“…worthy of a place in your collection…”
I love a good real-time strategy game, but more recently they seem to have been few and far between. It feels as though the genre hit its peak some time ago now, with more recent games trying too hard and falling too short. Age of Empires, Age of Mythology, Empires: Dawn of the Modern World and Rise of Nations were always the pinnacle of the genre for me, with the HD remakes of some of these games being the most notable RTS releases for a while when they appeared on the Steam Store. That being said, when a new release like GSC Game World’s Cossacks 3 appears on the market describing itself as “a rare combination of war, economy, army developing, building and upgrading that couldn’t be found in any game for the last 15 years”, it very much has my attention.
Cossacks 3 is an updated remake of the year 2000 release in the Cossacks series. It is very much of the ilk of some of the games I listed as my favourites before, challenging you to collect natural resources and build, research and battle your way to victory through domination. The 17th and 18th Century setting offers something slightly different to many competitors, and the game maintains this theme with prowess throughout, no matter which of its 12 civilisations you play with. A number of campaigns help to give a story to the setting, but even outside of this the game does not seem to stray outside of its boundaries. Perhaps that is one of the many aspects which make it feel special.
What strikes you first when you load up Cossacks 3’s tutorial are the visuals. 15 years have made a great deal of difference in this respect, with many of the textures and models in the game looking very close to photorealistic. I hadn’t expected such a well versed appearance from a remastered title, but the surprise was a very welcome one indeed. The reflections in the water are of particular note, with the designers clearly seizing the opportunity to show off what they can do. Directional sound for your large armies is very cool as well. Even if you can’t see the enemy coming, you might be able to hear them. Unfortunately, as you get into the game, you begin to realise that the animations it uses are perhaps not as well restored. Unit AI in particular is very janky, with larger models such as ships being the most obvious bloopers in this respect. Units seems to end up spinning or making sudden, odd turns as they attempt to follow the shortest path from A to B. What immersion the stunning visuals initially create, the animations frequently break you out of.
Perhaps the most remarkable and notable design feature of Cossacks 3 is its structures. Immense effort has gone into making each faction’s structures individual to them, with design influences from the real life cultures on which they are based. You can clearly distinguish a faction you meet in game based upon the buildings in their towns, with the central and religious buildings in particular catching the eye as famous landmarks from those countries. St Basil’s Cathedral when playing as the Russians for example is a particularly eye-catching landmark in the game, and the detail and care which has gone into designing this and other buildings is fabulous. It is also interesting from a gameplay perspective that each civilisation has different requirements for some of their upgrades, including what is needed to transition to the 18th Century. This makes for an interesting and varied start in the early stages of play, depending on who you pick and the resources around you. The only disappointment in the respect of these unique nations is that the units for each civilisation are not more unique to them as well.
The tutorial itself does a good job of setting you up for the game. It is set out into two sections; a peace time and a war time tutorial. The peace time tutorial gets you set with the basics; collecting resources, hiring units, building structures, creating and moving armies, researching upgrades and fending off the occasional enemy force. Each of these aspects is pretty standard for a strategy game. Peasants gather natural resources which are used for the purposes of furthering your civilisation in the game. They are also used to construct buildings, each of which has a designated purpose. A barracks for example is used to hire troops, whilst a market can be used for trading, and so on. The element that really stands out as unique in Cossacks is the army system however, which naturally is expanded on into tutorial two. The game encourages you to set your armies out into several, easily controlled unit formations. This makes the grand battles which it offers both possible and smooth to carry out. The second tutorial helps you learn how the combat system works, the importance of army composition and upgrades, and the best methods for conquest.
The basic methods of play in Cossacks are as easy to pick up as any strategy title, but the intricate differences within this are what makes the game that little bit different. The most notable difference between Cossacks and comparable RTS games is the sheer number of units you need in order to make your civilisation thrive. Hundreds of peasants and thousands of soldiers are the order of the day if you want to really get the cogs moving, and it gives the game a grander feeling than others. Where this falls flat however is in the game’s pace. You can find yourself waiting for long periods of time just for units to be created, and this can be a frustration. Once you have everything running by itself at a steady pace, you almost have time to go and make a coffee while the game plays itself. The only real reason to stick with it is the payoff.
The early game in Cossacks is pretty fast paced as you set the wheels in motion towards building your side up for the inevitable late game warfare. The mid game however slows things down dramatically. By the time that you reach the late game then, provided that you have not lost all motivation to continue after an hour or so of churning out units, you are raring for a fight. This is where the game’s scale gets shown off in style. Thousands of units on each side make the battles look epic, but the gameplay which comes with it is not unrealistic either. It is easy for a hundred fully upgraded units to defeat five hundred late game units with nothing, so research is arguably more important to power than numbers alone. Assuming your opponent has constructed their army as sensibly as you have, the resulting clash is a great show to behold, especially with the stunning visuals that the game offers alongside the action. Tactics are key, with the game not pushing this side of things for nothing. Your artillery units for example can easily be captured by the enemy if left undefended, so attacking with some structure is paramount.
Unlike other strategy games, you do not have to crush every building after defeating the enemy army in order to win in Cossacks. It offers a realistic touch that victory by conquest can mean just that, as if you overthrow an enemy town you can take control of the buildings and use them to further your campaign. It is a refreshing change to see this kind of realistic idea at play, given that in true warfare a city wouldn’t be levelled by the enemy if it could instead be captured and utilised. The only issue with this feature of the game is that is isn’t very polished. Reasonably speaking, you could waltz into the enemy town with just a few units in the early game and build up your army within their walls before they can resist it. Equally, you could form a large artillery unit, as I did in one game, only for it to be immediately taken over and used against you because enemy horses happen to ride by during a fight. The idea of conquest is all there, and it is a great touch, but the finer points of it either haven’t been thought out too well, or simply don’t work in the wider game at this stage of its life cycle.
There is a lot of polish in Cossacks 3 which brings the look of the game up to date, but sadly the wider gameplay has not seen quite as much care and attention. Buggy animations and imperfect elements in the conquest phase of the game can break immersion and create a level of frustration. Equally the very slow mid game period could put some players off. Sticking with all of this is worthwhile however, as the game’s epic battles come into play in the final stage of play, and these are awesome to behold. Taking into account every element of strategy gameplay, these fights challenge the player in terms of tactics, timing and sheer power, and it makes the campaign up to this point worth it. On the subject of campaigns, the single player scenarios included in the game are well worth a look in too, with well thought out settings from across the 17th and 18th Century being selected to tell a well-developed set of historically-focussed stories. Finally, the effort that has gone into each individual faction’s appearance in Cossacks 3 is worthy of its own mention, with the unique structures adding real legitimacy and evidence of clear thought from the developers. It may not be the tidiest, most engaging strategy game you will ever play, but Cossacks 3 is certainly worthy of a place in your collection based on the strength merits, in spite of its sporadic shortfalls.