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Wot I Think: Cossacks 3

Select-All Party Like It's 1999

Whilst I was playing Cossacks 3 [official site], a console-focused journalist of some reknown (TV's famous Simon Parkin, since you ask) popped his head into the rotting cupboard above a coffee shop that I attempt to call an office. He didn't say anything when he glaced at my screen; didn't have to, for his face said it all. This, these tiny men, those cod-historical serif fonts and that expanse of terrain - this was what PC gamers played all the time. Our interests and stereotypes had not changed since 1997.

I sought, somewhat in vain, to defend myself, because in truth it has been many years since I played a historical RTS. Cossacks 3 is not PC gaming's norm in 2016 any more than Mario or Sonic are consoles', but I must admit that I found it to be something of a balm. A return to a more innocent age.

GSC Gameworld (they of STALKER fame, at least in name) are behind this 17th- and 18th-century Europe-set real-time strategy game, which though it bears a 3 in its name does not present any particular barriers to series newcomers. It's a demi-remake of the 2001 original, in fact.

It's so thoroughly unreconstructed as an RTS, a straight-to-the-point rarity in changed times, like a visitor from an alt-timeline where strategy games never gave up on the Age Of Empires formula and were still the same in 2016, but slicker and flashier. Cossacks 3, which in a sentence is a traditional build and bash RTS with higher unit counts and a little more focus on formation, is a comfort blanket, and I regret nothing.

It takes me back to a time when, working for PC Format magazine back in the days when magazines were something other than an expensive way to pass a train journey if your phone battery was running low, games like this would arrive on my desk every week. I am almost certain I reviewed at least one Cossacks game during that period, though I can remember nothing of it.

The pace of publishing was such that I could spend a full week on a review rather than dash through as fast as possible. And so it was that I bought a Greggs' pastie and a can of fizzy pop as I played Cossacks 3, to better transport myself back to my younger days of less pressure and terrible diets.

My point being, what might have felt weary in 2007 feels sweet and welcome now. I won't go so far as to say 'fresh', but I've had a good time with Cossacks 3 despite its inherently familiar nature and limited amount of variety. It's not simply that it's scratching a neglected itch, but also that it does so deftly, never struggling under the weight of its massed battles and almost illustration-like appearance.

The major bummer for me is that, though Cossacks 3 leans heavy on building a town in the early stages of a mission or battle, this stuff reaches its end fairly fast, shrugged off in favour of those big battles. It is a game about warfare first and foremost, which is entirely its perogative - it's just that its peacetime is so satisfying and I'd love the opportunity to have more of it before opting for a swift bout of genocide to bring proceedings to a close.

Watching the gradual construction of churches and ports and barracks is a treat, because while this is very much a 2000s-era game underneath the skin, that skin is high-fidelity and packed with tiny details and pretty shadowing that it arguably doesn't really need. I'd love to see Cossacks' tech applied to a full-on city management game, but hell, that's my problem, not its.

Age of Empires is the best benchmark, in terms of the spit between bricks and blood. You create the fundamentals of a city and have workers to keep resources coming in, all in the name of recruiting bigger and better armies. Fighting units are split between melee, ranged and cavalry, with cannons in the mix in order to break down city walls and boats to schlepp your guys across the ocean or pummel buildings from afar.

Rock, paper, scissors rules apply, like a simpler Total War - guns are useless against swords in melee, horses can bear down on infantry in an instant but pikes will slaughter 'em, that sort of thing. Fail to be cognisant of this and attempt Select All - Go Over There and you're likely to face a swift wipe-out. You really need to counter specific squads with specific squads, and the high unit count (battles tend to feature hundreds, not dozens, of units) means this can be immensely satisfying if you pull it off correctly.

One mission had something like 300 musketeers guarding an enemy fort, all stood in a vast square, able to annihilate any amount of infantry from afar, so after dashing a fair few lives against the rocks, I sent 40-odd speedy, cutlass-wielding horsemen in there. They were upon the riflemen before they could get loose more than a couple of shots, a relatively tiny number of swords hacking away at a horde of men who had no way to fight back at close range. Seeing the cube of death get ruthlessly dismantled was a joy.

Cossacks perhaps looks a little fearsome in screenshots, but there isn't too much to learn once you've grasped the basics. Particularly, there's little in the way of Total War-style positioning and flanking, and nothing at all in terms of using terrain, but there is a genuine aesthetic joy to carefully arranging units in tabletop fashion before charging in.

Formations do play a part, in a slightly infuriating way - which is a UI problem rather than a tactical one. Build 36 identical units (but only of certain types), then a drummer and an Officer, and by pressing a couple of tiny buttons they will become a squad, acting as one unit rather than 38, and which you can then shape into columns, rows or defensive squares, depending on their type and your situation.

This is without a doubt handy - you want your archers and gunners in a line rather than a clump, you want your pikemen in a column to bust through the horsies, you want your swordsmen in an open-middled square if they're marching on ranged troops - but the squad system can can to some extent be sidestepped in favour of super-fast mouse jockeying if you prefer. I tried - and usually failed - to do this latter because creating squads is a grind. Build 36 of those, one of these, one of these, move them all together, select officer, click formation, click desired units...

It all takes an age to build too, especially if you're doing it with higher-end units. (And there's no speed-up toggle even in singleplayer, though you can go into settings - controls and choose between normal, fast and super fast there). I'd love a 'build complete squad' button, particularly for later stages of a mission or battle, when you're usually fairly resource-flush. Not a biggie really, but speaks to Cossacks' slight uncertainty about whether it's A GET IN THERE AND FIGHT or WORRY ABOUT THE SMALL DETAILS game.

A greater concern is that there isn't that much to it - not that many units, not that many buildings, and every bout pretty much goes the same way. Singleplayer is structured into mini-campaigns starring various different 17th and 18th century European nations, but there's no story or characters to speak of. Instead it's just scripted AI battles bookended by short historical text blurbs, but the missions do work hard to offer about as much variety as the fixed structure could reasonably manage. It'll keep you busy even if it starts to feel the same sooner than it perhaps should. Multiplayer's where it's at long-term, and I imagine one way in which Cossacks will break with mid-noughties tradition is in a stream of new units, factions and maps to keep that going.

Straightforward, simple, but slick and solid. Cossacks is comfort food, but it feels sufficiently of today despite its cheerfully throwback heart. I had a good time, and most of all I realised that I'm more than ready for this once so staid of genres to come back in earnest.

Cossacks 3 is out now for Windows, via Steam and Humble.

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