No one remains the same forever. We all change over our lifetimes, becoming slightly different people even if the original core remains the same. The person you are now is different from who you were 5, 10, or 15 years ago. When you look back at old Twitter and Facebook posts, you probably cringe a bit.
That evolution happens in society as well. While certain facets of culture persist in the United States, the overall culture has changed over the past 300 odd years. And yet, when you play a game like Civilization, you pick a nation that remains the same over your entire playthrough. The technology and the civics change, but Civilization 6's Teddy Roosevelt in 1600 BC looks and acts the same as the Rough Rider in 1985.
Humankind from Amplitude Studios is tackling this problem head on. No longer will players pick a single civilization and guide them throughout history. Instead, Humankind lets you choose a starting culture, but as you move between each of the six eras, you'll choose another culture. This represents the evolution of your culture overall, making it a mix of your entire line of choices. Amplitude touts 10 cultures across six different eras, offering a total of 1 million potential culture combinations.
Humankind narrative director Jeff Spock says the choice was a reflection of how the team viewed the world around them, pointing to his own experience as an American living in France. "I'm an American who's been living in France for 25 years and look at my kids, what a melting pot they are," says Spock. "I think most of the nations of the world are like that. We are the sum of all these peoples or DNA strands that came before us. Philosophically, we wanted to do a game that reflected the richness."
An added benefit of not choosing a single culture is that players won't be pushed toward a single victory condition. In Civilization 6 for example, picking Harald Hardrada means that you need to focus primarily on a strong navy, which means you're likely aiming for the military victory condition. In Humankind, while your starting culture may determine your initial focus, as you move through the era, further culture choice gives you ways to adapt to the current realities of your game. Each culture falls into seven broad categories: Industrialist, Agrarian, Militarist, Scientist, Expansionist, Merchant, and Aesthete. In the demo I played, picking the Babylonians means you probably want to focus on Science since they have bonuses in that area. And that trait carries forward through the eras.
Your digital melting pot will be reflected in the visual composition of your cities. Your starting culture determines what your city center looks like, and that style will carry forward throughout each era. Each culture also has a unique city quarter, like the Egyptian Pyramid, which boosts Industry and Influence. (They also have a unique unit.) These "emblematic quarters" don't change with the era. By the end of a game of Humankind, your cities will visually reflect your choices in addition to any gameplay bonuses you may have gained. "When you see the different quarters you've built, based on the different cultures you had as you evolve through the game, you have this very visual, very tactile image of what you played and what you did," says Spock. "The farmland and all the sort of generic housing that will change with the era that will change with the culture, but you'll still have these emblematic, clear images of the steps you went through to be where you are."
Humankind is the result of years spent rethinking the 4X genre. To Spock, each game in the studio's history has been preparing it for Humankind. Endless Space was the starting point, because Amplitude didn't have to worry about terrain in space. Endless Legend added terrain into the mix, and Endless Space 2 was about adding more complexity to the mechanics. Every game was a different evolution in the studio itself, leading to this point.
"[Co-founder and creative director Romain de Waubert de Genlis], who's the principal founder now, has always been a history buff. I'm a huge history buff. It's something we've always kind of dreamed of, but we knew we weren't ready when we founded the studio to make that right off the bat," says Spock. "For us, it's kind of a natural evolution. It's the summit we wanted to attain, but we didn't start there. We worked our way up step by step. We wanted to shake things up a little, change some of the assumptions, change some of the conventions, come at it from a different angle. It's just always been a dream project."
The Beginning of Time
The demo for Humankind only includes two eras for play. Every player begins with a single tribe in the Neolithic era, in which you have to hunt animals or find Curiosities on the hexagonal map to proceed to the Ancient Era. While deer are easy prey, there are also more-difficult mammoths to take on. Choosing to hunt a deer, I'm thrown into Humankind's tactical combat system.
Combat unfolds on your current terrain with all of your current units. In the limited region, there's a section controlled by you and one controlled by your opponent, which is shrouded in a fog of war. Battles in Humankind are won by either overwhelming your foe, or holding a base location on their side of the map. You have to take elevation and cover into account, using forests to hide or steep mountains to protect yourself. It's an evolution and expansion of Endless Legend's combat, albeit turn-based instead of real-time.
"We worked a lot on the Endless Legend's battle system and I personally like it a lot, but we had so much community feedback requesting full tactical control," says Spock. "We were very leery about it for a long time, but we just heard it constantly. [T]hat was entirely a reaction to community demand."
Once I made short work of the deer and found a few curiosities, it was time to head into the Ancient Era and make my first culture choice. The demo was limited to four of the ten choices players would normally have: the Babylonians (Scientist), the Egyptians (Industrialist), the Harappans (Agrarian), and the Mycenaeans (Militarist). I'm a farmer, not a fighter, so I chose the Harappans; my starting location on the map was ringed by rivers, and the Harappans' Legacy trait boosts food and industry near a river. Combined with the Canal Network emblematic quarter, it felt like the best choice to utilize what was in front of me.
Humankind carries forward the same regional mechanics as Endless Legend: one city per region. The regions themselves are carved out when the maps are procedurally generated, indicated by a dotted white line. It's a board game style of empire management, where regional control is more important than just having a ton of cities. Cities automatically benefit from the tiles adjacent to the city center, drawing in Food, Industry, Money, or Science automatically. The original starting location I wanted to choose was actually in another region that overall wasn't great in terms of resources, so I relocated.
This model of city management is akin to a board game, and somewhat of a mental stumbling block for those who've played modern Civilizations. For Amplitude, it's about offering meaningful choices. "We wanted to have the map itself be one of the most important parts of the game. From that point of view it's board gamey. You minimize the number of things the player has to manage. It can still spin out of control in a large enough map with few enough players, but we wanted to give the player more tools to be making large, interesting decisions constantly, rather than tons of tiny little decisions," explains Spock.
From Endless Space 2, Amplitude carries forward the idea of the outpost: when you take control of a region, you can either found a city, or leave an outpost. Outposts allow you to exploit a region. While I found my capital city of Harappa on the edge of the mountain, I quickly established another outpost in the nearby region where I was going to originally place my city. Outposts can be tied directly to cities, sending their spoils to their patron city, or turned into full cities. Over the course of my demo, I found I didn't miss having a mass of smaller cities to load over, instead carefully managing two cities and a host of outposts. There are drawbacks to such a choice though.
"You can merge a couple of cities across a region and make a sort of a megalopolis. That's maybe simpler management, but on the other hand if somebody takes your city they've taken a huge chunk of your empire. So there's a risk there," says Spock. "So, it's still part of a meta-strategic decision-making process, but we think it adds a lot of a lot of interest from both narrative and strategic decision point of view."
Another major change in Humankind is moving away from specific victory conditions. Instead, as you play the game, you'll gain Era Stars by completing objectives in each era, based on the seven cultural affinities. Gaining an Era Star adds to your overall Fame score, and the winner of a game of Humankind is the civilization with the most fame.
The rest of my demo played out like any 4X game. Researching technologies, constructing quarters and historic wonders, and planning out the shape of my cities. I stayed out of trouble, despite the Mycenaeans wandering around my territory making rather threatening gestures. As you make choices on the shape of your cities, you'll occasionally get the option to make Civics choices. These firm up the ideology of your culture: by building enough soldiers, I gained the Army Composition civic. My choice-between Conscripts and Professional Soldiers-not only imparted bonuses for my soldiers directly, but also placed me on the wide Civics board. This placement and the placement of other cultures, determines if they'll get along with you or not.
The demo I played ended with the transition to the Classical Era. I could see some of the next culture choices, including the Greeks and the Carthaginians, but I couldn't choose one without ending the demo. My final Fame score for my first run came to 942m, which I was told was pretty high for the era, but I don't know if the developer was merely stroking my ego. As if to confirm my suspicions about my own playstyle, my second, warmongering run with the Mycenaeans was nowhere near successful. I ended with 638 Fame, despite fighting everyone I could and even taking over a Babylonian city.
Still I walked away with a firm handle on Humankind's take on territory control and a bit of hopeful intrigue about the overall cultural system. The latter is really key to this game, so it was a shame that it wasn't available to really dig into during this demo.
Continuing To Evolve
There's still a lot of work that needs to be put into Humankind. Amplitude Studios announced that starting in early July, the game was going into the developer's OpenDev program, akin to Early Access. For now, it knows the shape of Humankind, thanks in part to previous 4X titles, but needs to ensure that everything is going to work out well.
There are a few open questions though. For one, Amplitude wants to support modding, as that's a strong part of any 4X community, but Spock wouldn't commit to modding on a specific time table. "Modding is something that we always look at in all of our games," he tells me. "You know with the 4X community it's something that they demand rather vociferously, shall we say? Right now, it's a thing we're working on, but it's one of these things under the title of 'cool stuff we'll talk about later when we're ready to.'"
The studio also has no clue what the shape of the DLC will be yet. Each of the previous Endless games have had DLC characterized by a single additional race and other mechanics. I explain to Spock that that model doesn't seem to work for Humankind's cultural system and he concurs.
"Yeah, we have an awful lot of ideas for the DLCs. I mean, you can imagine how many cultures didn't make it into the game. It could be geographic groupings, or it could be era groupings. There's some there's some geographic areas that we feel like we missed in the first 60 cultures. So we're certainly looking at adding those in as DLC or as just free content," he says.
"There's maybe some additional systems that we were concerned wouldn't be polished enough for release. So I put them to the side and those will come out later," he continues. "But I think in a game where you start with 60 cultures and the cultures have straightforward and simple representation, there's a lot of building blocks we can add to that with other cultures."
The point is that Humankind has a firm core, but the rest of the game is still evolving. Like the cultural system that underpins the game, Amplitude is looking to get feedback from players and shift the direction of the game as needed. That focus on change and evolution is how Humankind will make its mark on 4X history, especially with the recent Civilization 6 Frontier Pass and upcoming competitors like Old World and Crusader Kings 3. As someone who absolutely loved Endless Legend, I can't wait to spend more time with Humankind and see what kind of melting pot I'll end up with.