There are some remakes which are baffling, and others which are ultimately pointless – when they they share little more than a name with the original game, for example - but there are others still which were crying out to happen, and make perfect sense when they arrive. Carrier Command: Gaea Mission is one of these. The original was an extraordinary piece of game design, straddling strategy and vehicular combat in the crude 3D of its day, and managing to create an open-ended sandbox experience early on in the history of gaming. It now looks all the more impressive for having been released in 1988. While it has had a couple of notable imitators such as the Battlezones and Hostile Waters, it's perhaps surprising that no one has tried to remake the original until now. What is most extraordinary (and unsettling) about this remake is just how faithful a game made over twenty years later has managed to be.
It strikes me that there referencing Carrier Command, Battlezone, or Hostile Waters will probably not do much for many people who read this site. I suspect that the vast majority of gamers will simply never have played this kind of vehicular strategy-action hybrid. That's because they are so very rare, and – in most cases – so very precious. Carrier Command is looking like it could be a formidable addition to that limited pantheon.
It works like this: an archipelago of islands, on which there are a number of hi-tech bases, are being contested by two factions. You – the commander of a futuristic military aircraft and tank ship (the titular carrier) – represent one faction, while another carrier, powered by enemy AI, represents the other. The ultimate aim is destruction of the opposing carrier and domination of the archipelago.
Your carrier can be moved between the various islands using a map. It is well armed and has a number of heavy weapons, including big guns for battering stuff on shore, as well as the enemy carrier, and anti-aircraft equipment. These weapons can only do so much, however, because the real challenge is waiting on the interior of the islands. To get at these challenges you must deploy vehicles. These come in two types: the VTOL mantas and the amphibious terrestrial vehicles, the Walruses. Your carrier packs four of each of these. They can be sent off to destinations that you specify using the map screen, and are handled by AI when you are not controlling them yourself. This means they'll return fire on enemies, but won't do much other than follow your orders. If you want to send them back to base you can do that and they'll redock with the carrier, where they can be repair, rearmed, and refitted.
The aim of the game is to capture islands, build up automated defences, reap resources, and continue your war to capture other islands. It looks like the key mechanic is “hacking” the facilities on the islands, which means fighting your way in and getting one of your vehicles close enough to the requisite building to perform the hack. I suspect it's going to get a lot more complex than that, too, because what I have played is only those most introductory taste of the game's features. The full sandbox strategy game will allow you to define all kinds of parameters, and should make for a broad challenge as you strive to capture all 32 islands.
You're not thrown into all this at the deep-end, of course, because the full game will have an action game – which I had a bit of a play with here – and also a campaign game. The action game is a bunch of “excerpted” missions from the full game, so you can get a taste of how things play, and blow some stuff up. The campaign game is more involved still, and tells a story via a bunch of cutscenes and in-game events. This is the heart of the single-player.
How the game plays, for the most part, is as a vehicular combat game. You take control of either a Manta (the flying things) or a Walrus (wheeled armoured vehicle) and you fight enemy vehicles and robots across the islands. Depending on which vehicle you take control of, your weapons will be quite different. There's an anti-aircraft gun, a laser, and a cannon that fire explosive projectiles. Each of these is, of course, most useful for specific tasks, but you can still knock an enemy manta out of the sky with a well-placed projectile if you concentrate hard enough. You can command things from the map, of course, but it's your direct intervention and control of the vehicles that will decide the course of most encounters with the enemy. I've certainly found the combat to be solid and challenging, and I have enjoyed using the terrain to execute imaginative attacks on enemy positions.
I should say that what I had been expecting from BIS was something closer to a futuristic soldier sim (which, as it turns out, is what Arma 3 will be). Carrier Command is instead much closer to the game it is a remake of that anything BIS (or the actual studio that are working on this, Black Element) have created previously.
What I haven't been able to see in this preview version of the game is quite how that island management thing unfolds. I don't know how the game is going to handle allocation of resources, and AI-defence of the islands, which means it's still anyone's guess as to how well this game will play as a broader strategy. As an action game which allows you to flip between units seamlessly, it's pretty impressive. The technology is superb (although the distance fogging is a bit much) and the interface for controlling your gang of vehicles is just right. The map makes perfect sense as a core control screen, and while your Walruses might have trouble navigating more complex routes, it's easy to set up a series of waypoints for and let them follow them while you zoom about in a manta dealing with other threats. I hope that it's going to make for a fluid experience. It certainly seems promising right now.
That said, there's a certain weirdness to play this game. The idea that we have come so far and yet not really moved on since 1988. The game is going to be fantastic fun to play, granted, but there's a definite feeling that we are treading water here. Hmm. Of course I can't wait to see how the full game plays. The tactical combat game seems to work, so if the strategic depth is there in the full game then this could really be something spectacular.
No firm release date yet, but it's looking like the start of 2012. Nor has multiplayer been confirmed, which is a shame because co-op would be the perfect compliment to this way of playing.
Carrier Command: looking good.