We knew we were going to see the new game by Amplitude at Gamescom because that's what was written in our schedule, but we didn't know what it was going to be until we got there. Our initial thought was that it was most likely a continuation of the studio's Endless series, which had taken the French developer to the stars (Endless Space and its sequel), to a fantasy realm (Endless Legend), and into the depths of roguelike design (Dungeon of the Endless). What greeted us upon arrival in Cologne was altogether more surprising, and in the best possible way.
Humankind is a history-spanning 4X and, on the face of it, the game isn't a hundred miles away from genre-leader Civilization, at least in terms of visual style and overall theme. However, thematic similarities aside, it appears as though the studio has come up with a number of ingenious ways to differentiate itself from the games by Firaxis, and we were thoroughly impressed by the hands-off demo we received in a crowded room in Cologne.
We're going fast forward to the end to get to one of the main differences between this and games that have walked down a similar path in the past. In other 4X games, driven by your need to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate, the civ that wins is often the civ with the pointiest or the heaviest stick. We've seen other win conditions thrown into the mix in the past, with cultural and technological victories offered as viable alternatives, but Amplitude rips up the old rule book and offers a completely new way to claim victory: fame. You see, Humankind isn't about the endpoint, it's about how the player leaves their mark on the world and on history itself. Fame is the measure of success now, and in a refreshing twist, even if you limp towards the end of the game with your best days behind you, if they were truly glorious, you may still have done enough during those halcyon times to secure enough fame to win the game.
During the demo, we started out watching the devs moving a Neolithic tribe about the terrain - which looks lovely by the way - looking for a perfect place to put down some roots. It's not long, however, before you're making decisions that will go on to shape your burgeoning civilisation, and the first tech choices included 'flint shaping', 'plant lore', and 'wattle and daub'. Once you've picked one, you're on your path to choosing your first cultural influences, but in Humankind it's not a case of starting with a defined faction, rather you shape it by the decisions you make as you play.
And here's where it gets really interesting. As the game progresses, instead of sticking with your one civilisation, you can change it. As the scenario evolves, you're given the chance to redirect the course of your cultural journey, and as you move through the eras you can blend your culture with others if you want, changing the emphasis from militaristic expansion to trade, for example. Each culture gets three things - a faction trait, a special building, and a military unit - but as you evolve you keep your old faction traits, which essentially layers in new features on top of each other. The idea is the reflect the melting pot nature of the real world because as the developers pointed out during the presentation, all cultures are defined not by one dominant and eternal influence, but by interactions (and by that, we mean trade, cultural exchange and, of course, war) with other cultures.
If you've played Endless Legend the setup of the map will be fairly familiar, at least in the sense that cities are fundamental to your game. Regions are defined by their cities, and you can't drop multiple cities close to each other, rather you're limited to one per region (although you can drop outposts in unclaimed regions). That said, your cities can and will sprawl, but what's really cool about this is that you can, as you move through the eras, have cities that are made up of different cultural influences. It's not clear how much or little you can blend these different styles, but it looks like a refreshing spin on a fairly well-worn formula.
The Gamescom demo fast-forwarded us through the eras, and we saw an evolution from Roman into Khmer, with new units and buildings seen around the city, before later they took onboard Chinese traits before it transitioned into a Germanic culture - we were at Gamescom, after all. We also got to see a huge sprawling city filled with different building types, and it took up a big chunk of the map (naturally, in the demo they showed a map that resembled Europe).
With this being a historically themed 4X, there's science to research, regions to explore and exploit for resources, and wars to wage. Interestingly, the topography of the map has an important role, and terrain has different elevations that will play a role during combat. Speaking of which, Amplitude confirmed that in Humankind players will have much more tactical control of their battles, and the geography of the land around you will play an important part in your strategising. We didn't see a whole lot of this part of the game during the demonstration, but we're certainly intrigued to see how this side of things pans out.
While painting the map your colour might be one way to secure victory, as mentioned before, fame is the aim of the game. It's all about leaving a mark on history through your actions and adapting to the situation by assimilating new cultural traits into your own. That said, you can, if you want, keep your original culture, but it will be difficult as you get no new abilities, however, you would get more fame for playing with those self-imposed restrictions. Throw in a bunch of sandbox settings that let you adjust the game to your liking (with a mid-sized map and a low number of players resulting in a potentially succinct 6-10 hour playtime) and you've got a range of options to explore. Simply put, it sounds like there will be plenty of different ways to pursue fame and glory as we chase victory.
Impressed as we were, we're going to have to wait and see how this bold new vision plays out, with Humankind still some way off. It'll land at some point next year, although the how and why is still being kept under wraps. What we can say is that Amplitude surprised us with this new game; not only by moving away from the Endless series that has defined the studio up until this point but also by the way that the team is exploring the historical 4X genre and bringing new ideas to the table.