|Cossacks: The name given to a group of people in the former Soviet Union, chiefly of Russian and Ukrainian stock, who lived principally on the steppes that begin north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains and extend to Siberia. (Microsoft Encarta) |
Cossacks: A new standard in RTS games that combines combat and commerce in one superb package.
There were more than 85 European wars during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It was a time of handlebar moustaches and gallant cavalry charges; beautiful colored uniforms and elegant weaponry. Gunpowder had given modern armies artillery and rifles, yet pikes and swords still counted a great deal, and archery was even effective. Looking back, it was almost a romantic period for warfare.
Cossacks: European Wars captures the spirit of those campaigns in a wonderful way. Those fights are far enough removed from the modern era to have a quaint, cartoonish appeal that brings to mind plastic toy soldiers and set-piece battles. Most players would be hard-pressed to remember a single long-distant ancestor who died in one of these ceaseless campaigns, so the angst and regret of, say, a World War II game, is neatly bypassed. Itís easy to settle in for good, clean fun with Cossacks.
This is not an Age of Empires clone; there is more here than aping a genre frontrunner. Cossacks is deeper, and more complex, with better balance and more intricacy. The game is based on real history, so it has educational lessons for specific battles such as the 30 Yearsí War; but a map generator is just as consuming.
The depth to Cossacks is incredible: Sixteen playable nations are included, including Algeria, Austria, England, France, the Netherlands, Piemonte, Poland, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine and Venice. Caribbean pirates also make an appearance. There are probably Gypsies and bandits in there somewhere.
In the beginning, youíll concentrate on getting enough peasants cranked out of your town hall to start harvesting wheat, mining stone, iron, coal and gold, and chopping wood. Fortunately, the resources are almost all inexhaustible, so you wonít be running out of something at the worst possible moment.
Soon, youíll build the usual RTS buildings: marketplace, cathedral, barracks, mill, blacksmith shop, etc. They donít just spring up; peasants have to build them, hammering away in concert through a few stages. The artwork for each structure is detailed and the scale is quite large; a gorgeous, sprawling city will soon emerge. You can choose to wall it off or add defensive towers as the spirit moves you, but soon enough the enemy will come.
First-tier military units are commanded in groups, with formations and group orders useful to control a very large army. These cannon fodder are overshadowed by second-tier units such as grenadiers, much more powerful and interesting. A nice touch: drummers are almost as important as officers in determining group effectiveness. This isnít a "mass and rush" game, either; military formations must be mastered to be successful in combat.
Cavalry and artillery also have technology upgrades and quirks to understand. Still, they balance the infantry rather than overshadow it. The leveling between each form of fighting keeps the game rolling forward, as it always seems like the next technology upgrade might take precedence. More than 300 upgrades are possible.
Mortars, incidentally, bring to mind the scene in Last of the Mohicans where the French dig trenches in order to move their short, squat guns close enough to blast apart the wooden walls of Fort William Henry. Mortars are devastatingly powerful. (Come to think of it, the North American French and Indian War of the 1760s would make a great scenario for this game to captureÖand so would the American Revolutionary WarÖ)
At times the game simply breezes along and is tremendously absorbing. Hours go by. Relationships may suffer; textbooks may languish. Thereís a lot of mouse-clicking, but you can group units and assign them control numbers to save some strain. Once things are underway, the peasants scurry about and keep the world bountiful, while birds sing and music rings out. As production gets paced correctly, you just keep upgrading the academy, the foundry, the barracks and other structures to keep the improvements coming. Training such as fencing and maneuvers is important, too, so youíll always be looking for additional items to click on.
Each improvement, each upgrade and each purchase has a cost in some combination of the six resources: food, wood, coal, iron, gold or stone. Nothing can be allowed to run to zero, so the intricacies of the marketplace have to be mastered early. Gold is required for just about everything, and frequently can only be garnered by selling off one of your plentiful stocks.
Like all great RTS games, if you donít keep things in balance, problems arise fast. In Cossacks, youíll likely have a famine on your hands, as it costs gold to plant crops and without crops, thereís no food. Without food, miners might die, soldiers donít fight well, and you canít make more peasants to fix the mess, either.
Peasants are a fickle lot, due probably to the unseen floggings required to keep them busy. (Itís not Dungeon Keeper, however; you wonít be backhanding the imps to spur production.) Peasants will align with any nearby army, so if invaders show up, the rabble is likely to line up and march away, single-file.
Without good graphics, this clever AI and balanced gameplay could still go to waste. Cossacks scores high because it has great graphics: resolution is possible from 800x600 all the way up to 1600x1200. Thatís nice. Sprite-based units have up to 256 orientations, reducing jitter, and animated backgrounds keep the backgrounds from appearing too bland. Ships are pre-rendered in a minimum of 64 directions, so they look great as they tack and move. The Ukrainian developers, GSC Game World, deserve a lot of credit for not only the detail in the buildings and units, but also the cut scenes and the opening video. With all its extra touches in depth and detail, Cossacks is truly a work of art. Sure, you could run Cossacks on an old 1MB Trident video card, but why would you?
My nitpick section is pretty light. One of the only serious sticking points for me in the game was the marketplace. I grew quite frustrated before I finally mastered the Supply/Demand buttons. I had 32,000 units of stone and had drained gold to nothing, but I couldnít master an exchange for the longest time. A simpler Buy/Sell interface might help.
Another objection is with the documentation. Tutorials and an HTML-based encyclopedia are good; they ease the initial concerns most of us have about learning a game of this depth. The tutorial isnít too rigid and allows some exploration. While the manual is an innovative 4x6, black-and-white effort, it left my eyes hurting. I could hardly make out the icons in the technology tree, and found myself using a Mag-lite and a hearty squint to pick text out. Stick with a bigger format for the manual, or give us a printable 8 1/2x11 or A4 version on the CD.
I also detected some grammar problems in the interface, probably due to translation issues. Thatís pretty common, and easily fixed by a good proofreader.
Final quibble: The computer opponent is blindingly fast, and patently unfair. The complexity in this RTS sometimes makes you yearn for a turn-based environment. Itís hard to keep up, with so many mouse-clicks to make, even playing the easiest level. The AI is just too damned brutal at the easiest level. It takes a long, long time to post that first victory.
Once single-player mode is exhausted, the online options include LAN and Internet play, especially at the Cossacks.com Web site. The Internet play wasnít as laggy as I expected, even on a 56K modem using AOLís IE.
The nitpicks I found are only minor shortcomings; make no mistake, this game is a winner. War gamers, RTS fans, and even simulation buffs will all find something to like in here. Early reports from Europe have stated that this game is flying off the shelf. The same will probably happen in the U.S.
Like its cousin Sudden Strike, also developed by GSC and produced by Strategy First, Cossacks can have thousands of units on the screen at once. The publicity literature claims up to 8,000 units can appear on one Cossacks screen. I canít imagine how many peasants it would take to sustain that big of an army, but if GSC says itís possible, they probably got that high in testing.
Still, 8,000 individual units boggles my mind. If I remember right, the early RTS Dune II would only allow a limited number of units on the screen at one time, and I sometimes had to sacrifice a few quads so I could load up on the heavy machinery. Cossacks makes those days seem like they happened a long, long time ago.
Still, what would 8,000 sprites do to the quality of the play? I canít imagine it being much more than a laggy, choppy mess on most systems. This game might be the excuse youíve been looking for to go to a Pentium IV, just to see a world crawling with sprites.
Software that sells hardware ó what a concept.