Rising Tide [official site] is the first, and some might say much-needed, expansion pack for Beyond Earth, the sci-fi Civilization V spin-off which met a somewhat muted reception. It's out tomorrow, but I've spent the last few days with it.
It's so much better. It's so much worse.
The good news is that, with its first expansion, Beyond Earth feels much more its own game than it did before. While perfectly solid, it was greeted with no little gloom at its conservatism, at how it felt so much like Civilization V with rather dry sci-fi lip service applied. Not being the spiritual Alpha Centauri successor many had long prayed for was one thing, but not creating a meaningful sense of strange new worlds was the kicker.
While Rising Tide doesn't quite wash away the dryness, it does take Beyond Earth further away from Civ V, and closer to the otherworldly experience I know I'd been hoping for. There are quite a few more alien species hanging around, for a start, a few of which are pleasantly enormous and more ambitious in their design than the 'just some big green bugs, I guess' approach of the vanilla game. You can do more things with/to them, too. For instance, there's a new tech which keeps them calm, so you don't have hell to pay every time you have to stomp one of their nests, and another which lets you sic 'em on an enemy. The best addition is Leash, however, which lets you make any alien into your own personal fighting pet.
Realistically, most aliens are pretty lousy fighters once the human civs have progressed past basic technology, but it's both useful and fun to have free insta-reinforcements if you need them. Without Leash, it's a long wait for the game to give you anything that isn't Some Blokes, but with it you can have a more characterful army from the off. With the right research, you can also Leash Collosal Aliens, including the mighty Siege Worm. One of several bugs I encountered in this very slightly pre-release code meant I could Leash those guys from the start, but fortunately it was much more a bit of a fun than an unfair advantage. It also soothes my troubled soul a little - I don't like wiping out the natives just to clear space or so they stop bothering me, so this is a way to turn things to my advantage without resorting to genocide.
Even so, the politics and philosophy of alien engagement remains almost non-existent. You piss 'em off if you start attacking them, and other civs may raise a spoken eyebrow at your actions, but other than that it is hard to come up with a reason why you wouldn't wipe them out - even when placid, they simply get in the way. When you start building human-alien hybrids, it's nothing to do with what's actually on the planet, simply a result of research. So there aren't any real consequences to genocide, and I feel that, even with Rising Tide, Beyond Earth hasn't done anything more than reskin Civ's Barbarians as aliens. A great shame: you're on a brand new planet! Dealing with brand new species is profound! It feels as though this is something Beyond Earth's oddly under-played quest system could toy with, but that's pretty much still the same dry, pop-up sideshow as before.
The other big shift, in terms of lifting Beyond Earth beyond a retextured Earth, is sweeping change to water. There was some basic naval stuff in Beyond Earth, but fundamentally an ocean was just a body of water to cross in order to settle or battle elsewhere. Now, it's something to build on, and to fight over. I often steer clear of naval stuff in Civ games if I can, because little grey boats are boring and it's just one more thing to manage amid millions, so I wasn't overjoyed that Rising Tide seemed to be fleshing out the oceans but not the land. The good news is that water is now effectively an alternative landmass, upon which you can construct new cities, which in turn have access to special aquatic tech that land-locked settlements do not. They can also, as a build order, be made to move ever so slightly across the water, thus adding territory, as they can't acquire it via Culture, as the land cities can. It's not as exciting as it sounds, and I found it more expedient to simply buy new hexes with Energy instead.
The aquatic stuff all folds in very naturally though, becoming part of your ongoing expansion and involving its own aliens, units and tense sieges. There's new prettiness to behold too - strange minerals and impossible science lurking beneath the water's skin. Arguably that side of things is superficial, but it all adds to that much-needed sense that this is not just Earth with some funny rocks scattered here and there. Attacking (or defending) an aquatic city presents a fascinating new type of challenge, too: you can't just invade with your best ground units, as they'll get picked off as they cross the water, but instead have to raise an army of boats with which to encircle it.
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 because it's on the side of the world, in the middle of the sea, and you've got a few new alien species causing trouble too. You don't get the relative safety that the more clustered, easy to reach land cities offer. In other words, if you're at all combative, you have to go all-in to naval battles. The sea is the world now, not a mere obstacle. In a way, it's just reusing something that was already there in Beyond Earth and Civ V alike, but it's genuinely successful in making Beyond Earth's world feel, well, beyond Earth.
A couple of new biomes, replete with new species, and some more specialised additional leaders also add much-needed colour, as does a handful of new, more science-fictional Affinity units, designed to give more satisfying (both visually and tactically) pay-offs for specialising your research approach. Long-term, all these things will be vital to ensuring subsequent campaigns don't feel as interchangeable as they did in the parent game. It's real progress, and the game's so much more interesting for it.
So far so good, then. Unfortunately the other big change - a massive overhaul of the Diplomacy system - didn't sit at all well with me. The old request/demand assistance setup has been dropped, the feeling being that other leaders were simply too unfamiliar to have vaguely predictable behaviours (i.e. you'd expect Genghis Khan to be a bit of a prick, but the president of the ARC is such a total unknown that it just feels unfair when they randomly declare war) and that there wasn't enough insight into their attitude towards you. Now, each Leader has a Fear and Respect rating towards you, which opens up various trade and co-operation options depending on how high they are, and potentially leads to exploitation or war depending on how low they are.
You don't trade science or resources this way, but instead you essentially rent bonuses in exchange for Diplomacy Points. Chuck 150 points plus 15 per turn at Polynesia and they'll do... something which means you generate more culture, or new settlements found instantly. Or vice-versa: they'll come to you offering points for prizes, which you'll want to accept because diplomacy points can unlock Civ-wide bonuses akin to Virtues and because they can be used as an alternative currency with which to insta-purchase units and buildings. New/revised buildings and tech unlocks also pump out the Diplo-points.
Yes, it's very game-y and perhaps hard to identify the internal logic behind it (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 dragging Beyond Earth away from Civ's over-familiar shores, and to allowing you to play it as a placater rather than aggressor. I think the diplomacy points will cause some grumbles as they're just an added layer of statistical complexity rather than making the underlying ones more interesting or human, but in my experience there are two far more significant problems in the new system.
The first issue is that it makes decisions for you. Choose a policy bonus thingy 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 can't alter the offer, so when they say no - as they often do, for entirely opaque reasons - there's nothing you can do about it. I had thousands of points in the bank, but couldn't offer more. Everyone was saying no despite being in alliances with me, and there was not a thing I could do about it. I think this has been done in order to prevent a rich-get-richer situation, whereby you can bankroll your way into multiple massive bonuses, but, well, isn't that Civ all over anyway?
Far more problematically, the same problem exists when it comes to brokering peace. There's a new War Points system that shows who's broadly doing best 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, now it decides for you. So, for instance, I'd absolutely steamrollered this troublesome Civ; I didn't want to wipe them out but I needed to stop them attacking me. I crushed their army, then went to offer peace. The game decreed that I would demand one of their cities from them - there was no option to alter this deal. They said no. Of course they said no. I didn't even want their city: I just wanted peace so I could get back on pursuing a chilled-out Transcendence victory. Instead, I was locked into conquest. Later on, they came to me offering me their city in the name of peace. I had to accept. They hated me for it and so attacked again later. Stupid, just stupid. Similarly, had I instead kicked seven bells out of 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.
Problem two is alliances. Depending on your Fear/Respect rating, you can request any of these relationships with other Civs: War, Sanctioned, Neutral, Co-operating, Allied. The former can be made to happen from acts of aggression, as always, while Sanctioned is in theory where you end up just after making peace or if someone really, really doesn't trust you. In theory. The reality is that your relationship with someone can switch from Allied to War in a heartbeat, and it's not obvious why. There are small pop-ups throughout letting you know about minor shifts in respect and fear, but very rarely is there any warning that someone's getting antsy: suddenly they just declare war outright, with no apparent diplomatic consequences to themselves for breaking off the alliance.
Right now, there's a further issue. If someone does declare war on you, no-one you are allied with will come to your aid. However, if a Civ declares war an another Civ you are allied with, you will immediately be at war with that first Civ, whether you want to be or not. 2K have confirmed to me and another journalist who's experiencing the same headache that this is a known issue - there's a patch in the works to ensure allies will indeed join you in any war you declare. "Firaxis is working on getting this fixed," is the official response, but it will most likely not happen in time for tomorrow's launch.
This would appear to be a related bug: when allied with two civs who go to war with each other, I swiftly found myself at war with both civs. It didn't happen immediately or consistently - one would instantly turn on me, and the other a few moments later, declaring their outrage at my violent ways. Then everyone else gradually joined in too. I ended up in horrific loops of conflict with people who were supposed to be my allies, constant domino effects triggering as their allies - also my allies - turned on me. (And no-one helping me, of course). I'd eventually make it back to Co-operating or Allied status, only for them to declare war again moments later. I think the fact my Fear rating was maxing out as I raised an army to defend myself only deepened their hatred of me, but the only way I found out of it was to, eventually, totally obliterate the two Civs who'd originally declared war on each other, which presumably was the Gordian knot at the centre of all this mutually-confused destruction.
It's a bug, so I shouldn't spend too much time on it, but it made my game a nightmare and so I must conclude: hold off. Wait for the patch(es). Play right now and there's a big chance you'll be soured against a game you might otherwise enjoy. Or, on the other hand, it could turn out that it's weeks or months before this is resolved. I sincerely doubt that, but: hold off for now. This is an expansion priced as if it were a full game, and so you are very much entitled to expect it to work properly.
And even putting bugs aside, I found the new Diplomacy system infuriating in its restrictions. The wholesale removal of active negotiation for peace or requests for your allies to join you in a war is bewildering, as is the gutting of trade negotations. I appreciate that Beyond Earth finally has the confidence to not simply hang off Civ V's coat-tails, but taking away meaningful agency when it comes to a critical part of the game - how you relate to other Civs - seems absolutely crazy.
And so it is that this piece must end on something of a cliffhanger. I can't safely recommend for or against Rising Tide, because I need to see how the Diplomacy plays out over the coming days. In the build I have here, it's a disaster, so I need to see whether that changes, and how soon. The new aliens'n'ocean stuff is thoughtful and entertaining, pushing the sci-fi further and helping Beyond Earth take much-needed strides away from Civ V, building it at last into a game you have to figure out rather than just go through the motions with. It still comes up short on character compared to the best Civs and, of course, Alpha Centauri, but it's without doubt less anodyne than before. Diplomacy, however, seems to me like a significant misfire even without the bugs - the question of your place in this new world, and in relation to your rivals, remains unresolved. I suspect Beyond Earth's road to recovery has only just begun.
I will be updating this piece once the patch arrives, and we'll see if it alters my feelings about the Diplomacy system or not.
Rising Tide is released tomorrow.