Northland, published by Tri Synergy in the US and GMX in the UK, is the third release in the Cultures RTS series. Cultures and Cultures 2 received lukewarm reviews at best and this may be the series’ last hope. The first two titles featured traditional RTS elements but both seemed to play too slowly and were missing the fun factor required to make a game successful. Initially I felt that Northland was doomed to be the last game in the series. The first few hours presented a frustrating learning curve, but, after some time, I found myself engrossed in a satisfying game experience.The basic single player story of Northland once again has you leading the Viking hero Bjarni and his friends through several quests in order to move on to the subsequent level. In order to complete these quests, however, your citizens must do a good deal of city building to advance the village. This, in turn, enables you to offer your supporting army the appropriate weapons and some of the gifts required for tribute to other villages or characters. Although there are only 8 missions to complete, the length of time required to finish each is substantial. The game also has some single player missions playable in any order as well as the requisite multiplayer maps. Although the multiplayer population was nonexistent when I played this, the potential for challenging multiplayer games is present. For the player desiring a multiplayer-like experience, the game offers a few single player practice versions of the maps.Northland’s gameplay involves missions in which you start out with a few villagers, build a town, and eventually send a military party off with your heroes. As your party progresses, basic goals are required in order to advance. At times, the opportunity to form alliances, buy mercenaries, and find treasures is also present. In addition to the city building, your party must advance to a goal through a few dungeon crawling levels as well. You even have a few chances to play “Viking Jeopardy” by answering simple riddles.Northland is a familiar feeling RTS title, but the nuances take some time to understand. Each game starts with a small number of villagers, male and female, and at least one hero. Losing your hero usually means losing the level, so saving often is a good idea. Most maps also contain treasure chests containing items such as “free” buildings, extra units, health potions and magic items.The male villagers work in an a*igned occupation such as hunter, extractor, or carrier. Experience points increase for each villager as tasks are successfully performed. Once a villager reaches a certain level, new occupations are available to him. Players also have the option of changing the occupation to something unrelated, but the experience level starts again at zero percent. Female villagers are available to marry the males and produce offspring of either sex. In order to do this, however, the couple must have a place of residence. Children are born and grow up quickly, so you can increase your village size easily, provided you d raw materaals i crwase eouq virequired to support them. Sending male villagers to a barracks creates military units. Although you are limited to swordsmen or archers, you can outfit them with increasingly better equipment as your village progresses. Military units advance in experience in the same way as civilian villagers.Although some of these elements may sound very familiar, there is a learning curve to this game. An advanced RTS fan may have no trouble jumping in and playing, but most individuals will struggle initially due to the extreme level of attention required by the many minute details essential to keep your workers active while building up the village. If you like fine-tuning, you will really like the depth of this game. In addition to the attention that every villager requires, the time necessary for village building is lengthy, even in accelerated mode, and may frustrate some. Completing certain levels in this game can easily eat up an afternoon.The AI in Northland is good but not without its flaws. Path finding requires your town scout to erect signposts or villagers can become hopelessly lost in very short distances. I had builders standing within sight of materials that they would not pick up because they could not “find” them. Erecting posts is easy to do, but you must abandon other activities while doing this. On the positive side, villagers are quick to tell you when something is bothering them.Control in Northland is straightforward for anyone has played RTS style games before. The screen can be zoomed in and out and scrolled easily. Players select units individually or by group and a*ign them to hotkeys. Double clicking on a single unit selects all units of that type. Finally, the ability to drag a select box is also present. None of these aspects of control is new, but each one should present RTS fans with a level of comfort.As previously stated, the game variations in Northland include single player campaign, individual missions, and multiplayer. Playing multiplayer is possible via either LAN or the internet. Single player games offer three levels of difficulty.Technically, the game is fine. The graphics are adequate but nothing special. I found that the medium level of zoom provided the best-looking graphics. The close-up view was too pixilated and the far-away view offered little detail. The sound is also fine, but nothing exceptional. Thankfully, the music score did not wear on me over time. Finally, the ability to save frequently is present and is not time consuming. Auto save is also available but must be turned on.During the first few hours of playing Northland, I was frustrated and turned off to the point of not wanting to play anymore. As I trudged through these dark hours of gameplay, however, I realized that I was no longer feeling frustrated. Instead, I was getting lost, for hours at a time and to a finger-cramping level, in a satisfying RTS game. Ultimately, I would recommend this game to even a casual gamer with the warning that it will take time. If you like to eat your dessert before your meal, this is not the game for you. However, if you are a patient gamer, you may find something satisfying in the end. Despite being a difficult game to get into initially, ultimately the game is both enjoyable and worth the time commitment required to play.