Time has not been kind to Civilization: Beyond Earth. I found it a passable strategy game at review, but the longer I stuck with it afterwards—particularly after I went back and remembered how amazing Civilization V still is—the more I went sour on it.
It has some neat ideas around the fringes, sure, but the whole thing was just so...dour. It was a glorified Civilization V mod dressed up as a standalone sci-fi game, only it lacked all the character, scale and visual splendour of its inspiration. Eventually, despite Beyond Earth’s tricks, it just wore me down.
I’d hoped the game’s first major expansion, Rising Tide, would help address some of those issues. And it does, a little. But it also makes fresh mistakes of its own.
First, the good news! The name Rising Tide has nothing to do with the alien planet you’re playing on; it’s about a looming environmental disaster back on Earth (rising sea levels), which compels a whole bunch of new factions to head for the stars (hence the arrival of new allies/enemies). The entire game is seeded with commentary on climate change, and having you play through and deal with the survivors of what’s painted as an apocalyptic event is an unexpectedly urgent political message to find in a turn-based strategy game.
Also related to the name is the fact the new world’s oceans are now actually good for something. Aquatic cities can now be built, and they’re an interesting departure from the norm. They’re more powerful and tougher to occupy since they’re on the water, and their borders can also be expanded manually by moving them around the map instead of waiting for cultural advances. Like Venice in Civ V, they make for a radical change in the way you approach the game, giving a fresh challenge to anyone who’s mastered the art of putting buildings on dry land.
Now for the bad news. Starting with diplomacy’s overhaul.
No longer are relationships defined by actions and barter; instead they’re conducted via a new resource, a literal accumulation of political capital that you spend in the same way you would Civ V’s gold.
Which sounds interesting in theory, but in practice, it’s kinda dumb. Saving up resources just to conduct basic diplomatic business is an obtuse hassle. Worse, your diplomatic dealings are now locked in by the game. Instead of being free to choose your own list of offers and demands, Rising Tide simply presents an AI-calculated offer to you, and you can either agree or disagree. Civ V’s diplomacy system wasn’t perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than what’s been implemented here.
What makes diplomacy (and the game itself!) so much fun in Civilization is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously; leaders are caricatures, which helps you not only develop relationships with them, but excuses their weird actions and most importantly provides context! You suspect Attila will be a jerk because, well, he’s Attila the Hun. And Gandhi gonna Gandhi.
Beyond Earth doesn’t have this luxury. Rising Tide adds new leaders but they’re as empty and humourless as the existing ones, making diplomacy a matter of guesswork and cold calculations. I would party with pretty much any Civ V leader, and then drunkenly stumble into a field the next morning to duel with them at ten paces, and it would be the best day of my life. I would maybe get Beyond Earth’s leaders to do my taxes.
So, yeah, Rising Tide’s big change is something that didn’t really need changing! But what really bums me out is the game’s fancy cinematic intro (above). The clip itself is great! A nice and grounded take on a space colony, with humans struggling to survive in a world with clean white ice and bright blue skies. It’s a mashup of the familiar and the alien that works really well in making the whole thing seem...real.
It’s the tone the intro lays down that breaks your heart. Because when the actual game starts, you realise the game world itself—despite the inclusion of two new biomes—is as dank and uninviting as Beyond Earth’s. And I don’t mean that in a “alien planets are hostile and unforgiving” kind of way. I mean it in a “this planet is dark and gross”, and it really impacts on my desire to spend any serious time with this game.
Which might sound absurd if you don’t play these kind of games that often, but if you do, you’ll know that the game world is the main thing you’re looking at (and interacting with) over the course of dozens or even hundreds of hours! If it’s pretty to look at you’ll feel right at home. If it’s not, the whole thing becomes a drag.
I know that’s a problem more with the core game than this expansion, but I brought it up because that’s the story of Rising Tide overall: it makes a few changes, some of them interesting, but none of them really necessary. Beyond Earth got pretty boring (and faded from most people’s libraries accordingly) because it was soulless and played a little too much like Civilization V. Those are the things that need fixing, not diplomacy and some tweaks around the periphery.