Thus far, 2005 has been a lackluster year for strategy games. Luckily, April has brought three great titles from which to choose from here in the U.S. Ironically, they are sequels to successful games: Empire Earth II, Stronghold II, and Cossacks II. The latter, Cossacks II, may not reinvent its core gameplay mechanics, but is solid enough to hold its own in a crowded market.
The real draw for Cossacks II is its simulation of 18th century battles. If you’ve played the first Cossacks, or any of the Total War games, you’re probably familiar with the style. You’ll have large formations of soldiers, normally groups of 120, with specialized infantry like riflemen in squads of 15 or 30 that will line up face-to-face and massacre each other at close range. It was a very brutal and disciplined way of fighting during the Napoleonic era, and that discipline has transferred well to the game. Troop formations will follow your every order, from which formation to choose, to when to fire.
Both are equally important in Cossacks II and mastering these two elements is essential to success. Each group of troops has several different formations to choose from: the standard line formation is the main attacking and defending formation that you’ll be using; columns will allow you to traverse roads, which not only saves your troops from getting tired, but road travel allows you to relocate squads across the map much quicker; square formations throw your troops in a giant square and provide defense and offense boosts, it’s most useful against cavalry and when you’re completely surrounded. Formation selection does vary on unit type and cavalry will have their own specific ones, suited more to attacks than defense.
A group of men is only as good as the commander that leads them and Cossacks II lets you control every aspect of the battles. Thanks to a color-coded damage system you can tell when your troops will do the most damage with their weapons. Bands of green, yellow, and red wrap around your soldiers, as soon as the enemy gets within range of yellow or red, your weapons will do a significant amount of damage. You can even break your attacking down further and control your troops on a line to line basis. Since each formation consists of three infantry lines you can tell the front to fire, luring the enemy closer. When they get dangerously close, you can let loose with the rear lines for some massive damage. The game does a good job of including variables such as trees, which absorb bullets shield your soldiers, and hills that increase your range of fire, particularly with artillery.
You’ll be focusing on tactics like these in one of the game’s single-player modes which tries to re-create historic battles. It’s in this mode, and only in this mode, that the much-talked about massive battles will happen. You’ll be given dozens of squads, thousands of soldiers overall, and have to take enemy positions or hold the enemy off from overtaking you. It’s here that you get the best sense of the game’s AI. It’s efficient in attacking your flanks, battering you with artillery, and performing fast hit and run attacks with its cavalry. With such a large field of battle and so many soldiers to look after it’s easy to get overwhelmed, even on the game’s easiest difficulty setting: normal. Luckily, you’re aided by the game which will give you prompts when enemies come into firing range, when your troops are scattering, and other important issues. Combined with a quick select key that will go to the latest alert, it helps make these battles manageable and easier to pick up for beginners.
Focusing on the real-time strategy battles wouldn’t be telling the whole story; Cossacks II does have a turn-based campaign similar to the Total War series, albeit a shallow one. You can take control of six different nations—Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Egypt—in an attempt to conquer all of Europe. Unfortunately, you have a limited list of things you can actually do. You’re restricted to fortifying your provinces, sabotaging enemy provinces, and controlling a single army around the map, which can only move one place per turn. Even when countries surrender to you, their generals miraculously disappear and leave you to defend an even bigger area with your single army. There are some diplomatic options as well; you can sign peace agreements, permissions to pass, and non-aggression treaties with other countries.
They all combine to make the campaign longer than it should be, facilitated by the fact that the real-time battles during each turn tend to last anywhere from 15-30 minutes. These individual battles for each province aren’t large-scale fights like the historic battle mode, and play more like a skirmish or mission game. Your forces are placed on a map and are tasked with capturing the enemy city, destroying the enemy army, or capturing various “strategic locations.”
Scattered throughout the maps are various villages. These villages serve as resource collection points and harvest one of the game’s six main resources: Gold, food, wood, stone, coal, and iron. Capturing them will make their workers gather resources for you, and often give you a lump reward such as 3,000 coal, or 8,000 food. These villages help your cause greatly and resources you capture in the individual villages are thrown into your nations total resource count when battle ends. In addition you can park a formation that has taken losses near a village and it will supply you with fresh bodies to fill out your ranks.
Real-time battles will also be the focus of the skirmish and mission modes. Both will have you using base-building to conquer your enemies. The base-building elements are very basic, and very straight-forward. Your town center will produce your building and resource-gathering units; your barracks will produce soldiers; other buildings like the academy and blacksmith will enable different and more advanced types of units to be built. There are a few defensive structures that can be constructed but you’ll want to focus on fortifying choke points instead of your base perimeter. There’s a decent amount of units and upgrades that can be purchased, thus giving this aspect of Cossacks II a little meat on an otherwise scrawny design.
After you’ve had your fill with the single-player, you can go online and compete against your friends. Setting up a game is made easy, as is navigation of the menus and the display of the players and clans. There seems to be a lack of multiple game modes but if you enjoy the single-player skirmishes then chances are you’ll feel right at home here.
Graphically, Cossacks II features some very nice work. All the buildings are richly detailed with little items that give them that extra layer of polish. You’ll see scaffolding around structures as you build them along with construction tables holding bricks and mortar. Your military units will be decked out in full regalia, just as the gentlemen-warriors of the period were. There’s excellent use of colors, it’s just too bad there isn’t any zoom feature. It would be nice to see these battles from up close.
The sound department features a mixed bag of good and bad. Some of the dialogue during the in-engine cut scenes may make you cringe a little; there are a few mispronunciations throughout the campaign. Otherwise, the mini-map alert notifications are done clearly and there’s enough emotion in the voices to sound convincing. Cossacks II does feature a limited soundtrack, nothing too memorable but catchy enough to keep it on while you play.
Regardless of the presentation, you may want to watch out for Cossacks IIs many stability issues. The game may have trouble installing, and tends to freeze on occasion when saving and loading a game.
Cossacks II wasn’t a giant leap forward from the original game. However, the real-time elements are a blast due to the good variety of unit and formation possibilities. The turn-based mode may seem lacking but you’ll have more than enough to do with all the other modes of play. Fans of the original Cossacks will love this sequel and strategy buffs may find enough here to warrant a purchase.
INFORMATION ABOUT THIS CONTENT:
Date of publish: 15.04.2005
Author: Adam Faubert
Language of publish: english