Is Humankind A Contender Or Pretender To The Civilization Throne? (First Impressions)

Humankind, the new historical 4X strategy game by Amplitude is out now. This is the new game from the makers of the excellent Endless Legend, a fantasy 4X game that is brave to tinker and experiment with interesting mechanics not seen in this niche genre for some time.

With Humankind, however, Amplitude is aiming big. The game is to be compared against the de facto king of the 4X genre: the Sid Meier’s Civilization series. Like Civ, Humankind asks you to build an empire starting from the early days of humankind to the contemporary era and beyond. What if you have the power to shape humankind and civilization through the ages?

Humankind cannot avoid to be compared to Civilization as a result. But the question is, is Humankind a contender or a pretender to the high throne the Civilization series has comfortably perch itself all these years?

For context, I’ve been playing the Civilization games on-and-off over the years clocking over hundreds of hours, and also played a good chunk of Endless Legend. Civ V and Civ VI for me is comfort food. I know how to play it enough, I know what to expect, and I know the odd quirks that make it fun and the not-so-fun bits I wish they trimmed out.

As for Endless Legend, I never felt competent at the game, but it excellently strips out many of the bloatedness of a game of Civ, and makes every turn matter and meaningful. From its engaging city settling and district building mechanic (the latter which Civ VI may or may not have taken some notes from), to how each of the playable civs having ridiculously different playstyles, it’s a refreshingly radical take on the genre. Plus, it has a more elaborate combat system too.

As such, I may have gone into Humankind with too high of an expectation. I was hoping for an Endless Legend-esque reformation for the historical 4X. A revolution to that will usher in a new dawn to Civilization.

What we get here is a new flavour of the historical 4X strategy genre.

It’s still really good though! Good enough that calling Humankind a “Civ-like” is a disservice. It does more than that, though not necessarily pushing boundaries or setting a new bar for historical 4X strategy games.

The presentation, the art style and orchestral music, in particular, is impeccable, wonderfully memorably and well-executed. This is to be expected if you heard of Endless Legend’s banger of a soundtrack, but this time we can hear evergreen cultural medleys from around the world that will keep you clicking next turn.

The world map looks mesmerising, from the dawn of humanity where you slowly uncover the fog of war to reveal the natural beauty of the procedural maps to the end of the world where globalisation has resulted in sprawling cities, pollution and massive populace. The 2D art, minimal but functional UI, and the world map makes for one wonderful aesthetic. The 3D models for the customisable avatars, rendered to imitate the 2D art seen throughout the game, is fantastic as well.

Fans hated the “cartoony” presentation of vanilla Civ VI (which developers Firaxis slowly moved away from with the more realistic-looking leaders in later DLCs). Humankind also uses swathes of bright, untextured colours in the art style that may remind you of Civ VI, but looks more refined and appealing.

However, I’m not sold on the cheeky narrator taking jabs and actually judging what decisions I made for my empire. Look, I know some of the policy is outright heinous now with hindsight and perspective of living in the modern-day. But c’mon, let me play a video game where I can safely engage in tyranny and other inhumane choices you offer.

Humankind plays very largely like a Civ game, but with some twists to the formula here and there. The first twist is that every player starts off as a nomadic tribe, roaming the map around before you settle your first city. Finally, a chance to look around and find a good spot instead of settling on spawn without being penalised! Sort of.

To progress to other eras, you need to collect era stars. These can be gained for reaching certain milestones based on the seven different play styles Humankind encourages. Grow your population. Build districts. Research tech. Gain money. Gain influence. Expand your territory. And defeat other military units.

At first, you might want to transition to a new era early because, in each new era, you get to pick a different “culture” to adopt. Humankind doesn’t let you necessarily play as one civilization- called culture here.

Instead, you get to progress through the ages as various cultures. Start as the Byzantines then proceed to become the Celts and then adopt the traditions of the Umayyads to later evolve as the Australians in the late game. It is supposed to represent how the same civilisations don’t remain in place, but rise and fall throughout the ages and they don’t necessarily carry the same culture and ties from the past eras.

As a result, what you think as one civ in Civilization can be multiple cultures in Humankind. Edo Japanese and Japanese are two different cultures for two different eras. The Myceneans and the Greeks are also distinct entities. Lesser-known civilizations like the Harrappans and the Haudenosaunee is part of the 60 playable cultures, 10 for each era.

Each culture has what they call an emblematic district and an emblematic unit- essentially a unique building and unit in Civ. Plus they have one legacy trait- a unique passive- that will carry over through the ages even if you change cultures. And each culture can also trigger an ability based on what their main affinity is. Agarian cultures can call in a migration, taking away population from neighbouring cities (including of rival empires) to the city you trigger it, for example.

The idea of mix and matching different civs is interesting. There’s an incentive to continue being ahead of the star-collecting game, so you can get dibs on the culture you want. If you transition to a new era late, you’ll be left with whatever’s left on the table. And if it’s a 10-player full house game, then you will only be left with the last culture pick to choose. Or not. You can “trascend” your current culture to the next age which only grants you 10% extra fame.

However, since you are capped at a max of three stars per affinity, and you need seven stars minimum to go to the next era, you can’t just bum-rush one playstyle and easily snowball to victory. Science research is capped at the what is available in this era, so you better be building districts or growing your pop or defeating units in battle while you are investing hard on science. Or you’ll be stuck with a capped research tree with wasted science as you can transition to the next era.

The other twist is how you settle your cities. Instead of just a free-for-all land grab, the world of Humankind is similar to Endless Legend’s Auriga where it is broken up by territories. Once you control a city in that territory, the border is shaped like the territory. You can expand the city by attaching several territories under one city, giving the city more plots of land to exploit.

It can be a headscratcher at first, but again, you’ll need to aggressively call in dibs to the land you want or risk losing out to it early.

You don’t immediately build cities when you claim a territory. It starts as an outpost first, and with enough influence, you can then transform it into a city. This doesn’t mean you must build a city in each territory. You can also play tall instead of wide by making the outposts attach to an existing city, adding in population and the yeilds from the outpost to the main city.

This mechanic is the one I’m liking the most since I’ve already been used to it in Endless Legend. It makes you really consider where do you want to place your city. Unlike Civ, Humankind only works the tiles that have a district plus whatever is adjacent to them. So you need to consider how the city will sprawl to get access to the best yeilds on the territory.

But unlike Endless Legend, Humankind’s city will be actually sprawling even bigger at the late game. In the early game you can be severely punished for erecting too many districts (and attaching too many territories). But by the contemporary era you just plop these districts like it’s nothing.

And lastly, the combat segments will turn the battlefield area into a small turn-based tactical skirmish. It’s much more elaborate than what you see in Civ, and with some smart manoeuvring, you can make an even battle to be in your favour. Though you can auto-resolve it if you’re not into that.

These are interesting twists that makes Humankind a different flavour of Civ. But there is one thing that will require some adjustments to playstyle. The only way to win in Humankind is to get the most fame (score).

There’s no victory by science, culture or domination here. You can end the game by doing the space race, wiping out all the other empires or render the planet inhabitable either by polluting it or sending one too many nukes. But at the end, it’s the score that determines who wins.

After the tutorial, Humankind does a bad job of highlighting how you should earn fame more than other players. Achieving more stars during an era gains you more fame, and strategically, you should consider delaying the era transition just to get an extra few stars in. Also, do you know that the faster you earn a star, the more fame you get? That is not clearly signposted enough in the first few blind rounds I played.

And you know what else is not clearly shown? Other players’ fame level. The fame and score screen is missing a lot of good things they can put for the more competitive players to find the info they need easier. Because the info is there. I finally found that there is a tooltip that appears when you hover slightly below the top left button that shows how much fame and era stars each player has. On turn 300, the end of a normal-length game.

(Though to be fair, you can also see each player’s current fame and era stars through the diplomacy screen.)

Unless it’s a deliberate design decision to not make Humankind a game about winning, I feel like some adjustments in the user experience to highlight the intricacies of earning fame more than other players is needed.

Closing Thoughts

Humankind isn’t a Civ-killer by any stretch. Rather, this is Amplitude bringing their game into Firaxis’ court. As such, Humankind does great things for those wanting a different flavour of historical 4X, that in particular has a lot of the same ingredients that you would only see in Civilization until today.

So is Humankind a contender or a pretender to the Civilization throne? It definitely is a contender, but one that isn’t ushering in a dawn of a new era. And maybe that’s all we need- a fresh face to tackle the historical 4X in this specific manner to keep the king in check. Wait, this is turning the monarchy analogy into a democracy one.

Anyway, I’m not ready to give a final verdict yet (stay tuned for a review after I win more games) but after a solid 30 hours and after getting used to the intricacies of Humankind, the game is really good. And this is only vanilla, expect the game to grow better over time with more DLCs to come.

Reviewed on PC. Review copy purchased by the reviewer

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