With Northgard Shiro Games is attempting to breathe new life into the real-time strategy genre. This isn't only a tribute to Warcraft 3 and Age of Empires clad in Viking armor - it's also a refreshing combination of RTS, Settlers-like city building, as well as classic empire board gaming, the types of games where you slowly colonise the map.
Shiro Games, the studio that was also responsible for the fantastic Evoland, has been working on Northgard in Early Access for about a year. What is new is that the game is now finished, and also features a short campaign, introducing the many different clans available in single- or multiplayer. The full release of the game naturally features many smaller changes, and some of these will be commented on in this review.
The game, as the name implies, takes place in Northgard; a wild and untamed continent that the Vikings discover, where the winters are harsh and mythical creatures rule. Large parts of the map are therefore naturally inhabited by these beasts such as giants called jötunn, kobolds, and valkyries. While both jötunn and kobolds can be traded with, most other non-human species are hostile.
The player can choose from a growing number of clans to play as, each of which has their own advantages, such as the goat-clan Heidrun, who can build a sheepfold, which turns sheep into a continuous source of meat (normally a sheep must be killed in order to produce meat). This approach is in direct contrast to the clan of the raven, called Huginn and Muninn, who can order mercenaries to attack enemy shores and spend money, called Kröwns, instead of food when colonising an area. All six clans in the game are exciting to play as and produce very different approaches. They seem reasonably balanced, apart from the somewhat weak-feeling clan of the wolf - something the developer is focusing on in patches.
When starting a new game of Northgard, you own a limited area, a Town Hall, and some villagers. These are basic citizens who are generated at your Town Hall, if you have enough houses and if your people are happy. Villagers are needed to build and repair houses, but they also collect food, if they're not told to do otherwise.
All of your citizens can be assigned different roles when you desire to do so. This means that villagers can be ordered to become farmers, fishers, warriors, or something else on the fly. To begin with, the game is all about getting the base up and running, and this requires a Scout Camp, allowing for map exploration, and a Woodcutter's Lodge, in order to collect wood to build with.
As the game progresses your needs become more complex, and it's no longer sufficient to collect simple resources such as wood and food; you need to get your economy up and running and make sure to keep your people happy. This means that you can't let your citizens stay wounded, and therefore healers are required, just like you should upgrade houses and make sure that no one gets sick (Vikings are a demanding people). An economy requires a source of income, and so you also need merchants. Naturally, you need to expand and colonise, and for that you'll need warriors. All of a sudden, there are more moving parts to keep track of.
The list of buildings and units to keep track of could go on and Northgard is very much about balancing your city in order to get just the right kind of economy. At the same time, you need to make sure that you don't empty your food and wood reserves during the winter when your workers are much less productive.
For players that are used to classic RTS titles such as Age of Empires, Northgard might seem a bit automatised. For instance, once a Fisherman's Hut is set up and workers are assigned, there isn't much else to do there. The absence of micromanagement could have been boring if the rest of the game didn't require a constant overview of events across your entire empire. From rats infesting your food to the winter that is always too close, disasters are always just about to happen and they demand that you remain on-guard. This ensures that the player can't just build a large army and take over the rest of the map, and it creates a nice change of pace from other RTS titles.
This brings us to what is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Northgard: there are smarter ways to achieve victory than simply crushing your foes in battle. Just like board games such as Catan, trade and exploration play important roles. Perhaps the quickest route to victory for some is to become the greatest trade power, for instance, which is achieved by sending Kröwns to your home country, which naturally requires a solid income. The other non-violent options are wisdom and fame, but you can also eliminate your opponent the old-fashioned way. The problem with the latter is that warriors are expensive and don't produce food or money, and therefore war is often very counter-productive. There are also so-called "map specials," which are extra win options, like closing a gate to Helheim.
Fame can be produced by certain buildings or achieved through expansion or raids. By achieving more fame, you will also receive certain rewards, such as certain resources or a unique warrior. Wisdom works just like experience points and gives access to certain bonuses as you grow wiser. Wisdom is earned by collecting Lore, which again is achieved through raids, but also by assigning Loremasters at specific landmarks, like stone circles.
To us, Northgard's laid-back approach to RTS is highly entertaining, and it makes the game one of the most engaging experiences we've had with the genre. It is a great match for players that are looking for something a little less war-focused than the usual RTS. In our case, the genre has often meant a painful defeat, since we've focused on building a nice base, and not so much on rushing to build an effective army. If you have the same slow approach to strategy games, it will please you that Northgard is rewarding exactly these types of players, and actually does so without making the game painfully slow.
This is only possible thanks to the criteria for victory in Northgard, which is very different from the "kill 'em all" attitude of Command & Conquer, instead allowing the most famous leader or the king of trade to win. The feeling of victory here can be a little anti-climactic though, since the game can end a little abruptly. This is why the developer lets you continue, even if you've won. This is similar to playing Catan, which also ends very abruptly. The road to victory is still fun, though, and we often found ourselves continuing in this way.
Even if the game feels laid-back, a round of Northgard can actually be finished faster than most RTS games, since it's not necessary to eradicate your opponent. Thanks to the many roads to victory, the game avoids taking forever to finish, and therefore it never becomes monotonous, Don't get us wrong, Northgard can still test your patience, and this is especially true during the winter when you can't afford anything and instead you're just waiting for your base to collect enough resources to expand or hire new warriors. In these periods you're just sitting there staring at the base, without anything happening.
This is a good time to comment on the new campaign in the game. While Rig's Saga, as it's called, is decent story-wise and shows the game from new angles, the gameplay just isn't as good as in ordinary games of Northgard. As the rightful heir to the throne, Rig, you set out to avenge your father and retrieve his horn, on the journey forging alliances with other clans in order to do so, also getting to play as them too. While the campaign won't win any awards for the story, it's fine if you want to learn a little background about the game's universe.
The campaign has one gameplay issue though: the victory criteria it sets just aren't very fun. The worst case is late in the game, where you need to survive four winters before an undead army is supposed to invade. These four winters were pretty easy to survive but took about 45 minutes, and you just have one opponent, who only arrives at the end. As you can imagine, this became tedious to sit through, especially with the lack of challenge.
This is in contrast to an otherwise very challenging game. It can be quite punishing if you don't have enough resources to survive the winter, and while the mechanics are mostly explained, you have to figure out why the people are unhappy and why you don't have enough food. This can be overwhelming at the beginning, and therefore new players shouldn't be afraid to play on a lower difficulty.
The atmosphere of the game is great, and it has a wonderful cartoony style, which is both retro and impressive at the same time. If you spent some hours with Warcraft 3 in your youth, this game will probably bring you back to those days. The Viking theme is all-encompassing, and contributes to the coherence of the game, immersing you in the cozy atmosphere. Woods, lakes and the hard-working farmers are all presented in great detail, and you'll truly enjoy building your city as a result. Since the official release, we even got the opportunity to choose between seven different types of map, such as tundra and steppe, which heightens the immersion even further.
The sound is excellent as well. The music can be somewhat repetitive, but it's perfect for the game and the cosy feeling we described before, as is the epic Viking theme. The voices, especially in the campaign, are also faithful to the Viking style, featuring a Norse dialect. Sounds are wisely used to signal when you need to build houses or when you are being attacked too, which helps to focus your attention towards problems.
The game runs well even on less powerful machines and is quite stable, as is the multiplayer, which we had no trouble with, so generally, Northgard is a great experience. It's nostalgic, but at the same time blends the genres in a much-needed way. For those looking for a less war-heavy RTS, this is a great option that has given us a new-found desire to explore the genre again. Thanks to the many clans and their unique advantages it avoids being repetitive, and while the campaign is not as good as it could be, it's not the main course here anyway.