Humankind Opens New Doors for 4X Games… If You Can Only Pick the Lock

The latest Amplitude strategy game refreshes the genre after stumbling over a familiar hurdle.

Imagine you go and pick up the hottest new game one day. It costs full price, but has everything you want and you’ve heard good things, so you’re going for it. You load it up, check out the intro, press start on a new game, and… There’s a combination lock to start the game. If you can just solve it, you’ll have a good time! If you don’t, however, you never will. Oh, and you won’t find out if you actually solved it until you start the campaign and play for hours — two or six or 20. It doesn’t tell you which parts of the combination you got wrong until then, either, and only provides vague clues as to which part of the lock is most important.

This sounds like a bad time. It is kind of a bad time. But it’s also how one of the most prominent niches in strategy games, the 4X — “games like Civilization” as shorthand but eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate if you’re fancy — has come to operate. Amplitude’s new entry into the genre, Humankind, is a direct competitor for the Civilization crown. As such it has a lot of great ideas and reasons to recommend it. But it also, like Civ and like the genre increasingly, presents a combination lock to be solved before you actually get to that point

To take a step back and explain: The 4X is built on the idea of taking something small and building it up to dominate the entirety of the game’s setting. In space-based 4X games like Stellaris or Endless Space, you start with a planet just discovering interstellar flight before becoming a galaxy-spanning empire; in a fantasy 4X like Master of Magic, you take a village wizard and have her become the overlord of a fantasy land; and in a historical 4X like Civilization or Humankind, you start with a single tribe that builds a city-state that takes over the entire world throughout the course of human history.

humankind review

That process introduces justifiable questions, which are options presented to players at the start of each new game. How big is that world? How quickly does your city-state progress through time to become a nation-state and an empire? What kind of world is it? How many competitors do you have? And assuming that you, the player, are smarter than your computer opponents, what level of advantage should you give them?

Questions like those form the combination lock I mentioned. Make the world too small and you’re forced to instantly race to the good stuff on the map alongside your competitors. Make it too big and there isn’t enough pressure to provide urgency. Difficulty has the same issues — if there’s a severely limited set of resources, and the AI is buffed at the start of the game, then they’ll have those resources regardless on a smaller map. In which case your game’s over almost instantly. Too many continents and islands, and the campaign will rely on whether the game’s naval movement and combat are any good (a major risk!) but playing on a single Pangaea-like continent makes naval cultures irrelevant. All these choices tie in together; getting any single one wrong can ruin the whole experience. Playing a 4X often means playing a meta-game of figuring out which options unlock an actually enjoyable experience — if there even is one.

The balance, then, is all wrong. I’m not talking about a gun being overpowered in multiplayer, either. It’s the balance between challenge and freedom. And these games are about challenge; if Humankind was simply about development it would be a city-builder. That has its own niche (typically one without multiplayer).

There are solutions here. Some similar grand strategy games like the Total War series or Paradox productions like Crusader Kings have a single map for a single consistent experience where challenges can be balanced. Amplitude’s previous map-based 4X game, Endless Legend, got around the issue with a strong, fairly linear narrative and superb science fantasy aesthetics. Alternatively, developers can construct a single, consistent campaign mode and then allow players to fiddle with options as they see fit. The latter is the delusion the genre is based around — one which I think is slowly killing it. To me, that is actually the extraordinary frustrating combination lock described above.

humankind review

So, regarding Humankind. The bad news is that its default experience is dull, and one that does the game a massive disservice. The good news is that there’s actually a really interesting game underneath that extremely messy first impression. More bad news: It takes hours of work to decipher the code that opens the lock. But the good news is that I did eventually find an answer — something I almost never managed with Civilization 5 or 6.

More specifically, since Humankind is a strategy game that attempts to simulate the entirety of human history, it’s complicated. You’re developing science, industry, agriculture, money, influence, and religion; you acquire specific resources like incense or iron; you move units around the map to explore, defend, or conquer. As one of its big innovations, you can also choose which historical state you lead in each era: like the Egyptians in ancient times, the English in the Medieval period, or the Chinese in our contemporary era. This leads to a situation with a lot of options. It can be frustrating to figure out exactly what the best option is.

The key to solving that is pressure from the game. With the right amount of pressure, the systems all click into place. For example, I finally realized Humankind could be great during one particular run. I had expanded steadily into the mid-game and was met in the center of the map with a pile of resources between our empires by the Babylonians-cum-Haudenosaunee, who had cause to declare war on me.

humankind review

As I started ramping up production of military units, I realized I needed to buy more resources to have the best available. The more I produced, the more money I spent, so that had me start developing cities based on money. But the more I focused on cash and production, the smaller my cities got. As such I had to switch to food, as well. Meanwhile, I’d progressed into a whole new time period, and the war pressure had me pivot to one of the militaristic options in the early modern era, the Poles. It was like a dance: my partner, the AI, pushed me in one direction while I worked with it, pivoted, and moved in a different way. It was a perfect strategy game experience.

The problem is that it was not my first Humankind experience. My initial campaign — the one the game held my hand and guided me to — was the opposite. I was offered three difficulty options with clear indicators that I (someone who’s not a strategy game min-maxer) should pick the middle one. All three difficulties were significantly lower than the one that actually produced a good time. Likewise, there were only a handful of rival empires in that initial game, as opposed to the fully stocked map I gave myself in my successful run. It was a situation that gave me almost no pressure whatsoever — making Humankind’s bevy of systems and options functionally irrelevant.

The combination lock from the start is the attempt to get the game set up in the way that matches your skill and preferences. Too much pressure and it feels like your strategic decisions don’t matter, you’re doomed no matter what. Too little and they don’t matter because you’re always safe and winning. Game speed is also critical. I find Humankind moves through eras a touch too fast for my preference, so I like to play on Slow. That, in turn, creates an entirely new dimension of balancing — one that Humankind actually handles quite successfully. Humankind uses a province system similar to Endless Legend or last year’s Old World that helps control empire expansion through space and time

humankind review

Humankind is sadly also a little buggy and annoying in places that suggest it could have used a bit more development time. It outright crashed a few times for me, especially when alt-tabbing out (no borderless windowed mode?). The crashes make the tutorial reset, as well. Another annoyance. There’s a narrator who wryly describes what’s going on, which is mildly charming the first time. By the tenth you may realize there’s no “off” button. Meanwhile a promising religion system feels half-complete; they don’t even change their names so you’ve got Babylonian Polytheism taking over the world from the start to the end. Nothing is disastrously broken, but the annoyances pile up.

These probably aren’t damning, though. Amplitude has consistently supported its previous games with patches and expansions (Endless Legend is seven years old and still getting DLC). Publisher Sega has a similar track record with series like Total War. I expect bugs will be patched and things like religion will be fleshed out. There are also currently unused buttons in the main menu like maps, suggesting creators will be able to build artisanal maps that might offer specific strategic challenges, which I very much look forward to.

Yet I find myself playing Humankind consistently, always searching for that perfect setup. The Civilization series has gone down a rabbit hole of becoming all about the endgame — of starting a run with a plan and executing. Humankind reintroduces dynamism to the stagnant 4X genre, with pivots in strategic considerations, geography, and empire selection helping a campaign consistently refresh itself. It’s a genre that has desperately needed a refresh, and Humankind succeeds at that… It just might not let you see that.