Amplitude's End Game: Humankind & Challenging Civilization29 Aug 2019 0
I’d known prior to GamesCom that Amplitude were planning an announcement; but I’d never have expected it to be such an obvious and direct challenger to Civilization’s throne. It’s not that they aren't capable - the studio’s work on Endless Legend in particular has proven they can get land-based 4X very right - but considering this is a team with such creative potential, I naively wondered why they’d want to take on Civ.
Turns out, it’s been the plan all along.
“It’s the reason why I got into games,” Romain De Waubert De Genlis (Creative Director and General Manager) told me when I spoke to him after the demonstration.
“[Civ] is a game we like so much, we want to change things. Maybe one day I’ll make my own game and I’ll be able to contribute… Very quickly the dream was to make my own 4X, in a historical setting. Take the genre to a different path.”
“Everything else is a means to an end.”
Endless Space released in 2012, at a time where the sci-fi/space 4X genre was in a bit of a low ebb. Sins of a Solar Empire has assumed its ultimate form that year when it released the Rebellion stand-alone expansion, but you also had games like Legend of Pegasus, which was deeply flawed. Sword of the Stars II released the year prior and in a very unfinished state.
For someone like me reviewing it at the time, it was a welcome breath of fresh air to a genre that was in danger of going a bit stagnant. For Amplitude it was the first step in their journey towards taking on Civilization (Civ 5 received its Gods & Kings expansion that year).
“We could test innovations in our previous games, and there was no pressure. Endless Pace: No Pressure. Endless Legend: No Pressure… It was better to learn all that making Endless Legend where we had no competition. No one was really making fantasy 4X like we were.”
Endless Legend came along a couple of years later in 2014, with Endless Space 2 following up in 2017. Both games now sport impressive DLC libraries that have further enhanced these titles in new and interesting directions.
“One of the first things we learned from Endless Space was how to balance such a huge game. We wanted to find the right balance between numbers and experience.”
Other experiments would include Real-Time Battles with partial control (Space), true terrain elevation (Legend) and battles taking place on that same terrain with full tactical control. Figuring out ways for players to tell stories the way they wanted with factions that were vibrant and rich with character, both from pre-existing lore and from the decisions you make as a player. All of this helped Amplitude learn to create the tools they’d need to take on their ultimate challenge.
“You don’t have a second chance when making a game like Civilization.”
It’s still relatively early days for Humankind, and considering everyone who saw it at GamesCom saw the same demonstration, I won’t rehash everything via impressions, but there a couple of key beats we can expand upon.
Things get a bit amusing when you start to unpick Humankind’s ‘flagship’ feature from the demo - the Cultures. Humankind is divided into 6 ‘Eras’, and each era has a pool of ten civilisations for you to choose from. This system feels similar to the Religion mechanics from Civ 5 & 6, in the sense that once a ‘culture’ has been taken, it is removed from the pool. We’re not clear on what you need to do in order to be able to choose a culture (and indeed, not choosing one is a valid, if ill-advised option).
What this means though is that in each era, you have the option to change your culture to something else (and the number of potential combinations is staggering across all six eras). History tells us that different culture types did evolve and change over time into something else, but it does stretch the suspension of belief somewhat when you have, say, the Egyptians suddenly morph into the Romans, and then the Ming after that.
“It’s a normal reaction,” Romain told me, “and it’s why we’ll probably offer a more historical mode or constraint in choices so that it makes more sense.”
Even for a ‘historical’ strategy game it’s not a game-breaker to make concessions to interesting mechanics, and I must admit I did enjoy seeing how the visual aesthetics of your empire change over time as you evolve into a new culture. Even more so than that, play a game long enough and you can actually trace the cultural progression of your empire, as visual artefacts from previous Eras remain.
Choosing a Culture each era isn’t a given though - there is a universal ‘victory’ condition tied to ‘Fame’ points, and empires that stick with a culture for longer get more fame for doing so - it’s event possible to Win a game with your starting culture, although Amplitude are keen for this to be a challenge and an achievement.
As Romain rightly pointed out to me, it’s also very much within every Strategy gamer’s DNA to optimise and make efficient choices. Regardless of how odd it may seem to go from being the very-Chinese Ming to the very-European Germans, if their respective bonuses compliment each other then you can hardly be blamed for making that choice.
To Boldly Go
Exploration seems to also be a new pillar of 4X gaming that Amplitude wanted to explore. What we mainly saw in the demo was essentially a new ‘pre-game’ section where (we hope) you’re not incentivised to plonk your city down as quickly as possible. Wandering around with your initial settler-analogue, finding food, extra people… even knowledge, and making sure you pick the right spot for a settlement in terms of terrain.
Once this segment was over, the demo moved on and we got the impression that a more regular Civilization-style gameplay loop settles in, but Romain is key for ‘exploration’ to be a core mechanic.
“Exploration is one of the things that makes me dream the most. I love it.”
“It has to stay relevant as long as possible. We have a lot of gameplay elements connected with this. To give you a hint, we always want you to feel like you’re the one who discovered the source of the Nile, or the Amazon Forest.”
It’s a very European view of exploration, to be sure, but it’ll be interesting to see if this mechanic can hold its relevance past the early game to the point where you still want to be managing your scouting units (as opposed to setting them on auto-pilot).
(Re)Writing the Book
“It’s funny - we all know what 4X ‘means’, but at the same time the more I create 4X games the less I agree with the definition.”
Romain and Amplitude in general certainly have big plans for Humankind. It was an exciting demo to be sure, although it’s still in pre-alpha. Visual niceties and culture bonuses do not a 4X make, and it’ll be interesting to see how the game tackles meaningful turn-to-turn choices as well as long term goals/strategy.
At the very least, this is likely to be a very competent alternative for those not liking Civilization’s current direction - how big a challenger it will be remains to be seen.
Humankind is not due for a release till 2020, so we've got a while to wait yet!