Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars
Ah, the 19th century. Big nations, big stakes, big armies and thus big battles. Just the way we like it and GSC Gameworld knows that too. Their sequel to Cossacks is now even more focussed on large battlefields and on the precise control over large groups of ‘faithful’ soldiers. The legend of an ambitious little French lad which goes by the name of Napoleon is giving us all the inspiration we need to try to conquer Europe ourselves…
After a rather funny full motion video intro it’s time to start playing. A tutorial never hurts, here it even explains useful tactics quite well. Troops are gathered in large squadrons and they can be influenced by a plethora of factors. If you always let your men march in a ‘Rank’ lining formation then they’ll soon run out of stamina which causes their morale to drop. It’s much better to search for roads and then put the formation to ‘Column’. The morale meter can easily be seen as a replacement for the health bar; a fearful army and scattered companies aren’t worth a damn, the only use an indivual unit really has is scouting the surroundings. People who find the fatigue/morale mechanics to be too realistic can try the Arcade mode which lowers these effects with 50%.
In normal mode one salvo of a company can be enough to frighten the enemy, though you have to know when and where to shoot exactly. There weren’t any sniper rifles back then, just basic close-range muskets with one shot. Pressing the Alt-key handily shows the range and hitzones of your men. Patience is a true virtue here, if an enemy group walks into the red hitzone they are mostly done for if you give your troops the order to fire. Then again, you need to watch out for other hostile forces since reloading takes quite a while and attacking with the bajonet is usually only a last resort. Retreating from time to time is necessary. These are just a couple of examples of things you need to watch out for in Cossacks II, there are other formations/stances and of course the possible benefits or disadvantages from the 3D terrain. It all remains fun though, you just need to keep an eye out for a lot of things. The frequent use of the pause button helps a lot and doesn’t disturb at all. Even in multiplayer where pausing the game is ‘not done’ you can experience great moments.
Each of the six playable nations (England, France, Russia, Prussia, Austria and last but not least Egypt) have their specific set of infantry and cavalry, artillery and buildings act mostly the same though, but with a different look for the buildings and an extra artillery unit for the British. The game is mostly land combat only, I didn’t expect a full blown post pigeon air war but at least more sea combat could have sufficed. Only in a few Battle for Europe areas will you have a chance of commandeering frigates but for the rest there are no harbors or such you can build in an average skirmish game. A good point then is that the resources part is still in the game and that these influence the gameplay heavily. The more men you’re hiring the more food and coal (gunpowder) reserves you are gonna need. Soldiers have to eat and need ammunition too since every single shot fired means a loss of coal. Nothing is more shameful then to see your soldiers die one by one because of famine (but funny if you’re on the opposite side though).
Once the tutorial is completed the story-driven campaign awaits. No innovation here, don’t expect a next StarCraft either, just the standard stuff like most real-time strategy games of the past years have offered us and here it also feels a bit like the obliged part nobody wanted to work out any deeper. It does help to understand the basics of the game even more though. The Battle for Europe mode is something new for a Cossacks game.
The European landchart is divided in several regions which you gonna have to conquer in order to win the game. It’s like the turnbased part of the Total War-series, but GSC tried to diversify it a bit more (for the worse and for the better). There is diplomacy present but it seems like it is restrained to buying treaties with gold more than really negotiating them. Resources play a bigger part than one might think although it isn’t possible to adjust production or see specific things like traderoutes, each region provides its share at a certain rate per turn.
During your battles (which occur on a local map and in real-time of course) it is possible to get war loot by conquering small settlements or by completing specific side-objectives which form a nice addition to the ‘conquer everything’-theme. A remarkable fact is that on the global map there is only one army for each nation that can move, the rest is garrisoned in each area (and can’t be taken with you). The moving troops can only advance one region at a time and always have their nation leader with them. The big map with its 24 regions is a bit small but then again the focus relies almost solely on combat and every turn one or another nation loses some ground which gives the impression that conflicts are lasting forever (and in the long term will become tedious). Another odity is the way of saving your game in this mode, you’ve created a profile and every progress made on the global map will be saved to that profile once you quit the Battle for Europe mode. It’s a bit clumsy, not to mention even more difficult, and if you want to start with another country in the same mode another profile must be created. This manner of saving also means you can’t save during a real-time battle. Battle for Europe is an interesting mode and a nice try for sure, but it could have been better.
Luckily the aforementioned saving restrictions are limited to the Battle for Europe mode. In the campaigns, battles and skirmish games you can save all the time. Battles are predetermined scenarios with huge armies on each side. All things considered, a simple skirmish game still offers the most fun (and therefore it’s a pity there are only 10 maps available for it, a map editor is nowhere to be found either). Build more dwellings so you can recruit more men, gather stone and wood with your peasants, produce those big armies, conquer small settlements to increase coal, gold, food and iron reserves… the cunning enemy AI knows how to deal with it too. Research/upgrade options have been severely reduced, keeping control over troops in the field is already time consuming enough.
The intro movie is in FMV and it’s cool that some fragments will pop up when you’re commanding. Click on a new unit and you often see a real-life dressed up chap screaming orders in a small square screen on the left or on the bottom of your screen. Or if you select a squadron which is reloading the real deal is also shown. These animations can look a bit amateuristic at first but I have to admit it only adds to the atmosphere and they definitely don’t get in the way, they already disappear after a few seconds. Music is present too and while there were only a few general tracks they all sounded very well. Sound effects are sufficient enough, just like the voices. I made a frown when I suddenly heard some yankee talking. So it is not that perfect nor historically correct but it doesn’t irritate that much.
The most annoying part of the game is the overall performance. It already takes a small minute to reach a working main menu (you get there sooner but it still lags a while) but the real irritation comes from the in-game hick ups. You can’t blame it on the 3D maps because they are always quite small. No, it are the units themselves. The more troops you create and send towards the enemy, the lower frames per second you’ll experience and the harder it becomes to jump to different sections of the map. Napoleonic Wars eats internal memory as if it is its last meal. 512 Ram isn’t a luxury anymore but a real minimum here. Loading times aren’t that unreasonably long though. The first patch (49 MB) has just been released and should fix stability a lot but that’s no excuse of course. While it aint running at a terrific speed the battles are some of the biggest ever seen for this kind of game. The 2D units are detailed and well animated, the terrain is nicely executed. It doesn’t have the advantages of a true 3D engine (there are only two zoom levels) but as said before it is being compensated by the abundance of units. The graphics suffice, nothing more and nothing less.
How about multiplayer? Well, it’s sure isn’t neglected here. Start your own game (skirmish or battles) and compete for the best ranking. The lobby interface is clear and very easy-to-use. The developer even made an effort to put something ‘persistent’ in this part of the game called Landwars. The big map of Europe is divided here once again in six nations which you can choose to represent. An automatching system then links you to a player of an another country and of an equal skill level. If you win the following skirmish game you’ll gain points for yourself and territory for your own nation. It definitely forms a nice extra and the pace of multiplayer is intense and only seldom boring while conflicts more than often can take a few hours.
Cossacks II is like its predecessor a nice example of the traditional big-scale rts. GSC didn’t left out the economic part and I can only applaud that. The performance issues and the limitations of the new Battle for Europe mode form the negative tendencies of the game. Still, the whole picture is just decent enough, especially with the excellent multiplayer support and skirmish gameplay.