Cossacks 2: Napoleonic Wars
There's something Vitrinsically ridiculous about the style of armed combat that characterised the times during which Cossacks II is set. Wearing uniforms that practically screamed, Here I am, shoot me!,
enlisted men would conveniently arrange themselves in rows and stroll toward enemy lines. Those that survived the unpleasant walk through clouds of billowing earth dredged up by cannon fire would, when in range, ready their rifles and pull the trigger in the hope it wouldn't misfire and rip their own faces off. And if they were still somehow alive after all this, they then had to stand their ground and reload, a process that required more than a steady hand and could take a minute or more of your already borrowed time.
Cossacks II, much like its predecessor, captures this antiquated style of combat remarkably well, and while the game probably isn't much fun for the thousands upon thousands of digital soldiers that fill your screen, it's a damn site more enjoyable for you, the general. The Napoleonic era is a rich and under-utilised period for strategy gaming, one that hasn't (yet) been flogged to death through repetition and regurgitation. It requires a different tactical approach from either ancient or contemporary strategy games, yet has many of the advantages of both: high body counts, rigid formations, plenty of explosive carnage and, of course, the fact that you can rely on your gaily-clad troops not to get lost in the undergrowth.
Despite the freshness of the setting, however, Cossacks II holds steadfast to its RTS roots. You're given some land and a few peasants and the aim is to gather resources and use them to build a vast war machine with which to conquer the enemy. Of course, the formula is a little more complicated than that.
Age Of Total War
Whereas the original game was very much a direct Age Of Empires rip-off - a kind of preemptive attempt to outdo Age Of Empires III - this time developer GSC Game World has taken equal inspiration from Total War, sidelining the linear series of campaign missions and supplanting it with a dynamic battle for Europe in which you leapfrog your army across a Risk-style map of Europe in between real-time battles for land and glory. However, unlike Total War, Cossacks is big on resource management, though things have certainly been scaled down since the original game. Wood, coal, food, iron and gold are all required to fuel your war machine, but rather than having to go through the process of erecting farms and milking cows, here most of the resource gathering is automatic, with pre-built villages that specialise in one raw material and which, if you capture them intact, will add to your constantly dwindling supplies.
The formula has been streamlined in other areas too. Research and technological advancement are no longer important, which is unsurprising given the year timeframe the game covers. Armies too are far simpler to control. In the first game, the battles would often become unmanageable once your armies reached a certain size, as the view simply wasn't big enough for you to take stock of the situation without whizzing all over the place. Rather than feature 3D units and a zoomable camera perspective, what the developer has done is create a handy two-tier camera system, so you can zoom out and better appreciate your tactical situation without losing control of your units in the process.
There's an impressive degree of automation too. Select a line formation and rather than having to drag out the direction you want your units to face, they often find the correct facing on their own. When advancing too, they're cohesive and avoid getting tangled up with each other.
Battles are far more tactical than you might expect given the 2D perspective. Even roads have strategic importance, as units rush along them far quicker than yomping over hill and dale. Then there's the supply factor - for when you realise that food is running low, the only course of action is to strike out to take a local village and secure its food reserves. If not, your whole war effort is going to grind to a halt.
In The Balance
Some players are sure to be disappointed that the resource management has been scaled down, but I felt the original Cossacks was too complicated for its own good. With Cossacks II, GSC has learnt that less can mean a whole lot more. By focusing on battles and properly modelling factors like morale, unit fatigue, experience and leadership, the game is a far more accomplished and ultimately more satisfying tactical challenge.
The experience is further helped by competent Al, some wonderfully detailed animations and maps that are rich and diverse enough to justify the D visuals. Despite the almost retro look however, Cossacks II demands an impressive rig, one just as expensively equipped as might be needed for Rome: Total War or Half-Life 2.
If you possess such a beast and are looking for a strategy game with the same kind of depth as the best the genre has to offer, then Cossacks II comes highly recommended. Like the Total War games, Cossacks II balances its paper-scissors-stone gameplay supremely well. That said, with games such as Imperial Glory and - at long, long last -Age of Empires III making the leap into the same era of combat, it might just be wise to hold the line.
3D Or Not 3D
That Isn't The Question
Cossacks II is not without its faults, but you might be surprised to hear that the lack of a fully spinning whizz-bang 3D engine isn't one of them. At no point while playing the game did I think the game would benefit from being 3D - the thought simply never entered my head. (Although saying that, I am intrigued to see how Imperial Glory turns out).
What I was disappointed by was the Total War-inspired turn-based/real-time campaign, which to me seems too restrictive and a touch less epic that it should be. As a general you can command only one army, which I suppose has a certain historical resonance, but seriously limits your strategies and often sees you fighting over the same territories again and again with the exact same mission objectives. I spent an entire afternoon - six hours - taking and retaking Brussels to the point that I lost interest in the game completely, gave up and started the whole campaign again.
Cossacks 2: Napoleonic Wars - Windows 8, 8.1, 10 FIX