Civilization expansions are not like other expansions. Rather than merely offering new missions or extra characters, they generally signify altered design directions, usually at the behest of committed Civ fans. They are greeted with intense scrutiny by people who really care about the series' complex layers of systems and their interplay.
Beyond Earth Rising Tide (let's just be friendly and call it BERT) is the latest iteration of a gaming platform that stretches back to the original Civilization game in 1991, itself ripped from an older board game. Since then the franchise has moved through five full iterations for the core historic game, as well as science-fiction offshoots such as Alpha Centauri and today's Beyond Earth.
While new Civ games tend to embrace full rethinks of core mechanisms — like combat or territory acquisition — expansions are more about tweaking designs and improving systems. Civ 5's expansions focused on improving mid- and late-game flow adding major systems like religion and trade as well as minor stuff like new civilizations, scenarios, units and wonders.
Rising Tide's major addition is the ability to settle on water, along with attendant units, aliens and gameplay gizmos associated with all things aquatic. It is also an attempt to address one of the series' most problematic systems: diplomacy. And it adds a lot of new ways for players to interact with the data and the objects at their disposal.
Although some data-screens are rationalized — in the sense of being easier to navigate — the one thing that Rising Tide does not seek to do is simplify Beyond Earth. This is a complicated game that demands its players fuss and bother over the big picture as well as the minutiae, over the immediate crisis as well as the long-term vision.
The most obvious addition is the ability to settle cities on water. Like land, the ocean is dotted with exploitable resources. Realizing these benefits, growing cities and expanding territory works much the same as on land, with some significant differences.
City territories on oceans do not grow organically. Players must expand by either purchasing new city hexes or, more startlingly, by moving the entire city and so expanding into a new area. The movement is only one hex, takes a few turns to execute and is selected just like any building project.
This single addition offers many different potentials for expanding territory, creating spirals of new territory or strategic coastline grabs. It also presents a nice problem of whether or not to fully develop owned tiles before moving on, or grabbing as much territory in the shortest timeframe possible.
Obviously, water does not require roads and does not present terrain problems. Units move farther across water than land. However, it does come with some downsides. Water cities are not so good at creating land units, so for civilizations interested in land-based empires, their utility can be limited. While they are healthful places, they struggle to produce sufficient food to promote rapid growth.
"Water gameplay is not better or worse, it's just different," explains lead producer Andrew Frederiksen. "Your water city is going to have a harder time getting food but you'll have an easier time getting culture and energy. You can balance it out. How do I want to approach the problem this time?"
Two new civilizations have been revealed for Rising Tide so far. Al Falah is a Middle Eastern cultural conglomeration, revealed at E3. The North Sea Alliance, loosely based on the countries of the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, relate directly to the new sea-borne gameplay. The NSA can land upon water hexes and start building cities right from the beginning of the game. They move faster than rivals upon water. They can also move their cities at a much faster rate than rivals. Anyone interested in building a sea-empire is well advised to choose this civ.
The NSA is led by one Duncan Hughes. "He's a bruiser," says Frederiksen. "He's the rough and tumble guy. He didn't grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He wasn't born into politics. He was a dockworker. This is a no-nonsense guy who comes from a culture of seafarers."
Sea-based aliens include the Hydra-coral, a big mess of a lifeform which doesn't really bother anyone, but which grows slowly over time. They can be treated as a benign defensive wall, or as a nuisance to expansion, which must be destroyed.
Obviously, players can ignore the ocean and focus on building land empires, but opening up this huge area of the map for settlement and throwing in some curious gameplay elements is going to change up how players go about settling their planets and managing their civilizations.
Just as interesting to Civ-watchers is a significant new tweak to diplomatic relations with AI opponents.
In Civ games, rival AI players converse and deal much like humans. However, they have a tendency to behave in ways that do not feel human and that seem illogical to the point of derangement. For developer Firaxis, balancing the need for opponents that offer appropriate levels of challenge and drama with the realism of human-like agencies has always been a problem.
Rising Tide increases the amount of interactions between player and AI, a risky proposition because diplomacy and AI communication has always been the least impressive part of this game. But the reasoning for this change is solid, as are its attendant design changes.
Players earn a resource called Diplomatic Capital. It can be traded with AIs, in return for boosts to, say, production or transport efficiency or food production. As always, trade in basic resources also takes place. Over time, these interactions naturally improve relations with the rival AI.
But players can also spend larger amounts of Diplomatic Capital on formally improving the relationship to a higher level — like an alliance — that both decreases the potential for conflict and produces higher yields on all trade agreements.
These diplomatic leaps do come with caveats. You can't just buy alliances. If a player does not respect or fear you, they will not want to do business. Respect is won by amassing a history of deals and co-operations. Fear is won through the building of arms. Both these factors are displayed as numeric scales.
AIs have their own quirks and priorities. If you do things they happen to approve of — say aggressive land expansion or meaty trade networks — they will like you more. If you neglect these pursuits, they will like you less.
Although Firaxis says the AIs themselves have been improved, the real change here is one of transparency. With all this additional data, players are less likely to be blindsided by an AI's seeming craziness. Clicking on any rival leader will show the basic nature of their relationship with everyone else.
"Players want data," says Frederiksen. "The worst is when you give them results without understanding the data, without giving them a way to see where something is coming from. When you look at the new diplomacy system you understand where you're at. We want to make sure that people understand and can find what they're looking for in an intuitive way."
Each civ now has its own "traits," which is basically an optional upgrade tree for the entire civilization. Clicking on any rival leader will show their traits and the basic nature of their relationship with everyone else.
All this is making the game more complicated but also more rewarding for those who are prepared to deal with all the systems and data at their disposal.
Rising Tide also comes with two new planet types: Primordial and Frigid biomes offer their own particular benefits and challenges, with aliens behaving differently in each. For example, aliens on frigid planets are more difficult to kill, but they tend to present themselves in thinner populations. There are also new variants of aliens.
A new artifact system has been added which allows the player to collect bits and bobs scattered about the planet and either cash them in for small bonuses, or collect them into groups of three and collect a later, bigger bonus.
Another interesting tweak is the Ultrasonic Fence. Previously, researching this wall was a no-brainer, as it kept aliens off settled lands. Now it's slightly less effective. Really, really angry aliens can now breach the Ultrasonic Fence, though not so often that it ceases to be a useful building. The change has been made to keep aliens relevant through the mid- and late-game stages.
The tech web has been color-coded to make it simpler to navigate, so techs that lead to buildings are blue while those that lead to units are gray. Wonders are yellow.
Affinity is a system that signifies a player's values, based on its chosen tech-resource path. They have long been a matter of debate among fans of this game.
There's a new graph that shows affinity progress as a wheel, displaying the various paths toward affinity bonuses. Affinity gains have also been changed so that branch techs can offer up affinity leaps, as well as leaf techs. This just means that the player seems to make more affinity progress, in smaller leaps.
"Some players see affinities as almost an RPG class," says Frederiksen. "I'm a 'this' but not a 'that.' But no culture, no civilization is just one thing. As our culture lands on this planet, we're going to learn about aliens. We're going to gain a bit of alien affinity. That may mean I only end up with one or two ranks in that, because I didn't go after it, but I'm not going to be completely unaware. Some percentage of the population will care."
So affinity is essentially a hybrid, rather than a class. Players make their way through affinity's various specific units, based on who they are, rather than the prescriptions of a strict class-based doctrine.
"We're happy with the affinity, because you get rewards for where you go," says Frederiksen. "There are people who try to make it all the way through the game and avoid any rank of one affinity. And that's their choice. That's kind of how we want it."
On the face of it, Rising Tide is about the addition of water-based cities. But it's also about more dialog, more transparency, more data, more choice to shape one's own character through optional traits as well as a whole diplomatic resource to gather and spend.
"We're letting people know where the game is going before it gets there," says Frederiksen. "All this has a huge impact on the middle and late game. You've been able to prepare for or help guide the shape of the game. But there's also been major numbers balance: to the tech web, to affinity, to how much science it takes to unlock things, how much affinity it takes, where the affinity unlocks are for those final victories. All of that changes to make sure we're hitting a pace that feels rewarding rather than surprising."
Rising Tide will be released in the fall on Windows PC, Mac and Linux.