It's time to get the Civilization: Beyond Earth expansion train rolling. You knew it was coming. Maybe you didn't know when, but I'm sure when Beyond Earth released last fall you heard the first distant toots as it rounded tracks in the distance.
It's all-but-expected with the Civilization series at this point. Base game: Decent, if stripped-down, foundation. First expansion: Fixes some of the gripes. Second expansion: Hailed as a masterpiece. Every. Single. Time.
Even Civilization V, now the standard to which all 4X games are compared, was belittled on release for not reaching the same complexity as Civilization IV. And on it goes.
I spoke with 2K last week about the first (and presumably not the last) expansion for Civilization: Beyond Earth, subtitled Rising Tide. As you can guess from the title, its main focus is on oceans—although there are some changes coming to factions and diplomacy as well.
Sailing the seven seas
To be clear, I haven't seen Rising Tide in action yet. But one of the first things I asked was "What makes Rising Tide different from 'More Civilization'?" It was one of the most pervasive complaints about Beyond Earth, and rightfully so—in many ways, it felt like a reskinned version of Civilization V.
The complaint was so pervasive, it even came up during a GDC postmortem on the game. Discussing the game in March, Beyond Earth's co-lead designer David McDonough admitted "a little bit of lack of ambition" with Beyond Earth's base game. It didn't push far enough. It wasn't quite the bold Alpha Centauri successor everyone expected.
With Rising Tide, McDonough thinks they're rectifying some of those issues. "Sort of across the board with the expansion we're specifically making plays from the position 'Never been done in Civ before,'" said McDonough when I spoke to him last week. "We're really trying to redefine what Beyond Earth is and ground it in what it ought to be, which isn't just 'Civ in space' but 'Civilization of the future.'"
Central to that is naval gameplay. Oceans are now fully open to colonization, with cities and territories able to extend into the seas. It sounds like you could even have an entire faction with only naval cities. Along with these new capabilities comes new naval military units, amphibious units, and aquatic alien life.
McDonough also stressed that this is more than an extension of the land-based game into the oceans—in other words, you couldn’t just achieve the same effect by playing an all-land Beyond Earth map. That's a claim I'll need to see in action before verifying, though.
And while the naval additions are at the center of Rising Tide, I must admit that two other changes are far more interesting to me and took up most of my interview with 2K.
Diplomacy is a weak point in Beyond Earth, more even than other Civilization games. It's the same static system we've seen in past Civs, except this time without even the benefit of interesting leaders. Diplomacy might be boring in Civilization V, but at least there's a certain novelty to seeing Gandhi wage rampant warfare on his neighbors, et cetera.
By contrast, Beyond Earth's leaders were all-but-interchangeable. There was the sort-of French leader, the sort-of American leader… Honestly I'm having a hard time even remembering the different factions while writing this.
"We have a rich sci-fi setting, we have a rich fiction that we authored, but there's very little avenue for players to absorb and appreciate it," said McDonough when I asked about it. "As a result, they don't identify, they don't invest emotionally in their own civilization the way they did in, say, Alpha Centauri where those leaders were painted in much brighter colors."
Which brings us to Rising Tide's overhauled diplomacy. Producer Andrew Frederiksen jumps in. "This a new diplomacy system, not just a couple of new options. Every leader is going to have a small set of traits and these traits can both evolve or be changed throughout the course of an individual game," says Frederiksen.
I remark that it sounds like Crusader Kings II, which also revolves around leader traits. "CK2 is one influence but we didn't take perhaps the direction they did," Frederiksen continues. "It's a combination of determining what the leader's character is in an AI sense, what they're actively going to do with their own Civ, and what their entry points are for you to make deals with them from your own side."
Each character will have a unique trait, but over the course of the game will acquire traits that affect the way they run their faction and interact with others. Frederiksen gives me a quick example. "If I'm interacting with a leader that has a trait that favors people that engage in trading, and they see me trading, their respect for me is going to grow. That's going to open up newer or better options with that leader. Conversely if they see that I'm not trading, they're not going to respect me."
It's an interesting twist on the classic Civilization diplomacy, though I'm still curious how extensive the system is in practice. In other words, how much it feels like "a new diplomacy system" the way 2K claims instead of "tacked on to the old system." Definitely something I'll be exploring when we get hands-on time with the expansion.
Last but not least, 2K is adding hybrid affinities. One of Beyond Earth's biggest additions was affinities—a system that encouraged your faction to go down a specific technology path to unlock unique units and win conditions. For instance, the Harmony affinity eventually leads to your faction mind-melding with the entire planet, becoming "more than human."
Rising Tide allows you to mix and match affinity technologies, with even more unique hybrid units and modifiers. McDonough also promises the new affinities take the science fiction aspect even further, calling them "a lot stranger" than the three in the base game. He also says they're rebalancing the entire tech tree to make sure hybrid players are not at a disadvantage to those who drill down the tree towards a specific affinity.
If history's anything to go by, Rising Tide will be a worthwhile investment for those who felt something was missing with Beyond Earth. I'll hold off making any sweeping judgments until we've had hands-on time with the game—something I'd expect to happen during E3 at the latest—but I'm at least interested in checking out what the expansion has on offer.
Rising Tide is coming this fall for a price of $30. We'll have more for you soon.