Cossacks: European Wars
There's no doubt that any game with the prefix sells truckloads to RTS enthusiasts. So anyone looking to even vaguely usurp Ensemble Studios' cute peasant franchise had better be prepared to walk the walk or suffer the Star Trek: New Worlds fate. Luckily, GSC's Cossacks: European Wars does more than walk - it dances. In fact, it's soon to dance a cheeky tango of RTS brilliance across your screens.
Work first started on Cossacks around the time that the first Age Of Empires was released, and by luck as much as anything else it picks up the timeline round about where Age Of Empires II leaves off, taking historical strategy neatly from the 16th to 18th century. AOE comparisons aside for a minute, the game actually borrows a lot more from Total Annihilation than it does from AOEII, focusing more on epic battles with, it proudly boasts, "up to 8,000 units with no loss of speed". And that's no idle boast, either. The unit movement is incredibly smooth, especially the ships which use 256 orientations to make them look like they've come straight out of Hornblower. Historical accuracy is stamped all over Cossacks, and the developer has gone to great pains to create campaigns and scenarios based on 85 real-life battles from the Thirty Years War to the start of the Napoleonic campaigns.
Units and buildings are also an education in military and architectural history, even if this is slightly exaggerated for effect. For example, the English town hall looks like the Houses of Parliament, while the barracks look strikingly like the Tower of London. Realistic? Yes. Appropriate? Perhaps not. But such architectural enthusiasm can be forgiven because the highly detailed buildings, which have been individually designed for 16 different nations, are dribble-inducing in the extreme and manage to look beautiful even when they're in ruins.
Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?
The resource-management element of Cossacks is a little more complex than most RTS games, with your economy based on six resources: food, wood, gold, stone, coal and iron. But you've not only got to provide resources to create your troops, you've also got to provide enough resources to maintain them. Start running low on food and you could find your troops dying before they've even sniffed a battle. Run out of gold and your ship captains will mutiny, become pirates and start attacking you.
Once you've managed to juggle your resources you have to think about building up your military prowess for some truly epic battles. This is where it starts looking like the contents of your Grandad's attic has been brought to life, minus several ancient copies of Boy's Own and a collection of odd-smelling jars.
From the preview code we've played with, the computer AI looks so good that you could well find yourself wiped off the battle field before you've even managed to build a barracks. In fact, it's rumoured that not even the hardcore strategy experts have been able to beat Cossacks on the game's hardest level.
Those players more used to handling 200 units in Age Of Empires II may at first be seriously daunted by the prospect of controlling all of Cossacks' 8,000 troops. With 300 possible upgrades to consider, it's enough to send the less dedicated running for something not so mentally demanding, probably involving little elephants and sheep. However, calm yourselves - the tutorial scenarios included with the game are particularly helpful at guiding you through all aspects of the game's management.
One of the most interesting aspects of Cossacks is the way you control your regiments via a commanding officer, who will allow you to assume different formations going into battle. You'll also need a drummer or a bagpiper to accompany your soldiers into the fray, just to remind them that some things are worse than death.
Britannia Ruled The Waves
It's worth taking time to familiarise yourself with the nuts and bolts of your military units, because each nation has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, Austria has powerful heavy cavalry units, Cossacks are the pride of the Ukrainian army, and because we're harking back to a time when England was regarded as something more than an island of tea drinkers, we have a particularly strong naval force.
It also helps to know how best to arrange your troops for maximum advantage - basically, which units stand in front of which - because the difference between a good formation and a bad one is about 500 little computer-enhanced deaths on your conscience. It's not that easy to steam in and pick it up as you go along, either; you need to know the basics, such as you can only use artillery and grenadiers to knock down walls, you need archers to burn down houses, and you can use your troops to capture peasants and buildings. Once you've perfected the maniacal laughter, you'll have whole armies marching to their deaths in no time.
Time To Get High
The landscape is fully 3D, which makes it very important strategically. Your soldiers will naturally head for the higher ground and you'll have a greater advantage if you can capture high points on the map. Real physics modelling means that units will climb hills slower, shoot and see further when they get to the top, and explosions will rebound more strongly in a rocky landscape than they will in a swamp.
The background is also beautifully animated: your wheat fields roll gently in the breeze, flags flutter on buildings and waves lap against the shores. It would all be quite peaceful if you didn't have to kill anybody.
The multiplayer aspect of Cossacks will support up to eight players online or via a LAN, and will allow you to create random maps or even re-enact actual historical battles (which have been reconstructed in detail, down to the landscape and troop disposition) to see if you can do any better than those who were really there. The expansive nature of Cossacks means that serious online battles are likely to last more than just a couple of hours. In fact, Cossacks' lead programmer, Sergiy Grygorovych, has had online battles that have lasted three days. So pack a few sandwiches and let someone know where you are.
Ensemble Studios has been understandably quiet about the possible release of an Age Of Empires III, so whether it's willing to go head to head with Cossacks is unclear, but the results should be interesting. Cossacks: European Wars looks like being everything you could wish for in an RTS: beautifully detailed, graphically smooth and put together with intelligence and a respect for history. We'll be waiting in anticipation for Age Of We Wish We'd Got There First.
When you start playing Cossacks -European Wars tor the first time it feels like someone has taken the stabilisers off your bike. You felt so safe and secure with Age Of Empires/Age Of Kings/Warcraftand now some bastard has let go of your seat and left you flailing wildly down an unfamiliar RTS road. Where's the berry bush? Where are the little sheep? Why are all these men running at me with pointy sticks before I've managed to build a stable. But with the help of an enormous tutorial and a few practice campaigns, you'll soon be dishing out Renaissance-style carnage, because this is what strategy fans were born to do. This is Cossacks ladies and gentlemen. This is the best thing to come out of the Ukraine since Andrei Shevchenko. This is war.
In case you've been asleep for the last six months, Cossacks is a massive RTS set between the 16th and 18th centuries, which includes 16 nations, 85 real-life battle scenarios, 300 possible upgrades and the potential creation of 8,000 units, all on a fully 3D landscape. Battles are available in both single and multiplayer modes, and the game also includes four long campaigns and a number of single scenarios, which make for an excellent training ground. It's been hailed as an Age Of Empires 3 (although Cossacks has distinct differences from the AOEfranchise), as it picks up the timeline of historical strategy games where Age Of Kings left off.
The game's bold claims of "8,000 units with no loss of speed" definitely lives up to the hype. Although it's unlikely you'll ever need to create that many units, it's reassuring to know you can. On a 600MHz machine it runs like a dream, no matter how many units you create and even on a 300MHz there's very little lag. This boast also means that you can control not only large troop formations as in Shogun, but command every single unit uniquely. The units you can create fall into four basic categories: infantry, cavalry, artillery and navy, with many nations having their own unique units such as the Ukrainian's Sich Cossacks cavalry and the French Chasseur infantry. I was sure the latter was something you did with chicken. The individual unit orientation is also very smooth, especially the ships, which cut through the water with the elegance of giant wooden swans.
The graphics are one of the most impressive aspects of the game. Each nation has it's own architecture, which seems to be loosely based on an American tourist's vision of what a country's typical buildings should look like. Hence England's buildings all look like they've come straight out ot Westminster and all that's missing from the Austrian ones is a miniature Maria Von Trapp. Nevertheless they are exquisite to look at, from their initial construction - which is painstakingly reproduced almost brick by brick - to their eventual destruction. There's no doubt that graphically Cossacks makes Age Of Kings look like a Disney film.
The game is essentially 2D, without the benefit or perhaps the hassle (depending on your view) of the varied camera angles of something like Shogun. However, the landscape is fully 3D and combines with real physics to make units move slower when climbing hills, shoot further from points of elevation, and so on.
The damage potential of your units is also governed by height, angle and terrain. This actually has the potential to turn you into a much better RTS player, as you have to think more realistically and have a physical map in your head as well as a by-the-numbers military one. Using the terrain to your advantage can allow a small force to cause extensive damage to a much greater one if they can secure the strategically important areas. After a few games, especially the longer scenarios, it can really feel like you've done a hard days commanding.
Resource management also plays a big part in Jk, waging a successful war. Your economy is based on six basic resources: food, which is harvested from the fields around your mill, coal, iron and gold, which all must be mined, and wood and stone which are gathered from nearby woodlands and stone pits. Not only will you need resources to create your units, you'll also need resources to maintain them, a realistic element fundamentally lacking in most previous RTSs. You'll need to keep up a regular supply of food to satisfy your troops' stomachs, gold to line their pockets and prevent mutiny, and a regular supply of coal and iron for the manufacture of munitions.
The gathering of resources is fairly quick and simple once you've located the relevant sources, and goods can also be bought and sold in the market. However, while the AI of your military units is relatively good, the AI of your peasants, the backbone of your economy, is sadly not quite up to that of Shogun or The Conquerors! 'intelligent' units. One of their most frustrating aspects, aside from their tendency to throw themselves kamikaze-style at your enemies, is that they won't automatically harvest freshly grown corn, even if you've remembered to replant it and it's waving merrily right under their noses. It's an easy problem to address with a few mouse clicks, but in the middle of a frantic battle it's not particularly productive to have your units A dropping dead on their feet from famine.
There are a few elements of the game that can seem annoying at first, such as the time it takes to make some of the units, which varies from about four seconds for a pike-man to more than three minutes for a cannon. That is until you see how much damage a cannonball can do and you realise just how glad you are that the enemy can't make them any faster either. Buildings and peasants can also be destroyed, captured and recaptured very easily which makes for great guerrilla warfare. These kinds of dynamics ensure Cossacks a big future as a multiplayer favourite, and online test battles have already been known to last for days.
As far as sound goes, the special effects are second to none. You don't know warfare until you've watched a few of the vast demo battles included with the game and heard the sound of cannon fire ringing in your ears. The music accompanying the game can best be described as 'of the period', so if you like a bit of Austrian chamber music then you'll be in your element. If that's a bit too authentic for you, you're better off with just the gentle sounds of warfare.
The demo of Cossacks has been knocking around for about six months now, and this has unfortunately stolen some of the thunder of the full game. Hopefully its target audience won't have become tired of waiting and buggered off to The Conquerors, because Cossacks is simply too good to be left to fall by the wayside.
Olde World Order
There are a whopping 16 nations to lead to victory in Cossacks, from good old Blighty to the Ukraine (I wonder why they put that in...). Each has its own style of architecture and a unique set of military units under their command, based on the actual forces that existed at the time Here are just a few of them to whet your appetite
Took an active part in the 30 Years War and allied with England. Roundshiers and Pandurs were the mainstay of their army, backed up by the feared Cuirassier.
Ukraine's battle for independence from Poland is one of the main scenarios In the game. Cossacks, both the Serdluk soldiers and the mounted Sichs, were the pride of the Ukrainian army.
Under the rule of Osman the Emperor, Turkish troops made up part of a formidable army which conquered large areas including Crimea and Egypt and even besieged Vienna.
The Winged Hussar horsemen made up the core of the Polish army, so named for their feather-decorated back armour, used to protect from sabre swings.
Became one of the greatest colonial states after the discovery of America. Their seafaring aspirations were seriously dampened by British pirates who plundered their coastal towns.
A formidable military and naval power at the time, England's forces included the powerful Grenadiers, Hussar and Dragoon cavalry and the might of the howitzers and multi-barrel cannons.
Cossacks appears to be the surprise hit of the year so far. Storming into the Charts at number one last month, it's only just been knocked off the top position by Black & White. Deservedly so as well, and it's refreshing to see a little-known title flying off the shelves. Cossacks in single-player mode contains some particularly tricky scenario missions and has an unpleasant habit of trying to wipe you off the screen within five minutes. However, it is in the multiplayer game that it truly comes alive.
Much of this has to do with the symbiotic relationship between your economy and the military, a concept so fundamental to warfare it's amazing it hasn't been explored to this extent before. The way you run your economy has a direct relation as to how strong your military will become and how well they perform in battle. For example, you will need a good supply of coal and iron before advancing on an enemy or your artillery will not be able to shoot and will be cut down all too swiftly. This is especially important online because the durability of the resources mean you'll often be fighting against a deeply entrenched enemy and will need a lot of artillery power to even get past the walls.
Going For Gold
If you decide to rely on mercenaries, which are produced very quickly from the diplomatic centre, you will need to take control of as many gold mines as possible to maintain them. If you run out of gold at a crucial moment all, and I mean all, your mercenaries will rebel against you, which involves either attacking your empire, leaving to join the enemy (if they have more gold) or just standing still. The whole battle can change within a few seconds.
Rush tactics look set to be just as popular in Cossacks as they have become in Age Of Kings. Pikemen or the equivalent civ units are the first choice for the dedicated rusher, because they only need iron and food to be produced in vast numbers. The only real defence against this is to build cheap palisade walls as fast as possible. In fact, the 'pike rush' looks set to be the equivalent of the ever popular tower/archer rush in Age Of Kings.
Defend Defend Defend
Cossacks also has it's own stats monitoring. So if you choose to decide your game by time and score, you'll find that the scoring system is more biased towards those who defend rather than attack, and for a war game it seems slightly odd that it doesn't actually encourage you to go to war. Hence, the biggest scorers are often those who build an impenetrable fortress and sit there creating hundreds of soldiers while waving two fingers up at you.
During the initial testing stages the developers of Cossacks had battles that lasted up to three days, which is a good indication of the sheer longevity of the gameplay. Currently the game can be played via a LAN, a TCP/IP address and by downloading the free trial software for Gamespy's Cossacks room. Historical RTS games are not everyone's cup of tea, especially with the speed and scale of Cossacks. But if you've been bored to death with the likes of the Age Of Empires franchise, Cossacks might just be your salvation.
Download Cossacks: European Wars
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
Cossacks: European Wars Screenshots and Media
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