You start Humankind as a nomadic tribe in the Neolithic era. The gorgeous wilderness around you holds little pockets of treasure—a resource deposit here, a volcanic pool there. As I move my tribe across the map I'm rewarded for discovering the Great Blue Hole, a circular underwater ravine that hosts "sharks to gobies to angelfish". I'm already discovering wonders of the world, and I haven't even built my first settlement yet.
Amplitude's strategy games have been getting better and better since the studio formed in 2011. The Endless Space series introduced some truly bizarre factions to the space 4X formula, but Humankind owes more to the studio's fantasy game, Endless Legend. Humankind has many similar features, in the way that your cities grow district by district, and the way that battles take place across multiple hexes in a minigame that asks you to make tactical decisions to hopefully outwit the AI—more than just two hexes rolling dice against each other. Though Endless Legend is set in a colourful world of high fantasy races, Humankind is a more ambitious project. The stakes seem higher when you're playing as some of the most famous cultures in human history.
Founder and creative head Romain de Waubert describes Humankind's aspirational nature. "I was reading history books as a child and imagining huge empires," he says. "I still want to see Alexander the Great and his conquest of Persian India, or the Mongol empire, the Spanish empire. All these things are incredible and yes, Spain's still there thank god, but it's not this huge empire, and they still make us dream, whether they were famous or infamous—because not everything was good."
Instead of stepping into the shoes of one of history's most influential leaders, in Humankind you play as what Romain de Waubert describes as "the spirit of the nation". The aim of the game is to think "let's do something for posterity. Whatever I do today is forever." You achieve notoriety by completing legendary quests, discovering wonders, building magnificent cities, and of course conquering other civilisations. The system allows you to win the game even if you get crushed militarily. If you have discovered enough wonders, made scientific breakthroughs, and completed deeds that will be remembered forever, you might emerge with the strongest legacy.
I settle my tribe near some decent food sources and the game asks me to adopt a culture. I can choose between the Babylonians, Egyptians, Harappans, Mycenalans. I opt for the Egyptians and my civilisation is born. The next phase progresses with satisfying speed. It takes just a few turns to send scouts out in all directions. The exploration phase of the 4X genre is often the most dynamic, but Humankind moves at a good pace at this stage. Early research only takes a couple of turns, you can turn out simple units quickly and cheaply. The map is beautifully drawn and interesting to explore. I quickly had a second settlement in place which gave me access to horses. There's a very pleasant sense of progress.
As your culture moves towards the modern era it can evolve. "What is a civilisation, basically? It's great to create this country I'm going to play, but what are they in terms of culture, religion? Every country you see today is probably the result of a succession of cultures, and a very interesting mix resulted in terms of what these countries are today. That's what we wanted to grasp with Humankind—how can we recreate that feeling of recreating the civilisation of your dreams by combining all these cultures that will succeed each other."
Amplitude wants cultures to play very differently as well. They won't be as wild as Endless Legend's factions, but the emphasis is on creating different experiences for each culture, even at the expense of balance initially.
"What we tend to do at Amplitude when we create a faction is to make one that's supposed to be the normal gameplay. For all the others we break one portion of the game, and we make it feel different.
"The result of that is the game at the end is extremely hard to balance. 4X is all about balance, it has to be perfectly balanced. For me it seemed that if we wanted to aim for perfect balance all we could do is create factions that had +1 food and +1 science and that would basically be it. Yes, it would be easy to balance, but not very interesting because all the factions would be alike.
"We tried very early on to accept that the game will not be perfectly balanced at release. It should not be hard to find all the unbalancing issues but at least we have some very unique gameplay and very unique factions. Together with the community we'll handle all these elements, but let's first think about things being good and different and unique."
The community will again be able to shape the game, as it has for Amplitude's previous strategy games. The Humankind Open Dev project invites players to sign up for early access to the game, where they can give feedback. This might sound gimmicky, but Amplitude has previously given significant influence to players, especially in matters of faction design.
Humankind is due out sometime in 2021.