Review: Dawn of Man

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Review copy provided by developer

One of the big questions you face when picking up a new city builder is, how much control do you have over your people? You might not think about it too much, but there’s a huge gulf between how different titles play. Compare games like SimCity and Anno where your people are merely numbers on a spreadsheet to games like Tropico and Banished where every little human is fully modeled with their own little agendas. Dawn of Man falls very much into the latter category, into a special slot where you can have as much or as little control over your people as you want. This makes for a wonderfully relaxing and gratifying experience, assuming you don’t mind the limited scope or occasional murder sprees here.

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Dawn of Man depicts just that, the formative days of human civilization. In an understandably compressed progression, you’ll lead a tiny tribe of humans from the Stone Age of sharp sticks and furs to the Iron Age of glinting blades and linen finery. Starting with just a handful of grubby folks, you’ll direct them to gather resources like wood and flint, craft tools and shelters, and subsist off of gathering, fishing, and hunting. As you unlock new technologies, you’ll be able to build more structures like mills and workshops, expand your capabilities to farming and domesticating livestock, and eventually master metal tools and the wheel. All the while you’ll be attracting more people to your settlements, protecting them from weather and hostile forces, and expanding your reach across your territory.

In terms of game modes, you have three main scenarios to work through, an assortment of challenge maps and sandbox modes, and custom maps created by the community (numbering more than a dozen at this time). Most of your time will be spent on the scenarios, wherein you choose one of five regions offered and guide your tribe towards ten milestones set for that particular map. These can be anything from hunting specific animals to reaching certain quotas of people or goods to building specific structures like stone circles. Acting as achievements, these are helpful guideposts as you work your way up the tech tree and expand your settlement’s population. Your ultimate goal is of course wide open, but there are no shortage of objectives offered for you to strive for.

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The ease of managing your people is easily the most appealing part of this package, because unlike many individual-level city builders, Dawn of Man gives you a plethora of ways to order folks around. You’ll need to send them to gather sticks, mine ores, chop trees, and hunt bison, and the most direct way to do that is to click on a person and then right-click on what you want them to do. But you can also click on the resource itself and give a general order to get it, and whoever happens to be around will take care of it. You can also set work areas for an even more hands-off approach, setting a zone for hunting or gathering or several other tasks that allows your people to pick their objectives at their leisure. Work areas can be further defined by how many people you want working them at once, as well as limits on the resources gathered.

Those limits are incredibly useful for keeping your settlement running, because they can keep your villagers from over-working themselves. There’s a limit window that lists all of the game’s tools and resources and lets you set limits for them, either specific numbers or proportions to your population. In the early game it helps to set a number on rare or hard-to-get resources, while the proportional limits are perfect for producing tools and clothing without going overboard. Of course, you can sell extras to the wandering traders who visit for other goods or even technologies, so sometimes it’s better to over-achieve. And speaking of technology, you don’t have to make any special effort to work up the tree because your people earn you points for unlocking just by doing things, like building or hunting things for the first time or reaching quotas of certain goods or hitting those handy milestones.

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It would be an incredibly relaxing game the whole way through if not for the myriad threats to your people. Early on, the biggest dangers will be winters and wildlife. If you’ve ever played Banished you know how deadly winter can be, but here your people can continue to hunt and fish so it’s not a death sentence if you’re low on food. While you can hunt everything from sheep to mammoths, it’s not a good idea to go after big game without a plan, and sometimes you’ll attract the unwanted attentions of a cave lion or bear. Massing your villagers for fights and domesticating dogs will make short work of any creature, though, which leaves raiders as your main antagonist. The grander your settlement gets, the more often it’ll get attacked, and during these awkward fights the game becomes a sort of low-rent RTS with your people and their people deathballing until all of one group is dead. There are fortifications like walls and towers but they’re only good for corralling foes and distracting them, because apparently flint spears work like cruise missiles on prehistoric buildings. The combat’s not great, is what I’m saying, but it works as a periodic threat and serves as little more than a distraction.

Aside from that, Dawn of Man is everything you could want from a people-focused city-builder. The graphics are sharp and detailed, the sound design is nice and evocative, and watching your collection of tents become a sprawling agrarian society is exactly as satisfying as it should be. Obviously, you’re never going to progress past roundhouses and simple masonry, so don’t come here expecting even the simple burgs of Banished. It’s not a bad comparison, though, because the different maps and circumstances with wildlife and finite resources make Dawn of Man the more dynamic game even if the scope isn’t much bigger. Reaching all the milestones in a single scenario should take between six and eight hours, and there’s plenty more building you can do after that. Plus, the challenge maps hide some very creative offerings where you might not even be playing as the humans. Between the excellent interface and the steady progression, I’ve found Dawn of Man to be a wonderful addition to the building and management genres.

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