Humankind positions itself smartly, aiming to shake some of the 4X strategy subgenre’s foundations, add other small tweaks to its recipe, while maintaining enough familiarity to let anyone hop in and leave their mark on history.
With it, developer Amplitude Studios treads new ground, trading sci-fi and fantasy for a historical setting, swimming in the same waters as subgenre behemoth Civilization. It’s a bold move, especially considering that a more down-to-earth approach to its in-game universe leaves less wiggle room to craft the next Horatio or Necrophages.
Unique factions, striking art, and a deep layer of strategy that remained approachable established the studio as a notable name in the 4X sphere, making Endless Space and Endless Legend both excellent points of entry for newbies and worthwhile experiences for veterans. Humankind sheds the first of those layers, banking on a totally different approach.
Humankind is a historical 4X strategy game that channels the lessons learned from past Amplitude Studios titles alongside more traditional elements of the subgenre in yet another attempt to revitalize it. Turn-based, it tasks players with managing all facets of their civilization, from economy to infrastructure, research, and warfare, its claim to fame comes from how it does not bind players to a single faction for an entire game.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no traditional single-player campaign in Humankind. You plunge straight into a low-difficulty game, where you can familiarize yourself with its concepts, before creating your own using a set of available rules.
The length of a game varies depending on settings like the number of competitors, the size and type of maps, or turn limit. Normal speed clocks in at 300 turns and isn’t overly long. In a bit over 30+ hours, we squeezed two matches and a half on this setting, including the introductory one.
Humankind’s multiplayer gives you the same options to set up games as single-player does, with the exception that you can also invite human players into your game. You can set matches to private, friends-only or public and also mix in AI. We cannot speak for its server stability, since we didn’t try it ourselves due to it not being released yet, but one thing to note is that the in-game menu lets you add up to 10 players, whereas the store page mentions support for up to 8 players.
You take your first steps in Humankind from the perspective of a Neolithic Tribe, having just one unit and a hex-based world shrouded in fog. It sounds all too familiar but isn’t quite so in practice. Not only can you collect food to increase the number of units in your tribe and hunt wildlife instead of barbarians, but any unit can place down Outposts, once you accrue enough Influence by exploring the map. These can be evolved into a full-blown city but you don’t have to do so right away. The map is sectioned in territories and Outposts are how you lock them down for your civilization, making its strategic or luxury resources your own to exploit.
Even with an Outpost placed, you can move on and find a territory with a more valuable resource or a more defensible position. Later on, territories and their wealth can also be attached to cities – essentially extending their reach – making exploration and actively securing territories an active competition. While this doesn’t remove it entirely, there’s certainly less anxiety about placing down your first settlement in a less-than-ideal spot.
Cities are the heart and soul of your civilization in Humankind and the prime source of soldiers. To grow them, you build specialized districts that occupy and exploit the map’s hexes for their resources, gaining synergy bonuses from nearby districts of a similar type. Each one you build, however, decreases your city’s stability, requiring you to balance expansion with keeping your citizens happy.
Repeatable Public Ceremonies provide a resource boost when needed, while Infrastructure items have no physical presence on the map but permanently improve each city’s output of FIMS (food, industry, money, science). These are unlocked through research and act as a great way of bringing growth to a city while waiting for stability to recover after a district building spree. Food counts towards population growth, industry determines your builders’ speed, money pays for armies and buys structures instantly, while Science counts towards your research, which is vital to access new technologies.
Influence is a bit of a more elusive resource that comes from a variety of sources which include specific buildings - especially coming from certain cultures – technologies, civics, and wonders. It’s required not just for expansion, but also to unlock Cultural Wonders (notable buildings like the Taj Mahal that provide strong bonuses) and Civics.
The latter often go a long way to help push your playstyle in a given direction. Paid wages for your troops mean more stability in your garrisons and occupied cities, while Plundered Wages increase their strength and reward when ransacking enemy districts. They are also supposed to reflect the guiding Ideologies of your civilization, moving sliders along four axes that provide additional ones.
Your decisions dynamically move them across five stages, trading increased stability, when in the middle, for more specialized bonuses. They also impact Ideological Proximity with other players which, sadly, didn’t seem to affect much in terms of collaborating with the AI, but did grant occasional Science bonuses. In truth, Ideologies felt like an afterthought, much like Religion does. Unlocked once you gain enough followers, certain buildings generate Faith, which lets you essentially level up your State Religion, picking new tenets that, again, act as passive bonuses. While it does spread to other players – and it can be grounds for war – it’s easy to forget about for the vast majority of a game.
The path to victory in Humankind is paved with Era stars. With the exception of your time as a humble tribe, each of the game’s six eras has 21 earnable stars spread across seven categories – Builder, Militarist, Scientist, Aesthete, Agrarian, Expansionist, and Merchant. Each one you collect grants Fame, which is the metric by which all players are judged. Gain any seven and you can move on to the next Era.
Shedding your tribal beginnings and reaching the Ancient Age is the first time you pick a culture and this can repeat every time you advance to a new era. Each culture has an affinity for one of the seven categories of stars that doubles the amount of Fame gained from them while broadly informing its preferred playstyle. Each affinity also has impactful passive and active abilities; Builders, for example, negate the stability loss when constructing districts and can funnel all money and science in a city towards its Industry output.
Cultures also come with an emblematic district and a unit that sets them apart, as well as a unique Legacy trait. The latter is retained every time you shift culture, potentially building towards a strong set of bonuses in the late game. You can also choose to keep the same culture, foregoing new traits, units, and powers in exchange for earning more Fame. The cultures you can choose from are set in stone for each era and, if you’re not the first to get there, you may find that other players have already nabbed your pick.
Even with a static culture pool for each Era, there’s plenty of flexibility. Nothing stops you from sampling all affinities, but you can also craft a militarist civilization that excels at hitting people over the head with a nuclear missile. Unfortunately, since only Legacy traits carry over, you never feel like you’re gradually building a civilization with its own personality. Instead, you collect piles of passive bonuses that go under the hood, while the transient nature of special units makes it easy to forget that once upon a time, the British were actually Khmer and lived in huts, even with the visual traces of your past history on the map.
The impossibility to establish a cohesive narrative – given the freeform culture-shifting – plays into this issue. Narrative events do exist and seldom have follow-ups but they, too, translate to yet more bonuses, whether permanent or temporary. Some of these can drop just at the right moment, as you’re experiencing a shortage of a resource but, again, the fact that you once decided the city that kept eunuchs around could maintain its custom and self-governing has little actual impact on your civilization’s tale as a whole and is easily swept away by time. You’ll have tales to tell – painstakingly winning over the only nearby city with access to iron, letting you upgrade troops without having to trade, or being the first to circumnavigate the world – but the civilization-building element feels partly hollow.
Diplomacy is yet another undercooked system. As soon as you encounter an AI player, you have access to a set of treaties that govern a few key aspects, including open borders, non-aggression pacts, map vision, and trade. Once you ally with them, they morph into a few others, but the low number of options makes it a tedious, repetitive affair. Grievances could have shaken up things, but the AI seldom reacted to our requests, even when outnumbered and outgunned. These trigger under certain circumstances (AI “stealing” independent cities you also had your eye on, or oppressing people of your religion), allowing you to ask them to basically pass over a city, convert, or surrender to an ally.
Declaring war in Humankind is tied to your level of War Support. During peacetime, multiple factors, including having treaties revoked or obtaining grievances adds to a player’s meter. Once it’s at 80 you can declare a justified war, although if you fancy being branded a Traitor – with minimal consequences in our experience –, you can also declare Surprise Wars. Battles take place on a chunk of the world map near the location where armies clash and can actually have multiple armies participating on both sides.
Terrain plays a major role, especially early on and if there’s not enough space to deploy all units, you can reinforce during the fight. Since battles assign three rounds to each in-game turn, they can span over multiple turns. With the right research, you can also bring units from outside into the fray and turn the tide. It’s a really great way of not just adding weight to conflicts but also making them feel more strategic.
You can either win by holding the flag at the end of any given turn or eliminating all opposition. The victor can vassalize the opponent or demand some of the cities they occupied. Going over the city cap drains your Influence, stopping players from wiping out each other after their semi-organized gangs of barbarians meet for the first time.
Humankind does make sure to vary things up, especially as you move across Eras. Early on, you’ll want to breach enemy lines and have your cavalry trample infantry or your swordsmen decimate archers. Once sailing becomes a bigger factor, you can support coastal invasions with ships. Artillery becomes pretty vital to take down fortifications, even across great distances. Aircraft then further changes things, being able to instantly move between Airfields and Aircraft Carriers (Airports and railways also let ground troops quickly get around), strike over long distances but also protect your cities against enemy planes.
From the first moments as a Neolithic Tribe, Humankind’s world is vibrant and alive with color. Lush green fields lead into arid deserts, while snow-capped mountains can wait just a few squares away. Natural wonders dot the landscape, waiting to be discovered, while districts gradually stretch across the map with telegraphed activity once you zoom in.
The cultural changes your civilization goes through are also reflected in your Avatar’s clothing and the look of your districts. Seeing an Egyptian administrative center surrounded by Khmer huts (a bit too) subtly marks your civilization’s progress through the ages. Zoomed up close, admiring your work leaves you with a sense of fulfillment, even if cities can become a hodge-podge of districts that feel a bit too cluttered towards the endgame.
Zoom the map out slightly and you’ll have your cities’ infrastructure more clearly highlighted, while going all the way out lets you more easily see which territories belong to which player and where cities are located. Humankind’s UI takes some getting used to and certain menus – like the ones that list all your cities and their output or the Encyclopedia – are a hassle to navigate, but a few games in, you’ll get the hang of where everything is.
Audio & Music
Humankind boasts stylistic variety in terms of its music, running the gamut from solemn chants to fiddles playing to the beat of tribal drums and more grandiose tracks that employ strings in tandem with other instruments. They create an auditory landscape that supports whatever you’re doing but – and this is very subjective – never stand out in the same way as those in the Endless series did.
Units striking each other in combat feels surprisingly punchy, but their voices are a little too vanilla and don’t really change, which is odd for a game that has you blending different cultures together into one (hopefully) great civilization.
You’ll face different levels of challenge depending on which of Humankind’s seven difficulty modes you pick. Set to the Town difficulty, the first game you play acts as a tutorial against a mostly passive AI. Metropolis – roughly the equivalent of normal – ups the challenge, and the AI will use flanking maneuvers, go to war and participate more actively in the game, without necessarily feeling like a major threat.
Winning the Fame race on Nation and higher gets considerably harder. Lacking traditional factions, Humankind’s AI is led by several AI Personas. These are avatars that come with their own level of difficulty, a few archetypes like Loyal, Wary, or Vindictive, two strengths, that translate to various boons during games, and one bonus that can see them focusing on developing their navy or being more passive overall. Alternatively, Peaceful Mode disables the AI’s ability to declare war and initiate attacks without removing its ability to fight back fiercely.
Humankind’s review build didn’t feature a lot of accessibility options. Three of the four available cover subtitles, while the fourth lets you reorder pending elements in lists without dragging and dropping.
The trademark smoothness that Amplitude titles showcase is still there, letting you seamlessly switch between most menus without noticeable halts. It also ran flawlessly, for the most part, the only exception being towards the late game when our i7-8700K, 16 GB Ram, Nvidia 1070 GTX @ 1080p setup experienced framerate drop because of district-heavy cities, albeit never to a point where it significantly affected the experience.
The game also got stuck when moving to the next turn on two occasions in the 30+ hours we spent with it. It was noted as a possible bug in the review build, and reloading the save should have fixed the issue, according to the devs. In our case, it only worked once and we ultimately had to abandon the other game.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Getting enough stars to progress to a new Era and discover the gameplay changes that brings.
In going historical and ditching traditional factions, Humankind can’t quite rival the blooming personality of the Endless games while some of its aspects – like diplomacy and ideologies – remain undercooked. Its approach to cultures does, however, offer more playstyle flexibility than its peers, and advancing to a new Era always feels like an event. There’s plenty to look after too while the gradual progress of technology is reflected both in warfare and peacetime, as infrastructure welcomes the advent of railways and flight.
Another thing of note is how failing to nab the top spot on the Fame chart doesn’t mean you just get a screen informing you that you’ve utterly failed. Instead, the game recounts some of your greatest achievements. Sure, you don’t get a place on the podium, but perhaps you made it out alive (and even victorious) from the longest war in history or had lots of farms. It’s an encouraging way to end things when you “lose” that also doesn’t nullify the triumph of actually winning the Fame race.
Although not all of its features are as fleshed out as they could be, Humankind does hit several sweet spots, both in terms of combat and management, having enough going on to push you to click that next turn button. While it probably won’t be a “Civ killer” – not that it necessarily aims to be one –, it’s clearly a game that historical 4X strategy fans looking for a different spin on the subgenre’s formula should definitely consider trying out at some point.
Switching cultures when transitioning between eras adds flexibility in terms of playstyle
Gameplay evolves as you progress through eras, reflecting technological advancements
The ability to bring in outside troops into battles makes wars feel more epic
Era stars reward you for approaching multiple facets of gameplay
There’s only a thin sense that you’re building a civilization, rather than just hopping from culture to culture
The UI isn't always intuitive enough
About Bogdan Robert Mateș
When not brewing coffee or debating serious topics with my cat, you'll either find me playing video games or writing about them.