The Civilization series has been around for—I’m sorry to have to do this to you—30 years now. It helped create a genre and has remained undefeated in it for that entire time. But as we march through the 21st century, there are hints that with the sixth game the Civ formula has got a little stale. Enter Amplitude and Sega’s attempt at some fresh air, Humankind.
For Amplitude, this game has been years in the making. Its Endless Legend and Endless Space have seen the studio hone their 4X (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) skills over the last decade, innovating with stuff like clean menus tactical combat. Tying everything they’ve learned together into a direct challenge to Civilization has been the inevitable endgame of this approach.
You may have noticed I’ve already talked about Civilization a lot, and I’m going to do it a whole lot more in this review. Sorry, it’s unavoidable. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley helped pioneer the genre Civilization has ruled for so long, and Humankind is built from the ground up as a homage/response to it. How Amplitude’s offering is able to differentiate itself from Civilization is going to form the core of what most people are going to want to know about Humankind. Basically, it’s literally impossible to talk about Humankind without mentioning Civ repeatedly, since Civ’s systems are the language of the genre itself.
Where to even begin with a game that encompasses thousands of years of human history? May as well start at the start, when Humankind puts you in control of a handful of wandering Neolithic tribespeople, and gently asks that you find somewhere nice for them to live. It then suggests that you will probably want to get them to settle down and start the process of turning them into the first folks to send a mission to the surface of Mars.
Where every other game like this would ask you to pick a single faction and stick with it to the end of the game, Humankind has a trick: it lets you play as multiple factions as you go. Recognising that peoples and cultures change over time, you can begin the game as the Romans, but in later ages move onto the Venetians and then the Italians, and every time you’ll have a different focus and different perks and bonuses available to you. I’m just using the chain of Italians as an example of the continuity available here; you can pick from any of the available factions when you progress, leaping from Asia to Africa to Europe as you go.
This has cosmetic consequences, in that your avatar—Humankind lets you build your own ruler instead of using a stock leader—will wear a new outfit every time you change, and your city’s buildings will morph to reflect your cultural shift. But it also has real gameplay benefits, in that Humankind isn’t locking you into a single approach for your entire game. Rather than picking one particular side and being stuck with their tactics and perks all game, this culture-swapping lets you adapt your strategies on the fly, reacting to how the world and its resources and your place among them has developed.
This has some problems that I’ll get into in a minute, but overall I love this idea. I hate being locked into a certain playstyle before I’ve ever seen the map or my opponents in a game like this, so getting the chance to reroll my empire constantly throughout the game is probably Humankind’s smartest new idea.
And while I’d like to continue now with other ways Humankind makes radical departures from the 4X norms, I can’t. Having never taken part in any of the game’s earlier demos or betas, I found it to be a lot closer to Civilization than I was expecting, which is comforting in some ways but a disappointment in others. On the bright side, unburdened by the expectations of a brand name or longtime fans, and armed with the results of their own dalliances with the 4X genre, Amplitude have been ruthless with their tweaks to Civilization’s formula, and nearly everything they’ve dabbled in has turned out to be either a complete success or, at least, an overall improvement. Some examples:
- Your society’s civics don’t advance in a linear fashion, they evolve depending on circumstances, and are established by asking you questions about how you want to deal with things. Do you want land to be privately owned or collectively? Is art to be censored, or free? There are never any wrong choices, only consequences, each one helping build an empire that’s uniquely yours.
- A lot of thought has gone into playing tall (a small number of heavily populated and specialised cities) vs wide (a sprawling empire), and both approaches are equally valid here. If you want to play wide you can just roll over the map same as you always do, and manage each city accordingly. If you want to play tall, though, you can smoosh your cities together into wider administrative regions (or even a single megalopolis if you want), which combines all their output but only asks for for a fraction of the management. As someone who likes to play tall, I really liked this.
- You only deal with two currencies in Humankind: Gold (which buys stuff and maintains everything) and Influence. The latter leads to a lot of tactical flexibility, because it pays for all kinds of stuff, from combining cities to founding new settlements to enshrining new civics, and you’ll constantly need to be deciding which of these approaches is the best way to spend it.
- Combat will be familiar to anyone who has played Endless Legend. Unlike recent Civ games, where each unit occupies its own space on the map, in general play you’re able to combine 4-7 Humankind units into a single stack. It makes it easier to move them and keeps the world free of military clutter. Then, when it’s time to fight, these stacks unfurl and each unit can be deployed on the game world to fight a small, basic tactical engagement, or a slightly more complicated one if the siege of a city is involved. It’s no Fire Emblem, but it’s still a more interesting way to resolve things than just smashing units together.
Perhaps the biggest highlight for me, though, was the world itself. The map is beautiful, as you can see in the screenshots throughout this review, and it is a never-ending joy to just scroll around it each new game and soak up the landscape. Not only does it look amazing zoomed out, but it’s really alive when you get close up, showing people playing on the beach and animals running across grasslands.
One thing I’m really interested in when it comes to these reviewing big strategy games is what you’re actually doing in them most of the time. Features and highlights are all well and good, but if you’re going to be spending 250-500 hours in a game, I think the most important things for their success are the those you’ll be clicking on and doing over and over and over again. The mundane shit, the minutiae, the chores, the busywork.
In Humankind, that’s the hands-on management of your own cities and territories. The acts of assigning population to various tasks (like farming or research), building new structures, expanding your cities across the map and balancing the books are all done from the same city management screen, and that’s the sandbox in which you’ll spend the bulk of your time in Humankind.
It’s also the thing I like best about the game. The methodical way you can expand and upgrade your territory, the way you’re given the power to shape your people’s development through empowering choices. Once you’ve laid down your roots it starts to chain together and gain a comforting sense of momentum that at times will feel more like you’re playing Cities: Skylines than a true 4X experience.
As a solitary, zen garden-like experience, Humankind would be a classic. SimCity on an intercontinental scale, and spanning millennia. The catch here is that this is a game where you’re only one nation among many, and the way you interact with others—and more importantly the way the AI interacts with the player—leaves a lot to be desired.
Humankind’s city management is good, smooth fun, but it’s also too smooth, lacking in the spikes of activity or crisis that should be punctuating a good 4X game. This makes long sessions—and yes, this has Civilization’s same “one more turn” hook—start to blur into a monotonous hum. It also suffers from the same problem that plagues other Amplitude games, in that while there are AI rivals out there, it rarely feels like you’re actually playing alongside or against anyone.
Frustratingly, there are an abundance of systems here that suggest diplomacy and trade and disputes could be as nuanced and strategic as elsewhere, but for whatever reason it never feels like the AI is doing anything more than waving at you from across the street. And when you do interact, everything feels limp and lifeless, largely because the game’s nameless, culture-swapping factions make it hard to keep track of your opponents, or form any kind of lasting relationships with them. The almost complete absence of emotion or attachment to my rivals here really made me appreciate Civ’s rude, intrusive leaders all the more, because it reminds me they’ve got more to do with that series’ success than just looking good, in that they provide a little added spice to a recipe that would otherwise be incredibly bland.
This was a huge bummer for me, because as I’ve said in other reviews, the best strategy games don’t get to the top because of their tactics, they get there because of the stories they’re able to weave through each playthrough. Stories where the player feels like they’re part of something bigger, something important, not just reclining from a God’s-eye view, clicking on a spreadsheet for 300 turns. Humankind’s story is most like an unremarkable TV show, one that hums along for a few seasons before sending itself off to bed, rarely throwing in the surges of drama or excitement that can make other tales so memorable (which, given Endless Legend’s ability to tell a strong, structured story, was a bit of a surprise!).
Another letdown was the way a game that had studied Civilization so closely, and made so many welcome changes to that venerable old dinosaur’s approach, could walk straight into one of Civilization’s deepest and most dangerous traps: its endgame. More specifically, the fact that like Civ, Humankind’s endgame—and the march towards it—sucks.
No matter how you’ve approached the rest of a game, players will always end up meandering towards an arbitrary victory condition, whether it’s a space mission, world conquest, or a points total that’s tallied by default at 300 turns (please change this figure immediately upon installing, it’s never long enough). I would have loved to see Humankind apply the same kind of boldness to its conclusion as it did so much of the rest of the game; so much of my minute-to-minute experience was spent finding joy in tinkering with my cities and civics, it was jarring to have that morph into a sprint to a finish line at the end.
These missteps (and a few more, like some frustrating bugs) were a shame, then, but put into wider context, Humankind was never going to topple a titan with one game. There has never been a lasting competitor to Civilization, ever, because that series’ bedrock is so close to perfection, and it’s so colossal in the genre it towers over that people have never needed anything else. Amplitude have shown here that, with smart flourishes and some big ideas—and that despite dropping the ball a few times--it deeply understands not just what makes a 4X game great, but what’s not great and can be improved. Having applied that philosophy to Civilization, I’m curious to see what they can do to their own game—through inevitable patches, updates, expansions and sequels—now that it’s out in the wild.
For now, though, all I’ve got to talk about is this original vision for Humankind, a game that promised to be revolutionary but ended up as a very good evolution instead.