Surprise: I'm delighted that Bohemia Interactive's big, bizarre remake of Carrier Command can be played with an Xbox 360 pad.* I love Arma II, but its control scheme sometimes feels like it was designed by a randomly picking menus from a... menu. In Carrier Command, meanwhile, you control a small flotilla of vehicles as you attempt to gain control of an archipelago of thirty randomly placed islands, and you can do it quite easily with a joypad. Someone somewhere in Bohemia's studios has learned a valuable lesson in accessibility, and I want to hug them.
I didn't hug them. This article can be the hug.
Holding back hugs, I excitedly mention the pleasingness of pad-interface to producer Jan Kunt, who is demoing the game to me before its September 28th launch. It's important to him that Carrier Command draws from the strengths of each platform. He replies: "We didn't want players to have to use both hands on the keyboard. You have more buttons, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to force the player to use them all. In fact, it's better if you don't. But we didn't port the game. We didn't cut back on the PC." And when it's the Arma studio that says that, you tend to believe them.
What they've made is a well-crafted oddity that sits somewhere between a slick strategy game and a punchy action game. It seamlessly allows the player to hop between the high-level view of the archipelago and your Carrier's position and provisions, and directly controlling a unit on the ground. I'm impressed, but Jan points out this is still in keeping with the twenty four year-old template of the original game, as is a relatively light unit count: "We've kept to the concept in many areas. You still get four unit types: Walruses [tanks], Mantas [aircraft], and Drones [recon]. And you have the Carrier that sails the units across islands."
This paucity reduces what could be a huge undertaking down into a manageable chunk. You only fight for island at a time, and you're only up against one enemy Carrier who's attempting to grab your islands as his own. Your defences are taken care of automatically, leaving you to play island-hunter across the huge map. The islands have the resources you need to tweak your fleet, and none give them up willingly. It's a genuinely tough game, even if it has pick-up-and-play appeal.
Jan shows me how easy it is to control. Swapping from ship-to-ship in battle is as quick and easy as restarting a race in Trackmania. He has four Mantas in the air over an enemy placement, and he's trying to weaken the defences for his incoming tanks. He drops into a Manta and assumes control, trying to keep away from the fort's defences while bombarding it with laser fire. The other Mantas are doing the same, partly according to Jan's directions, but also looking after themselves with AI control. On the bottom of the screen are icons, each representing a vehicle that he can choose to either directly control or remotely command. "We give the player the options, but it's up to him to choose how he will play the game," he says. "He can use the vehicle point of view, using his skills as a pilot or as a driver. Or he can give orders via a tactical radial menu, controlling other units with some basic orders like assist, attack, or move. Or the player can switch to give orders via the map."
Whoosh! Now the battle is being viewed from the top. I can see the carrier on the side of the island, the planned movements of the spawned craft and enemy icons are sliding across the map. If he wanted to, he could play the whole skirmish from this POV, marking waypoints and aggression states from the haughty view of a commander. The low number of units to control, a holdover from the original game, keeps it all manageable, and a picture-in-picture view on the top right of the screen gives a tantalising vehicle level view of the fight. Whoosh! Back to in-vehicle, direct control. He flicks between the two easily, with no lag or stickiness in the UI.
Manageable and accessible doesn't mean simple or shallow, though. There's a lot of meat here. The three attack units each have to be prepared for the island assault, taking into account the ecosystem. "Ice islands require upgrades for Walruses to stop them sliding down hills. The same goes for the volcanic islands: the Mantas have intakes on their engines, and on these volcanic islands there is a lot dust in the air so you need to get special filters." In addition to specialist tweaks, you can change the speed, agility, and armour stats of your vehicles, creating subclasses of brutal tanks or nimble annoyances. My favourite little bit of information: the Drones lose image fidelity if they're too far from the Carrier. And that the trees are the same trees found in Arma II.
As exciting as this tree news is, it's difficult to pin down Carrier Command's place in Bohemia Interactive's catalogue. The only similarity to Arma and Take On Helicopters is the player-driven sandbox. It has no multiplayer, there's currently no mod support, it isn't running on the Arma engine, and it's been co-developed on consoles. It was made because Bohemia's owner and his brother loved the original game as children. Nostalgia is an odd reason to make a game, especially when it generates a list of differences that seems contrary to a company's ideals. After all their games have, until now, been the product of an ethos: they built Arma and its derivatives for the community to exploit, because they know that an invested community will be there for years. Carrier Command will be released in a state that Bohemia's fans aren't used to, and that's odd given that they'll probably be the bulk of the community. If this was wholly original, it might have included Bohemia's stellar community tools
But Jan points out that there should be something coming post-launch: "It's something we'd like to do after we finish the game and release it, and now I can tell you we've started working on that to make it moddable. I still don't want to promise it, but it's one of our targets."
What form that will take is still up in the air, but Bohemia will do everything they can: "Best case scenario, they'd be able to create new campaigns, make new islands, tune up the units, import models from Arma for example."
Part of what'll hamstring them is that it's single-player only. There's the story mode, that Bohemia still have cloaked beneath a fog of war, or the sandbox that lets you set-up world states to fight in. He brought up the possibility of a post-launch multiplayer addon, but this isn't a set plan. It really depends what they're capable of producing and what the fans want. There's already at least one mod that a Bohemia developer has made that they expect to release some time after launch, but Jan refused to elaborate on what that was. I suspect zombies Carriers.
Carrier Command is out on Sept 28th.
* Jim's note: I've been playing the beta of this with mouse and keyboard, and it works a treat, too.