Northland Download (2002 Strategy Game)

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Northland is the third game in the Cultures series, picking up where Cultures 2 ended. Having been banned by Odin, Loki -- a Nordic god known for lies and plotting against his colleagues -- is searching for a way back into Asgard. His latest plan involves making use of four heroes, who are all under the control of players. The single-player campaign features eight missions and several sub-missions.

There are eight additional single-player missions that do not involve campaign play. Both beginners and experts can find the most suitable challenge by choosing one of the three difficulty settings included. Northland also features six multiplayer missions that support up to six players over the Internet or a LAN. An Internet Lobby is available for game matchmaking and chat. Another inclusion is a map editor that allows users to create maps for both single-player and multiplayer games.

In the early years of the RTS genre, it combined combat with resource management. Over time, things branched out, with more combat-oriented play (with Massive Assault as a recent example) and more city management-oriented play, like the Caesar games. Northland is on the far end of the management side, with little combat to go around. This can be pretty entertaining, in a Sim City-like way, and Northland's addition of individual unit management like in The Sims does offer some intriguing added depth, on paper.

Although Northland has only eight campaign levels advertised on the box, there's actually a lot more to it. In addition to several helpful tutorial levels, there's a bunch of "one-shot" maps, co-op maps, multiplayer maps, combat-oriented maps, and a few other types scattered around. Northland is not wanting for content. It doesn't approach the sheer map count of the Heroes of Might and Magic games, but it should keep you occupied for a good week of casual play.

And "casual" seems to be the name of the game here, as far as pacing. As I said before, combat is peripheral to the design, so you'll spend the overwhelming bulk of your time just building stuff. Each non-combat unit can be assigned to virtually any role by just clicking through an intuitive context menu. And at any time you can press F7 to get a list of everyone, what their roles are, and you can filter from there to see what roles they're qualified for. For example, a woodcutter can be promoted to a carpenter after gaining experience chopping down trees. A quarry miner becomes a stonemason, a clay collector can become a potter, etc. At all times, however, you'll need to assign people as "carriers" basically mules who move resources from Point A to Point B. The miners, collectors and cutters are grouped under the "extractor" category, and they don't move the stuff they've extracted--they just pile it up nearby, and a carrier you assign to that area will come by, pick it up, and put it in one of your store houses.

Unfortunately, pathfinding is surprisingly limited, and resources can get backed up at their refining locations. When a carpenter turns wood into furniture, chairs, and other items, you still need a carrier assigned to his building to remove those items and put them in general storage, or else no one will know where those resources are. And since you can't create new units, you'll often be forced to switch someone's role temporarily, to maybe a builder or extractor, so that when you build a farm or a mill, you have a farmer or miller there to actually do the work. As the town grows and the needs and desires become more complex, it's easy for people to get lost in the shuffle, despite the solid organization of unit information. You'll get unobtrusive pop-up messages in the upper left-hand corner of the screen when a unit gets lost, or needs a resource that he can't find, or has no work to do, but it's only so much help when you already know what the problem is but can't efficiently address it.

For example, you'll be trying to upgrade a dwelling to house more people, and they'll stop about 75% of the way and just stand around, saying they can't find stones, even though there are some right nearby. Send a carrier over to the stones, send the builders over to the stones, and they'll continue to stand around and say they can't find the resource. You have to dot the town with signposts, apparently, to create routes the units can follow. If you create too many signposts within a given area, however, this will confuse the units as well. And you need a scout to walk around and build signposts. He may be off scouting, however (and getting lost because he has no signposts around him) so you have to take someone away from their current job and figure out where the signpost needs to go. Units really should be able to navigate the town better.

There's little indication to this solution in the documentation, and you'll get game-stopping design issues elsewhere, as well. Whenever you assign a building to a location, there are only certain spots you can build on the map. This makes sense, in a way, but when you can build a farm on the beach, assign a farmer to the building, then watch as they do nothing, it's pretty irritating. Then it occurs to you that the farm has to be built on grassland, which makes sense, but then why give the player the option to build a farm on the beach in the first place? There were a few times when I had to re-start a mission or re-load a save game because I'd put a building in an apparently unwise spot.

Another design issue is in the unit needs. They have to eat, sleep, socialize, pray, and a few other things. The addition of this element is ambiguous, because you don't actually have to babysit them, like in The Sims. They'll go ahead and take a nap in the grass, or in their home, if you've built a home and assigned them to it; they'll wander into the bushes and eat fruit and nuts, or go home for a bite to eat if they get hungry; they'll group up and chat if they run into each other. In other words, they take care of themselves fairly well, if you provide some basic needs. There really isn't much "gameplay" involved here. However, the addition of this micro-simulation becomes a hassle because they're constantly pausing in their tasks to take care of these needs. Even with several people constructing something, they'll stop-and-start several times before it's finally done, so it takes an irksome amount of time to put something together, even with the game speed maxed out. It takes an irksome amount of time for a unit to "level up" to a carpenter, merchant, or stonemason. It takes a while to upgrade buildings. You can't really force them to go ahead and finish the job, but must instead sit and stew while they take a nap in the sun.

The final nail in the coffin in my long-term interest in this game is the trade interface, which involves a bunch of clicking through menus full of tiny buttons that's quite at odds with the rest of the otherwise intuitive and transparent interface. Assigning merchants to trade posts, carriers to trade resources, assigning certain amounts of resources to be moved, moving the resources from storage to transport, assigning units to transport--all of it is unexpectedly cumbersome and arcane. I'd just as soon do without it, but many missions will have trade required as a step towards completion. Figuring out how to move 5 units of wood across the sea to a friendly nation was the most game-stopping experience I've had in a while, even with detailed task objectives at my disposal.

The Verdict

The inability to just create new units when you need them, the narrow pathfinding abilities, and the gradual pace of the game, even at its highest speed settings, the need to assign units to each building, thus taking them away from other things you already need them to do, makes this a much different simulator than we're used to. The graphics are nothing special, the sound and music are nice but nothing memorable, and in the end, Northland is a fairly pleasant diversion at times, but a little boring otherwise. You can get into a groove, just making new stuff, upgrading things, developing trade routes, some light diplomacy, but the pathfinding and micromanagement will eventually throw up a roadblock and push you right out of "the zone." There are other, better games along these lines, like Caesar III and Zeus, and this game eventually just comes off as a flawed Settlers installment with a Viking theme. And the trade interface is just plain cumbersome.


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