Humankind Review: Mankind, Redefined
For 30 years, Sid Meier's Civilization series has been the gold standard against which all 4X games that use human history as their setting have been judged. Any game that wants to play in that universe will, whether it wants to or not, end up getting compared to that benchmark.
Amplitude Studios, developers of the Endless games (Endless Legend and Endless Space), finally decided they could do it better. Famous last words potentially, but even if they failed, you'd have to tip your hat to them for the effort.
Well, the effort produced Humankind, and after 60 hours playing it over the course of four days — and having to force myself to sit down and actually write this review rather than play it again — I have to say that Humankind surpasses Civilization as the next great 4X strategy game.
If you're reading this review, you've probably got more than a passing interest in this genre. You probably played Civilization 6, and if you're anything like me, you probably found that game to be a lot of interesting ideas that never quite work right — all before going back to Civ 5 as your go-to on-Earth 4X game.
Humankind takes every one of those interesting ideas "that didn't quite work," figured out how to do them better, and then actually went out and did them better.
Humankind Review: Mankind, Redefined
For one thing, the Districts system — where a tile has a dedicated building put on it for food, production, money, science, or another resource — has been reimagined here. Instead of having every unit of population work on a tile in a central city screen, as has been done for as long as Civ-style games have existed, tile production is uncoupled from that mechanic entirely.
Districts, not pops, produce resources, and they use terrain advantages such that every tile that borders your districts contributes its own base production whether your city has one pop in it or 100.
Furthermore, instead of “place city here and develop it," the game map is divided into provinces, which you build a city into, taking advantage of the province's resources rather than defining a city's useful radius strictly by “three tiles away” logic.
This frees up that population to be used in a completely different way than you might be used to, with city pops augmenting the district production to allow for a bit more specialization, adding a layer of customization to cities without making the decision on how to use a pop too obvious.
Pops are now dedicated to producing one of the game's four core resources —food, industry, money, or science — or you can draft them into your military, losing them in your cities but not then putting a huge drag on your growth. Standing armies are possible in a way they never quite fit in Civ.
Rock of Ages
Humankind also tinkers with the Age system — the progression from a Neolithic tribe up through the Ancient, Classical, Medieval, Early Modern, Industrial, and Contemporary eras that form the broad classification of human progress.
The Neolithic age reminds me of nothing so much as the first water level in Spore, where your little micro-organism collects enough plants or eats enough prey to actually get to the fun part of the game.
It's Humankind's weakest point, but at the same time, it does force you to explore the area around you and cuts off the tendency 4X games have to ignore the first X of “X-Plore”. It's a tutorial without being a tutorial.
In each of the subsequent six ages, you're given far more interesting choices. You can change your culture every time you age up — you can be the Babylonians or Egyptians in the Ancient Age, then tech up to the Achaemenid Persians, hit the Medieval period as the Franks, and so on. Or you can stay with the same culture and gain increased Fame at the expense of losing an additional culture bonus from the new culture that you pick.
Those culture bonuses are cumulative, but on the other hand, the player with the most Fame wins the game at the end, so you want to maximize the amount that you get. It is, like so many other things in this game, an additional layer of strategic depth.
Except when it comes to the Swedes in the endgame. Their science bonus is just OP.
Krieg und Frieden
All of the mechanics around building and teching up are great in a vacuum, but this isn't a city builder, it's a competitive enterprise, whether in single-player or multiplayer.
The diplomacy system here is shockingly well-executed; unlike in Civ, where diplomacy is largely conducted with an AI whose default state is “kill anything that it thinks it can win a war against”, the computer players are programmed to recognize that even if they could win, going to war is not always in their best interest.
That's not to say they're all pushovers. The AI's a lot more likely to bend to your will if the relative strength of your armies tends toward “1987 Mike Tyson vs. Jimmy from South Park,” and you could wake up in the morning, conquer their empire, and make it home in time for lunch.
But the game also does a much better job of taking into consideration like-minded ideologies, cultural spread, and religion; AI opponents are far less likely to attack someone they see as kin rather than as natural rivals.
Best of all, the game distills this all down to a number called “War Support.” In peacetime, you can't declare war with a War Support below 80 without incurring a penalty to your effectiveness in that war. In wartime, that number steadily goes down and gets modified by wins and losses in battle, and the first to reach zero is forced to surrender.
In other words, it solves a problem in Civ that has plagued it since the first game. The "We're best friends with trade links and common enemies, but you're on my border and I have two more units than you so WAR!” behavior from the AI has finally been snuffed out.
And if you do go to war? There's a neat little tactics game that comes with every battle where you actually get a measure of control over where your units are placed, how they fight, and whether they use flanking and other advantages to punch above their weight. It's not just the normal higher base strength equation. While it's not exactly Total War in its depth, it does reduce the amount of RNG frustration. It's a nice touch.
Sieges are also especially well-done since you can actually reduce a city's number of defenders. That's if you're willing to wait out the AI and can survive either a relief army arriving or your own nation losing the will to fight from the as the War Support meter slowly ticks down.
Of course, no game is perfect, and Humankind does have its flaws.
For one thing, there are some nagging bugs, from a tendency of the game to hang during combat sequences to some leftover placeholder text in a couple of the game's choice-card events. On top of that, the game really doesn't like it when you try to either load a save or start a new game without quitting and restarting first. You'll see a pretty big performance hit when that happens.
Also, perhaps the most annoying bug of all is the textures don't load right on either your avatar or the diplomatic avatars for the AI. You'll frequently be talking to people who have no body or no head but have their clothing and hairstyle, and it's jarring. Hopefully, Amplitude will fix that stuff, but in 60 hours of play, I never encountered a bug that outright stopped the game, nor did I hit a crash-to-desktop.
But Humankind's biggest flaw right now is that various strategies are massively unbalanced. There is such an overwhelming advantage given to players who choose builder-focused growth paths that in my various playthroughs, every time I played as a builder tree, the game was incredibly easy. Every time I played any other strategy, the result ranged from frustrating to outright unwinnable.
Choice is an illusion. Either you out-produce your opponents or you lose.
But you know what? I'm not going to hold that against Humankind, because every strategy game ever made has a “right way” to play. And I don't just mean video games. Not for nothing have libraries-worth of books been written about classic board games like Chess and Go outlining the optimum strategy for each.
Sure, it's a shame that a game that wants to believe that you have infinite choices ultimately reduces to one choice being vastly better than the others because of the simple reality of how 4X games work. But that's not a mark against Humankind. It's a mark against the 4X genre.
Humankind Review — The Bottom Line
- Redefines the 4X genre in a way that sets a whole new standard
- Scalable difficulty will satisfy both new players and 4X veterans alike
- Mixing and matching civilization bonuses makes for varied builds
- Isn't balanced very well at launch
- Some playstyles are favored over others by mechanics
- Some annoying launch bugs make for an occasionally choppy experience, especially in combat
- Earlygame tends to be a bit of a slog before
Put simply, Humankind took everything that Civilization 6 got wrong, fixed it, added some new ideas to the genre, and ended up producing the best 4X game I've played since Civilization 5 way back in 2011 — which, according to Steam, is the ninth-most-played game in my entire library at over 400 hours.
This is the new standard for 4X historical games. It is an absolute must-play for fans of the genre and has finally knocked Firaxis off its throne as the king of the hill.
[Note: SEGA provided the copy of Humankind used for this review.]