Civilization: Beyond Earth is and always has been a weird game. It shares its sibling’s ambitious design goal—no more or less than trying to encompass human history and social development in a videogame that, at least I assume, people at some point are supposed to win or at least stop playing. Other games in the storied series employ a neat trick to make this task possible: the developers use human history as a guidepost for how the societies in the games should develop, roughly how long that should take, and what challenges they face along the way.
For the most part, this is a decent trick, if you can ignore a few bizarre and unintentionally humorous anachronisms: George Washington leading a band of American settlers in 3000 B.C. or Japan trying to negotiate tenuous border disputes with England, the next-door neighbor. But these aren’t even really “flaws” so much as they are birthmarks of the series. We’re able to ignore these few ridiculous conceits because really Civilization games aren’t about retracing the historical steps of this country or that at all. The Civ games live and die by their systems design, and the fact that these systems are wrapped around familiar names and geographic locations is just a bonus for us.
For better or worse, Beyond Earth’s unique setting breaks it free from the golden handcuffs of history that the rest of the series follows. Which brings us back to the initial question: How do you go about making a game that’s meant to mimic the experience of developing a human civilization, and all that entails?
Rising Tide, the generically named expansion for Beyond Earth, takes a crack at answering that question the best way it knows how: by adding more systems.
Games are really good at a lot of things. They can accurately model the path a bullet takes when you fire a gun. They can display convincing physics systems so intuitive there are whole genres of games built around exploring them. But there are also things games are woefully ill-equipped to deal with. Civilization in general and Rising Tide in particular do a good job of rubbing up against the edges of these discrepancies.
An example of this already existed in Beyond Earth from day one. I always viewed the game’s “affinity” system as somewhat ludicrous, an attempt to infuse flimsy moral context into our choices that were really about making one set of numbers go up over another. Rising Tide doubles down by adding even more systems in a further attempt to quantify the mystery of human experience.
Take, for example, diplomacy, one of the most commonly maligned features of Civilization games. The previous Civ titles—and virtually every other civilization-building game out there—loosely interpreted “diplomacy” as “chatting with other leaders” and these interactions played out accordingly. You’d get a knock on your door from another race’s leader asking for a cup of sugar to half your petroleum yield or to annex one of your cities or something trivial like that, and you’d either say “you’re good, sure,” or, more likely, “fuck off.” You could trade anything in this way—money, technology, even whole cities. It was neat and tidy, but it wasn’t anything nearing actual diplomacy.
In videogames, absolutely everything boils down to numbers interacting in different ways, and Rising Tide takes this literally. The diplomacy system has been replaced, and instead you just “accumulate” social capital, the same way you can bank money or science. You can then use this capital to try and make “agreements” with other leaders—like paying them 5 Internet Points a turn for them to agree to give you extra culture from your buildings for example. Similarly, each leader has an opinion of you; they fear and/or respect you in various proportions, as conveniently indicated by neat little icons, one blue, one red (guess which is which). You even get little emails popping up across the top of your screen from faction leaders who apparently have time to take out of their busy day to send you a note making fun of your alignment choices.
It’s an interesting attempt at trying to more accurately model how humans work and interact with each other. Yet it’s also weirdly paradoxical in that it simultaneously tries to quantify human thought processes while loosening the players’ direct control on the reins—one of the cardinal sins of game design in this day and age.
The change isn’t just adding some new numbers for your processor to crunch. It changes the focus of interactions in the game. Early Civ games weren’t actually about civilizations or people, they were about numbers and systems and manipulating that until you got to the screen that says “you win.” Rising Tide is still technically that, but it is trying to place the emphasis more on people.
Interestingly, adding character (in a literary sense) to Civilization is an interesting way to recontextualize the game for players. Everyone knows at least a bit about Washington or Gandhi or Catherine the Great, and so even players new to Civilization can identify somewhat with these well-known histories. As much as I hate arbitrary quantification of aspects of daily human life, Rising Tide’s increased focus on character is a smart move.
I (probably unfairly and at least a little bit unconsciously) hold Beyond Earth up against Alpha Centarui. This is partly because of ostensible similarities—both are civilization-building games set in a futuristic sci-fi setting, both are made by Firaxis and bear Sid Meier’s name (if not his direct contribution in the case of Alpha Centauri). But more than that, they are both games about our future—or at least one potential future—and what challenges we need to anticipate and be able to overcome.
Ultimately I don’t think that Beyond Earth is Alpha Centauri’s equal in that regard. The latter wasn’t just making a Civ game set in space, it was thematically unique, forcing players to consider things like ecology, economy and social engineering. It required that you think about not only what you’re doing, but what your motivation for doing so is. The changes introduced by Rising Tide attempt to pull Beyond Earth more in this direction. However, it still counterbalances its thematic ambition against its systems-heavy design and a need to be widely playable and digestible.
It’s a hard balance to strike, thematic purity with mechanical accessibility, and for what it’s worth I think Rising Tide does the best that any game could hope to do with those two opposing forces as stated goals.
Civilization: Beyond Earth—Rising Tide was developed by Firaxis Games and published by 2K Games. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Mac and Linux.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic who likes to focus on narrative and thematic design. In addition to cohosting the Indie Megacast and Bullet Points podcasts, he also co-edited SHOOTER, an ebook anthology of critical essays on shooting games. Follow him on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.