Hands On (Deck): Carrier Command (Beta)
Air, Land, And Sea
Carrier Command: Gaea Mission has entered a “play & contribute” beta, a familiar sort of exercise in which you get to play a slice of the strategy campaign – the meaty archipelago-conquering core of the game – in exchange for your pre-order. Having already dabbled in some of the story mission elements of this action-heavy strategy, I was keep to get stuck into this deeper challenge. Read into the depths to see how I got on.
Remakes now seem to be thematic of our time. Not sequels, but actual, wholesale redoings of original games. Some are inexplicable, while others, like this one, make perfect sense. Carrier Command's original incarnation was well ahead of its time, and it's only logical that we, the people who live in the future, should want to revisit it. There's that niggling sense that perhaps we should be basking in a world of game design that doesn't need to dredge up things from decades past, of course, but we're able to rapidly skip past that when we see what a robust and handsome creature this remake is turning out to be.
We plunge in: an overview of the archipelago is provided on the map screen, which is the versatile management screen for all aspects of the game. A few tutorial voice-overs chatter away as we decide on the best course of action. Here you can zoom right out to get the full picture of what's going on, and all the way in to see the specific locations of units and structures on the individual islands. Here too you control your carrier, which can be directed to move between the various islands, entering a “time warp” acceleration when in open sea. On the occasions where the enemy carrier is present at an island you are moving toward, the journey stop some distance from the island anchorage and have to cruise the remainder of the way into range.
You can't send your flying and floating drones out too far from the ship, either, and you'll need to keep them in effective range to be, well, effective. The map screen is overlaid by the interface carrier's vehicular deployments – AI controlled mantas (VTOL craft) and walruses (amphibious assault vehicles) – which you can take direct control of at a whim. This full-screens their point of view, which is otherwise reduced to a camera view top right of the map. Once in control you find yourself enjoying a rather punchy shoot 'em up, with a few diversions such as defending a vehicle that is hacking a base, or helping to repair battered craft in the field. Leaping between the vehicles, to the map, and back to vehicular control again is a seamless joy. Watching a craft you were just controlling limp back to the carrier as you charge back to the fight with its replacement is evocative to the point of thrillingness.
Once into the campaign proper the first thing I did, of course, was attempt a frontal assault on a heavily defended enemy island. That didn't work particularly well, and all my vehicular units found themselves popped and abandoned like so many party balloons. I pulled back and studied the map a little more closely. Perhaps attacking the enemy island which was given over to industry, rather than defence, might help my progress.
And indeed, you do need to give over many of the installations on islands to productivity, because you need to keep the carrier supplied – via little cargo boats – with new mantas, walruses, and equipment for the same. You also need to keep an eye on fuel. A carrier can be stuck at an island if it doesn't have enough fuel to make the trip. More importantly, the base craft are all extraordinarily flimsy, and need to be buffed up significantly if you're to keep them alive against the aggressive computer-controlled units.
Three big challenges face Bohemia's dev team at this point. AI, variety, and stability. This build is very much a work in progress, with months of development time left to it, which will be one reason why it feels a bit wobbly (I had a CTD during one battle), and I suspect Bohemia will advance their build considerably for the proper commercial launch. The AI right now is not stupid – it pathfinds well, and shoots and enemies accurately – but it nevertheless rudimentary, and things like hacking a compound certainly rely on your manual intervention. It's theoretically possible to play the entire thing from the map, but I suspect that will end up being far too frustrating, and would largely be missing the point.
Anyway, once I did arrive that that industrial island, I found myself jammed – which leads into my third point about variety. The designers were already mixing things up a bit – requiring me to move the carrier around the island to deploy my attack vehicles within its diminished, jammed range. If they can continue to be inventive in this way throughout the campaign, then it could be enormously satisfying. The game will largely be about blowing up an island's defences, securing its facilities, and driving off the enemy carrier in defence of your own islands. It's not clear to me whether the two vehicle types available will really provide enough tactical variety to keep things fresh after you've beaten a couple of islands. The layer of electronic warfare defending that first island suggested that maybe it could.
The campaign is tough, and that's almost certainly down to the early stage of balancing that it finds itself in, but I also found it engrossing, even in this unfinished state. Probing an islands defences and realising I could bring the carrier in close to the shore to provide massive fire-support for my initial assault was a thrilling moment. If Carrier Command can boast a few more of those in the course of what I expect will be lengthy campaigns, then we could be in for a treat.