I adore strategy games, except for when I have to review them. With so many abstract systems, moving parts, and potential play experiences, it can be a real brain-scratcher to neatly sum up how good they are. Humankind is proving tougher than most. Partly, it’s because I’ve played an awful lot of it, meaning there’s even more than usual to sum up. Partly, it’s because as soon as Amplitude’s big boy 4X was announced, we all knew its success would be defined by how it compared with the Civilization series.
So, then. No point drawing this out: is Humankind as good as Civ?
Yes. I think. But honestly, I can’t think of anything less fun for me, less fair to either game, or less useful to you, than a long set of oblique feature comparisons, ramping up to an arguably worthless “better than/worse than” verdict.
What I can tell you is that whenever I open up Steam, my brain starts moving towards the prospect of playing Humankind like a tray of nails sliding towards a giant cartoon magnet. It is, indeed, the precise sort of magnetism I have felt from Civ games in the past. As far as I’m concerned, Humankind lives up to a giant slice of the hype which has preceded it, and it should rightly be considered as state-of-the-art for the 4X genre.
But honestly, I still need to play way more of Humankind to know for sure whether it’s a classic. I’m still at a stage where every session is revealing a whole new seam of potential play experiences to me, and since 4X playthroughs are such glacial things, it’s a pile of thinkbiscuits that will take me a very long time indeed to eat. It’s easy to become infatuated with a game when you’re still exploring what it can do. But the real test will be whether I’m still playing it months after that process is done, and the illusion of infinite possibility is dispelled. On that front, I really don’t know what to expect.
Last time I previewed Humankind, I talked about how the game’s mix-n-match civilisation-building system left it open to the emergence of bonus combos too powerful not to be used, seriously throttling the effective breadth of pathways through the ages. Having played a few more games, my outlook is brighter on that front. It feels like bonuses are offset in such subtle ways that you can’t see them being balanced out, leading you to feel like you’re a genius exploiting loopholes in the rules.
In a recent game I played, picking the Zhou in the Ancient slot and spamming confucian schools next to mountains led to my research rate multiplying by a cool 10,000% in the space of a few turns. It seemed abjectly silly. This meant, however, that I researched every technology available in a flash, leaving me with the option of either rushing an era advance before the optimum point, or continuing on through the ancient era with a load of expensive research districts doing absolutely nothing. Moderation, it turned out, would have served me a lot better than min-maxing.
In another game, the combo of Phoenicians into Carthaginians on a coastal map gave me a swarm of hyper-harbours that basically allowed me to force-feed every citizen four tons of herring a day, exploding my population and making me sickeningly rich. But then, since I hadn’t yet built up the infrastructure or technology to keep that population content, my growth smashed into a hard ceiling quickly, and my cities were too depressed to build much for a few dozen turns. Going all-in on the harbours had seemed an unbeatable choice at the time, but it really binned off my flexibility, and set me back hard enough that I actually lost my lead to an AI on the way to the endgame.
Nevertheless, for all that economic bonuses aren’t quite the irresistible force they appear to be, the fact remains that they’re by far the easiest way to prosper. In more games than not, I find I’m devoting the bare minimum effort to military action and diplomacy, since land development almost always represents a more efficient way of getting what I want.
That’s a shame, as both the diplomacy and combat systems are great, in their own right. The little unfolding military battles, in which parts of the map are co-opted as a sort of arena for armies to have a turn-based scrap in, are good, deep fun. Sadly, though, I almost always auto-resolve them, since I’m waiting on something exciting to finish construction, and I just want to click through my turns uninterrupted until it’s done. Even when neighbouring empires attack me, I’ve taken to just bribing them with a vast amount of money – generated, naturally, by my wild array of tile improvements – to make them go away.
I’ve also found this fixation on the strength of dependable bonuses – generally research, food, money and production – has limited my appetite for civ picks. There’s a woeful number of civs in each of the eras that I simply haven’t tried yet, since their advantages are in areas of the game which feel less… winny to me. Of course, this might all be an issue which goes on to tidy itself up, once I’ve had more time to play and experiment, so I’m hesitant to criticise too hard.
I was about to say that I’d get a better feel for the relative strength of different approaches once I’d tried a military-focused game or two – but that needn’t be the case, and the reason for that is possibly Humankind’s greatest strength. When you switch civs at the end of an era, you can change the entire working of your empire at the drop of a hat. A money-making dynamo can become a diplomatic powerhouse or a research colossus in just a few smart turns, retaining a tasty remnant of its financial acumen for good measure. Knowing just when to accomplish such a 180 degree turn is a hugely important skill, and represents an exquisitely juicy bit of decision-making.
“This on-the fly redefinition of your entire gameplan, and the fact that it’s a necessity, rather than an option, is a masterstroke.”
In my harbourgeddon scenario above, for example, a smart switch into a civ focused on stability could have seen me beast my way to the top of the world in no time. Instead, I made the “obvious” synergy picks – Norse into Dutch, for yet more harbour synergies – and ended up with all the food and gold in the world, but a population too miserable to care. I had skipped leg day on a civilisational scale.
This on-the-fly redefinition of your entire gameplan, and the fact that it’s a necessity rather than an option, is a masterstroke. The more I play, the more fundamentally brilliant a mechanic I realise it is, and on this front at least, I don’t feel like a dick in saying Humankind blows Civ out of the water. Every Civilization game comes to the table with a set of innovations on its predecessor’s ruleset, but I can’t think of a development in that series that was half so neatly transformational as this. So, you know: good on yers, Amplitude.
Humankind isn’t perfect, even discounting my personal feelings about the relative efficacy and fun potential of different playstyles. There were a lot of small but weird bugs in the review build: notifications informing me that the Olmecs had advanced to the Ancient Era no less than five times; the narrator expressing his shock at my building five, fifteen, and then thirty farming quarters on consecutive turns, when I had done no such thing; a boat panicking when set to auto-explore.
There was nothing game-breaking in there, but there were a few too many noodles out of the soup for a game so highly polished in other regards. It did lead me to wonder how many other cracks were hidden below the waterline of this weird, mixed metaphor noodle boat.
Beyond that sort of thing, my only real problem with Humankind is the issue I alluded to right at the start: that despite really liking it, I’m not 100% sure of what it is. It has set out to prove itself as a historical 4X that is emphatically not a Civ clone, and it has succeeded. But in bending itself around the monolithic bulk of Big Sid’s baby, it has grown into a strange shape. There’s just a lot going on, is the best way I can put it. At times, this makes for an extremely rich strategic play. At other times, it makes for an experience verging on information overload.
Indeed, and especially in the later stages of a game, Humankind can feel more like a puzzle game than a 4X, with the business of hexes and multipliers abstracting it from its central theme of humanity. Still, if the worst things I can find to say about Humankind are that it sometimes makes me think too much, and that I need to play it more, it’s hardly a bloody disaster, is it? Go make yourself some harbours, and tell the Olmecs I said hello. If they ever make it out of their Ancient Era time loop and invent writing, that is.