The Vikings are back.
The Vikings have been such a big part of my gaming life that I feel like growing my hair into plaits, buying an axe and calling myself Ivan the Bold. This time though – with Northgard – playing as a Norse man has a very different style from the usual hack and slash gameplay methods I’ve grown used to; instead the game harks back to the old fashioned but hugely popular RTS style. The problem is, there aren’t that many RTS titles that have transferred successfully over from PC to console, mostly due to the heavy demands on the UI. Northgard, however, is one game that hopes to break that mould.
There is a familiar yet old-fashioned quality to the whole set up of Northgard – one that has reminded me of playing old titles like Command and Conquer. It’s not a bad feeling, but rather one of putting on an old pair of slippers and settling down in front of the fire. And once those feet are warm, you’ll discover a large selection of modes available from the menu screen, split across single player skirmishes and multiplayer. Personally, I would recommend starting with the campaign as it gives you a good insight into the mechanics and lets you learn the game gently.
There is a story set up found in Northgard, with a series of nicely put together static hand-drawn cutscenes. You play as a clan leader of a bunch of Vikings who end up in the mysterious islands of Northgard. Here you are given several quests that help you settle in to this land, venturing out to explore the secrets and mysteries within, bonding with different tribes across the world. The maps are separated into different areas with borders, seeing you kick things off with a small piece of land and the rest of the map being blacked out behind a fog of war.
You begin matters with a small town hall and a few houses, and then from there on out it’s up to you to build upon these. One of the first things you should do is build a scout camp, if only so you can train scouts and push them out into the wilderness, opening up areas of the maps. Here you will discover new places, much-needed resources, secrets and story quests. But as you would expect, whatever you uncover will ensure that there are enemies to clear out, before letting you colonise it. The biggest dilemma with every RTS though is found in the ‘balancing the books’ issue. You need to get more resources to explore, build and expand, but to do these things you have to spend the vital goodies. Thankfully in Northgard it’s fun to try and solve this problem. See, you will also need to build forestry buildings, letting you collect wood, and additionally find water or lakes where little fisherman huts can be built in order to gather fish, and fields that can be reaped for extra food. You’ll need to be aware though, for winter is always just around the corner and in bitter times resources become scarce; hoarding food to feed your people will be a necessity.
On the other end of the scale, you’ll also be found creating an army of warriors that you can train up and send out to battle monsters, wolves or other enemies that you want to invade. And if you don’t, you can be sure that they’ll not think twice about coming your way and taking down your settlements. There are so many things to discover in Northgard and it’s an RTS game that just keeps on giving. But how does it all play out?
Well, past experiences with console adaptations of PC-centric games haven’t been all that pretty, but it has to be said that in recent months things have got better. Northgard is – for my money at least – one of the better transitions in terms of gameplay and usability. The menus and UI are relatively easy to use and never too complicated to get to in a hurry. And the inclusion of a perks system, and the way it has been implemented, is brilliantly instructive, even for an idiot like me. It has to also be said that the placement of buildings, teaching villagers various expertise in terms of jobs and exploring the world is all really simple and intuitive – at least compared to other games in this genre. It’s not too difficult either, at least not until you discover Nordic gods later on, at which point it becomes tricky. However, it’s all about the balance and resource management that makes this game experience a truly successful one.
Visually and Northgard is very much of an older time in its tone, but that’s not to say the visuals feel dated. Whilst it may well employ a technique from the past, it manages to do something new with it. I loved the animations of the settlements going about the business of surviving, and exploring the world never gets tiresome. The menus are well designed and pleasant on the eye too, but I could really do with some of the text being slightly bigger; if anything it would help with ease of use. The hand-drawn comic style of the main characters and cutscenes work a treat, and both the soundtrack and effects are solid throughout.
Northgard on Xbox One has ensured that I have once more loved playing an old fashioned RTS again and there is certainly lots of fun to be hard for both the newcomer or the genre expert. It does get trickier as you progress, but it is never so unforgiving that you need to be worried. The inclusion of plenty of gameplay options is a good one, with a single player mode that lets you get on with building, exploring and expanding without the need for narrative. Multiplayer options are also appreciated, however it is fairly tricky to find the opportunity to match up with others. If you are a fan of the RTS world, then you’ll get a lot out of this epic adventure, with hundreds of hours of gameplay more than possible.
So get your axe ready, plait your hair and prepare to explore Northgard!