Eastern Europe has been spawning an increasing number of quality games in recent years, and the latest country looking to get in on the act is the Ukraine, home to GSC and their epic real-time strategy game "Cossacks". We took a beta version of the game for a spin to find out more...
The first thing to strike you when you load the game is how familiar it looks - it could almost be "Age of Empires III". The rows of miniature buildings, the hordes of peasants running around cutting down trees and hacking away at quarries, the mixture of combat, research and construction. Even the time period is right, picking up where Age of Empires II left off by covering several major conflicts of the 17th and 18th centuries.
But to simply write this off as an Age of Empires clone would be a mistake. Although Cossacks clearly owes a lot to Microsoft's popular medieval strategy series, there is more to it than that. For a star the sheer scale of the game is impressive; it's not uncommon to see hundreds of soldiers marching around the map, and battles can be truly vast. The developers claim that their game can support up to 8000 units without any serious slow downs, which is rather a lot by any standards.
You also have a choice of no less than sixteen nations to play as, ranging from the likes of England, France and Prussia through to Turkey, Algeria and Poland, each with their own unique set of graphics for many of the buildings and troops. These are varied and instantly recognisable, from the intricate half-timbered buildings of Saxony and Austria to the English town hall which looks like the Houses of Parliament. Graphics are excellent throughout, with intricately detailed sprites and rolling terrain to battle over, and the fog of war effect as areas of the map move in and out of your line of sight is the most impressive I've seen in a long time. It's the little things, y'know?
Although you can have literally thousands of troops under your command, the game has a strong focus on tactics and formations. Simply throwing dozens of units into a battle piecemeal is a good way to get yourself beaten, and you will need a mixed army to get the best results.
The staple of your army is infantry, which comes in a variety of forms from the basic pikemen and musketeers to grenadiers and mercenaries. Officers and drummers can then be built to organise soldiers into larger units which can include literally dozens of men in line, column or square formations. You can even take multiple formations and put them into whatever shape you want, and when you march them across the battlefield each unit will stay in the right position relative to the others. Sometimes this does break down causing units to bunch up or spread out, and even modest terrain obstacles can sometimes prevent you from putting large formations exactly where you want them, but overall it's a step in the right direction and helps to make combat rather less haphazard than in most real-time strategy games.
Simply sending wave after wave of pikemen at your enemy is not going to do you any good either. Cannons and primitive fire-arms can pick off your men before they get close enough to do any damage, and you will need artillery or grenadiers to destroy enemy buildings. The various kinds of cavalry on offer can be very useful for raiding behind enemy lines and harrassing retreating soldiers, while buildings walls and defensive towers around your town center is important to prevent enemy soldiers from sweeping past your troops and capturing your town before you can react.
Although a lot of fun can be had simply using the game's random map generator and picking two or more countries to battle it out, Cossacks also comes with a range of single player missions to keep you busy.
These include four large campaigns covering the Thirty Years War, the rise of Tzarist Russia, the Ukrainians' battle for independence and, for something completely different, the war in the Caribbean between English, Spanish, Dutch and pirate forces. There are also ten stand-alone missions which offer imaginary scenarios to test your strategic skills, from battling over scarce resources in the center of an island to fighting off barbarian attacks against a well defended city on a plateau.
Sadly the beta version which we were sent by publisher CDV only included one mission from each of the four campaigns, and so we can't be sure how these progress. We were also surprised at how difficult some of the missions were, with our attempt at the barbarian assault map coming to a rather sudden end when literally hundreds of soldiers swarmed out of the fog of war and dozens of mortars pounded our walls into dust. Thankfully we've been assured that the mission difficulty will be "toned down and more enjoyable" by the time the game hits the shelves...
There were a few other niggling doubts we had about the beta version which will hopefully be solved over the coming weeks. The most important one was the AI, which puts up quite a challenge on the higher difficulty levels but has some nasty flaws.
Pathfinding sometimes breaks down, resulting in units wandering off in completely the opposite direction to the one that you were hoping they would go in. Luckily this is relatively rare, but it is annoying when it happens as it can be easy to miss seeing a group of peasants merrily marching off into the middle of an enemy army when you are trying to manage hundreds of other units at the same time. It is also easy to trick the enemy AI into endlessly chasing musketeers or dragoons without ever catching them. Stop, fire off a volley from their fire-arms, and then retreat when enemy pikemen or cavalry get too close. As soon as you start to pull back the enemy stops chasing you, allowing you to withdraw your men to a safe distance and start firing again. Repeat ad nauseam until everybody is dead or you run out of map to retreat across.
There is also a bizarre system for capturing buildings and peasants, whereby any enemy unit approaching an undefended non-combatant captures it instantly. The only way to guard against this is either to scatter troops around your town or to build a wall around it so that the enemy can't get close enough to convert any of your people. But it can be rather irritating when a cavalry raid which should be mostly harmless ends up destroying half of your town center.
Assuming that these few flaws can be fixed before the game is released in March though, Cossacks could well be another surprise hit for German-based publisher CDV, who broke into the British market with World War II strategy game "Sudden Strike" a few months ago.
With epic battles involving thousands of soldiers, sixteen varied nations to choose from, more in-depth tactical and economic options than are available in the Age of Empires games, vast numbers of technologies and enhancements to research, detailed graphics and multiplayer support for up to eight players, Cossacks is certainly looking promising.