Northgard feels like a fresh new experience in the RTS genre that pushes strategy and resource management to the limits.
You know a developer is a hardcore real-time strategy fan when the flavor text on their in-game healer reads, “Wolol… oh, sorry, wrong line.” Or when the sheep promise that they are safe to click on… probably. For those of you who don’t know, these are references to Age of Empires and Warcraft 3, two defining games in the RTS genre. And Northgard takes the essence of such classics to heart, with tight resource management, diverse strategies, and a story progression that makes you feel like you’re marching through a great ballad of legend.
The Wilderness is Not Meant for the Faint of Heart
The first thing that struck me about Northgard is the tight resource management. If you aren’t paying attention to your growth, your resources, your units, and the proximity of winter, your resources can quickly run out and all hell can break loose. While this is a common game design in the RTS genre, Northgard’s rigid focus on resources can be a bit intimidating at first, especially for someone who hasn’t spent much time playing RTS games. But with patience, it soon becomes clear that balance can be maintained with the right strategy.
For some, this is frustrating because you end up spending more time managing resources than actually fighting the enemy. But as any fan of Aven Colony will tell you, the struggle against dwindling resources is the conflict that brings the game to life. It makes it feel like you truly are at the edge of civilization, fighting for survival. And for some people, myself included, that’s fun!
Clan Happiness is Fickle
My biggest pet peeve with Northgard is that it isn’t always clear why my people are unhappy. While the game does give a breakdown of such things as, “+5 Territory, -1 Wounded = 4 Current Happiness,” there is a vague, red “Expected Happiness” attribute that would take my Current Happiness score and put it in the toilet. While the game hinted that this number was affected by houses that weren’t upgraded or a lack of territory, it was never made clear how much those factors affected Expected Happiness, or how that influence changed over time. A non-upgraded house at the beginning of the match doesn’t matter, but halfway through the game villagers start torching buildings over their rage at the living quarters. And there’s no way to know when that number kicks in other than to wait for your happiness to turn red, and then pray you have enough stone to improve the clan’s homes.
Fortunately, this is something that could easily be fixed in the future with a tweak to the display UI. I’m not saying they will fix the UI, but I certainly hope they do.
That being said, it is easy to get used to the happiness with some brief Googling, and/or some more experience with the game. There is a certain timing for when you should build a brewery, when you should build a house, and things like that. I soon found myself falling into a rhythm where I didn’t have to look too closely at the happiness number to know why it was red. Nonetheless, it would have been nice to have that information upfront.
Variety is the Spice of Life
In the RTS genre, it is a common tactic to alter the resources on a map and give certain classes different abilities to give them a different edge. A class with superior cavalry may want to focus on exploration and combat. A class focused on the sea may want to build an armada. But while these tweaks may change the way a player aims for the win, they don’t necessarily change the way a general keeps their people alive in the day-to-day.
This is where Northgard takes things to the next level. While much of the core structure remains the same, woodworkers collect wood, farmers farm, etc. the difference between the classes vastly alters a players strategy from the moment a game starts. Remember that battle against resources I mentioned earlier? When you change bannermen (Northgard’s version of classes), you vastly change how you will go about obtaining and maintaining those resources. A Heidrun Clan may have an easy time getting food but will be slower to gain other resources, so they must stockpile what they can and build for the late game. Meanwhile, the Raven Clan should focus on stockpiling money so they can buy the resources outright, rather than fighting a losing battle of gathering stone from beneath a draugr camp five territories away. And then you have the Fenrir Clan, who must avoid standing still, lest they starve to death, and must instead focus on running over enemies before they know what hit them. And the campaign does a fantastic job of showcasing these strategies, introducing unique maps and characters that bring these strategies to their full potential.
Speaking of characters…
The Story is Predictable, But Well Executed
The story of Northgard is a standard one of revenge with escalating stakes, but that doesn’t mean it is boring. The story ties in well to the mechanics, the maps, and the different strategies so as to enhance and support the gameplay, rather than distract from it. I am a firm believer that any good story can be bad with poor execution, and any bad story can be good with good execution, and in the case of Northgard, they did a good job of executing an otherwise flat story.
The brief cutscenes do a good job to set the tone for what a player will face, and the banter between bannermen does a good job of bringing the characters to life. The suggestions from characters when you are falling behind on a certain objective never feel forced, but instead raise the sense of urgency as the enemy gains the edge.
Overall, the push and pull between the story and gameplay feels well-balanced and graceful.
I’m Not a PvP Player
Of course, many RTS players are in it for the PvP aspect, and I respect that. But I am not a PvP player, so I’m not going to lie through my teeth to give you guys a PvP assessment that would do little to serve you.
That being said, that doesn’t mean I’m not curious about PvP. As I mentioned above, the bannermen of Northgard lend a nice variety of strategies to the game. I am curious to know how those strategies play together in the greater PvP meta, for better or worse. If you are a PvP player who has played Northgard, or if you end up playing it in the future, feel free to track me down on Twitter, or in the comments below, and tell me what you think about the PvP in Northgard.
Now, I did hop into one PvP match. Out of four players, my ally disconnected, and my enemies then proceeded to pull ahead on all fronts. (I had only played a couple campaign matches at this point, so I was still fairly new to the strategy of Northgard.) Recognizing that I would not be able to win through military might, fame, or wisdom (the scorebar showed me woefully behind on all counts) I decided to quietly build a Lighthouse and let it do its thing in the background while I made a futile attempt to catch up to my foes.
My opponents must have been just as new as I was, or they simply weren’t paying attention, because my Trade influence quietly grew, and soon outpaced the Fame and Wisdom of my enemies. By the time anyone else thought to build a lighthouse it was already too late, my lead was too great. I patiently kept my village alive in my corner of the map for a little while longer, and then victory was mine!
So, that’s my story of how I quietly snuck my way into victory against my fellow newbies.
TL;DR: A Great Experience for RTS Fans, Perhaps Not for the Casual of Heart
Northgard was a fun and challenging experience for me, as it was strongly reminiscent of my favorite RTS games, Age of Empires and Aven Colony, while still feeling fresh and new to the genre. I will be honest, I had to fight to keep my people alive every step of the way, but that is what made this game so rewarding.
Don’t go into this game if you are expecting a casual, lighthearted experience. (Not unless you are willing to play it on easy.) But come into this game prepared, and you will have a great time.
If you want to read more from the RTS genre, check out this review of the new Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, or this article in which I compare the similarities and differences between AoE and Aven Colony.