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Perhaps I Treated You Too Harshly, Humankind

Welcome to the 'Scalabrine Effect'

Last month I played a very bad video game. Last week I went on a podcast and talked about that game--Millennia--at length. Since we were discussing a new 4X release, the topic of Civilization came up a lot, but so too did another game in the genre, Humankind.

That's a game I hadn't thought about for a while! I remember back before its release I was really excited for it, thanks to a combination of pedigree (Amplitude's Endless Legend had already made some cool 4X innovations), good looks (its map screen was lovely) and interesting ideas (players could change cultures every era instead of being locked into one for an entire game).

Then it came out, I played a ton of it and got a little deflated. It wasn't bad, it just whiffed in some surprising areas and was a largely soulless affair. I stopped playing it. Then something strange happened: In the months and years to come, my thoughts on Humankind at the time--enshrined in my review--started to take a dark turn. I somehow grew progressively more disappointed with it the longer time went on, even though I wasn't even playing it anymore! As though my negativity had broken free of my playtime and 2021 and now had a momentum all of its own, plunging my opinion to ever greater depths; the longer I held it before Civilization's light, the dimmer Humankind's own efforts seemed.

Basically, a game I thought was fine at launch had now, three years later, through no fault of its own, become bad after all. I'm not saying this is healthy or normal, it's just how it is; talking about video games all day every day fucks you up in really weird ways, like having your goalposts moved without you even consciously moving them!Anyway, during this podcast--3MA, it's a good show about strategy video games, you should listen to it--my fellow guest Ruth Cassidy said something they couched with a huge amount of caution: they said, in 2024, that they loved Humankind, and had even played it even more than they had Civilization VI. A bold take! Not BOLD--I'm also pretty down on Civ VI these days, the whole district system is exhausting--but, given Humankind's shortcomings and lukewarm reception, bold enough to light a tiny fire in my head and, nearly three years after release, inspire me to revisit the game.

With its rolling landscapes and beautiful interface, Humankind is, if nothing else, the best-looking 4X game on the market.

Humankind has had a few major updates in the last three years, particularly around its religion and trade systems, along with a host of minor tweaks to everything from naval warfare to culture availability. And for the most part, these were all pretty good!

Religion especially has been beefed up; it's still not as world-changing as you'll find in Civilization, and indeed can simply be switched off later in the game once your people become sufficiently educated, but its malleability and perks at least make faith a somewhat important consideration for your people now.

While all the new or updated stuff can be marked down as an improvement (trade’s new hub system was also neat), none of them fundamentally changed the way I played the game, or felt about it after I'd spent the weekend with it. My biggest problem with Humankind at launch hadn't been any of its systems or ideas, but that for a game about, well, humankind, it was a disappointingly solitary experience, as I wrote:

Frustratingly, there are an abundance of systems here that suggest diplomacy and trade and disputes could be as nuanced and strategic as elsewhere, but for whatever reason it never feels like the AI is doing anything more than waving at you from across the street. And when you do interact, everything feels limp and lifeless, largely because the game’s nameless, culture-swapping factions make it hard to keep track of your opponents, or form any kind of lasting relationships with them. The almost complete absence of emotion or attachment to my rivals here really made me appreciate Civ’s rude, intrusive leaders all the more, because it reminds me they’ve got more to do with that series’ success than just looking good, in that they provide a little added spice to a recipe that would otherwise be incredibly bland.

This was a huge bummer for me, because as I’ve said in other reviews, the best strategy games don’t get to the top because of their tactics, they get there because of the stories they’re able to weave through each playthrough. Stories where the player feels like they’re part of something bigger, something important, not just reclining from a God’s-eye view, clicking on a spreadsheet for 300 turns. Humankind’s story is most like an unremarkable TV show, one that hums along for a few seasons before sending itself off to bed, rarely throwing in the surges of drama or excitement that can make other tales so memorable (which, given Endless Legend’s ability to tell a strong, structured story, was a bit of a surprise!).

This is all still true, all still the case. The game was already good at the parts that have now got better, where you make decisions hovering over city screens and carefully tend to your own people. It has Civ's "one more turn" thing locked down, and I'd go so far as to say that, especially given Civ VI's problems with its district system, Humankind is an even more enjoyable game if all you want to do is build some cities, feed your people and slowly roll out a series of buildings and farms over a few thousand years.

The things Humankind wasn't good at--diplomacy, character, personality, a sense of belonging to a wider world instead of just being responsible for your own patch of it--still haven't been addressed. And maybe never will! Leaving me...back where I started when I reviewed the game. Only now I feel much better about it than I have at almost any point in the last three years. It’s back to being fine. Why? Context

I'm going to call this the Scalabrine Effect. Brian Scalabrine was a professional basketball player who spent 11 years in and around the NBA. In that time he averaged 3.1 points, 2 rebounds and 0.8 assists a game. If you know basketball you will know those are bad numbers, and may even lead you to suspect that Brian Scalabrine was a bad basketball player.

But he's not. Far from it. He just seemed bad compared to some of the All-Stars he shared a roster with–like MVPs Kevin Garnett and Derrick Rose–over that career. And so when in 2013 the freshly-retired Scalabrine was challenged by some scrubs online to a few games of pick-up, he responded with one of my favourite sports quotes of all time: "I'm way closer to Lebron than you are to me".

He proved this by actually taking those scrubs on and filming it (the series was known as "The Scallenge"), embarrassing them by a combined score of 44-6. Brian Scalabrine was, and even still is today, a very good basketball player! He just wasn't Lebron James, one of the all-time greats.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Humankind, for all its flaws, is the Brian Scalabrine of the 4X genre. It's not Civ--which has enjoyed Lebron-like levels of longevity and greatness--and maybe never will be, but it was dumb and unfair of me to hold it to those standards. Humankind is still a good video game. All it took for me to realise that was to see it kick Millennia's ass 44-6. 

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