Cossacks 3

Playing through Cossacks 3, gamers of a certain age -- or affinity for the genre -- will feel instantly at home. Cossacks 3 harkens back to an early, golden age of real time strategy games like Age of Empires, Age of Mythology and Rise of Nations, when gameplay conceits and interface design were almost interchangeable and a new game distinguished itself by virtue of its setting. The original Cossacks (2001) was birthed in this era of classic RTS games, and Cossacks 3 feels both contemporary and happily stuck in an earlier time.

As the genre evolved through games like Starcraft, Warcraft 3, the Total War series and many others, real time strategy games became decidedly more complex critters, adding such elements as rotating cameras with infinite zoom or idle units that would find tasks to do without player prompting. Cossacks 3 eschews many of these later developments, instead focusing on harnessing modern processing power to bring literally thousands and thousands of units on screen at once, making for epic-looking -- if frustratingly chaotic -- battles.

Although there is a relatively comprehensive tutorial for both the city building and military aspects of Cossacks 3, its controls, resource gathering, building and unit construction need little explanation, as firmly rooted as they are in the traditions of the genre. The town hall produces villagers, the villagers gather wood and stone and grow crops and build the barracks, the barracks produce soldiers by the dozens, and pretty soon the battles begin. The relaxing, zen-like pace of resource gathering and city building is followed by frenetic, gut-wrenching clashes between infantry, cavalry, artillery and even naval units. Buildings can be upgraded and units can be trained to add additional abilities and lethal power. Compared to later later RTS games, the tech tree is fairly simplistic and the player will not be plagued by a debilitating and constant array of choices.

Set in the early gunpowder era of the 17th and 18th centuries, Cossacks3, in theory features a wide range of European nations and dozens of building and unit types with which to play, but in practice the variety is less dramatic and more cosmetic, where Arabic scimitars, mullahs and mosques are more or less interchangeable with English swords, priests, and cathedrals. Artillery or cavalry (for example) vary only slightly from one nation to another, and therefore tactics don't change much throughout the game. There is a single player campaign of sorts, consisting of loosely connected build-and-fight missions with minimal flavor text to tie them together, and of course a nearly infinite number of single player vs AI or multiplayer skirmishes. There is a limited-function map editor as well. Cossack 3's graphics are sharp, but its environments are static and not terribly varied.

While Cossacks 3 boasts the ability to have ten thousand units on screen at once -- something those early RTS games could never even dream about -- the reality is that all those carefully positioned and artfully arranged squads pretty quickly break formation in the heat of battle and devolve into something far less effective and less manageable. Enemy AI is suspiciously lethal even on the easiest difficulty and in skirmishes, waves of enemies will be at the city gates almost always before the player is ready to counter them effectively. There is a fair amount of micromanagement both in battle and in city building. Idle workers, although easy to find and gather, are content to be a lazy bunch and need to be manually re-assigned to tasks. Quite often soldiers will relentlessly pursue a fleeing enemy at the expense of fighting nearby foes and organizing squads -- each of which need a drummer and a captain -- sometimes means sorting through lots of very similar-looking soldiers. Although Cossack 3's ad copy suggest that terrain, elevation, ammo physics and the like play a role in battles, there isn't much evidence of these making a difference.

With its non-rotating, isometric view and limited camerazoom, Cossacks 3 is a visual throwback to much earlier RTS games, which is not to say that it looks dated or unattractive. There is quite a bit of detail in both unit design and building architecture, and visual variety within the limitations of similar European and north African cultures. Although there is no voice acting, both environmental and weapon sound design are quite well done, with the boom and crackle of artillery and gunpowder weapons particularly evocative. The orchestral score is omnipresent and occasionally hints at the appropriate cultural flavor for the nation at hand. Now and then, the soundtrack seemed to foreshadow or resonate with an impending invasion or dolefully comment on peasants starving in the fields.

Anyone with a fondness for classic, old-school strategy games will certainly enjoy the comfort-food vibe of Cossacks 3, at least in the short term. Where things become a little more problematic is with the overall lack of variety in both mission pacing and nation-to-nation unit design, where the small details are there but the big, gameplay-shaping differences aren't so apparent or effective. After a while, the game's reduced scope and deliberate, self-imposed limitations -- part of the throwback aesthetic -- plus some crash bugs and frame rate slowdowns, suck some of the fun out of a basically enjoyable experience.