Feature Article

Making History In Humankind Makes 4X Less Confusing

We played about four hours of an early era of Humankind, which uses its "Fame" system to give you clear goals and lots of paths to victory.

The nature of 4X strategy games can often make them unwieldy and hard to understand for players who aren't immersed in the genre. Part of that is the scope--in most 4X games (the genre name standing for explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate), you're growing and managing a whole civilization, often throughout its entire history. That's your mandate in Amplitude Studios' upcoming title Humankind, too, but one of the more remarkable things about the game is how it guides you through the process of creating a civilization that'll make its mark on history.

Humankind will remind players of other similar titles, most notably the Civilization series, in that you play humans rising from early nomadic societies to explorers of outer space. You'll do all the usual 4X stuff--raise cities, gather resources, research new technologies, and build armies to either protect yourself from other civilizations or conquer them. But unlike other 4X games, Humankind includes a system that provides you with constant, short-term goals that keep you on track at any given moment, while also helping you get a big picture idea of how you want to build your society.

We recently got a chance to play about four hours of Humankind, starting in one of its earliest eras of history. It gave us a sense of the game's city building, resource management, and combat, although a lot of systems--diplomacy, religion, trade--aren't in the game yet. As any 4X game, it maintains the complexity that fans of the genre expect when it comes to planning and developing their civilizations, but Humankind also feels more approachable than most, thanks to a specific system called "Fame."

In Humankind, your goal is less about being the last nation standing, dominating world religions, or being the richest nation ever. Instead, your goal is to become the most famous nation by achieving a series of milestone goals. Your Fame might be raised by creating wonders of the world, being the first to discover a key landmark like Mount Everest, or developing a key technology like written language. Each era has a list of goals called World Deeds that award Fame points when you're the first to accomplish them. But in each era, you're also working to earn Era Stars, which track your development as a society. You get stars for all kinds of things, like scientific research, military prowess, growing your population, and building cities and infrastructure. Stars also add to your Fame, and when you earn enough of them, you can advance to the next era and evolve your civilization further.

World Deeds and Era Stars combine to give you an actionable set of goals to achieve at all times. You still need a big-picture goal of where you want your civilization to wind up by the end of the game, but you can frame those plans and decisions in much smaller choices, like whether you want to increase your cities' production of food to earn Era Stars for population, or amp up their science production to get stars for researching more technologies more quickly.

Being the first to discover natural wonders is one of the many things that can earn you Fame in Humankind.
Being the first to discover natural wonders is one of the many things that can earn you Fame in Humankind.

For players who only dabble in 4X games or are newer to the genre, the simpler goals of the Fame system gives them a handle to grasp as they learn the ropes. And as studio head Romain de Waubert de Genlis explained, Fame is a way through which Amplitude is trying to immerse you in the experience of creating a whole civilization.

"Fame is one of the elements that, for me, would help in the immersion in the sense that we want you to feel like a historian, or a child opening a history book, and reading about these amazing histories that happened in real life a long time ago," de Waubert de Genlis told GameSpot. "They were so amazing, they were so famous, that we still are discussing these feats today, whether they're considered the infamous Attila, or whether they're more famous as Attila the Great. Sometimes it depends on which side of history you are on. Sometimes some people will believe that Alexander maybe wasn't infamous, and others believe that he was famous. So it also depends on when you look back a bit. It's how much did you mark history, and to feel like you are writing that history, and you want to mark your path."

The Fame system also provides players with clear, achievable, satisfyingly challenging paths to victory that don't rely on conquering. Though lots of 4X games offer a variety of ways to play and develop a civilization or empire, many matches often seem to devolve into contests of who has the biggest army and can ravage everyone else.

The Humankind demo, on the other hand, gave a sense that there are plenty of ways to play the game that don't rely on military might.

"For me, the way I play 4X is, I love to be able to create my empire," de Waubert de Genlis said. "I don't want to attack people. I just want to make a lot of science, make a lot of commerce, make friends, explore the world, and I want to be able to win like that. And that is very important in Humankind as well. That's always been important to us, to try to find ways to make the game very challenging in all the parts, very interesting to think of strategies about economy, about science, about diplomacy, and to allow you to win that way. And for us, of course, all of that will fit back into the Fame, but it's because you played that way."

Evolving your civilization through the eras by choosing new cultures allows you to stack different benefits that synergize, or change your society's focuses to adapt to changing situations.
Evolving your civilization through the eras by choosing new cultures allows you to stack different benefits that synergize, or change your society's focuses to adapt to changing situations.

Humankind supports your decisions about how you want to develop your civilization through its other major system: cultures. Each time you advance to a new era, you evolve your civilization by choosing a new historical culture, which is geared toward a specific affinity like science, agriculture, or martial strength. Cultures all have unique units and buildings, and they stack on top of one another--each time you add a culture, you keep everything you had before, as well. That allows you to create synergies between your cultures to reach your goals, or to make big shifts in your approach if the situation changes from one era to the next.

We only had access to one culture in the early going of the game, but since each one has a specific affinity, you can choose cultures that fit the playstyle and goals you're going for. We tried two runs through the first era of the game, one focusing on science, the other on agriculture, and both were equally viable and interesting.

But although you don't have to take a militaristic approach in Humankind, you definitely can. When we did mix it up with other civilizations, we got a glimpse of Humankind's combat system, which has a depth similar to what's seen in other Amplitude games, like Endless Space 2.

Pitting two armies against each other isn't just a matter of positioning them on adjoining hexes and watching them clash swords. When you attack another force or they attack you, Humankind splits into a separate combat system that's almost like a mini-game within the game. A unit you move around the map might include several forces stacked on top of one another, and in combat, you spend time deploying them across the battlefield, which spans multiple hexes. Battles take place over three rounds of combat in a turn, but as armies grow larger and more complex, battles might span several turns, with players bringing in more units as reinforcements.

Cities can be huge and sprawling as you continue to build them out and take advantage of resources throughout your claimed territory.
Cities can be huge and sprawling as you continue to build them out and take advantage of resources throughout your claimed territory.

How you deploy your forces means that using terrain to your advantage and navigating battlefields becomes a big part of warfare in Humankind, de Waubert de Genlis said. If a battle is taking place near a river, you might have to work to be sure your forces are positioned on the correct side or risk being separated. High ground might give your forces an advantage. You might lure enemies into traps, or win a battle with a smaller force than your enemy because you made better use of the terrain.

"I love the fact that when you trigger a battle, you can choose where the battle happens," de Waubert de Genlis explained. "And if you're not happy, if you feel that it's not the right place, you can wait a bit longer to attack, very much what happened in real life, as well when the choice of the battlefield was key to victory in many, many battles."

There's a lot more to Humankind, with the demo only scratching the surface of many of the systems, like religion and commerce. But despite the complexity of Humankind matching other 4X games, it seems that Amplitude's ideas for putting new twists on the genre will also create pathways for new players--like rewarding playstyles that take approaches other than achieving military might, exploring and remixing history, or telling a unique story through the pursuit of Fame.

How it will all come together over the course of many eras and cultures remains to be seen--we'll have to wait a while too, as Amplitude is set to release the game on PC in 2021. But at least in the beginnings of human history in Humankind, things look promising.

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philhornshaw

Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw has worked as a journalist for newspapers and websites for more than a decade and has covered video games, technology, and entertainment for nearly that long. A freelancer before he joined the GameSpot team as an editor out of Los Angeles, his work appeared at Playboy, IGN, Kotaku, Complex, Polygon, TheWrap, Digital Trends, The Escapist, GameFront, and The Huffington Post. Outside the realm of games, he's the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero's Guide to Glory. If he's not writing about video games, he's probably doing a deep dive into game lore.

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