Cossacks: Back to War is the second expansion pack in the Cossacks series, but it's different from the previous expansion, Art of War, in a few ways. For instance, Back to War is a stand-alone product, and it doesn't actually have a single-player campaign. That's right, it offers only single-player scenarios--101 to be exact--a few of new nations, a handful of new units, and a multiplayer component. This is both good and bad. Back to War has the same great gameplay of the previous two Cossacks games, but is it really enough to justify another expansion?
You may or may not be familiar with the Cossacks series--a set of real-time strategy games set in 16th-18th century Europe. The series has always let you choose to play as one of many nations, each with its own historically-themed architecture and units. One of the Cossacks series' most unique aspects is that its engine can accommodate thousands of individual units on the battlefield at once. You might think that handling so many soldiers at once would be chaotic, but your units do a pretty good job of staying in formation on their own. Also, the Cossacks engine lets you group together many units into a single army that acts as a single unit. You can then move several of these armies in formation to avoid unnecessary micromanagement during a pitched battle.
While the first expansion included several gameplay additions, Back to War has none. That's not to say that the game was in dire need of improvements. In addition to the aforementioned formation controls, the Cossacks series has always had solid gameplay mechanics. It takes a while to get used to the fact that you can build pikemen in the blink of an eye, but Cossacks games generally play like standard real-time strategy games in every regard. You have peon units to build structures and gather the game's six resources. You have infantry, cavalry, artillery, and naval units to flesh out your army. Back to War adds two new nations, Switzerland and Hungary, for a total of 20 playable factions in the game. The difference between these is mostly cosmetic however, since every side is functionally equivalent.
Each of the 101 scenarios has a good background story, and will give you many objectives ranging from defense, escape, and rescue. You'll find many of the missions to be difficult the first few times you play them, while others can be completed in less than a quarter-hour. As with previous Cossacks titles, the AI in the game can be challenging. This mostly has to do with the fact that it's inhumanly efficient at producing massive armies and sending them against you. It also has the frustrating tendency to destroy its own buildings and units right before you capture them. Back to War's unit pathfinding is generally acceptable, and lets your units auto-acquire targets.
But Back to War hasn't made any improvements to Cossacks' graphics. Unlike many real-time strategy games that have made the jump from 2D graphics to 3D, Cossacks remains a 2D game, though it still looks good for what it is. And just like its predecessors, Back to War packs the screen with impressive battles between huge armies. However, with the exception of gunpowder units, Back to War's sound is generally lackluster. The game has are no unit acknowledgements, and melee fights simply sound dull.
Should you play Cossacks: Back to War? If you're looking for a great single-player experience, you probably won't find it here. Back to War's 101 individual missions offer plenty of game to play, but they aren't connected in any way, so you won't feel any real achievement at completing any one scenario. Once you finish all the missions, you might try using the game's included map editor to make your own maps. If you're ambitious enough, you can go wild and create your own 101 missions. Unfortunately, you can also download 101 missions that other Cossacks fans have already made, and play those, and you wouldn't need Back to War either, especially if you're a casual player who doesn't find Back to War's two new nations to be very important. If you're looking for a good multiplayer game, you'll find that Back to War is certainly functional, and that there are plenty of servers and players online--but the majority of these are in Europe, so if you aren't, you should be prepared for more online lag than you may be used to if you tend to play on faster online services like Blizzard's Battle.net. Finally, Back to War's $40 price tag is rather steep, considering how few new features it actually offers, despite the fact that it's a stand-alone product.
Back to War is difficult to recommend to anyone who isn't a die-hard fan of the Cossacks series. There are simply too many other excellent real-time strategy games on the market, and they sell at a roughly equal price and offer much more bang for the buck. And those who are new to the Cossacks series might be better off getting the recently-released Cossacks: Gold Edition, since it offers both the original game and the Art of War expansion for a lower price.