controls, striking imbalances in the units and technologies, and a variety of other niggling details that take the shine off the chrome. If you are a military buff who doesn’t care about realism and just want to see units blasting away with muskets and cannon, or if you’re an RTS fan that loves rushes and hates developing, maybe Cossacks is for you. Otherwise, seeing that my local Best Buy just put AoE2 up for $15 after rebate, you might find a better place to spend your money than Cossacks.
Graphics: 9 – Very nice sprite-based animation. Buildings wonderfully done, with a wealth of historical detail.
Audio: 7 – Good, above-par for the genre with quite good atmospheric music.
Interface: 5 – Adequate, lacking some of the convenience features to which gamers have become accustomed.
Solo Play: 6 – Fun to play with many different nationalities, but some severe balance issues unresolved.
Replayability: 6 – a wealth of scenarios, custom maps but a lack of an editor is a glaring omission.
Multi Play: 5 – the upper limit to units is so high (8000) it means you can see massive battles in multiplay. The rush-favoring gameplay means you never actually will.
Learning Curve: 7 – easy to pick up, especially for veterans of AoE.
Documentation: 8 – a hefty manual with a lot of background information makes for a decent read, pretty good in-game documentation as well although awkward to access.
Pros: It’s AoE 1.2 in the 17th/18th Centuries, with beautiful graphics and a wide range of player options.
Cons: Handsome graphics can’t disguise a lack of balance and a rougher game beneath.
A game that’s fun to play for a little while, but it’s almost impossible not to compare it with the much better-polished and better-balanced AoE-series games.
INFORMATION ABOUT THIS CONTENT:
Date of publish: 23.07.2001
Author: Steve Lieb
Language of publish: english