Firaxis are a developer with a reputation for releasing expansion packs that dramatically improve their base game. Yes, you can say that this is partly because the base games tend to be broken, unbalanced or otherwise underwhelming in some way, but there’s no arguing that Civilization V was a much better game after Gods and Kings, and while Enemy Within added some flab in the form of Exalt it did wonders for the pacing and balancing of the XCOM campaign as a whole. They’re commendably committed to improving and expanding on their games post-launch; even so, the existence of the Rising Tide expansion pack for Civ-V-In-Space ‘em up Beyond Earth surprises me more than a little. There was so much wrong with Beyond Earth that I was convinced that this time around Firaxis would just tie a rock to it and let it sink rather than send good development money after bad.
Still, it’s not like Beyond Earth didn’t have any good ideas. Yes, it’s true; you might need truly advanced sensing equipment to detect it as it’s buried some considerable way beneath many layers of mediocrity and blandness, but a really good expansion pack might have been able to burrow down far enough to reach those rich seams of potential. Bring the backstory to the foreground. Surface those civilopedia entries somewhere where the player can actually find them. Make the endgame missions less of a soul-crushingly boring End Turn clickfest. Give the faction leaders more than one line of voice acting which they endlessly spout ad infinitum. Make the aliens a little more than Barbarians 2.0. It’s a long list, but if they’d manage to improve enough stuff it’s entirely possible Rising Tide might have been able to drag Beyond Earth kicking and screaming into the neighbourhood of an acceptably-fun 4X title.
Instead they have gone with, uh, boats.
Not that this is without precedent, mind. Gods and Kings did a big overhaul of naval combat to actually make it worthwhile, while the Alien Crossfire expansion for Alpha Centauri introduced specific improvements for waterborne cities and a faction whose gimmick was that it was massively overpowered on the ocean. It’s a little surprising that this is the headline improvement for Rising Tide, however – of all the things wrong with Beyond Earth the fact that ocean cities weren’t included wouldn’t even have made my top ten list, and I’m a little baffled as to why Firaxis thought that it was *this* that required their attention rather than the now almost stubbornly-intentional lack of character riddling the rest of it.
I will grudgingly admit that the new sea cities in Rising Tide are pretty nice. The sea itself is a much busier place than it was previously, full of beasties to kill and resources to exploit, and non-combat units such as Explorers and Workers are now fully amphibious and can use their special abilities on the water just as well as they can on dry land. There’s a couple of new classes of ship (including a melee class that’s capable of taking cities), but all of this stuff largely exists to enable the sea cities. These are somewhat the same as land cities – although there are some city improvements and wonders that can only exist in sea cities, and vice versa — except their big gimmick is that they can slowly move about the map. In the production list for the city there’s a “move city” option; complete this as you would any other construction project and you gain the ability to move the city one tile. Any unclaimed tiles that fall within a one-hex radius of the city’s new location are automatically claimed as your territory, and the city then carries on much as normal.
This move ability strikes me as a nice idea that’s gone a little bit wrong in practice. I always founded my sea cities in an optimum location — at the centre of a nice fat patch of resources, say — and once they’re in the best location, why would I bother moving them? Firaxis have coded in something of a stick to make you use the feature as sea cities cannot slowly expand their city radius by claiming tiles via culture; you’re supposed to do this by moving the city around to hoover up the tiles instead. Unfortunately you retain the option to simply buy unclaimed tiles with cash money, and it’s much easier to do this than it is to faff about wasting valuable production on moving the city one space across the map. Sea cities are great on their own, and developed right they’ll easily rival or even surpass your land cities thanks to their special sea-city-only improvements – thanks to modern Civ giving all units an ampibious capability they’re arguably even more useful than the ones in Alpha Centauri as they can make a valid contribution to your war effort without having to worry about transporting land units from city to shore. It’s just a shame that what was supposed to be their signature feature ended up being a bit of a damp (ha) squib – I think it’s pretty telling that across three games played and at least twenty-five built, I moved my sea cities a grand total of twenty times.
Still, the mere fact that ocean cities exist at all has a surprisingly significant effect on the way Beyond Earth plays. Traditionally I’ve always seen sea tiles in Civilization as dead tiles, and treated the ocean as a sort of negative space – something to be crossed to reach a prospective target, but never a target in and of itself. Rising Tide changes that; not only does it enable ocean cities in the first place by clustering resource tiles in the sea just as much as it does on land, but by giving workers the ability to properly improve sea tiles it also means that your coastal cities are that much more effective. You can now utilise the entire map for your settlements (except for the polar ice caps), and as you tech up your ability to exploit tiles of all types increases further and further until your endgame cities are of a size you’ll never see in a stock Civilization game. Spreading out over the map and watching the population counter tick up and up and up did remind me of Alpha Centauri in a good way – that was a game about using future technology to thoroughly shatter any and all constraints on your expansion until you hit a runaway exponential growth curve, and now Beyond Earth sort of is too.
Rising Tide provides a number of other shots in the arm to further boost Beyond Earth’s previously-anaemic vitality. First, the diplomatic system has been completely overhauled. Gone are the ineffective culture/scientific/economic agreements and the relatively opaque attitudes of your AI opponents; instead, your relationship with them is governed by twin Fear and Respect scores. Fear is simply a measure of how much your military outclasses theirs, and the Respect value indicates how much your activities in the game align with their goals. This is something that Civilization has attempted to surface before, but never with the frequency that Rising Tide does; pretty much every turn you’ll get a little pop-up notification at the top of the screen telling you about something you’re doing that’s changing your Respect score with a given Civilization. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down, but the fact that the reasons behind the change are constantly visible makes it a lot easier to keep on the good side of your rivals – or not.
Meanwhile your actual relationship status – Neutral, Cooperating, Allied etc. – is altered by the investment of a new currency called Diplomatic Capital. This is generated by certain city improvements and all wonders, and is required to both improve your relationship status and set up ongoing agreements. Diplomatic Capital is also used to buy and upgrade traits for your faction – these start out relatively weak, but once they’re fully upgraded and you can get some synergy going on (like getting all the trade route bonus traits for Hutama, whose thing is that he gets more trade routes than anyone else) they can make a big difference to your faction’s power. These traits dictate which agreements will be available for the AI to make with you, and their traits will dictate what you can get out of them. Again, the agreements are fairly underwhelming to start with — a 20% decrease in the time it takes to complete covert ops, say — but they get more effective as your relationship status with the other party improves, with an agreement with an Allied faction being two or three times as good as an agreement with a Neutral one.
Sounds good on paper, certainly. I definitely did like the new faction traits as they provided a degree of customisation that I thought Beyond Earth had been sorely missing up until this point (no, the relatively weak options you get during game setup don’t weak). They’re powerful enough that they feel worthwhile to use, and there’s enough of them that every faction can find a combination that works for their playstyle. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the diplomatic agreements; it’s pretty telling that I could call up the list of all potential agreements – and there’d be a good 15-20 of these available at any one time — and find maybe one that I thought was worth the investment of Diplomatic Capital. They’re not so much underpowered as they are ridiculously specific, and while a 40% increase in the rate at which an outpost grows into a colony has its uses, getting more orbital coverage from trade stations very definitely does not.
So the new diplomatic system has both good and bad points. The same goes for its new hybrid affinities, which are supposed to provide alternative unit upgrade paths for mixed affinity factions and make min/maxing the tech web for one specific type of affinity less necessary. For example, usually you’d need 12 affinity points in Purity to unlock the final upgrade for your tank unit, but you can also get that upgrade with 8 points in Purity and 4 points in any other affinity. Getting blanket upgrades for all of your military units is ridiculously powerful (you don’t even have to pay for them like you do in Civ) and it’s definitely a good thing that there’s less emphasis on *having* to go through the supposedly freeform tech web in a certain way in order to unlock them. I found myself judging the techs on their own individual merits rather than going “That’ll get me 20 points in Supremacy!” and treating the associated buildings and wonders as an incidental bonus. It doesn’t eliminate this phenomenon entirely, however; the upgrade effect is too powerful to ignore affinity points completely and take a completely organic route through the web, and there were still times when I’d be researching a tech because I knew it would upgrade my 20 Cutter units into Broadsides rather than because I actually wanted the tech itself. Rising Tide will also try to market itself on the inclusion of a lot of new hybrid units in the game, but most of these are just different skins for basic unit types (the 8/4 tank will look different to the 12 point tank, but it’ll have almost exactly the same stats and abilities) and there’s *maybe* four new units that do something that’s actually new and different.
The last big change is the inclusion of artifacts for your Explorer units to dig up. Previously you’d send them out to find some alien remains, they’d set up shop for ten turns and use their single Expedition module to study those remains, and at the end of it you’d get 20 bonus culture or something equally shit. Now they have a chance to dig up artifacts of various types, which can be cashed in as sets of one, two or three artifacts to get either a big resource bonus (for one or two) or, if you cash in three at once, a unique building or permanent bonus for your faction that can’t be unlocked any other way. Some of these buildings/bonuses are really fucking good (+50% domestic trade route yield? Double speed on worker actions? Hell yes I’ll take some of that action) and so the artifacts do fulfil their intended purpose of sending explorer units out around the map to hoover them up before the other factions do – it also makes the cultural virtues that add more Expedition modules much more worthwhile. However, I found the biggest shakeup here was that you can also get artifacts out of alien nests, which meant I went from my previous attitude of live-and-let-live to purging and burning any and all alien filth whenever there was a chance I could get my hands on an artifact. It makes the early game much more proactive and disincentivises turtling up, and so while I thought the actual artifact cash-in mechanic itself was weirdly half-baked I’d say it was the single biggest change to the way Beyond Earth plays after the new ocean gameplay features.
Rising Tide’s various additions to Beyond Earth might not be unambiguous improvements to the formula, but they do move the game a lot closer to where it should have been in the first place – it now feels different enough from Civilization to merit being a different game rather than a simple mod using the Civ V engine. That means Rising Tide is something of a success, but it’s a very qualified one and this expansion pack has some very big weaknesses; namely that it does next to nothing to address the complaints I mentioned in the second paragraph. The fiction is all buried several levels down in the Civilopedia1; you have next to no context for what the city improvements and wonders you’re building actually are besides the +1 to production or whatever they’ll add to your city; the faction leaders still have precisely one line of voice acting each and all the personality of a particularly dull brick; and – most criminally – every single one of the victory conditions is still an awful slog where you build the thing you need to win and then wait for a 40-turn timer to count down. It’s far quicker and easier to just kill everyone2, which makes the endgame of Beyond Earth more than a little bit bland and samey. That the first expansion pack for Beyond Earth ignored these issues so comprehensively is a pretty decent indicator that Firaxis do not see them as a problem and they’ll never be fixed, which is why, despite the good work it does, I see Rising Tide as being particularly dismaying. It demonstrates that Beyond Earth can be a decent game, but it also indicates that it has no ambition to be a *good* one.
- Which is weird because – like Destiny’s grimoire – some of it is really good and should have been shown off somewhere where a player would actually see it ↩
- This also boosts your score, not that that’s a concern since you’re not told your score when you win and have to go looking for it in the “Other” menu once you’ve quit back to the main menu ↩