Humankind's OpenDev program gives us a glimpse into the game's future - and how it plans to beat Civilization

By Tom Williams 18 Aug 2020 0

When Jeff Spock of Amplitude Studios says they want to make Humankind "the very best historical strategy game", he means it. Amplitude are aiming for the stars. Or, more specifically, they are taking aim at Goliath. The elephant in the room is of course the Civilization series, which has defined and dominated the historical 4X scene for decades.

Amplitude’s entire nine year history has been leading to this moment, challenging the biggest kid on the block at his own game. They aren’t calling it their magnum opus for nothing.

In these crucial early stages of development, Amplitude have constructed a handful of scenarios for fans (and press) to play and give feedback on, opening the development process up to the community - something they are calling OpenDev. It's a process they've been doing since the days of Endless Space, but this is the first time they've done it at such a scale. 

Before diving into how Humankind is shaping up from these scenarios and the new ideas they are bringing to 4X gaming, it’s worth mentioning two points:

  • One; these are very early days and nothing is set in stone. The purpose of OpenDev is to identify room for improvement.
  • Two; these scenarios were tailor-made to not only test but show off specific elements of Humankind. Things are subject to change, but Amplitude are also putting their best foot forward.

These are showcases as much as they are gameplay tests.

Humankind eras

Test #1: Expansion and City-Management

Scenario one was all about the early game, focusing on expansion, exploration and city management.

While looking very foreign compared to Civilization, much here will be familiar territory for Endless Legend players. The world’s tiles vary in height, with cliffs crisscrossing the map, making other 4X maps look decidedly flat. Each population in a city is assigned to work one the five main resources for bonus output. Strategic and luxury resources litter the land. Finally, the world is split into predefined regions, called territories. Territories can support one city at most, which dictates settlement locations.

The biggest changes on show, however, were to expansion and city management. Settlers, for one, are a thing of the past. Instead, military units can found outposts, the precursors to cities. Building an outpost means claiming a territory and expanding your borders. Outposts are valuable in themselves, and can be easily relocated for more flexible expansion. Eventually though you’ll want to grow, and your outpost will head in one of two directions.

Humankind City Expansion

The more familiar option is to upgrade it into a fully-fledged city and begin your urban sprawl. And a sprawl it is. Extensions, the main way you expand your city’s gathering area and income, are loosely equivalent to Civ VI’s districts, but are more numerous and can be built further afield within the city’s territories. Yes, territories plural – the second path for your outpost is to ‘attach’ it to another city. The outpost’s territory and income is then owned entirely by the other city. Extensions can be built outwards from this new outpost, plus a few other locations.

Cities have been thoroughly de-stacked. Choosing when and how to extend your cities, let alone create new ones, will bring a core city-planning element to Humankind. This is very new ground for the 4X genre, so it’s hard to fully grasp the extent to which this will affect gameplay, which is partly why it’s so exciting. One immediate example is that the boundary between ‘wide’ and ‘tall’ strategies has been blurred, since both will necessitate lots of territories. Another is the military implications of expansive empires with stretched out borders.

Humankind Tech tree

Which leads us on to…

Test #2: Battles and Combat

The second scenario was in fact four small ones, focusing on Humankind’s combat system.

Again, Endless Legend forms the foundation – military units grouped together into armies roam the land, but are unstacked for pitched battles, which play out on the world map within a battle zone. Attacker and defender take turns to manoeuvre and deal damage, exploiting a range of tactical systems. Forest, for example, can hide your units. Cavalry beat archers but struggle versus spears. Sandwiching an enemy between two troops gives a flanking bonus. And most important of all is controlling the high ground (yes, the forums were full of Obi-Wan references…).

With an especial focus on terrain, and complexity somewhere between Civilization and Age of Wonders, there are heaps of potential here. Sadly, potential is the main thing going for it. Small but significant issues, from animation speeds to a veritable drought of visual information, are holding combat back from greatness. Fortunately, most of these are easily fixed, and a good tutorial would go a long way.

Humankind Combat

Once I got to grips with the combat system, it was lots of fun; Amplitude’s challenge is to make that enjoyment accessible, or I imagine the auto-complete button will look mighty friendly. Their other challenge is to cherry pick the best suggestions of the community, without getting swamped by a jumble of ideas. (My personal request is bridges please Amplitude!)

Lots on show here gets me excited too. Building around a select few mechanics, a good balance was struck between complexity and simplicity. Each culture’s unique units had interesting abilities, not just strength upgrades. The AI was surprisingly smart and made for a decent opponent. Sieges are large-scale, meaty affairs and very different to open battles. Naval troops could disembark and join in attacks, hinting at more overlap between land and naval warfare.

Lastly, battles seemed to flow with the times. In Civilization, a musketman is functionally identical to a swordsman, somewhat brushing over the huge historical impact of gunpowder. In Humankind, arquebusiers (similar to musketmen) were totally unique to everything else on display. Perhaps battles in Humankind will shift towards ranged gun combat, reflecting the evolution of warfare. I certainly hope so. Rampant speculation of course, but it could make from something unique in 4X combat.

Humankind Sieges

Overall, the buzzword for Humankind’s combat is still ‘potential’, but a very generous serving of it.

Test #3: Storytelling and Worldbuilding

Finally, scenario three mostly combined elements of one and two, but raised worries for me around an area Amplitude usually excels at: storytelling and worldbuilding.

Amplitude’s back catalogue testifies to their past successes in narrative and world-craft in strategy gaming. Their style, offering unobtrusive but rich tales, helped them stand out as developers. Humankind is not only their first game outside their extended Endless Universe, but comes with the unique challenges of a historical setting.

While scenarios one and two were based on real historical events, such as the Battle of Imjin River, scenario three offered the age old question: ‘What if…?’ In this case, what if the Aztecs and Khmer joined forces to storm London, which is crowned by Vesuvius itself.

Humankind Events

Human history is crammed full of fantastic stories, from the politics of Henry VIII to the revelry of Sir Gowther (look him up if you dare). There’s no shortage of material, no strict need to be 100% accurate, and storytelling elements which immerse players in the Earth’s fascinating history would be a fantastic addition to Humankind. The Total War games have shown what rewards such an approach can bring – even a small investment in story elements helps make a game and its setting feel alive and memorable.

Amplitude is perfectly suited to take on this challenge, and it could be a key factor in differentiating Humankind from Civilization. World building and storytelling is where Amplitude really shine.

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In all, Humankind can be summed up as a big ‘watch this space’. There’s lots we don’t know, and strategy games can live or die by how they tie together as a whole. That said, there is huge potential here for another great ‘just one more turn’ time sink.

Is it the Civ-killer we’ve been waiting for? Don’t ask stupid questions, only time will tell. Are Amplitude taking 4X gaming in new directions? Absolutely. Am I excited? Hell yes.

There is no concrete release window for Humankind, but it's not truly expected to release until 2021.

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