‘Humankind’ review: war never changes

A greatest hits collection of 4X strategy tumbles into the same mistakes as the rest of the genre

Humankind, like most of the 4X games – that’s Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate, to save you the Google – it takes inspiration from, is a game about building empires. The difference is, Humankind makes you consider the legacy you leave behind.

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From your first moments as a Neolithic tribe, exploring the land, skirmishing with the other tribes, and even trying to hunt the occasional elephant, you’re constantly thinking about the future. You’ll pick a new culture to transcend into with each era, meaning you could start as the science-driven Babylonians but over time end up embodying the culture of the Medieval British (their farmers provide manufacturing power) before finally, in the contemporary era, settling into a Japanese way of life.

Each culture has their own unique bonus, units and buildings. As you shed your old cultures, you keep the ability to produce their unique units, and you still get benefits from their previous buildings. You can’t build them anymore – they’re in your culture’s past – but they continue to influence how you play.

Game elements also fade in and out – early on you’ll interact with independent tribes, paying them off with influence or gold to become their patron, before either hiring them as mercenaries or using a shedload of influence to just absorb them into your empires. Over time, the ability to hunt animals and interact with these tribes fades away as you start to focus more on the culture of politicking.

Humankind. Image Credit: Amplitude Studios
Humankind. Image Credit: Amplitude Studios

Humankind exudes confidence in the way that it brings fully fleshed out elements for a short time in each game before doing away with them. During your progress through the tech tree you’ll gain the ability to sacrifice members of the population through overwork to finish a building. Later, you’ll progress past that as your researchers discover organised labour, sparing your population from being grist to the construction mill.

Religion is treated similarly. It feels essential in the early game, but eventually you’ll progress past it, either embracing the religion as an antiquity, or setting your culture into Atheism. All of your holy sites and all of your faith generation amounts to nothing as you approach the contemporary era because, hey, religion just isn’t given the same weight anymore.

These are backed up by narrative pop-ups similar to something seen in Hearts Of Iron 4 or Stellaris: narrative missives that help you set the path for the way your society works, whether it’s how you deal with a thief hoarding supplies in your small settlement, or how your leader will deal with fame in the digital age of a huge empire.

Humankind. Image Credit: Amplitude Studios
Humankind. Image Credit: Amplitude Studios

Despite all of these complex systems, it plays out much the same as a standard game of Civ. This shouldn’t be surprising, Humankind is fairly blatantly Civilization, taking cues from the game for a tech tree, UI, and even the way you move your tiny men around to paint the map a more amenable colour. This is no big thing. After the briefest of tutorials I fell back on years of Civ knowledge and found myself able to easily play the game, but if you look at any of these screenshots you could be fooled into thinking you were looking at Civ.

However, it quickly becomes apparent that Humankind has a wider pool of interests than just Firaxis’ series, despite the aesthetic similarities. They mesh together well, but it’s a couple original ideas that impressed me most: the way the game handles cities is stellar, and the way combat is handled keeps fighting interesting regardless of each parties’ technological advances.

It’s a game not just of cities, but of outposts. Outposts will allow you to claim a territory, and can be attached to cities to lend their production to the mothership. Over time, you can then unattach these outposts and turn them into cities of their own.

Humankind. Image Credit: Amplitude Studios
Humankind. Image Credit: Amplitude Studios

The cities are joyous – the first draft of this review I described it as “fucking beautiful”, which I stand by – and the way they slowly emerge is wonderful. Roads slowly link your different outposts and cities together, and my capital city of Babylon had a huge Ziggurat from the Babylonian era that was, in the modern day, flanked by skyscrapers, robotics factories and even planes, lazily floating over the territory from nearby aerodromes and airports.

Building cities involves dropping specific districts within the city limits and then improving them: a market quarter will make you money build upgrades to increase your earning potential, while a garrison will allow throwing down upgrades to let you churn out soldiers, defend yourself and beef up the units you do create.

One of the aspects that doesn’t work well at all is the combat mini-game, which I tried a few times before just clicking auto-resolve. It could just be that I’m bad at it, I’ll admit, but it just feels arcane and confusing.

As with most of these empire builders, things start slow and are way more interesting in the early days when you’re grabbing territory and making big advancements, but slow to a crawl when you’re trying to manage the minutiae of several cities at once. Often, I found I’d set a lot of cities to working on shared municipal projects, lending our combined power to achieve great wonders like the Forgotten City, the Eiffel Tower or even just a satellite that allows me to see ever widening chunks of the map. Partially, this enables you to build huge projects without waiting 100+ turns, but mostly it just means I don’t have to manage each of my 13 cities during a point in the game when I’m more interested in painting the map in my culture’s rather fetching purple colour.

This is Humankind’s major design downfall. The same end of game lethargy sets in each time, and across the five games I played through, I pretty much always tapped out to start fresh around the year 2050. There just wasn’t anything to do that wasn’t fight, smash, win. The numbers get so high as to be meaningless and the game feels like a real stalemate.

Humankind. Image Credit: Amplitude Studios
Humankind. Image Credit: Amplitude Studios

The second area where Humankind is dropping points is that the main game is fairly buggy. I was regularly told that people in an alliance with me were about to win the war against me – or I, them – because the war support was low, and when a pop-up suggested I consider incarcerating Nubian spies during our war, a war we weren’t fighting, I realised there were some bugs around relationships in the game.

Which meant I didn’t take it personally when I got hold of my dearest allies, the Brazillians, and they told me I was barely fit enough to be seen in their presence. I didn’t cry, I just bought some oil and went home to my country-rules Mansion and ate my feelings.

Bugs aside, Humankind is a blast, it’s just a shame that it adhered so closely to the problems of its forebears. Legacies, eh?

Humankind is available on PC and Google Stadia. We played the PC version.

The Verdict

Humankind was an opportunity to do things differently in the 4X genre. As it is, it has some fantastic ideas – city changes, the cultures and the narrative elements all impress – but it falls into the same problem as each of its competitors. The end is too stodgy and too much busywork to make finishing a game worthwhile. Still, until that point you’ll have a blast.

Pros

  • Great city system
  • Interesting narrative beats
  • The game can drastically change in play

Cons

  • Endgame feels stale
  • Combat minigame is pointless
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