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Carrier Command 2 review: all lost at sequel

To the boats! To the boats!

I am terrible at Carrier Command 2. Most of us will be, at first. There's a little comfort in that. Its very concept depends on there being a lot to manage, and much of its challenge comes from having to deal with that. A fair bit of the satisfaction springs from mastering all its parts, both discretely and in combination. But after playing it for several days, I'm still nowhere near an expert. I doubt I ever will be.

And that's okay. But I think this falls a little too short of its potential as a single player game to fully win me over.

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The idea is compelling enough that it's frustrating it's been so rarely revisited since the 1988 original. Two automated carriers set out to sink one another by directing land and air vehicles, and in between them are dozens of islands, each defended by AI vehicles and turrets hostile to both carriers, and each home to a base that, if captured, can manufacture replacement vehicles, weapons, and supplies. You, of course, control one carrier, with the freedom to attack wherever and however you like.

Strategically, anyway. Practically speaking, what you will be doing is flicking switches, peering through binoculars, and switching off the monitors you're not using because you're energy conscious and then forgetting which one does what when you need them again, because you're also an idiot. It is, like last week's HighFleet, big on diagetic interfaces, although as with that game, sensible concessions are made when it comes to the action sections. Because, you see, you're not just pushing icons around the map or watching helplessly from the bridge as another helicopter jinks directly into an oncoming missile. No, any time your drone vehicles are off the ship, you can connect to them remotely, either to passively supervise and spot from a circling recon ship, or to actively take over control, and crash into as many missiles as you damn well please.

"Playing Carrier Command 2 is fairly easy. Playing it with any degree of competence, however, is another matter entirely."

This is not the action-first interpretation of Carrier Command's other descendant Hostile Waters, though. Most of your work will be co-ordinating and planning and tweaking orders, and when you do take the wheel, you'll be greeted with a sim befitting the original. Ground vehicles are simple enough (and amphibious, the one case where Hostile Waters was actually a lot fiddlier) to handle, although you'll still need to pay attention to the rangefinding readout once it's tank time if you want those shots to count. Aircraft, however, are a game unto themselves, and probably the biggest roadblock to anyone wanting to dive in.

This is not a game you dive into. Between a reasonably-pitched tutorial and help menu and experience with similar games, I was quickly comfortable. Playing Carrier Command 2 is fairly easy. Playing it with any degree of competence, however, is another matter entirely.

It wasn't long before I defaulted to spotting and sniping most defences from the carrier's big guns, unwilling to trust air units with little sense of self-preservation or initiative, and unwilling to wait for buggies and tanks to crawl slowly to the beaches only to immediately run out of ammunition and have to come back.

Choppers are much less hassle to launch and land but god they're fragile

That's when a player who's handy with a helicopter or jet would shine, of course, but I never quite got to grips with any of the aircraft. They handle uncomfortably via keyboard, with the mouse wholly reserved for the camera (and even then only if you have a camera module installed), and I felt the absence of analogue controls despite having used my controller precisely zero times in the last 18 months. Giving orders on the map, meanwhile, is naturally awkward on a controller, and while to its credit the game detects switching back and forth pretty well, there was always too much friction for me to ever feel confident flying any but the most cautious flights.

Managing which parts of a vehicle you're controlling takes some getting used to as well, and is easily fumbled under pressure. You can operate steering, or any installed modules and weapons independently, but to control both at once you need to manually activate them all in turn and then go back to steering. Coming back out of remote control mode reverts everything to AI control, whereupon you'll have to reset everything to get it back on track if you take over again, and in the meantime that vehicle will also have started driving back to the waypoint you drove past two minutes ago rather than the next on ahead. As far as I can tell in fact, you can't delete waypoints at all, or even issue a halt/cancel order, a minor issue compounded by the difficulty in selecting a unit or waypoint in amongst a cluster of them without awkwardly zooming the map impractically close up.

You issue orders on this map, and it's simple enough to be easy to use, but also simple enough to be lacking important features.

Ground vehicles have a slight habit of clustering when launched, in fact, and each one has to be ordered individually by clicking and dragging lines on the map. The most rapid full deployment means clicking on 8 buttons, then waiting for them all to launch, then zooming in to click on each one, then zooming out to set the waypoint where you actually need them, zooming back in to click the next vehicle... meanwhile you've also got up to 8 aircraft to launch and give orders to, lest they take off when you're distracted and dumbly head for the horizon until they run out of fuel or you notice where they went. And you also need to order that fuel, and get into the binoculars to spot a new enemy, and check on the supply line so the network of barges is still delivering the ammunition and chassis replacement, and place an order at a factory, and damn their boats have spotted us, so you'll need to man the torpedo tubes as well.

I hope you've memorised your compass bearings, because they're not displayed anywhere close to the torpedo station. Oh, speaking of which, the artillery tank isn't in the S3 bay anymore, it docked at S5 during the last rearming and now you've launched the wrong one. You should have gone to the opposite side of the bridge to check! No, you can't reassign them manually. And you should really check the radar again because there are no audio notifications for most things and we never did sink that last boat.

I could name a handful of petty complaints, but that would be missing the point. The real difficulty I'm having is that it's far too much for one person to manage all this. Even if I was an ace pilot rather than the... I dunno, maybe six of hearts pilot I am, any time I was flying I'd be neglecting everything else. And perhaps I keep biting off more than I can chew, but any time I spend on tiny sorties to whittle safely away at an island is time that the enemy carrier will spend taking over two. I completely understand that spinning plates is the whole point of the design, but it's just too much for me. And I once did very well at a job where I had 21 inboxes and ran a system to co-ordinate a dozen departments on top of my official job.

But I have been enjoying it. Apart from some bad layout decisions, the redundant monitors on the port side, and the chairs getting in the way, I love ambling about my bridge. The ocean gets ludicrously choppy, rain and nightfall are lovely, and the music is faintly reminiscent of Deus Ex. Although it leans towards the sim rather than the action side, Carrier Command is far less fiddly than a dedicated flight game, and though small guns are a bit lacklustre, the cannon and missile strikes are lovely. I particularly like how the landscape will light up as the rocket trail of a cruise missile approaches, and I love that when you issue a launch order, you can then run down to the bays to watch the automated crane lift your bomber out and put it on the lift for takeoff. I do wish there were more dedicated turrets for manual control though. Hell, I'd settle for pulling an RPG out and taking aim from the deck when someone gets too close. But that's on me for not holding a chopper back as an escort, I suppose.

It's clear that even if my complaints are patched out or I simply rejig my brain enough to fully overlook them, Carrier Command 2 has a high skill ceiling. I don't know if I'll ever have enough time to devote to it, but I'll certainly be playing it some more, which says a lot about any game that demands so much time as a bare minimum. And there's one thing that's obvious: Carrier Command 2 is going to shine in co-op.

It will need a group of friends like-minded enough to enjoy several minute stretches of someone steering the ship to the next island as much as sharing a tank seat, as much as splitting AI defences with a scout helicopter to keep the flak off the incoming jet bomber. It's there, too, where the lovely but entirely unused interior of the ship will come into its own as five or six friends agree on a house rule that you must go to your bunk while afk, and can only be recalled to the bridge if someone up there activates the alarm. I can already see myself patrolling the corridors, grumbling obsessively about who left the lights on. I have already stolen the elevator pitch "Sea Of Theives crossed with Arma" from Sam Greer, and canvassed several friends for potential hijinks.

I'd be among the first to say "but it's good in co-op" doesn't count for most games, because most things are better with a friend, but this is definitely one that's crying out for it, and developers Geometa certainly seem to be aware of it judging by the custom game option to have 4 sides and up to 16 concurrent players. I can see potential for more game modes too (certainly some sort of training ground for test flights and the like would be welcome), but I have to go by what's here, and much as I enjoy a good stretch, what's here feels just out of my reach.

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