Sid Meier’s Beyond Earth, Rising Tide

Rising Tide (“RT”) is the first and, dare I say, much needed DLC for Beyond Earth (“BE”), the sci-fi Civilization V spin-off which was met with a muted reception. It’s been out for a while now, but I have only been able to spend the last couple of weeks with it. The verdict: well… it’s good and bad.

The good news is that, with its first expansion, BE feels much more like its own game than it did before. While it was a perfectly solid game, it felt so much like Civ V with a rather dry sci-fi lip service applied. Not being the spiritual Alpha Centauri successor that many, many gamers had longed hoped for was one thing, but not creating a meaningful sense of strange new worlds that people come to expect from sci-fi was the drop in the bucket.

While RT doesn’t quite solve the dryness, it does take BE further away from Civ V and closer to the otherworldly experience I was expecting when BE launched. For starters, there are quite a few more alien species hanging around, a few of which are pleasantly enormous and more ambitious in their design than the ‘just some big green bugs’ approach of the base game. You interact with them on a greater level as well. For example, there’s a new tech which keeps the calm, so you don’t have an s-storm every time you take out one of their nests. There’s another piece of tech which lets you sic ‘em on any enemy. The best addition, in my opinion, is the Leash. This lets you make any enemy your own personal pet who fights right alongside you. Realistically, though, most aliens are pretty lousy fighters once the humans have progressed past basic tech, but it’s useful to have free reinforcements if you need them. With the right research, you can also Leash Collosal Aliens, including the almighty Siege Worm.

The politics and philosophy of alien engagement remains almost non-existent. You make them mad if you start attacking them, and other civs may raise an eyebrow at your actions, but other than that, it is hard to come up with a reason why you wouldn’t just wipe them out. When you start building human-alien hybrids, it’s nothing to do with what’s actually on the planet, but simply a result of research. So there aren’t any real consequences that I have found to genocide. Given this, it almost feels that even with RT, BE is no more than a re-skin of Civ’s Barabarians as aliens. This is a shame, especially considering you on a brand new planet. Dealing with a brand new species. It feels as though this is something BE’s oddly under-played quest system could toy with, but that’s pretty much still the same as the base game.

Another shift, in terms of lifting BE beyond a retextured Earth, is a change to water. There was some basic naval stuff in BE, but fundamentally an ocean was just a body of water to cross in order to settle, or battle, elsewhere. With RT, it’s now something to build on. And to fight over. I often steer clear of naval stuff in most games, especially Civ games (if I can), because it’s often boring to me. With this, I wasn’t overjoyed that RT seemed to be fleshing out oceans, but not land. The good news is that water is now, effectively, an alternative to landmass. You can construct new cities that have access to special aquatic tech that land-locked settlements do not have access to. The can also be made to move ever so slightly across the water, adding territory, since they cannot add it via Culture as the land cities can. Now, it’s not as exciting as it may sound. I actually found it more expedient to simply buy new hexes with Energy instead.

The aquatic aspects all fold in very naturally, though, becoming a part of your ongoing expansion. There’s new beauty to behold as well – strange minerals and impossible science lurking beneath the water’s skin. Arguably, that side of thins is superficial, but it all adds to that much needed sense that this is not just Earth with some bizarre rocks scattered here and there. Attacking, and defending, an aquatic city presents an intriguing new type of challenge, as well: you can’t just invade with your best ground units. They will simply get picked off as you try to cross the water. Instead, you will need to raise a flotilla to encircle the city. Meanwhile, a single enemy boat could head around the ocean’s perimeter and grab one of your aquatic cities if you’ve been complacent enough to leave it unprotected by any fleet. You don’t get the relative safety that the more clustered, easy to reach land cities offer. In other words, if you’re the combative type, you have to go all-in to naval battles. The seas is kind of like its own world now, not a mere obstacle.

A couple of new biomes, replete with new species, and more specialized additional leaders add to the much needed color, as does a handful of new, more sci-fi affinitive units, designed to give more satisfying pay-offs (both visually and tactically). Long-term, all of this will be vital to ensuring subsequent campaigns don’t feel as interchangeable as they did in the base game. It’s real progress, and the game is more interesting for it.

So far so good on the changes, then. This is where the bad comes in. The other big change, a massive overhaul of the Diplomacy system, leaves something to be liked. The old request/demand assistance setup is gone. The thoughts here being that other leaders were simply too unfamiliar to have vaguely predictable behaviors, and there wasn’t enough insight into their attitude towards you. Now, each Leader has a Fear and Respect rating, which opens up various trade and cooperation options depending on the level of each rating. This potentially leads to exploitation or war as well.

You don’t trade science or resources this way, though. Instead, you basically rent bonuses in exchange for Diplomacy Points. Throw 150 points plus another 15 per turn at Polynesia and they’ll do… well, something that means you generate more culture, or new settlements found instantly. Or this could go the other way, too. They could come to you offering points for prizes, which you will tend to want to accept because diplomacy points can unlock Civ-wide bonuses akin to Virtues, and because they can be used as an alternative currency to purchase units and buildings. New/revised buildings and tech unlocks also pony up Diplomacy Points.

This all takes me out of immersion experience, and makes it feel more like what it is… a game. Most people won’t have a problem with that, but it doesn’t make sense to me that I can buy more factories because I had a number of positive conversations with other nations. But… it holds together, and very much contributes to the dragging BE away from Civ’s over-familiar shores. It also allows you play as a placater rather than an aggressor. I think the Diplomacy Points will cause (have caused) some grumbles as they’re just an added layer of statistical complexity, instead of making the underlying ones more interesting (or human), but in my experience, there are two more significant problems in the new system.

First, it make decisions for you. Choose a policy bonus that you want, chat with the Leader who can provide it, and the game will offer a fixed, pre-determined amount of Diplomacy Points to trade for it. You cannot change the offer in any way, so when they say, “No” – as they often do – there’s nothing you can do about it. I had a ton of points in the bank, but couldn’t offer more. Everyone was saying, “No”, despite being in alliance with me, and there was not a thing I could do to change this.

The same problem exists when it comes to brokering peace, and it’s far more problematic. There’s a new War Points system that shows who is doing the best (in broad terms), and then, behind the scenes, makes a calculation as to what each side will offer in order to agree to peace. Where Civ traditionally allows you to stipulate what you want and/or are prepared to sacrifice, BE: RT now decides for you. So, say I almost completely obliterate a troublesome Civ; I didn’t want to wipe them out, but needed them to stop attacking me. I crush their army, then offered a peace. The game decided that I would demand one of their cities from them. Again, there was no way to alter this deal. They said no, of course. I didn’t even want their city. I just wanted peace between us so that I could continue pursuing a chilled-out Transcendence victory. Instead, I was locked into conquest. Later, they came to me offering their city in the name of peace. I had to accept. They hated me for it, and so attacked again later. This is just plain dumb. Similarly, had I bowled over another Civ and they then begged me for peace, I would not be able to make demands in exchange for mercy. The deal is fixed, based only upon whatever the game has silently decided behind the scenes.

The second problem I found had to do with alliances. Depending on your Respect/Fear rating, you can request the following relationships with other Civs: War, Sanctioned, Neutral, Cooperating, or Allied. The former can be made to happen from acts of aggression, as expected, while Sanctioned is, in theory, where you would find yourself just after making peace (or if someone really, really distrusts you). Remember the two words I used: in theory. The reality is that your relationship with other Civs can switch from Allied to War in a nanosecond, and it’s not always obvious why. There are small pop-ups throughout gameplay which let you know about minor shifts in Respect and Fear, but very rarely is there any warning that someone’s getting a little antsy. Out of the blue they just declare outright war, with no apparent diplomatic consequences to themselves for breaking off the alliance.

Unfortunately, for me, as with many, these issues are a bit of a deal breaker when it comes to strategy games like this. It’s right in the genre of the game: strategy. Wouldn’t you want, in a strategy game, to be able to offer your players ways to be strategic in their negotiations with other Civs? It seems to me that not allowing deals to be altered, and no diplomatic consequences for flipping between relationships like Allied and War, that it takes the strategy out of a big portion of the game. Until this changes, I cannot recommend this game to others.

2 out of 5 stars