We could be about to enter a golden age for historical grand strategy games. Paradox recently published Imperator: Rome and Crusader Kings III is on the way. Mohawk Games just released an early access version of Old World, and Civilization VI is in great shape after two major expansions and continued support. And then there's Amplitude Studios, the French developer currently working hard on Humankind, a new 4X that could turn out to be the best of the bunch.
I recently had the chance to spend the entire morning playing the game, and after concluding the sixty-turn demo, I came away impressed and eager for "just one more turn". It's still not finished yet the signs are good, although my positive impression was no doubt helped by the fact that the set-up was quite appealing to me as a fan of the 'eXplore' part of the 4X experience; the early game when you take those first tentative steps and establish yourself.
The demo of Humankind points to a game that plays around with some familiar themes, yet it examines them with fresh eyes. Perhaps the biggest innovation offered by Amplitude's new game is the blending of cultures. In Humankind, players are invited to adopt new cultural traits as they move through the game's many ages (with up to a million overall variations possible, apparently). Rather than changing the entire direction of your burgeoning civilisation, new ideas are added to the mix and give you new options in line with advancing technologies and cultural shifts. I didn't get much of an opportunity to explore this aspect of the game, instead, I focused on the first age and doing as much as possible within the confines of the ancient era.
All press in attendance were given sixty turns to explore the map and earn as many points as possible in the process, and I used my time to expand my capital as quickly as I could, building infrastructure and increasing productivity until later on when I was able to turn militaristic and plunder my nearest neighbours, the Babylonians. Playing as Ancient Egypt, I devoted as much energy as possible to enhancing Memphis. This approach only worked to a point and eventually, I had to hire some muscle and send them round to relieve the folks next door of their finest possessions.
You can expand your borders in a couple of ways. Obviously, I've just described one, and capturing territory is as simple as moving your troops in and then clearing out any resistance that you encounter along the way, but you can also grab unclaimed land by setting up an outpost. Eventually, once you've got enough money, you can link these outlying territories to your cities and then start improving them, which is exactly what I did to my good friends the Babylonians, who must've cursed my name to their heathen gods as my army snatched up all our bordering lands before eventually ransacking their facilities. Doing so gave me the cash I needed to complete some important builds and hire in a few more troops, at which point I had the wind in my sails and it was just a case of rolling over the second faction on the map.
The whole opening section of the game might have been turn-based, but there was a fluidity to the experience that makes the world map feel alive. Building your ancient empire feels organic as you swallow up local lands and begin exploiting the resources nearby. Interestingly, unlike other games in the same genre, you don't need to invest in a settler-allegory to strike out and found a new city - instead, you can found a new a settlement with any unit and it grows slowly over time, gradually becoming more connected to your cities as you support and invest in their development. Of course, if you pour money into resources far away from home, your hold over them won't be very strong - unless you leave a garrison, and can swallow the associated costs of doing so - but that goes both ways and it's possible to take a small fighting force and plunder key locations if they're unprotected.
When two armies come together the studio's distinct take on 4X combat comes to the fore, and things seem to be more nuanced than in past games, with mini-tactical battles once again taking place on hexagonal tiles. Early game combat was mostly 1v1 battles between my hunting party and giant deer that patrolled the woods nearby but by the end the demo I had one four-unit army and another three-unit supporting force, with chariots darting around, archers at the back, and warriors getting up close and personal. When these guys came up against similarly sized armies, there seemed to be room for tactical manoeuvring during the three-turn battles, although this part of the game is still a work-in-progress.
Much like past Amplitude games, there's a map overlay that lets you survey resources (FIMS: Food, Industry, Money, Science) and make informed decisions when positioning your improvements, and there are lots of additions to potentially make as you specialise your cities. By the end of the demo, I had several and they were productive enough that they were able to make improvements and train new units very quickly indeed. That meant a lot of upkeep, and once I had worked through most of the ancient era tech, there were so many possible improvements to make that it was a lot to take in.
While my growing empire was bustling by the end, it felt like it grew organically. By building monuments and founding religions I earned points towards a final score that neatly illustrated my progress. I didn't get the highest score but I was pretty close, mostly thanks to my late game aggression. Eventually, 90 per cent of the world map was painted my colour, a pleasing sight as always, while zooming in revealed plenty of nuanced detail to admire thanks to all the additions and enhancements that I had developed alongside everything that I had wrestled from my neighbours. The whole thing has an understated, painterly style that looks elegant but is also easy to read and understand. You can tell that this isn't Amplitude's first rodeo.
As you've no doubt surmised by now, I'm very intrigued by Humankind. While it's got steep competition and there's still polish to apply, there's already plenty to like about this engaging and thoughtful historical 4X. And don't forget, we haven't even seen anywhere near the full extent of the game's unique mechanic, which sees your civilisation evolve through the ages, taking on the traits of new cultures as you expand your influence - could that be Amplitude's ace in the hole?
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