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Cossacks: European Wars

Score: 75%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Strategy First / CDV
Developer: GSC Game World
Media: CD/1
Players: 1 - 6
Genre: Real-Time Strategy

Graphics & Sound:

Like most games of the genre, Cossacks: European Wars uses pre-rendered units on an isometric map. The graphic engine does support some nice effects, though, such as the smooth-edged fog of war that is considerably more 'round' than in most games. Nice. The prerendered units are pretty self-similar, almost to the point of annoyance, but after playing the game enough, you'll be able to tell the difference between the various unit types. While a relative lack of variance is understandable -- there are only so many ways to draw 'guys on horses', for example -- it is still something of a drawback. The absolutely massive battles do nothing to help this, especially when they degenerate into a gratuitous mob rush.

The major difference between Cossacks and most RTS game engines is its use of true 3D terrain. It occasionally causes some weird graphical issues, such as the 'foundations' of buildings sloping weirdly up hills, but it's a nice idea nonetheless, and ends up working much as you'd expect. Valleys can be made into chokeholds, and so on. This is all quite faithfully rendered. And the engine never hiccuped on me, even when it had hundreds of units on the screen battling. Indeed, it usually ran too fast for my tastes -- but that's a comment for the Gameplay section.

I do wish that the designers of Cossacks had paid a bit more attention to the way they rendered the UI, however. Because it's see-through, if you click somewhere that's not a button, you end up interacting with whatever's behind the interface in the actual game. This is most annoying when dealing with the Academy, where you do the upgrades and there are a ton of tough-to-differentiate buttons. Ugh.

On the plus side, every single side in the game (of which there are a ton) has a unique look, which is a Very Good Thing.

The sound effects in Cossacks are passable, but they're definitely not anything amazingly special. There are a lot of grunts, even more metal on metal clangs, and a very large number of gunshot sounds. Add the occasional fanfare, and you've got pretty much everything this game has to offer. There's music as well, and while it's certainly not bad, it's nothing particularly spectacular either. And I had problems with getting it to play consistently on my machine -- sometimes it didn't play at all, and other times it sounded a bit jumpy. It was streaming CD audio, though, and the evaluation copy was a burn, so that could have had something to do with it.


The actual execution of the game, however, cannot blame it on the CD burn. And while Cossacks: European Wars is impressive at first glance, and the battles can sure be very cool, in the end, the game has a few issues that wind up being more irritating than anything else and not enough innovation to make the game really push the envelope.

In Cossacks, you take the role of a leader in one of sixteen different groups involved in the many skirmishes and all-out wars in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Indeed, one can almost consider this the tactical, real-time companion to Strategy First's earlier Europa Universalis, with a battlefield scope instead of a world scope. Instead of the usual low unit limits in RTS's, however, Cossacks has you commanding armies of hundreds.

Unfortunately, beyond the large number of units, Cossacks fails to stray far from the standard RTS formula. You've got a number of resources -- stone, wood, food, gold, iron, and coal -- and each are obtained in different ways. Stone is quarried, wood is chopped, food is grown or caught in the ocean, and the rest are mined. This is pretty basic stuff, and if you balance it right, resources should never really be an issue.

There is also a rather nice variety in the units you can create. There are two 'centuries' worth of units -- seventeenth and eighteenth -- and, as expected, the later ones are in general much more useful than their earlier counterparts. Advancement to the eighteenth century requires building a large number of buildings, and then expending a large number of resources.

Sound familiar? Here there be Age of Empires.

The game itself plays quite intuitively. You build your peasants in the Town Hall, they collect resources and build buildings, you make battle units and you go out and fight. The actual execution of these battles is a little different than most games, though, and requires some experience to get good at it. For example, to be able to execute any sort of formation, you've got to have an officer and a drummer to be able to give out the orders. This is a nice touch, and certainly more realistic, but it feels a little arbitrary, especially with the number of units that you can control with an officer.

Perhaps the biggest change in the game, and one of the things I found rather annoying, is the method of taking over your opponent's towns and locations. Instead of using a special unit to convert them, you simply have to run your combat units near an enemy building that does not have any combat units protecting it. They are immediately converted to your side. This works with enemy peasants as well. While this sounds like a nice feature, and it can simplify taking over strongholds, it is extremely annoying when your units run off to attack an opponent and he sends a small group of units marching through your town, converting the whole thing to his side. Argh.

But perhaps the most frustrating thing -- at least until you find how to change it -- is the pace of the game. At the default setting on my computer, Cossacks is downright unplayable. Everything moves at almost warp speed, and buildings are constructed in almost no time flat. Units march across continents as if they were small city parks, and battles are absolutely impossible to coordinate. Fortunately, you can slow the game down a number of ways, all inside of the main game. [Hint: Turning it from 'Fast' to 'Slow' is a major boon.] Even with the speed set more reasonably, I felt that I was getting walked over rather more than I should have been.

This feeling isn't helped by the various campaigns that come with the game, which are both frustratingly scripted and frustratingly difficult. You'll see units before you can attack them, you'll miss important plot triggers because of the routes you take, and inevitably you're thrown into situations that you have a small chance of surviving.

The randomly generated missions are much more entertaining, mainly because they're doable with only a single opponent. The AI in this game still trounces me more often than not, and playing against more than one is an exercise in suicide. I remember the first game I played -- I had a few soldiers scattered about here and there, and less than five minutes into the game the AI came through with a huge regiment and completely decimated me. Ugh.

The game also supports multiplayer, but at the moment the rest of the world is using a higher patchlevel than those of us in the United States, so we can't really play with the rest of the folk. That will hopefully be rectified soon.


Do not play against multiple AIs unless you like to die. Indeed, don't play the campaigns unless death is a favourite of yours as well. The computer plays ruthlessly and efficiently, and it will wipe the floor with you unless you play just as tightly. Its habit of converting all your artillery to its side after you lose a battle is all the more frustrating. However, it is possible to beat the computer -- it just takes some serious practice. It's rare that I feel that the AI is perhaps tweaked up too much, but I felt that way in Cossacks. Playing multiplayer will feel a bit more sane, because your human opponents will not be able to play as tightly as the computer, but you have to deal with the fact that Europe has been playing for months and have had a lot more time to learn solid battle strategies.

Game Mechanics:

The basic controls of Cossacks are pretty much identical to any real time strategy game released in recent history. Click to select units, right-click to move them, double-click to select all of that type on the screen. Buildings have buttons to create your units, and most of the construction buildings have various upgrades that you can purchase with a click. The Town Hall lets you select all idle villagers, but there's no way to call them back to down like in Age of Empires II. The core battle mechanics are solid enough, and even though the speed problem is annoying, it's certainly fixable. I did notice a few issues with the game engine, such as weird graphical glitches with the buttons after you finish a game. I also had occasions where I couldn't select units, or more units were selected than I actually boxed or clicked on. These are both minor issues, however. The only major mechanic that I take issue with is the 'unit takeover' feature. While I eventually came to terms with it, and learned to scatter fighting units throughout my city, it still frustrated me.

Cossacks: European Wars sets out to simulate battles on a more epic scale than any other game of the genre, and while it accomplishes that, the game still feels more formulaic than unique. While there is definitely some fun to be had here, especially in the multiplayer mode, and the epic battles are often truly epic, Cossacks often feels more like a reimplementation of tried and true RTS sensibilities, running too fast and furious to be fully comprehensible. Hardcore fans of the genre should definitely check it out, and those looking for something new in the Age of Empires vein to play with their friends may want to give it a look, but for the rest of the world I would recommend other examples of the genre before Cossacks. It never quite congeals as much as I wished it would.

-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

Minimum System Requirements:

P 200, 32MB RAM, 1MB video card, 2x CD-ROM, sound card, mouse

Test System:

Athlon 1.1GHz running Win98 SE, 512MB RAM, GeForce 2 GTS w/ 32MB RAM, SoundBlaster Live!, 8x DVD-ROM

Windows The Corporate Machine Windows Cultures

Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated