Fans of the game and even Ukrainian developer GSC Game World might disagree with the following statement, but Cossacks: European Wars is an Age of Empires 2: the Age of Kings (AOK) clone. Yeah, Cossacks does some things differently, and it can allow you to have up to 8,000 units in the game at once, but once you play it you'll see the AOK influence all over the place, from the look and feel of the game right down to some specific buildings and units being the same. Now, if you're going to imitate a game, AOK is a good choice because 1) nobody else has done it yet, and 2) AOK was about as good as a real-time strategy game gets. But while AOK managed to hit every note just about right, Cossacks mixes together some harmony and cacophony (continuing the metaphor) and doesn't quite achieve the same elegance of gameplay
In case it wasn't clear from the introduction, Cossacks is a historical real-time strategy game. It spans the 17th and 18th centuries (essentially picking up where AOK left off), and it focuses on events in Europe. So you'll get to experience things like the Thirty Years War and the Ukranian war for independence. If those don't sound exciting, or if you don't even know what those are, then don't worry; Cossacks also works on a purely entertainment level. It's a little more complex than other real-time strategy games, but it contains all of the standard elements -- building, training, resource gathering, researching -- and it includes a wide variety of playable factions and unique units. If you've ever wanted to recreate realistic, large-scale, post-medieval wars, then Cossacks is the game for you.
Unfortunately, I think GSC Game World was just a little too conscious of AOK when they were developing Cossacks. The building selection is almost identical. For example, in both games marketplaces allow you trade one resource for another, churches are there so you can train priests to heal your troops, and town centers act as resource gathering points, housing, and a place to train peasants. The only building Cossacks adds is the "diplomatic" center, where you can hire mercenaries. Units are also similar. Although Cossacks takes place during a later time period, you'll still have the same mix of infantry, cavalry, and artillery units. Cossacks just relies more on gunpowder, and so you'll (usually) see musketeers instead of archers and cannons instead of trebuchets.
Where Cossacks differs from AOK is that it tries to be more realistic. These differences range from having more resources to having larger armies to having more checks and balances between the units. For example, in AOK a "major" battle might feature less than 100 units total on both sides, but in Cossacks you might have 1000 or more units on the field at once, which is more correct in scale. Also, if one side brings the wrong units to the battle -- like sending slow-moving pikemen against musketeers -- then that side is going to lose badly. The downside is that you have to be more aware of what is going on, and, once the battle starts, there's no real way to micromanage what your troops do.
One other major difference between AOK and Cossacks is with resources. Cossacks has six resources for you to manage -- wood, food, coal, iron, gold, and stone -- but fortunately they're all inexhaustible. Mines will never run out gold, trees will never run out of wood, and mills will (usually) replant your fields for you. That means once you assign a peasant to a task, you won't have to worry about that peasant any more, and you won't have to watch your peasants constantly to make sure they're all working. To make up for this convenience, though, Cossacks requires you to support your units with a constant stream of resources. This isn't too bad for most infantry units, since they just require food, but ships require gold and walls and towers require stone. Plus, you'll have to spend coal and iron every time your units fire a shot, and it's annoying to have to go constantly to your marketplace to make sure your units can keep fighting -- or worse, to find your units got slaughtered because you ran out of a resource and didn't notice.
However, where Cossacks really has a problem is with its pacing. In every regard, it is slow. Units move slowly, especially ferries (ship transports) which literally take ten minutes to get from one side of the map to the other, even on the fastest speed setting. Units are also too slow to produce. Ships and artillery units take forever to create if you don't upgrade their construction times, but even human units take about the same amount of time to train in Cossacks as they do in other real-time strategy games -- which is bad once you realize that Cossacks requires about ten times as many units as other games. Plus, there are numerous things to research -- which is good and bad in itself -- but research topics for buildings must be researched for each building independently, so it takes a while to upgrade your mines enough to start supplying a significant amount of gold, iron, and coal. Lastly, only ship and artillery units can attack buildings, so if you want to defeat an enemy base, you'll have to lug around some slow-moving cannons, and if you want to defeat the base quickly, you'll have to bring a lot of cannons.
A good area for Cossacks is the graphics. In fact, Cossacks' graphics are about as nice as it gets for a 2D real-time strategy game. GSC Game World went to a lot of trouble with the unit animations: they're detailed, they feature a good number of orientations, and you'll notice such things as units moving differently if they're just walking or if they're walking to attack something. (For example, pikemen will hold their pikes upright if they're just walking but they'll hold their pikes pointing forward if they mean business.) The terrain is modeled in 3D (in much the same way Total Annihilation modeled terrain), and while there are only two real elevations and one ground type, it still looks pretty good. Buildings are modeled to scale, and while that means you'll need to use a high resolution to play the game (at least 1024x768), the buildings look more accurate and actually have doors so units can walk into or out of them. Lastly, there is enough eye candy to go around. Each faction has a unique set of graphics for its buildings, ships have reflections in the water, and if you score a solid hit on a building or ship, wood and debris will go flying.
The sound, on the other hand, is a little weak. Perhaps because GSC Game World intended to release Cossacks in a variety of languages, there is no voice acting at all. Mission events are handled through pop-up text boxes, and there are no real unit acknowledgements. You'll hear some ambient sounds, plus the fire of guns and cannons, but it all seems a little sparse. Meanwhile, the background music is good, but it's probably a little upbeat for the game. (Of course, anything other than a funeral dirge might be a little too upbeat for the game.)
Cossacks also has a few technical issues. Some of the problems are minor, like being unable to target units standing in front of buildings and the move-and-attack command giving units way too much freedom to choose what they attack. Other problems are less minor. The pathfinding is bad, especially for large units like ships. Far too often units will get stuck or will suddenly peel off in a random direction. The enemy AI is also bad. Computer-controlled opponents won't react to how you're playing (to counteract your attacks or defenses), and they will often do odd things like have units approach your base and then just stop and stand around within range of your artillery or musketeers. Lastly, although the game supports resolutions from 800x600 to 1600x1200, there isn't a mouse speed setting, and so there isn't a way to play at the highest resolutions without killing your wrist.
For single players, Cossacks offers four campaigns covering 31 missions. The campaigns are for France, England, Russia, and Ukraine (featuring the signature cossack units), but I'd characterize the missions as generally grueling, frustrating and annoying. GSC Game World tried to make the missions interesting -- you'll get to find buried treasure, attack caravans, and fend off robbers while meeting your objectives -- and they went out of their way to make the missions unlike the typical build-and-destroy skirmish mode. But all too often you'll find yourself with a fixed force of units, with no idea what all you'll have to do with them, and you'll have to rely in equal parts on save-and-restore and the bad enemy AI to get through. That's not a recipe for success.
For multiplayer games, Cossacks supports the standard modes of connection -- LAN, modem, and the Internet -- and supposedly it will be available on GameSpy. It allows players to form teams before starting a mission, but as far as I could tell there's no way to change teams once a mission starts, and there isn't any way to transfer resources between team members. Also, Cossacks doesn't have any sort of editor, and so you'll have to make do with the random map generator and the 12 historical battles included.
Is more really better? Lots of game developers seem to think so, and, intentionally or not, that seems to be the route GSC Game World took against AOK. Cossacks has more resources, more research topics, more factions, and allows more units -- and it's probably more historically accurate to boot -- but it doesn't end up being more fun, and that's the only "more" I really care about.