Yeah, I remember Age of Empires.
The strategy genre is a hard one to penetrate these days. For every StarCraft 2 or Civilization, there are innumerable imitators and copy-cats. Steam is probably the biggest source of this, with many old-school strategy games gracing the platform every year and only a few being worthy of remembrance. Among the Total Wars and Warhammers, smaller titles like 2014’s Banished and 2016’s Rimworld are holding their own. The Early Access build of Northgard from Shiro Games, that I had a chance to play over the weekend currently sits in the former, as a strategy game that riffs heavily on the classic Age of Empires design, and while it has potential it currently has issues that stop it from being a recommendation.
Based around classic Norse Mythology, you take control of a Viking clan vying for control of the mysterious newfound continent of Northgard, home to all kinds of mysterious races and magic. Northgard’s story is only back of the box description deep, single player is essentially multiplayer with bots and it’s the only mode available in the games current build.
Starting up you pick between one of three classes (more coming soon) and the match begins. Either you crush your enemies with brute force or you beat them with intelligence (first one to become enlightened wins and explodes the enemy with mind energy …… ok, not really but pretty much). I appreciate the pacifist options available in Northward, the player can even set up trade routes with other clans. For anyone who’s ever played a classic strategy game Northgard isn’t hard to get your head around.
You start the match with your main base, gradually villagers spawn from said base and begin to collect resources, you use these resources to build other structures, such as scout quarters and woodcutter huts. (again, if you’ve ever played a classic strategy game you’ll know this) The key difference and unfortunate start of Northgard’s problems is the way the game handle’s producing units.
Where typically you would gain units from their respective structure (woodcutters from a wood cutters lodge, scouts from scout posts, etc.) Northgard attempts to streamline this process by instead having your main base consistently produce villagers, the player can then send selected villagers to these structures to turn them into that structures respective class. I can see what developer Shiro Games was going for here, removing the menu scrolling typically found, however, in its current state its unfortunately clunky at best.
The system requires a lot of extra busy work, especially later on as the units tend to do their own thing, you’ll be clicking on individual units and drag and dropping them into different structures, and keeping track of them individually becomes a pain, as they typically blend into the background. This tedium is most present when creating groups, such as warrior units, in which you will be drag and dropping multiple villagers into structures individually, the basic villager units are useful for food gathering, so sending them all in would be a detrimental option.
It just feels clunky to have to keep moving and re-purposing units individually, while the game does have an appreciated unit tracker in the corner, on which you can select and keep track of units, its options are limited, with basic select all or individual options. The game could benefit from having custom unit and grouping options, for all warrior units, scout units and so on. It’s a system I can fully see the potential in, however in its current state it’s a lot more effort and extra work than it should be and it breaks the flow of gameplay, especially in late game.
Elements of Northgard I appreciated were the abundance of additional map points and secrets. It’s fairly basic, however it added some nice wrinkles to the straight faction vs faction gameplay. At one point in a match my scouts stumbled upon a tribe of peaceful giants that I could then begin to trade food with in the hopes they would fight for me later on. In another game, I found a giant white tree that was guarded by high level enemies and who’s text suggests would win me the game upon capture.
Doubling down on these elements of the gameplay going forward could definitely set the game apart from similar titles going forward and it is one of the elements of the game I enjoyed most over my time with it. Other than that Northgard is fairly standard for the genre, available units and structures are extensive which is appreciated. With everything from fishing huts and farms to longboat producing harbors, that allow the player to go on river raids. It offers a surprising amount of depth while also keeping things simple and easy to manage.
Control issues aside, Northgard does a good job of keeping things easy to manage and understand. Though I do feel the game currently lacks good tutorial options, as a lot of the basics I learnt through trial and error. It’s very easy to get backed into a corner, as I did when my woodcutter hut burnt down and my current supply meant I was unable to gain the resources back to build another. This could just be a part of the games challenge, though as the building catching on fire happened at random it seemed a little unfair.
Standard is the way I would describe most of Northgard currently, everything works and plays competently (if a little clunky) however, there’s very little new or different here, matches feel like the same strategy template that’s been followed for the last decade and there’s unfortunately very little to differentiate Northgard from the pack.
Of course if a throwback style strategy experience is what you’re after perhaps Northgard will appeal to you more, in that regard it does its job though getting its multiplayer component implemented will be a big factor in whether you will be sticking with it. As the current single player option fairly limited. It can be a lot of fun, when you’re building up structures and scouting out new locations, I was having fond strategy game flashbacks, though when trying to co-ordinate attacks or move units the games controls brings it down.
The graphics and designs are nice enough, with a more stylised look working well for the game, designs are a little uninspired, though for a game in Early Access it looks fairly well polished. Same goes for menu’s and overall presentation, everything has a simple and easy to navigate feel and I had no trouble getting to grips with everything early on.
Music and sound effects are also nice, with the soundtrack being that relaxing kind to just zone out to while playing. Presentation is definitely a strong point for Northgard, with my only issue being how obscured things like structure upgrading and setting up trade routes can be, once you notice then its fine however it took a few hours of play without the game telling me to figure it out.
Though it sounds like I have been fairly harsh towards Northgard, the truth is that currently the game is just competent. There’s not much new or interesting and while it works as a classic throwback, there isn’t much currently to keep the diehards busy for very long. There is a lot of potential here, the team clearly has a lot of polish on display and with some more features and elements to call its own Northgard could definitely turn it around. However, clunky design and control options bring Northgard’s gameplay down and make it a hard game to recommend in its current state. It’s definitely something to keep an eye on as its being developed and I would love to check up on the games progress in time, though right now there’s too much fat around the meat to make it worth the $19.99 price of admission.
I’d definitely recommend reading the games steam page and debating if the planned road map for the game is something that interests you, otherwise Northgard is a wait and see sort of project.