Game ReviewSep 21, 2016 at 2:35a PSTby Adam Zechenter

Cossacks 3 review – a sad return to the past

The Cossacks are back, marking their return with the sound of pipes and the roar of cannons. Unfortunately, the third game in the series that is especially popular in Europe comes with the same advantages and disadvantages as it did 16 years ago.

PROS:
  1. Nice, old-school graphics;
  2. Five new historical campaigns;
  3. A travel back in time for many players;
  4. The topic is rather uncommon in video games;
  5. Pretty solid music;
  6. Mod and map editor support.
CONS:
  1. Terrible AI;
  2. Cossacks 3 is just a remake of Cossacks: European Wars;
  3. No real modernization of the 2000 game – many mistakes have been repeated;
  4. Tons of redundant micromanagement;
  5. Artificially high level of difficulty;
  6. Low legibility and chaotic combat.

The first game in the Cossacks franchise was released in 2000; it was a sort of Central European Age of Empires and one of the few games that explored the early modern period in history – perhaps less popular than other periods, but no less exciting. The times were turbulent, and the foundations of the world as we know it were just beginning to take shape. The Cossacks played their part in all this: inhabiting the Eastern frontiers of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, they started a rebellion in 1648, known as the Khmelnysky Uprising. Columns of smoke rose over the horizon, Polish Winged Hussars charged on today’s Ukraine’s steppes, and borders changed daily. The first Cossacks wasn’t a perfect game, but it was decent considering the standards back then, and even today it manages to impress with its graphics, scale of battles, and vividly rendered historical backdrop. This year marks the comeback of the Cossacks to our computer screens, but everything seems to point to the fact that the return is far from triumphant.

The Cossack’s new clothes

Let us begin with an explanation as simple as a Tatar arrow as to what kind of game Cossacks 3 is. The title suggests that this is the third installment in the, once very popular, series of RTS games. However, it is just a refreshed version of the first game. We get the same gameplay, buildings and units all wrapped up in new graphics. Basics aside, let’s move on to the details, analyzing the game like a hetman would scrutinize maps before a battle with superior enemy forces. In Cossacks 3, five historical campaigns await us, each consisting of five missions, so we've got 25 maps to finish in total. The campaigns take us to the Europe of the sixteen- and seventeen hundreds. Hence, the players will have an opportunity to take part in the English civil war, and support the parliament against the king; restore the Austrian power by first repelling the Turks and then beating the French; or defend the Commonwealth in the Polish-Ukrainian campaign, where many enemies, including the Swedes and the Tatars, will endanger the nation’s freedom. It’s nice that this last campaign emphasizes what both nations have in common, and not what divides them. There are no individual missions in Cossacks 3, unlike in the original game, but the campaigns alone should suffice for at least a dozen hours of gameplay. Or at least it may seem this way.

The multiplayer might save this game. It allows clashes of up to eight players. I didn’t have a chance to try it out, but if you’re familiar with the series and have a soft spot for the flicker of emotion provided by facing opponents that actually think, then the shortcomings that I am about to describe will not affect you that much. Taking into account the single player’s flaw, the online module might be the only thing able to keep the players’ interest alive.

The graphics are the game’s biggest asset. - 2016-09-21
The graphics are the game’s biggest asset.

The buildings in Cossacks 3 are for the most part overhauled models from the original game – and these were based on real edifices. The Prussian city hall here is a rendition of the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin.

We play each mission, whether a part of the campaign or just a regular, random map – exactly the way we did in European Wars. Just like in Age of Empires we construct buildings, ensure the influx of resources by managing the villagers, recruit units, and in the meantime, try to harass our neighbors with swift hit-and-run attacks, or – alternatively – defend ourselves against such attacks. Twelve playable factions provide different units and buildings, which deserve praise for their meticulous design. The models are fantastic and easy on the eye, but let's keep in mind that these are mostly just revamped assets from the first game. It’s similar with the animations: they’re nice and smooth, but simply transferring them 1 to 1 from a 6-year-old game is just insufficient for today’s standards: every unit has one animation for movement, and one for combat. That’s hardly a satisfying number, but it’s not the greatest issue this game has.

Nail in the coffin

We’ve already established that Cossacks 3 is just European Wars on a new engine: “just” is a crucial word here; the game practically begs for more upgrades. I’m not saying it didn’t bring any changes – setting a rally point now requires one less click; the villagers start working in a mine right after finishing its construction. These, however, are just details, which don’t influence the big picture – not significantly. The main issue this game has is that it’s too oldschool, and sticks to the original formula too much. Cossacks from 2000 had downsides which deterred many players – poor AI and low legibility of combat. Unfortunately, both these flaws made their way to the third game, but they are far more bothersome in 2016.

The battles look like that only in the scripted campaign and... before combat starts. - 2016-09-21
The battles look like that only in the scripted campaign and... before combat starts.

In Cossacks: European Wars, it was possible to set units in formations, providing them with different bonuses and making it easier to control them on the battlefield. In practice, the battles were always terribly chaotic and involved a ton of micromanagement (when you scrolled away from a battle, your units were suddenly losing interest in it). In Cossacks 3 – which comes as little surprise – it's identical. The promo screens depicted impressive army formations, bringing to mind Empire: Total War, but don't let yourself be deceived. Such sights I've only seen during the campaign, when the troops were waiting for the first script to give an order to attack, and that was it.

An impressive promo screen – I wish Cossacks looked like that. - 2016-09-21
An impressive promo screen – I wish Cossacks looked like that.

Devil's contraptions shoot by themselves!

The artillery symbolizes all that is wrong with Cossacks 3. The cannons – just as in the original – don’t need any human intervention to move or fire. Which didn’t prevent the devs from posting promo screens where troops were clearly standing by them – many people believed there would be a change here. The developers later explained on the game's forums that adding reload animations would limit the unit’s responsiveness (which was an issue in the second installment), but that doesn't sound very convincing.

What could have nullified the main disadvantages of Cossacks 3 was the AI. Unfortunately, it became the nail in the game's coffin. The developers have rewritten the AI scripts from scratch, but that didn't help too much – the computer-controlled armies act as if a 10-year-old pacifist commanded them. First of all, regardless of the difficulty level and the conditions on a given map, the AI always acts the same. It erects buildings and recruits units in precisely the same order, every time. The difference is that on normal difficulty the AI at some point ceases to expand its city and recruit new units (if the enemy happens to be located on an island, it's capable of not building even one ship!), while on higher levels it keeps going. Not too elegant, is it? Apart from that, the AI makes elementary mistakes, no matter the difficulty you play on; it leaves its artillery without protection (in Cossacks, the artillery and buildings can be taken over if there are no hostile units protecting it). On maps where I'd set a certain period of peace, during which it's forbidden to attack, the computer would violate the predefined borders and let its units be decimated. Still, there’s more to it…

Artificial (lack of) intelligence

The ships I mentioned were the final straw. Here the AI fails completely; even if it somehow manages to build a shipyard and then construct some ships, it has no idea what that thing with sails on top does. Here's what I observed during one battle when two English ships were barraging a French dry dock. Right next to them, French troops were embarking transport ships. When they left, a construction queue ended for a French warship, which immediately attacked the English vessels. The English, however, apparently very confident of their hulls' integrity, didn't break their attack on the shipyard. They were both sunk. Let's also point out that this behavior, having little to nothing in common with the art of war, was performed by the AI on its highest setting, called – oh, the irony – "impossible". Such "ingenious" maneuvers of the computer are unfortunately commonplace. Hence, my clashes with the AI were not particularly satisfactory. On higher difficulty they can be excessively hard (that is, if water doesn't separate you and the AI), but it's enough to find tactics that the computer doesn't get. For instance, I myself used the light Cossack cavalry, and exploited the passiveness in the defense of my enemies, which allowed me to wreak havoc among their buildings – I'm sure players will find many other weak spots in the AI's scripts. This absolutely disqualifies random missions, leaving us with the campaign and the multiplayer.

Cossacks’ trademark – chaos on the battlefield and not very clear models. - 2016-09-21
Cossacks’ trademark – chaos on the battlefield and not very clear models.

Officers in Cossacks 3 are incredibly brave. They're able to set our units in formation. They're also passionate about head-on charges. If an officer commands a unit of riflemen, and you order them to attack, he will… charge, sword in hand, straight in the direction of the enemy – riflemen have rifles, so they shoot; he doesn't, so he charges. Mathematically it makes sense.

The historical campaigns are just a tiny bit better – the AI is still poor but the scripted parameters change, which makes everything more interesting. It doesn't mean that the above problems aren't here – you still have to be in a defined place for start a given script, so if your units are dispersed and you get a pop-up communicate, you don't know which unit triggered it – because it's always displayed in the area you're currently looking at. The difficulty level of the campaigns is exaggerated. On higher settings, the enemies' stats are evidently buffed, because neither their numbers, nor their tactics change. It makes finishing the mission a perilous and laborious process of learning AI's scripted actions. The order of the missions was also confusing; in the Ukraine–Poland campaign, the hardest mission was… the first one. All the mistakes I've talked about could also be found in the first installment (including the AI's hydrophobia) – it's very unfortunate that we're dealing with the same things sixteen years later. Refreshing this game using a new engine was the perfect occasion to have some things improved, and modernize the game in general. The Ukrainian studio didn't capture this opportunity, creating crippled artificial intelligence instead.

The computer can’t catch up with the Cossack cavalry’s attacks. - 2016-09-21
The computer can’t catch up with the Cossack cavalry’s attacks.

Finally, a word about optimization. Cossacks 3 looks amazing, but I'm afraid that slower systems may have trouble running the game. On my computer, which is pretty powerful, the game was generally running on 60 fps, but it slowed to less than 30 during big battles. Obviously, all the talk about 10,000 troops on the map was mostly a marketing gimmick – creating so many soldiers requires special conditions, and mind that the game stutters if there are many units fighting.

Wasted opportunity

Before I started analyzing all the shortcomings of the AI, I spent many nice moments with Cossacks 3. The thing is that all the upsides, among them the graphics, the uncommon setting, good music, or the old-school vibe, get bogged down among the serious issues that the AI has. In classic RTS games the artificial intelligence was never too intelligent (just look at the first Age of Empires). In Cossacks, however, it's even worse, and the computer simply cannot deal with many situations. The fact that the AI is unable to figure out what to do with water is a serious flaw. Maybe the multiplayer will manage to outweigh these shortcomings – but let's bear in mind that the unit balance in Cossacks: European Wars was never very good to start with, and the developers didn't touch this aspect of the game. There's plenty of things to complain about; I could get over the chaos in battles or poor path finding, but the idiotic artificial intelligence is something one cannot simply ignore.

AI can’t fight ships or even… build them. - 2016-09-21
AI can’t fight ships or even… build them.

The developers explained many times that while they're not introducing certain elements in the game, the fans will be welcome to add them via mods. The game does support Steam Workshop, but will mods be enough to repair all the mistakes of Cossacks 3? Personally, I’m not so sure. There’s one more thing I don’t understand – it was GSC Game World's decision not to include the original campaigns in the game. I've asked the developers about it, and they told me that such an element wouldn't be interesting for the veterans of the franchise. Why not? After all it’s an old-school game that built its entire marketing campaign on the players’ nostalgia.

Fire! - 2016-09-21
Fire!

Don't get me wrong – Cossacs 3 isn't a terrible game. We've gotten a revamped version of an average RTS with new campaigns and old issues. The problem is that after sixteen years most of these mistakes are unacceptable. I'm just disappointed – I expected a fierce army of Cossacks, and instead I got a bunch of dweeby recruits.