Cossacks: European Wars is a game about epic battles in one of the most turbulent eras in European history. Mighty nation-states were forged in the fires of the battlefield, and massive fleets set sail with dreams of conquest. It was a time of war after bloody war, wars lasting decades, wars involving nearly every European nation. These dramatic events of the 16th through 18th centuries in Europe have provided Ukrainian developer GSC Game World with ample material for a fairly ambitious, if flawed, real-time strategy game.
At first glance, Cossacks looks like a real-time strategy game aimed at history majors. The details of the conflicts featured in the game, like the Thirty Years' War and the War for Austrian Succession, aren't exactly common knowledge, and units like the spakh (Turkish cavalry) and serdiuk (Ukrainian musketeer) will seem obscure to players without an encyclopedic knowledge of military history. Initially, Cossacks also looks like an Age of Empires II clone, just set a few centuries later. The similarities are many and striking. Cossacks features a very similar isometric view, visual style, unit scale, iconic interface, resource display, and map. Villagers harvest materials like wood, stone, and gold. Priests act as adjuncts to your troops, and historically based military units essentially work on a simple rock-paper-scissors combat model, in that each unit specializes in attacks on another particular type of unit.
Fortunately, there's a bit more to Cossacks than first meets the eye. You'll enjoy a lot of diversity, if nothing else. You can play as 16 different factions: Algeria, Austria, England, France, Netherlands, Piemonte, Poland, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venice. Each nation fields a variety of military units from four basic categories: infantry, cavalry, artillery, and navy. Each country can also pursue unique paths through 300 possible technology tree upgrades. It all might sound like a bit much, and sometimes it is, but there's a decent tutorial, as well as an extensive encyclopedia feature about the units, technology, and history featured in the game.
One of the game's most touted features is the ability to field enormous armies totaling 8,000 units--at least in theory. Games will often end with several hundred peasants toiling for you, but likely fewer military units. For example, repeated, well-executed light cavalry raids against enemy peasants and resource centers can so weaken your foe that only a hundred or so troops might be needed to march in and deliver the coup de grace.
Either way, you'll get a lot of replayability from the game. There are four campaigns, ranging from the Thirty Years' War to the battle for Ukrainian independence, though poorly integrated scripted events and an awkward attempt at injecting some role-playing into the game make these rather uninspired. You can also play ten much better single scenarios, and there's a skirmish mode that lets you confront up to six computer-controlled opponents on random maps generated according to basic criteria you set. Multiplayer mode lets you "deathmatch" on random maps or fight in historical battles from the Seven Years' War, the War of Spanish Succession, and others.
Gameplay conservatively follows a very traditional, straightforward real-time strategy formula. Your faction's town hall, apparently doubling as a maternity ward, creates peasants, who in turn erect new buildings like a barracks to produce military units or an academy to research technology upgrades. After you select a peasant and right-click on a resource center, be it for food, wood, stone, gold, iron, or coal, the villager will trot off and get to work. Fortunately, you usually don't have to hold peasants' hands and constantly issue new orders. Mines, farms, and so on require little if any maintenance and just keep cranking out vital goods when worked by your serfs. Grain fields are automatically replanted after each harvesting, for instance. The context-sensitive point-and-click interface makes controlling peasants, raising or razing buildings, and commanding troops fairly easy and intuitive. However, an order queue and easier unit selection would have been helpful.
Units are generated very rapidly, and you'll amass substantial armies and fleets in no time, though computer-controlled factions sometimes seem to produce units with improbable efficiency. With officers present, you can form squads and set formations, which are vital for maintaining control in the big battles that can try your reflexes more than your tactical skill. Since tactics work on simple principles, these formations are important for ensuring you have the right unit in place to counter a particular enemy. Sadly, tactics are only so important, since a mad rush with a lot of random troops can often overpower the enemy, albeit sloppily.
Resource management is arguably the heart of the game--military units don't merely cost material to be produced, but also to be maintained. Since an army travels on its stomach, you'll watch your food stores constantly dwindle as your armies and populace grow. Projectile weapons like muskets also use coal and iron with each shot, and cannons and other heavy weaponry cost gold to maintain.
Given the number of resources and troops you'll have to manage, larger scenarios risk becoming overwhelming. While you can pause the game to help you track your situation, you unfortunately can't issue any orders while paused, which reduces the possibility for precise tactics. However, you can set the game speed to your liking, ranging anywhere from slow motion to impossibly fast. Regardless of the game speed, weak unit pathfinding can wreak havoc on your plans, as large military formations fall apart and peasants blithely march off toward enemy territory instead of taking a reasonable route to work.
Even when they go astray, units are nevertheless fun to watch. The crisp, detailed 2D unit and background animations are colorful and fluid. Peasants wade through flowing fields of wheat, later lugging bags of grain to the local mill. Cavalrymen's horses buck and rear, and musketeers reload after each shot, though units tend to be cute rather than menacing, thanks to the cartoony yet appealing visual style. Some of the buildings also feature clever little animations, like the Spanish Academy, with its bubbling courtyard fountain.
While the graphics are often attractive, the game's sound is less than stellar. The blatant score gets old in a hurry, though some of the more exotic-tinged themes can be catchy for a while. Fortunately, you can toggle the music off. Buildings emit a characteristic sound when selected, such as a city bell or a miner's pickax striking rock, but units don't issue verbal command responses: Don't expect to grow attached to them; they don't have distinct personalities like units in games such as Starcraft. That's unfortunate, given the possibilities for employing relatively exotic languages or accents. Combat sound effects are above average, though, and in larger battles, the roar of massive cannonades and the clash of sabers are entertaining. Unfortunately, you may find that the effects are often marred by an odd and frequent staticlike popping.
Cossacks can be very entertaining. What it does, it does quite well. At the same time, it can grow dull quickly for anyone with more than a passing familiarity with other real-time strategy games, particularly the superb Age of Empires II and its expansion. Cossacks follows existing formulas too closely. Even its somewhat distinctive features, like the potentially huge number of peasants and troops you can command, don't lessen the feeling that you've already played this game in other guises many times before. Still, if you don't mind another variation on an oft-played theme, Cossacks has more than enough variety to ensure fun empire building and colorful clashes.