Like clockwork, the RTS genre just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and smarter and deeper in the process. GSC Gameworld and CDV are not strangers to the genre, but despite the fact the original Cossacks and its addons did sell reasonably well, the series was never truly established as a powerhouse in the RTS gaming world. I guess with so many titles, that is a rather hefty feat to accomplish, but if any "unknown" title is going to do it, Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars is as good a bet as any.....providing the RTS gaming world is ready for it, that is.
The game modes on offer in Cossacks II are what you would expect - you have a Skirmish mode for instant battles, online multiplayer, a campaign mode which acts as the game's main mode, and a mode entitled "Battle for Europe", which is a "Risk" style gamemode that mixes turn based and real time gameplay to conquer other nations and their territory. This is an emerging game mode in RTS titles that seems to becoming almost standard now days. The implementation of this mode here in CII, however, is certainly one of the best in recent memory - all the usual functions are here including a rather advanced diplomatic engine that helps portray a realistic "human to human" feel, rather than the "war machine to war machine" feel some other games produce.
As mentioned, the campaign mode is the main mode of play, as this is where the game's story is played out. It is also the mode the game suggests new comers try first, however that is not to say it is easy, particularly considering there are 2 difficulty modes after "Normal". One of the key selling points in CII is the fact much of the gameplay is based on historical events in the Napoleon era, and while this probably won't be noticeable to most gamers, the historians in the fan base will certainly appreciate it.
Once you get into the real time strategy element of CII, the way GSC Gameworld have managed to capture this era is stunning. First of all, CII is one of the few RTS games to effectively adopt morale and fatigue in its gameplay. These are influenced by the marching and battles you force your units to participate in. The lower your troop's morale and energy drops, the higher the chance of a defeat so it is obviously a huge factor to consider. The current morale and the maximum achievable morale are displayed down the left hand corner of the screen as well as over the selected units, so you can monitor and make adjustments accordingly. Like a few RTS titles lately, CII also relies heavily on squads, referred to as "formations", containing up to 120 soldiers in some unit types. However, unlike some of these previous RTS titles, squads are actually very useful in CII if not vital - they make units easily selectable, far easier to give orders and hence, far more effective to use.
On top of this, obviously the biggest advantage to the "squad" or "formation" style of unit control is the fact you can do just that; order them into formations. Again, unlike many other RTS titles in the past where the relation between the gameplay and the formations are questionable, CII really captures this aspect brilliantly. Want to move fast? Use the column formation - the movement speed increase is easily noticeable. Want a better chance at an offensive attack? Use the "Rank" formation, which spreads you out into a line. Want a formation that will allow for better defense against Cavalry attack? Use "Square". And it doesn't stop there - when in the "Rank" formation, you can go into a "Stand Ground" specific formation that provides excellent defense from front on attacks, and you can also order certain lines in your "Rank" formation to fire whilst leaving the others to hold fire. This is a useful strategy as reloading times are a huge factor in this era of war, so having a line of gunmen who are loaded at all times is a good idea.
Perhaps the most basic yet still very effective factor to consider in your strategies is your angle of attack - do you take them on head on? send two formations to flank both sides? entice them to attack first? It is all up to you. This is another aspect which really impacts the outcome of battles. You can, with an effective battle plan, literally take on an army twice or even three times your size, if you take advantage of your environments and your opponent's weaknesses. Many RTS titles in the past have proclaimed to capture this and similar elements in its gameplay, but none in recent memory execute quite like Cossacks II, it truly is an element of the gameplay you have to consider.
If you haven't figured it out already, then let me make it clear for you - Cossacks II is all about strategy. While it is true this era of war lends itself very well to many unique strategies not emphasised as much in RTS games based on modern day warfare, such as the morale and loaded weapon management, it was up to GSC Gameworld to capture these strategic elements and they have done so very well. This does mean, however, that if you're not particularly interested in this style of warfare, then you will more than likely not be interested in CII - an obvious point, but a valid point when it comes to the game's mainstream appeal.
However, not only is the style of play less than inviting for the general gamer, the fact the game is reasonably difficult even on the easiest setting doesn't help either. Even on the final "tutorial" the gameplay was reasonably tough let alone the real campaigns. This is a result of a few factors - the first being the sheer level of difficulty in the CPU AI which probably could have benefited from a far easier setting for new comers. Another factor to the overall difficulty is the reality that most battles are very balanced between two forces, and since a lot of the fighting is up to your unit's and not you yourself, such as the close range combat, most of the time a set outcome is hard to predict. Finally, the complexity of the game involving the strategies also obviously invokes a degree of gameplay that might reach well into the realms of "insane" for some gamers.
As it would seem, these are all important factors for the game to portray an authentic experience for this period of war, however, the trade off is you end up with a complex and overwhelming game that could scare less than enthusiastic gamers off. RTS games have always been an acquired taste, but this style of RTS seems to summon a passion well beyond just simple gameplay desire, rather, you will really have to get into this whole era of war to experience the best that CII has to offer. Here's a hint - if you felt like screaming "don't just stand there and take the bullets you moron!" while playing Command & Conquer, a game based on the era where "duck and cover" meant "pull your pants up lad" probably won't take your fancy.
It isn't all about combat though, as CII does feature some micromanagement aspects. Depending on the campaign or mode you're playing, resource collecting, building construction and unit production are all key factors to success. You will obviously need to keep a healthy level of raw materials as well as food and gold to keep your presence felt, so it is not an aspect of the game to ignore. However, CII does keep the management balanced well with the combat - there isn't really a time you feel tied down to micromanagement which is a good thing, as battles really do require your full attention.
Visually CII is not necessarily groundbreaking but it does look nice, that's for sure. The units themselves are not terribly high in detail but the environments and buildings both look sensational with pleasant lighting and shading effects. One of CII's major selling points was the possible amount of units on a screen at any one time, in fact the figure 64,000 was touted before release, and while we can't vouch for that figure specifically (I lost count up to 54,672), some of the battles in CII are certainly remarkable in size, and it is obviously a testament to the game's engine that is manages to cope with the load so well - whilst we were playing on a high end PC, there was never even the slightest sign of frame rate struggle. Control wise, everything functions like you'd expect from an RTS except for the fact there is no true "zoom" function - just the normal view and a "battlefield" view. As far as the voice acting goes, if you put aside the fact some accents sound questionable, it is done relatively well.
There is no doubting Cossacks II is a great RTS, however its overwhelming difficulty and, at times, overwhelming complexity, make it one for the "hardcore fans" only - whether that be the hardcore fans of this war era, or hardcore fans of RTS games who are looking for a serious challenge. While it covers just about everything you'd want in this era of war, it will ultimately suffer because of its limited mainstream appeal and accessibility. This is certainly not a game I'd give to a new comer to the genre, but it is at least admirable GSC Gameworld and CDV have tailored to, perhaps, a far more niche genre than they could have. Again, great for the fans, but perhaps not so great for the average Joe.