Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide | Principal Platforms: PC | Developer: Firaxis Games | Publisher: 2K Games | Genre: 4X Strategy | Year: 2015
What a difference a hundred hours can make.
Whilst relatively fresh and intriguing during its launch, the cracks in Civilization: Beyond Earth started to show quicker than I expected.
The core game itself may not have been a surefire hit like its developers hoped, but the potential for great things was there and it all culminated in what I fondly refer to as a “wonderful mess”.
But following several patches, which merely watered down the proceedings with ‘nerfs’ and botched attempts at improving both wonders and sponsors, a worrying precedent – that Firaxis Games didn’t know what was good for their own product – had begun to set in.
It seemed that the designers couldn’t capitalize on their lofty vision and they even admitted as much in their GDC 2015 retrospective that was prefaced by the resonating soundbite: “we should have been more audacious.”
Fast forward a year though and they’re back and once again getting their feet wet with this new expansion for Beyond Earth subtitled: Rising Tide.
Is it enough to breathe new life into the profoundly conservative affair that was the base game?
Well if nothing else, Rising Tide certainly makes a fantastic first impression. The once sterile presentation of the vanilla game has undergone a hostile makeover with everything from the UI, tech web, loading screens, and reward popups all receiving new artwork and a fresh lick of paint.
Likewise, the wonderful new soundtrack courtesy of composers Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen and Grant Kirkhope is both inspirational and quirky in equal measure and makes for a superbly immersive listening experience when playing the game.
And then you have the stunning new opening FMV movie, written by co-designer Will Miller and produced by the fittingly-named Waterproof studios. The animation here is incredibly lifelike, the script is grandiose and overall it does a superb job of reinforcing the game’s science fiction elements and sense of story even if those features tend to be a bit abstracted whilst you’re actually playing.
In terms of actual gameplay content, the Rising Tide expansion comes loaded with four major new features that dramatically change the way in which a typical session of Beyond Earth plays out.
As you might be able to tell from the box art and title, the biggest new inclusion here is that of aquatic gameplay. A staple feature of the inspirational Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, colonies in Rising Tide now have the ability to settle on the surface of the ocean.
A city founded on water will enjoy a few bonuses that fellow land-based cousins do not, including a significant bonus to naval unit production, culture output and a greater density of nearby improvable resources.
Of course you can still perform the standard ranged attacks from water cities too, so if you fancy developing your own Orwellian floating fortress (complete with rocket battery and sonar net), you can certainly have at it!
It’s not just sunshine and roses out there on the harsh seas though as water cities also come with their own specific drawbacks.
Essentially founded on top of giant inflatable air bags, you can expect aquatic cities to be quite a bit weaker than the usual land-based alternatives and you won’t be able to rely on nearby hills and canyons to shield you from encroaching invaders either.
Aquatic cities have the unique ability to move about the water surface too; something that’s extremely helpful as it allows you to secure new resources that might appear just out of reach of the usual city limits.
Settling your city on the ocean comes with a nice set of benefits, but it’s hardly a no-brainer decision. There are enough advantages and drawbacks to make the play a tough one and that fact alone makes aquatic gameplay a pretty fresh new spin on what you’ll be used to in Beyond Earth.
Of course Firaxis saw the potential of full on ‘water world’ games where participating sponsors are forced to splash down into the ocean right from the first turn. Again, it makes for a great change of pace for a game that had, up until now, grown quite stale.
The new artifact library is seen as a way of expanding Beyond Earth’s exploration phase and once again the improvement here is substantial.
Exploring is something I felt the base game did well, but Rising Tide takes things to a whole new level. Every time one of your explorers finds a scattered resource pod, clears an alien nest or uncovers a special expedition site, there’s a percentage chance that they might discover a special artifact.
Artifacts come in three different sorts (depending on where they were found) and each have their own level of quality ranging from battered to pristine.
As a player you have the option of immediately expending these special items for a one-time bonus to either food, culture, science or energy, but if you manage to combine three artifacts together then you’ll unlock a powerful new building, bonus or even a wonder for your civilization to take advantage of.
The map is now absolutely littered with interesting things to find too. From Kraken nests, Progenitor ruins, derelict settlements and even a wrecked colony lander, the early game has never felt so alive with interesting discoveries.
Adding to this are the new Marvels. Essentially an analogue to Civilization V’s natural wonders, the Marvels of Rising Tide are unique points of interest that can be found during play.
In one game you might uncover a network of alien plants that release their food-giving spores into the nearby soil (prompting sponsors to race towards the newly-fertile territory) or a long abandoned desert city that holds secrets of its own.
The nature of artifact rewards are pretty random and lead to some remarkable shifts in terms of balance – I would expect this to be adjusted in future updates – but the system itself is still quite fun and addictive all the same.
Diplomacy has also seen a welcome rework in Rising Tide. The lacklustre interaction of Civilization V’s leftover diplomacy has now been completely replaced with a fear and respect system that sees the AI’s opinion of you change depending on the diplomatic traits they adopt from game to game.
For example, if you plunder a trade route whilst at war then an observing AI with the profiteering trait will react favorably. On the other hand, a spacefaring AI might snub you for not improving the coverage of your orbital network.
In this way the computer is constantly engaging you with agreement offers and on-screen messages that attempt to bring out their personality in a clearer (and often snider) manner than before. It even works in multiplayer mode where the AI will continue to interact with the human players around it.
There are many powerful three-tiered diplomacy bonuses that you can upgrade too. It will take you many plays to try every combination and the system is superb for those who love to experiment.
Rising Tide hasn’t forgotten about you warmongers either!
Accumulating affinity points (tech-based yields that determine your futuristic ideology) in a balanced fashion now leads you to special hybrid affinity bonuses and brand new military units.
The hybrid army units are especially noteworthy here as they combine many existing character designs to create a truly unique look for your soldiers.
The new city-busting Siege Golems, invisible Geliopods and combat-supporting Thrones add real flair to the unit augment system and are a powerful new avenue for budding commanders to explore.
There are a lot of little quality changes in Rising Tide too. The new planet biomes look amazing, the unit finder is a nice touch and the newly animated satellite launches look as sweet as can be.
A few shrewd balance tweaks have also been enacted to make the game more approachable and rounding this out are four brand new sponsors that bring you various new bonuses relating to the new diplomacy and water orientated gameplay systems.
In Rising Tide I feel that one of my biggest complaints from Beyond Earth has been addressed: there’s more personality to it now. There are plenty of new narrative-orientated quests, evocative artworks and amusing sponsor asides to help the game shake off that antiseptic aura.
A notable new quest I came across featured a homesick man who desperately yearned to see Earth once again. Quite what he was expecting to find on the already post-apocalyptic planet after another thousand years of cryogenic-assisted travel is beyond me, but the setup itself was engrossing nonetheless.
Once finishing the quest you’re given the option of indeed returning the man back to Earth or instructing him to stay put. In my particular playthrough I forced the man to remain in the colony and years later into the game a follow up quest was issued detailing how his loyal decedents had gone rogue and were now trying to find an unsanctioned flight back to Earth by themselves.
It was an enjoyable plot strand amid a usually statistic-heavy game, but I almost didn’t get the chance of seeing this because of one key problem with Beyond Earth that Rising Tide has only made worse.
The game is too short.
You might think it odd to hear me criticizing a 5-6 hour gaming session as “too short”, but where many of Beyond Earth’s late game content is concerned, it’s sadly true.
Rising Tide delivers some wonderful early game thrills that taper off once the wealth of expedition sites and resource pods have all been gobbled up by competing factions.
In the vanilla build of Beyond Earth, you’d find yourself approaching the end of the game before many of the more advanced units and technologies could be unlocked and fully utilized. Through diplomatic traits and the balancing of affinity point acquisition, Rising Tide has introduced an abundance of new systems that accelerate the development of your civilization even further.
Diplomacy brings strong buffs to your production rate and trade whereas artifacts provide substantial bonuses to jump start a fledgling empire. In short: the game develops at a faster pace now and it’s not uncommon for a motivated player to achieve quicker victory times as a result.
Most tier 3 technologies and their associated buildings, units and bonuses simply aren’t necessary to score a win and it’s a rare game where a skilled player will even bother to research them.
What’s worse is that Firaxis has attempted to balance potent strategies and winning conditions, such as academy improvements and Transcendence victories, by artificially increasing the number of turns that those strategies require, i.e. academies take longer to build and the Mind Flower wonder takes longer to bloom.
To say this is lazy balancing is an understatement and all it results in is a painfully tedious end game where a lot of waiting is needed in order to secure victory.
Activating the Beacon (a wonder at the forefront of the Contact Victory path) in particular takes an absolute age now and whilst it is nice to see the developers wanting to make each victory type seem viable, simply bolting extra turns onto the process is not a fun way of doing so.
The diplomacy system is mostly a change for the better, but it too has its own set of problems to contend with. Remembering to spend your accumulated diplomatic capital (a new yield that allows you to purchase traits and agreements) is a consistent pain due to the lack of any reminder provided by the game.
This is not handy when you consider it’s a brand new feature that players have yet to grow accustomed to, but it’s even stranger considering how much the game loves to remind you about new agreements over and over again in very short order.
The fear and respect system is a little wonky too. You’ll experience random declarations of war all over the place (even when the aggressors are miles apart from each other) and once embroiled in combat you’ll discover the new war score feature.
When sponsors go to war, unit kills they make during that engagement are recorded behind the scenes via a running tally of points. Successfully sink a rival submarine for example and your war score increases as does your opponent’s should they destroy your units or conquer your cities- a rare occurrence because the AI’s tactical ability goes completely to pieces versus the new focus on aquatic gameplay.
When one side in the combat does decide to offer peace though, the game calculates the war score and determines which side is granted reparations. If one side has their army decimated for example (giving the attacker a very high war score), then that defender may find their cities ransomed off as part of the peace deal.
It’s a feature that’s designed to regulate the spoils of war and indeed it sounds great on paper, but in actuality the execution is pretty dismal. The problem mainly stems from the fact that the player has no control over the peace terms.
Cities seem to be the only currency exchanged in peace deals now (no more energy or science per turn as before), but what’s worse is that the AI can frequently refuse the deal and offer you one of its own making.
You can drive an AI’s people to the brink of genocide only to have the representing sponsor change the reparations to a ‘white peace’ whereupon they would give you absolutely nothing!
Put simply: the war score system feels like an arbitrary number that frequently plunges you into wars of total annihilation because you as a player can rarely declare peace on your own terms.
This hardly works as intended and if anything can be said to need immediate attention in future software patches, then the war score is undoubtedly it.
Another problematic feature of diplomacy is the fact that any element of negotiation has been removed. When signing agreements with the AI to receive boons such as free workers, enhanced spies or increased city productivity, it’s more than possible that the AI will simply refuse you.
“Come back when you’ve got a better offer” quipped one during a recent game.
The problem is that you can’t make an offer above the default value. When an AI says no to an agreement there’s zero way of negotiating a deal they would be happy with. You can’t offer additional diplomatic capital or energy per turn or any surplus strategic resources you may have laying about; all that agency from the base game has been taken away.
Successfully signing an agreement with an AI sponsor may depend on their fear and respect levels, but the game does a pretty poor job of actually explaining this facet, even if it is true! I’m still not sure to be completely honest…
Many of the negative aspects in this expansion seem to routinely come down to a question of: “Is this working as intended or is it a bug?”. Indeed, so many elements just feel a bit “off” due to a general lack of polish.
In order to establish city connections between aquatic cities for example, you need to build a road tile on that city… huh?
Similarly, the Geothermal resource does next to nothing now because it can’t be traded, AI leaders you’re at war with will still spout compliments as you busily slaughter their troops and the Pan-Asian Cooperative’s new sponsor ability to instantly finish wonders with no investment is especially unthematic and poorly thought out. Firaxis, please take a lesson from Civilization V and make your wonders special, for goodness sake!
Other sponsors have been remixed too, but again it’s a mixed bag. The new additions such as Al Falah and INTEGR feel robust and viable, but others like the Slavic Federation and Franco-Iberia still feel lacklustre and often force the player to approach the game in a set way if they wish to make full use of their intended benefits.
You can’t escape that old familiar feeling when playing Rising Tide though; that feeling of the gameplay having been a bit rushed and there are many bugs and design oversights present in the release build that threaten to corrode your enjoyment.
At the time of writing, a major bug with diplomatic alliances has already been hotfixed, but many others yet remain. Covert operatives can’t be aborted when traveling to a new location, workers are able to cultivate farms on terrain that is usually restricted and quest strings routinely break when they ask you to construct a building that you cannot physically construct in the desired location.
Other areas just stink of design scrimping, such as the lack of proper descriptions for the new hybrid military unit abilities or the outright lack of hybrid submarines and planes altogether. There’s still no proper artwork for wonders outside of those bland blueprint renders and there’s no way to view your collection of bonuses accumulated from artifact mixing.
Then you have the wanting areas of the base game which are still disappointingly untouched. The virtue/culture system hasn’t been changed at all despite it desperately needing proper balance, certain weak technologies have been made worse by shifting bonuses and wonders still suck!
Wonders in particular are such a huge part of the Civ experience. A tremendously powerful unique structure that only you possess should be a massive draw for this game, but the vast majority of wonders in Beyond Earth are still far too expensive, appearing on wayward technologies or featuring unimpressive abilities and dull bonuses that will never provide a return on their colossal investment.
Now to its credit, Rising Tide does introduce several new wonders which do hit the mark. For the most part, these new projects (which are all exclusive to aquatic cities) are reasonably costed, feature no restrictive resource costs and lie within decent reach of the game’s overall play time.
But aside from a token bonus to diplomatic capital, all other wonders remain in their same underwhelming state. Hilariously, upon me building one of the old wonders during a casual game of Rising Tide, I received a deluge of AI diplomatic messages where they all taunted and laughed at me for my effort!
When the AI players in a Civilization game know that something is wrong with your design, you better start listening Firaxis!
Overall what we have here is still a decent effort, but the relative absence of challenge in this expansion is likely going to appeal more to casual players now rather than dedicated strategy enthusiasts. Experts are going to find a lot of disappointing compromises here whereas more casual players might find it easier to get lost in Beyond Earth’s steadily improving sci-fi milieu.
The best thing about Rising Tide though is that the developers weren’t afraid to try something bold this time around. The game is woefully imbalanced and unpolished at times, but I’m glad to at least see some determination in trying to make Beyond Earth more credible and exciting.
This feels more like a game you can win in a variety of ways now. You don’t have to sit back and cover your territory in academies anymore as the diplomacy, water gameplay and new affinity combinations, grant more diverse ways of winning; something that should be at the heart of any Civilization title really.
Rising Tide is solid in its ideas if not always in its execution then. The sheer abundance of bugs present in the release build at the very least make clear that it should have been left in the oven a bit longer than it inevitably was.
I still hold out hope for Firaxis though because if they can stand by their word, listen to the fans, and support this title properly, they may well have a very smart game on their hands this time next year.
As it stands for the moment though, Rising Tide is one small step for a game that’s now in need of one giant leap.