Review: Northgard12 Mar 2018 0
Released 07 Mar 2018
Eleven months back we were sent out to chart new territory in the name of yet another strategy hybrid. Northgard, from the folks behind genre-celebrating Evoland & Evoland II, swapped out the RPG antics of their previous works to prove once more that strategy games come in many flavours.
If you’ve been around the block you’re likely to find something to like, something to love, and something to hate. We’ll vouch for more of the former than the later options, there, but Northgard isn’t perfect. It comes close, but it doesn't quite take the gold. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of the time you can sink into its brand-new campaign mode, at least.
Back in April last year, Northgard released on Steam Early Access as little more than a proof of concept. The idea was that Shiro Games would mix RTS and 4X together to create something that had the form of Civilization with the function of Warcraft III. And while I’m far from a master scholar of the genre, those are two flagship examples that are particularly close to my heart. Now that they’ve had the time to bake in more factions, dedicated online multiplayer, and a lengthy campaign mode, Northgard can shine alongside those AAA classics not as something that screams quality and high production value, but as a true indie gem that proves that an understanding of what made the genre great in the first place is all that’s needed to replicate the experience.
We’ve touched on the gamplay elements in our Early Access preview, and you’ll be glad to know that not much has changed at the core. Those who regularly fired up the game throughout its availability would have been met with the clans to play around with on the odd occasion, but whether you checked it out at the start and decide to let it brew, or didn’t jump in at all, Northgard now feels far more diverse than it originally did. You’re free to pick whichever clan you want in a multiplayer match, but you can get a real taste of their weight as you cycle through them in its linear campaign. Each level gives you a straight-forward victory condition, but its up to you to figure out the best path to take. If it wasn’t for the subtle differences to a clan’s inner workings, things would likely start to feel repetitive very quickly. Learning to adjust your play-style to bring out the best of the game’s six clans is a genius way to highlight how one might combat the other when it isn’t just AI nipping at your ankles.
As you’d expect from just about any RTS title, you start things off with next to nothing but a base to call home – your Hall. Additional civilians on top of your starting units are created automatically as long as your Happiness stays in the positive and you have houses to keep them sheltered. Plain civilians will harvest food as a default job, but can be assigned other work by having them occupy other buildings; like a Woodcutter’s Cabin or Healer’s Hut. Each section of land can only hold so many building, meaning burning resources to expand into nearby territory will quickly become a necessity. Unlike most other strategy titles, though, you can’t just build another Hall to accelerate population growth. Things stay relatively small in Northgard. You won’t have many people to tend to when Winter rolls around, but knowing when and how to split and reassign your workers will be key to your survival.
Things can go from bad to worse and from great to catastrophic if you’re not prepared. Winter will drastically reduce production and speed up consumption, rat infestations can devour unprotected grub and reduce your workforce to nothing but sick peasants, and the occasional earthquake can roll in to make even firewood a commodity. You’re given plenty of warning to prepare for the more dire situations, but even a pack of wolves straying in from the next tile across can send things spiralling out of control. Northgard keeps you on your toes, and it isn’t going to lend a hand to those with little prior experience. It’s cruel, but it feels fair. Each scenario manages to feel drastically different despite being mostly the same. Bonus campaign objectives remain hidden until your first clear, too, so you’re not mentally forced into playing things a certain way from the get-go.
Each clan can deal with an issue the same way, but some shine by carving their own path. Stick to making cash and buying what you need from others, turtle up and learn to attack from the shores, scour the land for treasures, hunt for food on the open road, or just arm your entire clan and fight your way through. Striking a balance between gathering resources and protecting against potential threats is a tough gig, but anyone familiar with the strategy genre will know it’s all about finding another way. Lore grants static bonuses along a tree, scouting tiles can yield hidden treasures, and luck of the draw will alter the viability of your strategy when it comes to nearby amenities. The core of the game is RTS, but there’s plenty of classic 4X elements in play here. Sadly, making space for one within the other means the average Northgard ‘match’ can (and likely will) take far longer than most RTS skirmishes. And there’s no option to speed things up even against the AI, either.
Basing its whole existence on the idea of this Norse/Viking setting, Northgard regularly breaks character. I’m no expert on the subject matter, but the flatter elements of its presentation feels like they were thrown on the back seat; like Shiro Games didn’t have time to brush everything up to the same standard. Once you’re in the field and clicking around, everything’s fine; the music fits the theme, blood is shed every other minute, and you’re always looking for an excuse to set up a grand feast and speed things along. Outside, however, the menus feel plain and flat, the characters look like they’ve come from a cheap comic book, and they just don’t sound befitting of a game about historical warfare.
There’s a heavy emphasis on these clans and their people across a pretty meaty campaign mode, but the tiny text boxes, writing and character art struggle to convey the story of revenge and survival it tries to put out. Voice work is reserved for the tiny moments between starting a mission and zoning into 3D portion, so the use of accents there sadly doesn’t follow through to any character interactions. Would it have been enough to keep it all from reading quite so average? We’ll never really know.
Shiro Games have proven once again to understand exactly how a given genre works. First they cracked the evolution of the RPG with Evoland, and now they’ve demonstrated the same with Strategy.
You’re bound to find countless systems in place from your favourite strategy games to trigger a sense of nostalgia bundled into a pretty cheap package. We can never be sure how long an online community will stick around for, but with a lengthy campaign to see you through the better part of a week it’s a great way to reminisce of the years between the millennium. The writing can easily whisk you away from its Nordic world, but the art of war itself will attempt to keep you planted on the cold grounds of Northgard for as long as the community will allow it.