Early Impressions: NORTHGARD
In this Crossfader series, our video games staff takes a look at early versions of upcoming releases so that you can know which hype trains to board.
As I’ve stated numerous times on this site, I am very, very much into the Civilization franchise. I’ve also demonstrated that in everything from DARKEST DUNGEON to GWENT, I’m horrible at any sort of strategy. At least with turn-based play, I’m allowed time to think and plan how I want to move forward without the worry of some asshole crashing through and annihilating me as I’m deciding whether I want to build a sewer in my city or not. So when I came across NORTHGARD, the upcoming RTS from Shiro Games, I was feeling somewhat ambivalent; a Viking-themed spin on the civilization-building I know and love, but coupled with the competitive real-time elements that have kept me far, far away from STARCRAFT? At best, this could finally be what I needed to accept that RT in front of the S. At the very worst, NORTHGARD could teach me to hate and fear my favorite formula in gaming. And just in time for Leif Erikson Day!
That’s actually on the 9th of October, but, hey, who’s counting?
The Steam Early Access version of NORTHGARD is mainly focused around the PVE skirmish mode, where clans of Vikings that have made their way to the titular New World must adapt to the harsh Northgardian landscape they’ve found themselves in. The player is tasked with leading their clan to victory over their opponents, and like Civ, there are several routes you can take to achieve this: Domination, Fame, Protector, and Wisdom. Like many RTS games, securing victory also involves juggling your clan’s various needs, namely food and happiness.
Happiness stems in part from how much food your clan has, and if you run out of food, your clan will eventually starve, get sick, and die off. But if it wasn’t enough to simply ensure your population doesn’t outstrip your ability to sustain it, NORTHGARD periodically dumps winter on your lap to really mess your shit up. During the game’s winter periods, your clan’s rate of food consumption will increase dramatically, and random events will also deplete your resources, forcing you to abandon whatever it was you were doing in order to restore your clan’s numbers. It’s a curveball that adds an extra dimension to the game flow, and can just as easily snatch victories away from you as it can from your foes.
Winter: wrecking your shit since the dawn of civilization
Victories are all more or less attained by getting the most out of various resources. In true Viking form, Domination comes from destroying the Town Halls of each of your opponents. Generating a large amount of Fame will make you the King of Northgard, and this is done by performing acts such as colonizing land tiles and fighting monsters. Larger creatures require quite a bit of manpower to put down, but grant a huge amount of fame as a result. Protector victories require clans to colonize a special tile central to Viking lore, such as the portal to Helheim, and the Wisdom route involves generating high amounts of Lore and being the first to obtain each of the Gods’ Blessings. There’s also Trade, which requires generating a huge amount of in-game currency.
Like Civ, not all victories are created equal. Wisdom, Fame, and Trade playthroughs feel like the long-con victories so far , in that it’ll take time and planning to achieve, similar to Science or Culture victories in Civ. Protector victories are easiest once you’ve found the map’s special tile, and only require a massive stockpile of food silos in order to colonize it. Domination victories at this point require quite a bit of attention focused on a small part of your clan, and can leave the rest of your settlement open to devastation once winter comes. Of course, each playable clan comes with a special buff and upgrade that can make achieving each of these conditions a little easier, but none of them will assure victory in any scenario.
I’m honestly starting to get anxious just looking at this
At times, the sheer amount of ways one can pursue victory can be overwhelming. With the plethora of units and buildings available for training and building, NORTHGARD adopts a focus on resource management over combat, even if you do choose the warpath. Players need to ensure they have enough food to survive the brutal winter, enough space for new villagers to live in, and enough defenses that they’re not being suddenly cut down to size by marauding draugrs, wolves, or other players. Balancing all of these factors, all while keeping an eye on the fame and wisdom of competitors, means that NORTHGARD can feel like one is constantly putting out fires on top of fires, while on fire, and I mean that literally; on occasion earthquakes will rip through the map, damaging buildings and setting them on fire, which requires the player to quickly spend their wood to repair them before they burn down. There are occasional lulls in the action, but games can very quickly go from easy-going to axe-in-the-head frenetic, particularly during the game’s diabolical winter phase.
“It’s pretty nice when the Viking zombies don’t wander into the brewery.” -Yelp review
Learning curves in strategy games are steeper than most, and there are features in NORTHGARD that don’t entirely make sense at first. The game’s Happiness metric, which is vital to settlement growth and worker recruitment, was a relatively esoteric system compared to the more straightforward Wisdom and Fame. In addition, the UI occasionally proves to be obnoxious when trying to select a specific unit in a crowd or finding a good view of your surroundings. That being said, most of these are minor issues that can easily be resolved with the inclusion of a more comprehensive tutorial in the final release.
In terms of my overall experience, NORTHGARD is definitely less a civilization-building game but more of a traditional RTS, where a player can quickly find themselves with an empty village after a series of poor, pre-winter decisions. And because there are so many ways to win, there are tons of stratagems, both violent and otherwise, that the player has to be aware of. There are still features in NORTHGARD that are yet to be implemented, such as the campaign mode and two more clans, but its multitude of victory possibilities, rapidly shifting gameplay, and moderate match length seem to give it the foundation for a solid online multiplayer following.
NORTHGARD is available on Steam as an Early Access title