Contrary to popular belief, real-time strategy games aren’t dead just yet, though the genre has certainly been declining in recent times. However, Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 3, SpellForce 3 and a few other noteworthy titles scheduled to launch later this year might be a sign that real-time strategy games are finally ready to make a serious comeback in 2017. Meanwhile, there’s already a title out there that can scratch that RTS itch and it manages to do it in a surprisingly competent way. That game is Northgard.
Northgard is a Viking-themed strategy title developed by Shiro Games, the same folks behind the Evoland series. The game plays out much like a traditional RTS, complete with base building and resource management. Given that the game revolves around Vikings, one might expect to also see a whole lot of raiding and pillaging, as your barbarian armies sweep across the land. That’s not exactly the case, though. While it’s true that the Vikings were fierce warriors, they were also tireless explorers always on the lookout for new lands to colonize and settle. Shiro Games did a great job at depicting all these aspects of Viking life with their latest project, as Northgard is just as much about farming and building as it is about fighting and pillaging.
Northgard was recently made available through Steam Early Access and is still far from being complete, with many features scheduled to be added and improved in the coming months. The core gameplay is all there, though, and very much enjoyable to boot. I will admit that I was almost immediately sold by the nostalgia-inducing art style even before playing the game, however, it was the actual gameplay that ultimately sucked me in and kept me going. Yes, Northgard looks like a very simplistic game at first glance, but looks can be deceiving in this case as there is actually a good amount of depth tucked away right underneath the surface.
The basic premise of the game is that you control a clan of Vikings that has just discovered the new continent of Northgard. At the moment, there are only three clans to choose from, with more on the way, and each of them plays a little differently than the others thanks to their unique bonuses. These bonuses are somewhat similar to what you can find in the Civilization series and will help you focus on pursuing specific victory conditions. Winning a match of Northgard is a fairly straightforward affair and can be achieved in several ways, such as becoming the wisest, the most famous, or the most warmongering Viking in all the land. In addition to the clan bonuses, researching various technologies and upgrades will also help you tame the land, or at the very least survive it.
Unlike most RTS games, Northgard doesn’t offer multiple playable races or factions, so you’ll be looking at pretty much the same buildings and units every time you play. Instead, the game is all about slowly expanding your territories and stockpiling precious resources as you attempt to keep your people alive and eventually conquer the land itself. Between the harsh winters that constantly drain your food and wood supplies, natural disasters that damage your buildings, and the occasional monster attack, you’ll have a lot to worry about at the beginning of the game. To make matters worse, it’s fairly difficult to amass a decent number of units, which then need to be distributed very carefully for tasks like building, gathering, exploring, and so on. To top it all off, you also need to take into account your clan’s happiness, as well as find ways to earn Krowns and gather rare resources like Stone and Iron in order to upgrade your buildings and improve your units.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of micromanaging in Northgard, however, things do tend to get easier as the game progresses. Assuming you can survive the harsh winters and your villagers don’t get wiped up by disease, frost or local monsters, your clan will eventually grow as you colonize new territories and things will start to stabilize towards the late game. At the same time, though, expanding further and further from your Town Hall means that you’re more likely to come across rival Viking clans, who may or may not be friendly towards you. You can try to appease rival clans by trading with them while also earning some precious Krowns in the process, however, neighboring Vikings are still likely to attack you regardless if they start running low on supplies. Luckily, in Northgard all clans can only attack a territory that’s adjacent to their own lands, which makes your own territories pretty easy to defend for the most part. It’s also a good thing that survival is everyone’s top priority as that means that large hostile warbands are very uncommon and you won’t have to worry too much about any huge conflicts.
Combat in Northgard is pretty different than in many other RTS games given the low amount of units present at any one time. To put things into perspective, a dozen or so Warriors led by a Warchief can be considered a fairly large warband here, and there’s usually no need to amass such a force unless you’re pursuing a Conquest victory. At the same time, the animations are fairly unimpressive and given that there are only three types of combat units in the game, it’s a lot more interesting to focus on winning the game though Fame, Lore, or simply by starving out the other clans. There isn’t much honor in stealing land and attacking only when your neighbors aren’t around, but then again, the real Vikings weren’t exactly known for their sense of honor either, so being opportunistic makes a lot of sense in the context of Northgard.
The game currently only features a single player mode against the AI, with multiplayer, a story-driven campaign, and additional features set to release further down the road. As it stands, Northgard is already a fun game if you’re looking for a relatively slow-paced indie RTS that focuses more on city building and survival elements than it does on combat. It certainly would have helped a lot if the clans were more visually distinct and had a few more unique units/builds, no doubt about that. But on the bright side, the game runs like butter even in this early stage of development and the soundtrack is very fitting given the time period, if a bit repetitive. Perhaps even more importantly, though, I can’t say I’ve encountered a single crash or bug in my 7+ hours of playing the game, which is definitely an achievement in a day and age when a lot of AAA games are broken at launch.
All in all, Northgard is a pleasant surprise for real-time strategy fans who enjoy the core aspects of the genre but might be intimidated by the steep learning curve usually associated with these types of titles. There are certainly many things to manage while playing Northgard, however, this is an easy to learn and intuitive experience for RTS veterans as well as newcomers. In terms of pricing, the game will only set you back $18 until March 1st and $20 afterward, which sounds like a very reasonable price all things considered. Northgard doesn’t have an official release date just yet, but the final version is expected to launch sometime later this year on PC.
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