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Northgard review

Looks like a Viking-themed Age of Empires but is much more.

Our Verdict

Northgard is a surprising, elegant RTS that's laden with a very dull story.

NEED TO KNOW

What is it? A Viking RTS with nasty weather.
Expect to pay £24/$30
Developer Shiro Games
Publisher In-house
Reviewed on Intel i5-3570K @ 3.40 GHz, 16GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 970, Windows 10
Multiplayer? Yes
Link Official site

It's spring and my Viking colonists are gleefully filling their bellies now that the snow has melted and our food stores are filling up. The farmers and hunters are working hard, and with their appetite sated, my warriors are jonesing for a fight. I don't have time to enjoy it. I'm already preparing for Northgard’s next harsh winter. Even more than dragons or undead, foul weather is the greatest threat to my growing settlement. 

Northgard looks like a throwback, a game that would have comfortably fit in with Age of Empires and Settlers, but while the inspiration is clear, it would be a disservice to imply that it's mainly trading in nostalgia. This Viking saga builds on the history-themed RTS romps of the '90s, but it's not beholden to them. 

The basics are still familiar. You start with nothing but a ramshackle town hall and some villagers, eventually growing it into a large, defensible settlement that can handle raids from monsters and other Vikings. That's done by finding resources and exploiting them using specialist workers and buildings.  

Building slots limit how much you can construct straight away. The map is made up out of discrete regions containing resources, treasure and enemies, but only space for a few buildings, and they've got to be colonised before they can be used. Every region costs exponentially more food to colonise, so you really need to plan out your expansion in advance, considering the impact on your stockpiles. 

As each new layer, from weather to warfare, is introduced, the pace of expansion is a relief. It slows things down just enough so that you can take a moment to set priorities, whether that’s making pals with the kobolds who moved in down the road or sending a scout to go delving into ruins. But while the pace might be more considered, winter's approach means there’s always some tension, and the multitude of enemies ensures there's no absence of friction. 

Winter is a challenge that can be overcome by worker placement and preparation—the two most important things in Northgard. Workers can be switched on the fly, so if you've got a warband just sitting around, you can make all of them farmers, fishermen or hunters to help keep everyone fed. With the right buildings and happy, healthy workers, even the most brutal winters can be handled. 

If you're more military-minded, you might not want to disband your army. By generating lore, a stand-in for science, technological advancements can be made, including warmer clothes for warriors. That's a game-changer, arguably making winter one of the best times to go on the offensive, when enemy Vikings might not be as prepared. 

How you approach winter, and indeed most of Northgard's systems, can also depend on the clan you're playing as, along with what victory condition you're gunning for. You can win your 'Best Viking Award' by conquest, but you can also win through trade, wisdom and fame, all of which come with different building and resource prerequisites.  

A primer on Northgard's clans

Stag The clan of the campaign’s protagonist are a bit in love with themselves, but extra resources to start with and a focus on fame makes them a good one to learn the ropes with.

Goat Despite the name, this clan is more enamoured with sheep. They can rear them, giving them more opportunities to keep their food stockpile high.

Wolf If you want to fight a lot, this is the clan for you. Their warriors generate happiness and, by killing bears and wolves, extra food.

Boar The Boar Clan's bonuses are a bit scattershot, but their penchant for mysticism means they can research faster.

Bear Objectively the best clan because they can summon an armoured bear the moment they build a training ground. It’s name is Kaija and it's wonderful.

Raven As explorers and merchants the Raven Clan can spend cash instead of food when expanding, and they can eventually hire mercenaries to do their dirty work for them.

Fame is Northgard's most unusual resource. It's a representation of a clan's great deeds, like killing a wyvern or defeating another player, and unlocks massive bonuses. It drives exploration, as you seek out greater foes, but also weaves its way throughout the game, tying everything together. Fighting, feasting, building monuments—do interesting things and you’ll be rewarded. 

While each clan shares a lot of the same features, they're still a distinct bunch. The Wolf Clan, for instance, are a lairy mob of fighters. Their warriors can gather food by killing hostile beasties, and they also generate happiness, ensuring the settlement remains productive and new villagers keep appearing. Ultimately this means they don't need as many farmers, fishermen or hunters and can afford to invest in larger warbands. 

The campaign serves as a solid introduction to each of these clans and eventually leads to some creative, novel missions. They can be brief if you clock the optimal path, and 11 seems a little on the short side, but there's very little repetition. Each new chapter pushes you into trying new things, introducing additional mechanics and shaking things up with one-off challenges.

The story the campaign hangs on is less compelling. It's a painfully tired revenge tale with twists so boring they'll put you to sleep. Think Vikings seem exciting? Not for long! The clan leaders that serve as the campaign's small cast are more reflections of their respective clans than characters, rattling off perfunctory lines of forgettable dialogue. At least they're decent fighters because of their high health and damage.

Northgard lives in the skirmish mode. The campaign mission design is good, but sometimes you just want to shake off the shackles and batter some Vikings in a sandbox. When all of the game's concepts collide, instead of being separated by levels, it becomes a tricky, unpredictable RTS that pulls you in all these different directions. Every game is fat with potential, helped in great part by a map generator that spits out a brilliant array of as-good-as-bespoke battlefields. 

The Verdict

Northgard

Northgard is a surprising, elegant RTS that's laden with a very dull story.