When it first launched back in 2011, Civilization V was famously derided by longtime fans for questionable A.I. and a lack of much-loved features like religion.
While Civilization V has since regained its footing with the help of two expansion packs, its spinoff/pseudo-sequel, Civilization: Beyond Earth, is more of a work-in-progress. Will it be able to rise up and recapture the attention of strategy fans? With the announcement of the Rising Tide expansion pack, we'll know soon enough.
The expansion, which was announced earlier today, will introduce floating settlements, updated diplomacy, more factions, and a new artifact system.
It will attempt to make good on the promises that designers David McDonough and Will Miller made during GDC 2015, when McDonough offered what amounted to a mea culpa, admitting that Beyond Earth might have suffered from a "little bit of lack of ambition."
Among the issues they highlighted during the presentation, they noted the need to improve diplomacy, acknowledging that fictional leaders like Suzanne Fielding didn't have the same psychological impact as Catherine the Great. Wonders were highlighted as another sore spot for much the same reason — nothing Beyond Earth has compares to the Pyramids of Giza or any other familiar landmark.
Rising Tide attempts to tackle some of these issues in its own way. On the Diplomacy side, there are the new Diplmatic Traits, which can be activated in "different combinations in response to the changing world." There's no reference to Wonders, but it will be possible to collect alien relics and combine them in various ways to create powerful artifacts. The two new biomes — one a primordial world with volcanic activity — should help to liven up the rather drab color palette.
Of course, as the name indicates, the biggest additions will be found on the water, where new aliens and resources will be available, and it will be possible to build floating settlements. Naval units aren't new to Beyond Earth (or Civilization in general), but a renewed focus on the sea ought to help diversify both the factions and the units they emply.
Is it enough to revive interest in Beyond Earth?
I liked Beyond Earth when I reviewed it last year, but even that recommendation came with some caveats. On diplomacy, for instance, I wrote the following:
"... if you're someone who likes tense negotiations and diplomacy... I'm afraid that you're not going to find much of that Beyond Earth. Basic mechanics like trades and alliances are in place, but there's nothing like a United Nations of Garrett 966 b—at least not right now, as it's the sort of thing that's likely to be added in an as yet unannounced expansion pack. For another, there's little in the way of a "cultural victory" or its equivalent. As such, it's very difficult to remain a neutral party, and there's a good chance that you'll eventually have to arm up and take the fight to an opposing civilization lest you eventually be overwhelmed. Non-violent tactics have been something of a weakness for Civilization of late, recent expansions notwithstanding, and that doesn't appear to have changed with Beyond Earth."
Ultimately, I liked the strong narrative arc that ran through the tiered victory conditions, which read to me like a sci-fi novel similar to that of Contact or Childhood's End, and I enjoyed the wildness of the planets I was trying to settle, but it hasn't held up as well as I would have liked. I just haven't felt the motivation to go back to Beyond Earth, where I practically had to be torn from Civilization V, and I know I'm not alone.
I think there are a number of reasons for that. The Affinities, interesting as they might be, aren't sufficiently differentiated from one another, and ultimately boil down to three basic factions. There aren't enough units on either the land or the sea, so even combat feels more limited than it should. And when it comes down to it, the art just isn't that great. That's the tough thing about reviewing a game — strengths can get buried under weaknesses that become glaring with the passage of time. It's what makes reviewing sports games every year such a pain.
While I appreciated Beyond Earth's more esoteric design decisions at launch, the tide of public opinion seems to have turned against it, hurting its long-term value. To their credit, though, Firaxis seems to have recognized that changes need to be made. The studio put out a rather large patch a few months ago that addressed many of the balance issues that players had; and going forward, they plan to integrate it with Sid Meier's Starships, bringing it closer to something akin to Galactic Civilizations III.
In the nearer term, Rising Tide will try to bring Beyond Earth up to the level that fans expect. It'll have to given its hefty $30 price tag. When it comes to expansion packs though, Firaxis has shown itself to be capable of taking fan feedback into account and using it to make dramatic improvements to their games, which should hearten fans. Either way, it will likely go a long way toward determining Beyond Earth's long-term viability. We'll know more this fall.