I enjoyed Civilization: Beyond Earth for the most part, but I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that there was something missing. The various faction leaders lacked the charisma of Civilization’s merry band of historical figures, diplomacy was a bit of a washout, and the game never fully embraced its sci-fi setting – it felt, ultimately, like little more than a re-skinned Civ 5. I’m happy to say, then, that after two hours with its first expansion Rising Tide, Beyond Earth feels more like the game I always hoped it would be.
Let’s start with the standout new feature; you can now create an entirely naval empire, by settling cities on the open ocean. In the sea you’ll find all-new resources and quests, plus an array of new alien lifeforms that would like nothing more than to chew up your unfortunate band of space colonists and spit out the bones. The gigantic, squid-like Kraken takes the place of the Siege Worm as my least favourite critter, as unlike its landborne equivalent it can wander about wherever it damn well pleases, sinking your precious trade convoys and generally being a great big alien pain in the arse.
Here’s the dilemma – naval factions have a lot more tactical flexibility and maneuverability on the open ocean (and they can even pack their bags and move cities across the ocean in search of new resources), but at the same time they’re more open to attacks, either from human enemies or the local wildlife. Thankfully you’ve got an all-new roster of naval vessels to deploy in the defense of your outposts, including new Hybrid Affinity units, which we’ll get to shortly.
Outside the strategic options, there’s plenty of fun new stuff to discover in the sea. Upon landfall in my new arctic home, one of the two new Biome options for creating new maps, I set up shop next to a bizarre creature called a Hydrochoral Brain, a sort of mental hub that connected various wandering monsters together. There was a whole side-quest chain that centered around a scientific investigation of this nightmarish, Lovecraftian… thing that was too lengthy to explore in my preview session, but just encountering it lent a sense of discovery and wonder that I rarely felt when playing the core game. Each Biome contains a unique version of one of these ‘Marvel Quests’, and along with the greater quantity of alien life in Rising Tide, they really make the game world feel like a mysterious alien planet, rather than a slightly sci-fi flavoured facsimile of Earth.
By far my biggest problem with Beyond Earth was that opposition leaders felt almost indistinguishable. Every other faction seemed to be playing pretty much the same game of conquest and expansion, rather than the culture or science-focused approaches that you’d see crop up in a Civ 5 game, and diplomacy did little to add any character to your interactions. That’s something Firaxis has dramatically improved for Rising Tide.
First up, every leader in the game now has a series of traits; one unique to them, and three more chosen from political, military and domestic branches. This not only tweaks the benefits each faction gets, but it also unlocks a number of diplomatic Agreements that you can make with potential allies. Say I control a large navy, and my trait means I build new vessels faster than anyone else – I can earn diplomatic points by trading on that specialty, handing out a slightly less powerful version of it to an ally. If me and my new friend move from a warm co-operative stance to a full alliance, the trait becomes even more effective.
This should encourage a greater connection between you and the various leaders in the game, and make alliances stick more often. It also affords you a great deal of control over how your empire develops, and allows you to use your diplomatic influence to cover shortcomings in your development. In addition, AI factions will like or dislike rivals depending on how they clash with their chosen trait; environmentalist leaders will despise those who pack their cities with gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing factories, for example. The diplomatic overhaul adds not just strategic variety, but a badly needed injection of character.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a new Civilization expansion without a few new faces on the roster. New guys INTEGR, lead by German political figures in opposition to the Franco-Iberian faction, earn diplomatic points quicker than their opponents. Three other factions debut in Rising Tide; the North Sea Alliance are British and Scandinavian seafarers who specialise in draining extra resources from sea tiles, while the Middle Eastern-influenced Al Falah produce more good from cities, meaning that they can build up without focusing quite so much on expansion. The final faction is yet to be announced, but presumably it will also interact with the new mechanics introduced Rising Tide in an interesting way.
In case all that wasn’t enough, you’ve also got new Hybrid Affinities and Artefacts to consider. The former offers players the choice to focus not on just one of the core Affinity branches – Supremacy, Harmony or Purity – but a mix of two. Heading down this path will unlock entirely new Hybrid Affinity units that have their own visual style and abilities, as well as perks for your civilization. Artefacts, meanwhile, can be found out in the wilds, and combined in order to unlock hefty resource rewards, or, if you put together the correct recipe, unique structures.
There’s a lot of new content here, and the impressive variety of new options in Rising Tide makes Beyond Earth feel like the game it should have been at launch. Practically every change it brings makes the core game feel richer and more characterful, and for the first time in a long while, I’m excited to return to Firaxis’ sci-fi playground. The expansion’s set for release later this Fall.
Most anticipated moment: I didn’t have time to really dig into the Hybrid Affinity units, but there are some delightfully weird creations in there.