For the second installment of our Alpha Preview series, you are in for an Inception level treat. We were able to gain pre-pre access to Northgard before it went live on Steam’s Early Access on February 22nd. Northgard is developed and published by Shiro Games, the makers of Evoland and Evoland 2, a pair of RPGs that pay tribute to the evolution of action/adventure gaming, featuring a mechanic that transforms the game as you progress from something that reflects the humble origins of Nintendo’s 1986 Legend of Zelda all the way through to a time period in line with the quality of a Nintendo DS remake of Final Fantasy.
That being said, Northgard is not another tribute to gaming of yesteryear. It is a fully fledged mash-up of strategy, city-building, and 4X. How these gameplay mechanics come together to form the nucleus of the game is what sets Northgard apart from other pure 4X games. In game you will control a Viking clan on the mysterious island of Northgard, fighting against your enemies, creatures and the island itself to survive. Let’s break down the features and gameplay so you have a better understanding of exactly what is going on in Northgard.
There are several real time mechanics packed into Northgard. Buildings are assembled by villagers and take a set amount of time to construct in real time rather than queuing it up and waiting several turns like in a traditional 4X game. Attack units, aptly dubbed your “Warband” and other specialty units are instantly made available by selecting a villager and right clicking on a building. For example, if you want to turn a villager into a warrior, all you need to do is send him to the training camp you built and viola, he is a warrior now. Expanding on this feature, a villager can be freely reassigned to any role instantly, so as circumstances change you can reassign your standing army to other roles as you need to. This level of flexibility is well executed and adds a welcome level of micromanagement. Resources, such as food, wood, and krowns (in-game currency) are collected in real time and are limitlessly plentiful as long as you have your villagers assigned to the right jobs. Unlike a game such as Starcraft where you only have so many minerals or vespene gas on the board, your woodcutters will chop the same trees ad nauseam for wood. While this is a small detail, it’s just one example of how it departs from a pure RTS. The only resources that have finite resource nodes on the map are stone, which is used to upgrade your city buildings and iron which is used to upgrade your Warband units.
The white dotted line represents one of the colonized areas within the territory controlled by the red player. Each parcel of land will only allow you to build a set number of buildings. Once you hit the cap, you will have to colonize another area to continue building in that newly claimed zone. Your starting area allows you to build five buildings. The town hall, the building you must protect at all costs, can be seen in the top center of this image.
Warbands are currently limited to three units, or five when you upgrade the training camp. Northgard does not allow you to amass giant crushing armies, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A small force prevents steamrolling and forces you to be more strategic with your assaults and retreats. I’m curious to see how these small Warbands will play out in a competitive multiplayer setting.
Unit movement does not follow the traditional 4X methodology, so your units will not have move limits per se, but the game itself has two features that reduce your ability to move. For instance, scouts are the only unit in the game that can clear the fog of war. Once you have a villager assigned as a scout, it will march out to the edge of your field of vision and a timer will pop up over its head. Slowly but surely, your scout will scour the map clearing patches for the rest of your units to move through. This is a clever mechanic that controls the pace of the game and conceivably limits the chances of being targeted with a early rush tactic. Another movement limit that exists applies specifically to when your units are in enemy territory.
Attacking is an interesting concept in Northgard. When you move your Warband into enemy territory you automatically declare war, diminishing your reputation with that faction. You can’t attack buildings directly except for defense towers if they are present in the territory. The movement limitation in this scenario comes into play so far as you can’t move freely across enemy territory because of how claiming new territory works. As you colonize areas by spending food to expand your sphere of influence, it increases the overall land you control, but each area you colonized is still treated as a separate area for attacking purposes. Therefore, you must attack an area, take control of it away from the enemy and then you can proceed forward to an adjacent chunk of enemy territory. Enemy territories are taken away simply by leaving units in a given area long enough to wrest control away. If an enemy sends more attack units in, the takeover will pause. If you stay in an area long enough, all the enemy buildings will eventually light in flames and explode if uncontested. Once you are able to move into the enemy’s territory that contains their town hall, if you can take it over the enemy is defeated. This functionality seems to serve as a way to slow the RTS nature of the game, by preventing you from marching straight to the enemy’s capital.
With limited Warbands, defense towers can make short work of an attack enemy when combined with an attack by your own warriors. Right now the main fighters are warriors and War Chiefs for each Viking clan with the exception of the Fenrir clan which has a Berserker unit. It is anticipated each clan will eventually have their own unique units. While you can only have one War Chief on the field at a given time, you can select your warriors to have them follow the War Chief which makes coordinating attacks much easier.
Other aspects of the game include environmental threats such as weather cycles. Rainstorms actually kicked up grey fog and obstructed vision, requiring you to zoom in to get a better look at the battlefield. Even worse environmentally is the transition to winter which blankets the map in snow, decreasing food gathering and increasing the consumption of firewood. Wolves, which can be found around the map, seemed to be more aggressive during the winter, launching a few surprise attacks. Another environmental hazard is tremors and earthquakes, which you get a fair heads up on like winter. Once an earthquake strikes, several of your buildings will randomly catch on fire and you will have to spend wood to repair them. Wait too long and the building will explode (yes, I learned this the hard way). If you thought earthquakes were bad, later in the game in between winters and earthquakes, portals will spawn that unleash Draugrs, undead creatures from Norse mythology. As you can imagine, they aren’t there to help you till your field, although they may help you fertilize them with your slain villagers. Many of these events serve as equalizers because they take effect globally, meaning you and your enemies will face these perils together.
Winter can be brutal, but blizzard conditions are even worse, resulting in a 50% reduction in resource production and double the firewood consumption to keep your villagers warm. All environmental hazards will be tracked along the timeline in the bottom left hand corner above the map. As time progresses you will see in advance when certain events will occur. You can mouse over the red exclamation point on the time and it will tell you what the upcoming hazard is so you can prepare accordingly.
Neatly nestled on top of building your city, sending your armies off to war, gathering resources and surviving environmental threats that make you feel as though you have taken your Viking clan to the wrong island are additional 4X elements. There is a city happiness metric that must be maintained to keep up productivity, and “Lore” to discover in order to research new upgrades and bonuses which is akin to Civilization’s science mechanic. Presently there are three research paths to spend lore on: Sharp Axes, which is a tree that improves raw resource gathering, Weaponsmith, which increases your military superiority, and Trading, which focuses on skills to improve krown production. Once you have invested enough lore, you will have an option to unlock one of the blessings of the gods which grants a significant bonus. Further, as you colonize new lands and make other discoveries across the map, certain actions will lead you to accrue Fame. Fame serves two purposes, your (hopefully) ever growing game score, and secondarily when you reach certain levels of fame it will trigger special bonuses based on the Viking clan you have chosen to play.
So how do you win? Currently there are four ways. Domination: defeat all the other opposing clans. Fame: colonize 12 areas, reach 1000 fame and build the Altar of Kings. Trade: collect 7,000 krowns, 1,000 krowns in stock, and four active merchants. Wisdom: unlock all four blessings of the gods, and four active loremasters.
So far I have 16 hours in play time and for an early access title, Northgard already feels like a solid single player experience. My only criticism is that the game combines mechanics which at times feel at conflict with one another. In its current form for $19.99, you’ll be purchasing a single player experience battling against up to three AI controlled opponents. Three selectable clans with their own distinct attributes will be available day one, with placeholders for two more on the way. A campaign mode, as well as competitive online multiplayer is promised in the future. If a pick up and go single player city-building 4X game with an average playtime of 70-90 minutes sounds appealing to you, Northgard is worth investing now right out of the gate. If not having competitive online multiplayer is a deal breaker for you, this will be a firm wait and see as the game progresses through early access.