Humankind looks an awful lot like recent Civilization games. That superficial appearance is worrying for a game that is pointedly doing something different from Firaxis’ genre-defining standby. It’s dismaying coming from Amplitude, whose fantasy 4X Endless Legend made such memorable departures from the Civilization formula. But if you put pictures of Humankind in a lineup next to Civilization V and VI, you might struggle to identify it at first. Once again, a bright and cheery world awaits your settlement and conquest, and little cartoon squads of ancient soldiers and workers crawl across a hex-grid landscape seeking new battles and new resources. So far, so familiar.
It’s unfortunate that the game’s signature conceit wasn’t fully available to play with during a hands-on demo a couple weeks ago. The big idea in Humankind is that rather than controlling a single civilization through all of recorded history, you guide an evolving people who have the option to metamorphize into a new civilization with each new era of history. War-like Myceneans in the opening part of the game might become Celts in the next stage, or follow a more direct historical progression to become clever Greeks. It’s a welcome antithesis to the battle royale of Civilization, where nations and cultures are fixed throughout all of history and can thrive or die, but not evolve. However, in the demo I played, there was a single era transition from a nomadic pre-history era into an Archaic Age period. I didn’t get a chance to see how dramatic these shifts would be if you were running an established empire and, as such, couldn’t quite feel out how dramatically this idea sets the game apart from Civ.
But it’s over the course of a longer game that this system promises to become more interesting. With each new civilization, players get a chance to adopt new bonuses and special abilities. Being early to a new age of history gives you more civs to pick from, as your rivals won’t have had a chance to make their own selections. But there are more points to be won toward endgame scoring if you continue to thrive with an early-game civilization. So there is always a calculation to be made between moving on to a new era with a civilization better-suited to it, or continuing to run up the score with an older civilization. When you finally do upgrade, however, your old civilization doesn’t really disappear. It leaves a legacy bonus that will follow you through the rest of the game, part of an accumulating list of perks that chart the path of your very particular choices throughout the game.
Note, however, that the trade-off hinges on scoring, not discrete victory conditions. That shift in focus is one of two particularly exciting differences between Humankind and Civilization. Where Civilization has become intensely wedded to its traditional victory conditions, asking you to be thinking about how your infant civilization will one day build a spaceship 3,000 years hence, Humankind follows a more Paradox-esque route of tallying scores at the end. There’s more reward for a meandering, “do lots of cool shit” playstyle than the exacting streamlining that Civilization encourages.
The other part that was music to my ears was what Game Director Jean Maxine Moris said about Amplitude’s approach to balancing all these options.
“With more than a million combinations [of civilizations across eras], there is no way that we can pretend that every one of them is balanced," he said. "And that's okay. Asymmetry in games is quite okay. I often draw a parallel with fighting games. They are very good at that.”
There’s a risk in this. With open-ended scoring and a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to game balance, it’s easy to imagine Humankind as a rather disorienting game. Part of what Civ’s victory conditions and balance accomplish is give you a clear idea of what you should be doing, and some clear yardsticks to measure your relative progress. Endless Legend, which is probably the clearest antecedent to Humankind, provided little of that guidance. I played dozens of hours before I really knew when I was playing well, or just having fun screwing around. The lack of guidance could be frustrating, but the room for exploration and experimentation made it one of the most exciting 4X games of the last decade.
It’s encouraging to see those playful, sandbox values are at the heart of Humankind. Perhaps that’s an attitude you can only take when you’re not Firaxis, tasked with maintaining continuity with a decades-old series and satisfying a massive audience with tons of specific wants and expectations. Humankind has superficial resemblances to the Civilization series but the most important difference is that it starts with a clean slate.