Humankind Review

Game name: Humankind

Release date: August 17, 2021

Price: US$49.99

Available on: Steam

Genre: Historical strategy/4X

Developer: Amplitude Studios

Publisher: SEGA

Opencritic: Here

Trailer

Have you ever played Civilization and wondered how different the game would be if it went for the slightly more realistic approach of letting you evolve your faction across the ages, picking and choosing from the most iconic civilizations of each period? Amplitude Studios seems to have focused on that when they decided to build a historical strategy title after years of making excellent sci-fi/fantasy games. Of course, to just say Humankind is Civilization but with the option to change your empire at every new age would be incredibly reductionist, but we have to start somewhere.

And what could be a better time to start charting a path for humanity’s brightest civilizations than the Neolithic Era? Because that’s what you’ll do at the beginning of Humankind, since every player starts out as a small tribe hunting for food and looking for a suitable place to pitch their camp and evolve into a proto-state. Compared to Civilization‘s more relaxed approach to the first few turns, Humankind goes all in into a race that will not only define who’s the first to enter the Ancient Era, but also who gets to pick the most interesting nations, since our starting Neolithic tribe has no real traits of its own, and only the first “evolution” of sorts that we’ll experience will start to define our playstyle (at least for the first Era).

These first brutal turns are also a great time to get acquainted with Humankind‘s tactical combat, which is yet another thing that sets it apart from its competitors. Instead of combat boiling down to just amassing huge blobs composed of different military units and beating your enemy with sheer numbers, you’ll be going for the thinking person’s approach, and using different unit types to counteract others (for instance, spearmen are excellent against cavalry, but may not be as good when facing heavy infantry). Terrain also plays a big role in all battles, and once we’ve unlocked enough technologies, we can reinforce army corps with others, a neat feature that also expands the tactical map. My first few hours playing Humankind were somewhat wasted in this regard, as I am far too used to other games relying on autoresolve mechanics, and kept losing what seemed to be easy battles. This encouraged me to give the combat system another go, and after that, I got hooked. It’s got some quirks (the AI can get stuck at times, forcing a reload) but it’s miles ahead of the competition, and it adds another layer of complexity to an already engrossing title.

Once these initial engagements are over and we’ve found the right spot for our first settlement, we can start building our civilization by choosing one of the first Ancient Era nations (not-so Pro tip: when starting out, the easiest choice will always be the Harappans, due to their innate ability to quickly churn out more and more population to be converted into soldiers if you are a military-minded leader, or funneled towards industry, moneymaking or research). When it comes to choosing where to start, I’d say that the game could do a slightly better job, since it’s currently too dependent on RNG (and without an option to quickly restart should we find ourselves in a really barren spot). This may not seem too important at the start, but once we’ve unlocked enough technologies, we might find ourselves completely dependent on commerce for upgrades and key industries, which is something you really don’t want to be doing if your empire focuses on military expansion.

Founding outposts requires Influence, and upgrading them to a City also requires the same resource. How do we earn that Influence? Well, it’s somewhat easy: keeping our citizens happy and growing our population will net us a bunch of Influence per turn. Influence is the cornerstone of the game for the most part, as it will be very useful for all sorts of things, going from expanding our empire via outpost/City building, to absorbing independent City States. Of course, there is a balancing act going on here, and having too many cities will restrict our ability to generate Influence, thus preventing an empire from taking over the whole world via constant expansion.

This balancing act not only affects Influence, of course. Capture too many cities and you’ll quickly encounter stability problems, as the conquered population refuses to accept your rule unless you construct certain buildings that help raise the Stability of the region, or dedicate an army to permanently occupy that territory as a peacekeeping force. Wait too long to solve these issues, and rebels will start attacking your holdings in the affected areas, even going as far as capturing these cities and forcing you to retake them by force. Having too many low-stability cities in an empire will also drag down the empire-wide stability metric, which, in turn, can lead to revolution, and losing hard-earned Civics.

What are Civics? As your empire progresses, you’ll get to make choices regarding your faction’s ideology. Stuff like “do we believe we have a divine right to this land?” or “should we try to absorb independent states and make them part of our empire, or just buy their loyalty and use them as cannon fodder?” for instance. This is an over-simplification, but we always get to pick between two opposite Civics, and that will shape our empire’s ideology over time, unlocking new options and closing off others, and perhaps even affecting other civilizations’ view of ours, a very important thing when it comes to diplomacy.

Aside from Influence, we’ll be looking to make as much money as possible, since armies and workers need to get paid, and trade requires cold, hard cash. This is mostly obtained through commerce or by building market quarters and other upgrades. Having a good enough amount of gold stashed over for the future will let us buyout key buildings instead of forcing us to wait however many turns they require in order to be built, and other issues can also be solved by the age old adagio of “just throw money at it!”. Trade routes are usually the best way of getting ahead in the economy game, but they can get disrupted by war or other issues such as empires deciding they have a grievance against you and demanding something you aren’t willing to give up. Depending on the situation, that can lead to a quick war, or a period of instability and distrust where neighboring nations hold grudges and are unwilling to trade or open up their borders.

Industry and Science are also two very important resources, as the former will dictate your ability to create new districts, and the latter will influence the speed at which you unlock new technologies. So, is that it when it comes to resources? Oh, you better believe it isn’t, because we’ve left the most important for last. You see, Humankind‘s progression through the ages is dominated by Fame, which is accrued as we complete objectives (for instance, militaristic empires get Fame stars from military victories, Aesthetes get them from amassing Influence, etc.) build Wonders (which are unlocked with Influence and require us to spend Industry and time to plop them down on the world map, aside of other specific requirements) or complete Deeds (stuff like finding a natural Wonder first, or unlocking certain technologies before the other empires, etc.). Once again, careful balance is the name of the game, and we can’t just spam Wonders to get super quick Fame boosts because we’ll be over spending Influence, Industry and wasting valuable time that could be better spent elsewhere.

Fame Stars are very important, since once we get enough of these, we’ll be able to “evolve” our faction and advance into the next Age. Reaching the next Age first isn’t necessarily the best idea, but it will unlock interesting choices (every civilization we can pick has its own traits and unique units), and as I’ve said before, depending on the win conditions set before starting the game, we might even wish to decide to “transcend” our current culture when reaching the next Age, keeping the same traits and special units, but obtaining a bonus to Fame. I haven’t seen the AI do this a lot, but it’s a very valid tactic if you don’t necessarily rely on the new units from each faction and would rather focus on getting the highest possible amount of Fame.

While we are on the topic of ways to influence other cultures without resorting to military operations, Humankind also has its own religion mechanic, that lets players found their own faith once they’ve reached certain point in the game. This system can be great for certain specific play-styles for reasons I’ll go into more detail soon, but aside from that, I didn’t see a lot of complexity here. All the usual stuff is present, with options to enact Tenets, which unlock useful bonuses as our Religion levels up. There are Civics that leverage the religion building mechanic, and I’ve made use of those extensively whenever I needed to pacify a newly conquered region in the early-mid game, but other than that, it’s a mechanic that will mostly just sit there in the background, silently working for you but requiring very little hands-on maintenance.

If things get sour though, war can be a very useful solution, provided you have enough War Support and can outmaneuver your enemy consistently. Humankind‘s solution to the age old problem of having players solve everything by steamrolling the opposition with blood and steel is a very elegant one, and I’m glad it’s part of the game. Instead of just being able to attack anyone without any real excuses, here we’ll have to drum up War Support from our citizens, or any war will be classified as a surprise attack that will inevitably brand us a Traitor and have rapid consequences should things not go according to plan. Losing battles leads to an immediate drop in our population’s War Support, and if that crucial meter gets to zero, we’ll be forced to surrender. This mechanic also plays a very important role in conflict resolution. Should we get the enemy’s War Support to drop enough to force a surrender, we’ll get to the negotiating table, where we can pick and choose between the cities and settlements we’ve conquered, and perhaps even demand they become our vassals. Here’s where the consequences of starting wars willy-nilly rear their ugly head though, as we’ll only be able to push as many demands as our War Support score allows us, meaning that we could have conquered 90% of an enemy empire and yet only get scraps from the negotiating table because our citizens didn’t want this war to happen and won’t support us occupying all the land we’d taken by force.

This might seem a bit restrictive at first, but in reality, it adds a lot of depth to the diplomatic aspects of warfare. Instead of just working on getting the biggest army in the planet and then thrashing everything under their boots, players can focus on how to better manage their empire while at the same time planting the seeds of discord among their opponents. If all else fails, the option to get to blows is always there, but diplomacy and subterfuge will always be the better option. And hey, if you are into militaristic expansion, there’s ways of getting other empires to give you a good enough casus belli that will allow you to conduct a military campaign with the full support of your people… These systems aren’t as complex as the ones featured in Paradox grand strategy titles, but they get the job done a lot better than you would have expected.

Moving on from gameplay for a bit, I was impressed by both the quality of the graphics and the art style, which makes everything instantly readable from a quick look. Units and buildings change from era to era, and it’s easy to know what you are dealing with at a glance, even as a relative newcomer. I had no issues with performance, and though I experienced a number of tech issues during my first few days with the game, when I returned to it after having some IRL issues that prevented me from playing for almost two weeks, I was greeted by the welcome surprise that is firing up a game and realizing that most of my problems have been solved by patches and hotfixes deployed in quick succession.

This is not to say that Humankind is free of issues, of course. Players who have spent some time with any game of this scale will know that there’s always something in rough shape, and Amplitude‘s latest offering is not an exception here. Some things can be fixed via patches and hotfixes (and the developers have done a marvelous job there, considering the game hasn’t been out for long) but others are more likely to stay in the game since they are somewhat part of its design. For instance, the longest Humankind match you can have will always cap out at 600 turns, which seems like a shame, considering long-running Civilization matches are very much my jam, and being able to remove the turn limit is something I’d love to see in Humankind. Other things I’m not exactly a fan of include the inability to quickly restart should you find yourself in a tricky spot at the beginning (though I understand why it’s there, and there’s ways around it) or the lack of an option to join other faction’s battles, for instance.

Still, those issues aren’t more than a drop of water in the ocean when compared to the endless fun that is Humankind. Amplitude Studios‘ latest is the perfect embodiment of the “just one more turn” title in ways that I wouldn’t have thought possible before I got my hands on it. This is a title that will be the benchmark for future historical strategy games, and I can’t wait to see what kind of post-launch content it gets, because the developers have been always excellent when it comes to that.

9/10 – Great.

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