It’s not often that I stare at a game’s menu screen for a few moments just because it looks so good. That’s exactly what I caught myself doing the first time I loaded up Civilization: Beyond Earth with the Rising Tide expansion installed. The way light reflected off the rippling waves of the vast ocean was beautiful and soothing; what I didn’t know from those first few moments was how that body of water would change Beyond Earth for the better.

By itself, Beyond Earth is interesting--a fun, challenging entry in the long-running Civilization series that kept me playing… but not for the 300 hours of its predecessor, Civ V. I can’t quite put my finger on why, nearly a year after release, I haven’t kept going back to it. All the pieces are there: the addictive turn-based action; the thrill of war (often followed by cries of defeat at the hands of giant alien worms); a skill web and plenty of choices allowing you to grow your newfound nation as you see fit. But after a few dozen hours, I realized something was missing.

Rising Tide adds that “something” in a big way. This is obvious from the first turn if, like me, you immediately choose to found a floating aquatic city. These aquatic cities, one of the expansion’s major additions, yield certain advantages like proximity to ocean resources, but they don’t grow bigger by gaining culture as land cities do. Instead, to expand your territory on the water, you’ll have to either buy more tiles or just move it. That’s right--just move the whole city down a bit that way. The aquatic metropolis keeps its existing tiles while absorbing ones in its new territory, turning the border into a record of your travels. It takes a few turns to do so, but this was one of my favorite new mechanics--it’s interesting to see how your plotting strategy changes when you know you can move around later.

Firaxis

Being so water-focused, Rising Tide naturally has more ocean-based military units--and more hazards. Instead of building soldiers, I found myself making an army of ships. When other leaders attacked, I was ready, but mostly I just found myself clearing out the alien hydrocoral that now blocked the watery paths between landmasses.

Speaking of those other leaders, Rising Tide’s massive diplomacy overhaul makes interacting with other ex-Earth factions much more interesting. Beyond Earth left behind the familiar countries and historic leaders of the series, which made the planets feel even more alien at times. With the new diplomacy system, you earn diplomatic capital to unlock traits that might make you more trustworthy--or fearsome--to fellow inhabitants. Those other leaders will also be letting you know what they think of your every move. An expansion of your territory might earn respect, but a weak sitting army will cause some to take you less seriously. Because your agreements with these leaders are based on their levels of respect and fear for you, maintaining these relationships are far more important to the gameplay; it also helps eliminate the seeming randomness of those sudden declarations of war or nasty comments from cooperating countries.

Firaxis

In the vanilla game, relationships were also based around your Affinity, which could only go in one direction; there wasn’t a lot of flexibility, even if you wanted to embrace multiple Affinities. Thankfully, now there is. You can invest in any combination of Harmony, Purity, and Supremacy; that freedom made me much more comfortable with my choices and strategies in Rising Tide. Before, I felt forced to go in a certain direction even if I didn’t want to follow every tenet of that Affinity. Now there are so many more choices, and you can even create hybrid units that you wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s really a change that feels like it should have been in the game from the start, but better late than never.

This sounds good on paper, but the true test of a Civ game’s longevity is the “just one more turn” test. Have I told myself I was only taking one last turn while playing, only to continue taking last turns for another hour or more? With Rising Tide, the answer is yes. Have I caught myself thinking about my aquatic strategies while not even playing the game? Also yes. It finally feels like Beyond Earth is the game it was supposed to be from the start. I didn’t know exactly what I was missing until Rising Tide filled in the blanks, but now Beyond Earth is more engaging than ever as a Civilization sci-fi experience. I can’t imagine ever building a capital city on land again.

This review is based on a download code for Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth - Rising Tide provided by the publisher for PC.