Think of Humankind as Civilization on shuffle. Amplitude Studios takes Sid Meier’s epochal strategy game about guiding hairless apes from hitting rocks with bones to hitting Mars with rockets, and lets you remix the tunes of history like a cultural DJ. Want to play as the French, but build Big Ben as a wonder? No problem. Fancy finding out what the Temple Of Artemis would look like if it were erected beside Egyptian pyramids? The answer is ‘really weird’, but go for it. How about swapping the ancient Greeks for medieval England when you enter a new era? We’re not entirely sure why you’d want to, since medieval England was awful, but you can.
It’s a tantalising prospect – the ability to create not only your own timeline, but your own culture. Yet while civilisational mixology may seem a grand idea, the results aren’t as exciting as they sound. What remains is a pleasant historical strategy that nonetheless struggles to step out of Civilization’s shadow.
In contrast to humanity’s actual evolution, Humankind is at its most divergent at the outset. You don’t choose a faction to play as; all in-game factions (known as ‘empires’) emerge from prehistory as nomadic tribespeople. The Neolithic is an era of exploration as your tribe scrambles across the map, battling wild animals and discovering natural wonders, all in a quest to earn five ‘era stars’ and found your first settlement.
It’s a breezy and entertaining first act, one that lets you examine the exquisitely detailed topography before you smear buildings all over it. Yet the introduction’s simple pleasures belie the choices and competition already occurring in the background. Being the first tribe to put down roots gives you carte blanche to select from Humankind’s suite of cultures. That said, more fastidious explorers may find better sites for breaking ground, boasting more fertile soil or crucial resources such as copper and wild horses.
This tension between speed and thoroughness defines the trajectory of the game. Once you hit the Ancient era, progressing to all subsequent eras now involves earning seven era stars, gained in various ways from expanding your cities to destroying enemy units. Crucially, being first to the space age does not guarantee victory. There are more than seven of those stars to earn, and they do more than simply advance your empire. Victory is primarily determined by another resource: fame. There are several ways to earn this, such as building cultural wonders, but your main source of fame is those era stars. Consequently, you’re torn between lingering in each era long enough to boost your fame and ensuring you don’t get outpaced by the competition.
Humankind excels at presenting you with such delicate balancing acts. Cities are the engines of your empire, producing food to grow your population, industry to speed up construction, gold for trade and various other functions, and science for speeding up tech research. Production in all such areas can be boosted by constructing relevant districts, but these districts reduce your city’s stability, leading to more chaotic story events and, at critically low levels, civil unrest that can destroy cities from within.
City building is the most satisfying element of Humankind. Beyond your production districts is an array of other buildings such as harbours, stability-enhancing garrisons, and hamlets that boost productivity in your empire’s more distant corners. Each civilisation also has a unique building type, such as the Polish Barbican, an imposing fortress that increases city defence, and the Celtic Nemoton, a sacred grove that provides food and religious bonuses. These remain unchanged as you swap eras, becoming historical landmarks as your clay huts evolve into brick houses and glass skyscrapers.
Cities can be enormous, too. As the centuries pass, they spread across entire continents, absorbing outposts and even other cities as they grow. There is a practical side to this. Merging cities removes them from your city cap, letting you found or conquer further cities. But merged cities also incur a stability penalty.
Humankind rarely gives you anything for free.
Watching your cities grow is delightful, which is fortunate given Humankind’s relative weakness elsewhere. Research is a mindless procession through the technologies, to the point where the tech tree spends most of its time reduced to a sidebar. Diplomacy is similarly basic, while religion feels like an afterthought. Combat fares better, boasting a host of intriguing features that make larger battles engrossing (see ‘Fighting stance’). Sadly, other civilisations are generally conflict-averse, only offering a robust military challenge when you crank up the difficulty.
These issues would be less noticeable if Humankind’s standout feature – the ability to mix cultures – actually stood out. To begin with, the individual cultures aren’t radically distinct. Cultural nuances are mainly consigned to abstract states, while empires lack Civilization’s recognisable leaders, with you creating your own avatar instead. Moreover, the fundamental premise of blending cultures is somewhat misleading. A culture’s legacy only carries over in the stat bonuses provided by its unique structures. There’s no ability to, say, choose a trait from a culture that stacks across the course of the campaign.
Humankind isn’t lacking in competence. This is a decent historical strategy with some of the best city building outside of dedicated games such as Cities: Skylines. But it would benefit from greater confidence in its central ideas; rather than seeking to ape
Civilization, it could be more inventive. This is, after all, what makes humanity such a successful species. Well, that and opposable thumbs.
Being the first tribe to put down roots gives you carte blanche to select from Humankind’s suite of cultures