Reviews

Cossacks 3 Review – Less Sequel, More HD Remaster

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer:  GSC Gameworld
Publisher: GSC Gameworld
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.

Cossacks 3 is guilty of false advertising, really. You see, despite its name it’s not really a sequel to the much-loved Cossacks series, rather it’s pretty much a complete remake of the original game, retaining most of its balance and mechanics while upgrading the graphics and smoothing out the gameplay a touch. It’s a pleasant leap back to a simpler time of RTS games where factions didn’t vary very much in their design and the level of variety wasn’t that high. I know that doesn’t sound very appealing, but trust me, it actually is.

Cossacks 3 is a game of two halves; peacetime , and all-out warfare. As the game opens you’re given a handful of grubby peasants with which to construct a city, starting with a town hall and the basic resources; food from mills and fishing boats; wood from forests; stone from handy deposits; and gold, iron and coal from mining locations. These are all infinite, so there’s never any concern of running out of woodland or of a gold mine failing to produce, but of course there is always the desire for more resources compelling you to battle over new mining locations, unless you’re willing to invest in expanding your existing mines so that they can have more workers in them. With these resources you can fuel your economy, constructing things like a blacksmith to arm troops, barracks to train soldiers, stables to deploy horsemen and an academy to research improved rifles, better agriculture, more accurate artillery and much, much more.

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With a basic economy established you can get focused on building up a reasonable army. Given the 17th-18th century timeframe the tactics are old-school; chunky formations of pikemen supported by cannons and battalions of musketeers, while cavalry provides devastating flanking attacks. Unit variety is not huge, but that means there’s a clear rock-paper-scizzors system at play. Musketeers can destroy pikemen, especially when upgraded, but will struggle in melee combat which makes them especially vulnerable to cavalry, plus they’re much slower and  expensive to produce, while also requiring a constant supply of coal to fire their weapons. Cavalry can destroy anything if it catches it from the rear or sides, although this can be countered by ordering formations into a hollow square to provide multi-directional defense or commanders who quickly not the charge coming and can steer their pikemen to intercept. Much like musketeers cavalry also tend to be quite slow to produce. Furthermore if they get bogged down they become much weaker, something which the heavier horsemen don’t suffer from as much. Like the real battles of old warfare is about huge columns of soldiers marching toward each other slowly before coming together in a bloody mess of screams and horror. Or, at least, that’s how it actually happened. Cossacks 3 skips the whole blood and guts side of things. Defensive bonuses are given to troops set to hold ground and remaining rooted in place long enough, though, so it’s worth claiming the high ground and then waiting for the enemy to come to you. However, the opposing army could always choose to field a large battery of cannons that force you to move or get pounded into the dirt. It’s a simple system to understand and the pace of the troops means that sheer clicks-per-minute aren’t the deciding factor, although obviously reacting quickly to cavalry charges, reinforcements and other surprises is important.

There are some balancing issues to work around, though. Huge masses of pikemen are capable of brute-forcing their way through just about anything, especially once a player has advanced to the 18th century barracks where pikemen can be produced at an insane rate. At this point they also tend to have an economy that can easily sustain such a high rate of production. Multiplayer already has a lot of people spamming pikemen, simply overwhelming their opponents with sheer numbers, and thus far countering it can be difficult.  The best bet is to bring forward a lot of cannons, musketeers and fast cavalry. Furthermore there seems to be some luck at play within battles, as it’s possible to load up and run the same fight a few times and get wildly differing results, which obviously tarnishes the strategic nature of the game. Meanwhile laying siege to city walls can feel like a drag as cannons, bombards and howitzers all take a considerable amount of time to punch through. This does at least make attacking a city feel like a major decision, though.

As the game goes on its flaws become more apparent. This is a fairly shallow strategy game with most matches coming down to a huge brawl with every player pumping out troops as fast as their city will allow. It’s honestly at its best when there’s just perhaps 3-8 squads per side coming together, as that allows for maneuvering, devastating cavalry strikes and cannon bombardment with players getting more control over the action.  Early skirmish gameplay also means upgrades to specific troops feel more important. Do you spread out upgrades across all the different types of unit available to you, or do you focus on buffing up your pikemen or maybe your heavy cavalry? This creates some interesting choices. Later on everybody will have applied most of these already, removing a small layer of strategy. The bigger fights are akin to a mosh pit; kind of fun, definitely bloody and entirely incomprehensible.

There are a few other problems worth talking about, too. You can play against the A.I. on a randomly generated map, but the locations tend to be rather cramped. With anything more than about 3-players it’s hard to venture even a tiny way out of your base without stumbling straight into an enemy’s city. Considering the game supports up to ten A.I. opponents in a match, or real people if you prefer, some much bigger maps feel needed to support large-scale warfare and proper movement of troops.

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Speaking of the A.I. it’s something of a mixed bag, providing ample challenge but only through the use of one strategy. The A.I. loves to harass opposition with a steady stream of troops that force you to either take an early aggressive approach and begin storming cities with small squads of soldiers, or go heavily defensive because the steady pounding of a few groups at a time will leave you attempting to replace men while building up your forces. Indeed, the A.I. never seems inclined to engage you with a large army of its own, preferring to sending everything out in a slow but consistent trickle, never deviating from this method. Some variation in A.I. tactics is sorely needed to make things more interesting. As for the A.I. controlling your own troops it could do with some help as well, because right now formations tend to break at the slightest provocation, making you wondering why you ever bothered in the first place. Order a group of pikemen forward to attack an enemy formation and once they get even remotely close the formation crumbles.  Once enemy troops start to route your own formations will also break to purse, leaving you to hastily try to get them back under control so they don’t wander off.  Now, naturally when two huge groups of men come together it’s going to devolve into a mess, but up until that point formation should hold fairly steady, otherwise they’re nearly pointless. This scrum of soldiers also means that battles are completely illegible; it’s damn near impossible to tell at a glance how each fight is going, and trying to read the entire battlefield is difficult. Nor will your formations even hold correctly when simply ordered to march to a new location. I mean, c’mon guys, if you can’t march in formation then you really need to go back to military school.

Oh, and ships are a mess. The enemy A.I. seems to struggle to do anything meaningful with their vessels, nor do they know how to combat them. In once scenario I constructed a shipyard unhindered and began bombarding the enemy from the ocean, first with smaller ships and then with a full ship of the line. The A.I. just ignored the ships while they laid waste to the city. In defense of the A.I., though, if somebody manages to secure the oceans it can be very hard to stop them from raining down cannonballs from afar. That is, unless their ships hit that stupid glitch where they swarm to the short and begin some weird jittery dance while also stopping each other from firing. Jesus, that’s annoying.

Probably best stick to battling real people, then. Thankfully that’s a lot more fun provided you don’t bump into players spamming pikemen. Like most RTS titles Cossacks 3 is best when you’re going up against humans who bring different tactics to the table and whom can be merrily gloated over. Because what’s a bit of friendly gaming without hurting someone’s feelings?

It’s also a shame to see that the developers didn’t use this chance to improve a couple of things. Take, for example, putting together squads of troops; first you’ve got to build ’em up into groups of 36, 72 and so on, and then create a drummer and officer before selecting the offer, clicking the formation button and then ordering him to form a squad out of the available troops. It’s cumbersome, especially in the later stages of the game where resources tend to be ample anyway. It would have been a great opportunity to add in a “create squad of X number” button to reduce pointless clicking and leave you free to manage the battlefield instead of jumping back to organize construction of new squads. The limited zoom out also feels like a huge missed opportunity to let us get a few of the battlefield, especially since it’s possible to build up some really large armies and the graphics are actually quite pretty.

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As for the singleplayer campaign it boasts a considerable number of missions with a basic storyline told via static text that’s full of errors. It presents a tough challenge, too, as even on the lowest difficulties you’ll find the enemy typically have better ground to hold, forcing you to swarm over bridges and the like. The second mission alone took me a few attempts as I had to mount an assault over a narrow bridge, making it hard to really punch through, although in my defense no amount of tactical thinking could help too much in a situation like that numbers. It came down to brute force. Of course it did not help that I ran into a glitch which stopped me from actually beating the mission, despite clearing out every single enemy soldier. Yup, Cossacks 3 has quite a number of bugs living within its code, from the developer’s console still being accessible through a tap of P to the box selection not working after you select a wall and units sometimes failing to obey commands.

Despite the game’s obvious problems Cossacks 3 still claimed a considerable amount of my free time. The basic city construction is enjoyable and so is the act of warfare, because despite its relative shallowness it also never gets bogged down with too many types of unit or a million other variables. That isn’t to say RTS games with a wide variety of units and radically differing factions aren’t great, because clearly they can be, but sometimes it’s nice to go back to a simpler time and focus on countering troops. Still, there’s a lot of problems marring the experience, and therefore I advise waiting a while to see if the developers manage to polish up the game in terms of bugs and balance. Should they manage to do that it’s certainly worth a purchase, especially since it’s got a reasonable asking price. And as for existing Cossacks fans there’s nothing new here – it’s not the sequel you deserve at this point, but it is a much prettier version of the original game, and that alone might be enough to sway you.

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