Every now and then I'm reminded that Civilisation exists and it's kind of like finding a fiver in your back pocket: a welcome surprise, but nothing that's going to change my life. It's amusing then, that earlier last week I started playing Humankind - Sega's response to Civilisation - and everything changed for the worse.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves though. It's probably easiest to consider Humankind as a new entry into the Civilisation franchise in all but name. You bring up a new empire from the cradle of the ancient era, to the apotheosis of the contemporary era, competing against others who are trying to do the same. Looking at the big picture, the majority of Civ enthusiasts will be right at home. Be it through military conquest, scientific prowess or simply running out the clock with the highest score, all the core tenants of Civ are still there. It's quite impressive just how much is there for a first attempt. If you stuck Sid Meir's name on the cover, you'd have me fooled.
It's upon closer inspection where you'll find some rather commendable differences. The boring, barbarian-bashing early game is replaced with a focus on exploration. You don't start with a settler, but instead as a nomad tribe who must explore the map, hunt wildlife and uncover curiosities in order to gather the influence to find a city. It also decides to throw the whole border expansion thing out the window too. The map is split up into zones of sorts where finding a city or outpost within the confines will give you access to everything in that zone. No longer do you have to wait fifty years or spend a small fortune to get that sugar that you desperately need. Not content with these changes, Humankind also revamps stabbing humankind in the face. Stacking units on top of each other are back, but only in limited amounts this time. Once you engage in combat with fellow man, you are able to deploy your units in battle on the same map, with its own turn clock and all.
All of these changes are welcome and the high points of the game. Honestly, I think Sid should just copy the homework on this one when it comes to Civ 7. The opening hours of Humankind are a joy and lull you into thinking you might actually be playing a good game. There are some other changes too, but because I'm an idiot that knows nothing about these kinds of games, it's impossible to say whether they're good or not. You're not about picking a nation and leader at the start of the game - that choice is done as you progress through eras, meaning you can start as the Egyptians and end as the Swedes. It means that your run is no longer set in stone and can adapt based on how well you're doing at the time. If you're focusing on science, then maybe go for the Greeks. If the next door neighbours are becoming eyesore, then making the switch to the Romans could prove to be advantageous. Of course, this does mean that the leaders of Humankind lack a lot of the charm of its sister - being blank slates for whatever culture they're playing as, yet still retaining the same personality.
I could go on and on about how borders work and districts and war and diplomacy and pollution, but honestly? Do you really want me to go through all of that? I know I certainly don't. I was a bit confused when I saw reviews praise Humankind's complexity. Like, really? Do people try in games like these? I just throw out whatever I think looks cool at the time. Strategy is for cowards and switching your brain off while watching your borders expand is certainly an option here and is probably for the best. When you start to dive into the systems, you start to see that this cheese is a bit swiss.
Like, there's no cool way of saying this, but food is completely busted. It's the basis of everything you need to do in this game and there is nothing in Humankind that cannot be solved with more food. Want production? You'll need food to work the tiles. Want a military? You'll need food as units cost population in this one. Want science? You still need researchers. If you were taking this game seriously in any way, I'd wager that a run can be determined in the first 20 turns - do you get the Harappans as your first culture? If you don't, it's probably worth a restart. That's how broken food is.
Humankind predictably suffers from Late Game Syndrome. There's just nothing to do - a cavalcade of units and buildings that give you More Numbers. At this point, the map has been filled, the border lines have been drawn and any territorial disputes are long resolved. Time to just... make buildings and districts I guess? The late game itself feels rather barebones in features as well. The space race is just three wonders in a trench coat. There's no diplomatic or cultural victory to speak of either. You have to be really good at war or really good at science. Those are your options. It would not surprise me in the least if this was something to be addressed in an expansion pack, but the absence of any meat in the late game doesn't do much to amplify this hope.
This is where things get a bit strange. I'd love to say that Humankind is a great tribute to Civilisation that brings enough interesting ideas to the table for it to stand on its own two feet, despite it petering out a bit towards the later stage. But no. My life has been ruined. Because you'll notice I've been making a lot of comparisons to Civ in this post and yet it's been a while since I've actually played it. So what the hell, let's take a look.
And oh my goodness, Civilisation 6 is a bit crap, isn't it?
There's just so much stuff. So many things that you have to worry about, and all of it is meaningless. It takes the philosophy of "Civilisation 5 was half-baked at launch" to its extremity. Flooding, volcanoes, era score, dark ages, resource overworks, the list goes on. Everything just feels so slow. You're ganged up on by several hordes of barbarians. Honestly, let them run the whole place, they seem to have the military part figured out. Exploration is like moving through treacle and not rewarding in the slightest. The district system is constricting thanks to the snails pace of border growth. It's the antithesis of everything fun.
Every bonus you get is just so... limp. It's like drinking a bottle of La Croix. From Civilisation bonuses, to Religious beliefs, the bonuses are so gradual and insignificant, it's like the entire game has been designed by Blizzard. You have to squeeze every small advantage out of every single tile just to feel something. I tried playing three separate games and I didn't get to finish any of them. I was just so bored. The World Congress is an absolute clown festival. Like, oh yeah I can't wait to spend another form of currency on a 50% reduction of cost in units of faith, cheers lads, I can really feel my time being spent in a productive way here.
It honestly makes me think about life. How is this a thing? Am I going insane? Is my taste in video games just that bad, that one of, if not, the most popular strategy game of all time is that dull? Am I the only one, am I caught in the centre of a global conspiracy to trick people into thinking this game is good? Am I being hunted by Big Sid?
In order to find the answers to this question, I had to go deeper. Back to Civilisation 5. And I am pleased to report I had an excellent time. What a fantastic game. An absolute joy to play. It's smooth, easy on the eyes and actually has some kind of semblance of fun. The civilisation bonuses are distinct and meaningful. Exploration is great - there's less getting hounded by barbarians - you have some kind of chance against them. Culture actually feels like it's own thing, rather than just an extension of science. Can we talk about that for a second? Instead of letting culture be its own separate thing with its own separate bonuses? Nah let's just make a second technology tree that gives an extra house every time your leader thinks about the prospect of capitalism. Civilisation 5 knocks about with the big boy bonuses. Each investment feels like a significant upgrade - you can see the numbers go up before your eyes, simulating the synapses in my caveman brain. I'm so glad that I went back and played this and found out that, no, I'm not an unwilling participant in a deep state experiment. There are still some video games out there that know what they're about and are good. Kinda. The late-game is still a bit barebones, the tourism system and world congress not doing much to alleviate the continuous production spam of modern buildings and units.
So you have to understand, I need to have taken something from all of this. Something learned or something that deeply changes me on a spiritual level. At this point Humankind is not nearly a good enough game for me to have ventured all the way back to Civilisation Beyond Earth (a game I'm not even going to talk about here) in order to put it in perspective. And like... I don't know man, not every question needs to have an answer? I'm not an expert on games like these and I'm certainly no game designer. If I were put in charge of Civilisation 7, then I'd probably take a lot of inspiration from games like Cookie Clicker and Slay the Spire. I think why Civ has such a struggle at depicting the modern age is that it doesn't show the exponential growth. There are a few buildings, sure - hospitals and the like. But a lot of these provide simple flat bonuses or a way to buff up new cities to modern levels. Throw that out the window. A hospital should give you enough food to provide 100x the population of a medieval city. Guns should provide full immunity against swords (putting the battle of Little Big Horn aside for a moment). Late game Civ should be about taking off - sometimes literally - far away from whatever paltry numbers the previous eras gave you. It is ridiculous that in the modern era, it still takes one turn to build a wall. Fuck off, I should be able to do that instantly, or better yet, building a wall shouldn't even be a thing. Remove it. It's so frustrating when, in the year of our lord 2100, there's still an option to build a workshop. Absolutely not. Give me that for free, we're in the modern age. Let the coal factories provide a million production. I should be able to build the Pyramids in a second.
Anyway, hopefully this mental breakdown has amounted to something. Do you know what the sad thing is? After I write this, I'm probably off to play some more. I don't even think it's that good. I might try a military playthrough this time round.