When booting up Humankind, the upcoming 4X strategy game from the Amplitude team, it’s easy to make comparisons to Civilization VI. A game that starts in antiquity, proceeding through the ages as you build up a civilization to be the envy of the world. However, underneath the surface of the 4X game made by the Endless Space team is something that starts to feel just a bit more complex versus the 4X titan.
Humankind sees players not simply choosing one civilization and navigating it through the ages. Rather it turns the concept on its head by allowing players to choose a new civilization’s culture every time you pass an age, creating some very interesting combinations.
I had the chance to go hands on with the latest build of Humankind ahead of its August release with the ability to play through 5 of the 6 eras in the strategy game, and while I went into Humankind expecting to enjoy it thanks to my history of loving 4X games, I came away loving what I played thus far.
The idea that I’m not simply locked into a single culture and its bonuses the whole thousand-plus year history of Humankind had me excited when I picked my first culture. Going with the Harappans first, I settled into what I thought overall would be an Agrarian build, focusing on growth and the people within my civilization’s sphere of influence. However, as the turns progressed, it became clear that focusing in on one aspect of my civilization wouldn’t cut it long term.
You’ll start with a few units and set out to start your civilization in the Neolithic Era. Finding the right spot is a game of ensuring your outpost of defensible, while also providing the natural resources you’ll need to grow. Resources like tracts of land to grow food, mountain and hilly tiles for production, as well as routes for gold production and science to grow your technology through the ages. If you’ve played a Civilization game before, this all seems very familiar to you. However, after you’ve set up your first Outpost, the differences are pretty striking.
Firstly, it’s an outpost, not a city right away. You’ll have to grow into a city, which by extension controls the territory its situated in. Unlike other 4X games, you won’t just be seen building city after city, instead you can expand your influence and control by having your established cities absorb nearby outposts, spending Influence to do so. The upside to this is it expands your borders, pulls resources from your outpost to help drive production in the city proper, to name a few. However, it does come at the cost of your civilization’s stability.
Thankfully too these outposts don’t have to be permanently absorbed into your city. You can release them at any time, ready to grow into their own city as well in the future.
It’s an interesting dynamic and I found myself less inclined to try to build city after city, especially since you’ll have a limit to the amount you can control in the long run until you unlock certain technologies down the road, so it behooves you to keep the outposts driving the growth of your existing cities instead of simply building more.
Where I really enjoyed the complexity of Humankind, though, was in its diplomacy. Too often games just have a few options, from establishing trade links to declaring war. I never feel like I’m interacting with an entity that makes sense, or that acts in a consistent manner compared to when playing against people, but Humankind gave me that illusion. One major feature that made me feel this was its grievance system.
If a civilization slights you, like taking over a territory that holds a natural wonder you were the first to explore for example, you gain a grievance you can bring to the offending faction. You can demand recompense, like demanding control over the territory in the example above, or simply choose to forgive the slight, not wanting to start a war or damage relations long term over the issue.
These grievances can extend to resolving slights like skirmishing troops, or if one of your allies is at war with another. It adds another element to the diplomacy process that feels like a natural progression over standard diplomacy systems in 4X games, and it was cool to play around with how the computer factions reacted when I demanded something from them.
You can also create treaties with your NPC buddies, such as a treaty to trade luxury goods only, or extend that trade to strategic resources like horses or iron deposits, you can also create non aggression pacts and alliances – standard fare. I did like how the whole system is set up, especially trade. Instead of just saying “trade me some iron” I had to effectively buy the trade rights to an iron source, and then keep that trade route open through military means. If your trade partner is taken over, or your trade route is blocked by an invading army, no more trade. It creates an illusion of reality that adds complexity to the whole system, which I definitely like.
When diplomacy fails, there is always war, and I found myself at war pretty early on in the Ancient Era with the Mycenean Greeks to my South. Combat in Humankind is more involved than simply a rock/paper/scissors game of units. Terrain, positioning on the battlefield and unit strength all play a vital role. While it’s not the complexity of controlling armies like in a Total War game, it is a bit more involved than Civilization.
Armies try to effectively capture each other’s flag, and positioning your armies goes a long way. Got archers? Try to get them on the high ground to do Anakin proud. Cavalry becomes indispensable, able to rush enemy archers and units quickly and powerfully, especially early on. It isn’t always about having the larger army either, as these factors can decide the outcome just as much as sheer numbers sometimes.
As I progressed further and further in my playthrough of Humankind after my subjugation of the Myceneans, I began to grow my civilization’s territory. Expanding my culture that I was hoping to become the envy of the world became my focus as I transitioned into the Classical Era. Choosing the Romans, I got access to stronger infantry units and the ability to effectively annex territory peacefully instead of all out war. This changed my focus to annexing instead simply invading, which proved effective early on. As my civilization got stronger as well, I started to notice my culture was seeping into the cities of nearby civilizations.
This lead to grievances which my neighbors exploited as my culture and religion started to take over theirs. It made for interesting moments, as their population became more eager to go to war with me, versus my own which was more apathetic at the idea of a military conflict. Despite being expansionist, I still felt I was weak in the military department, despite winning an early game war against the Myceneans.
This was made clear when one of my outlying outposts was being threatened by an independent people, Humankind’s barbarian/city-state hybrids. Under constant attack, I found myself fighting off threat after threat, constantly funneling military units into the borders of my empire. Having to create more and more units was draining, not just on my own production in cities, but also to the population of my cities, as units take away the total population of your settlements. It’s a unique mechanic that just makes sense. As people move away from the city to trade or fight, it makes sense the population lowers. However, it does cause you to be a bit more strategic as you decide whether this population is worth draining from.
Population plays another role too, something that if you abuse too much your people might not like in the long run. Need to complete a building quickly to start working for you? Sacrifice some of your population in the process. It makes building and growing your civilization interesting, as it presents challenges I’ve not experienced in other 4X strategy games.
As my civilization grew, it started to reflect more the civic choices I was making along the way. Choosing to progress my civilization rather than just keep some of its ideals in the ancient backwater was reflected in gameplay elements. Each civic decision you make pushes you further to one end of the civilization spectrum. Some moments feel insignificant more than others, such as choosing how your army is organized, while others have large, widespread impact on the rest of your game.
I was pretty proud of the fact my civilization’s religion was what was being practiced in all of the cities of my close-by rivals. However, as I chose to not adopt a state religion, I lost access to the religion panel and any chance of growing it further for the rest of my time in-game. It was a stark reminder that decisions you make early in game could impact future turns in ways you might not immediately suspect.
As the turns went on, I found myself slowly taking over the continent was co-inhabiting with my rivals. Having finally taken over the barbarians that were pestering me on my border, I continued my expantionist ways by choosing the sea-faring Norsemen when I progressed to the Medieval era.
At this point too, armies had been crossing borders with my rivals continuously, with the Franks making the Aztecs their vassals, while I had subjugated the former Myceneans, now Byzantines as my own vassal. As the turns progressed, my fame grew, which acts as an overall score marker that takes the sum of what you do in game and balance it against your rivals. At this point I owned four major cities, each with at least two to three outposts attached to them, as well as owned wonders from the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Stonehenge and the Statue of Zeus. My culture influenced civilizations across the map from me thanks to my trade reach, and as I progressed to the Early Modern Era, trade become more and more profitable as the sea lanes opened up to me thanks to technological advances.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to the Industrial era, but in my 120-plus turns, I couldn’t put Humankind down. There is so much complexity here with every layer of the strategy game I felt as though I was only scratching the surface. As my time with the game wound down, I had answered many of the questions going into this preview, namely whether this would offer the same level of satisfaction I would feel playing one of my favorite series of all time, Civilization. I can say, for me at least, it scratches the itch in a very satisfying way.
I still have questions, namely how complex diplomacy can get after hundreds of turns of decisions, demands, bribes and proposals come into play when a massive world event takes place, as well as how viable a non-military victory can truly be in Humankind. I also wonder whether or not as time goes on after launch players will start to gravitate to “culture builds” choosing specific cultures that seem to work best together versus experimenting with cultural builds with each playthrough. I know for myself, I am someone that when I find a playstyle I like, tend to fixate on it. Yet the potential at play with the various culture combinations each era makes me excited to break that mold and experiment, something I do mostly in grand strategy games like Crusader Kings III versus a game like Civilization.
However, I’ll have to wait till Humankind releases this August to figure out if starting as a cultural influence civilization like the Zhou and progressing to a mobile military power through the ages with the Mongols. Could I make a strong civilization that has a state sponsored religion and focuses on tradition versus embracing progress? Time will tell, however, I’m eager to find out.