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The Flare Path: Flat Top Frenzy

Carrier Deck will bead your brow/prow

Johan Nagel's latest creation feels like a ZX Spectrum title. One third management game, one third arcade game, and one third wargame, Carrier Deck [official site] reminds me of the sort of hectic homework-hinderer I used to play back in the days before manuals, monitors, and genres entered my life. If I mentally squint I can see 11-year-old me playing a 2D version on the family TV. My sister and me have just made a deal. The next time my carrier sustains damage, I'll call it a night. F/A-18s will make way for the kids from Fame.

Like Johan's COIN wargames, Carrier Deck is all about plate spinning. In Vietnam '65 and Afghanistan '11, turns meant you could, if you wished, spend hours deciding which platter pole to tend next. In real-time pauseless Carrier Deck things are different. Decisions can't be deferred. Your ability to analyse, prioritise and mouse-click rapidly, ultimately determines whether your sole responsibility, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, sinks or succeeds. Stress comes as standard with every install.

Pulse-quickening threats fall into four categories - air, surface, sub-surface, and land – and are represented by icons moving right-to-left at different speeds along four 'combat channels' at the bottom of the screen.

When threats reach the left side, they engage, damaging your floating airbase. When friendly aircraft icons (which move in the opposite direction) reach the right side, they land. As the Reagan's own sensors only illuminate a relatively short stretch of each channel, it's important to extend detection range by launching aerial search missions at regular intervals. Failure to keep winged watchdogs aloft in each channel may mean foes are spotted late, giving you less time to prepare and launch appropriate responses.

Complicating the mechanically simple sortie organisation (aircraft are armed, moved to catapults, and launched with the minimum of mouse fuss) are returning planes short on fuel, inbound cargo flights, unexpected rescue missions, and major targets requiring special treatment. Some enemies can survive a single Hornet sting or Seahawk savaging. A few really formidable foes must be blinded with electronic warfare attacks before follow-up aircraft can do their work.

Picture the scene. A missile frigate silhouette with an intimidating '3+1' label above it has just appeared midway along your surface combat channel (unluckily for you it turned up while your ship-monitoring Hawkeye was refuelling). You've three Hornets armed and ready for just such an eventuality but need an EW-capable Super Hornet (the '+1') to complete the package. There's one on its way back to the Reagan, but the example sitting below in the hangar after recent repairs will probably take less time to prep, so, cursoring the tower to switch levels, you make for the bowels of ship, lower a convenient lift and direct the EW specialist onto it.

After the twin-tailed F/A-18E has ponderously ascended, a click sends it across the deck to an empty parking spot to be bombed up. It's halfway to its destination when you realise with horror that you've failed to notice a running-on-fumes S-3 Viking thundering over the fantail. Your mouse hand lunges like an angry cobra but it's too late. The two machines collide, the resulting fireballs knocking out arrestor cables and destroying a nearby Chinook (system damage is automatically repaired over time, lost aircraft slowly replaced by flown-in reinforcements). Five seconds ago you were suffused by a gratifying 'I'm in control' glow, now you're rushing about like a blue-arsed fly trying to stop a cock-up from cascading into a mission failure.

As campaign missions never seem to last longer than ten minutes and there's no meaningful carry-over between them, failures when they do come (and they will) aren't too distressing. Realising that you should have kept your port helo slots free for arriving Chinooks, got those stowed Hornets top-side sooner, and used your starboard parking spots more intelligently, you flex your fingers, take a deep breath and restart the failed outing.

A promotion mechanism (the less damage your CVN sustains during a mission, the more rank points you earn) encourages perfectionism but can't hide what is, in truth, a rudimentary campaign structure. Over the course of a linear sequence of around 35 missions Every Single Soldier and Retro Epic rely on different combinations of threats to keep the sortie scheduling interesting. Somewhat surprisingly, the approach works – the kraken, Repetitiveness, never rears its ugly head. However, it's not difficult to picture something more organic and involving. Players making fleet movement decisions on a strat map? Threat combos determined by the course of a dynamic war rather than scripted by a scenario designer? Games like Cold Waters prove dynamic campaigns don't need to be vast and complicated to engage.

Travel the length of the campaign - a globetrotting journey unlikely to take up more than two days of your time - and you're left with a couple of options, both of which basically boil down to 'more of the same'. You can restart, this time striving for perfect 'five star' scores, or you can turn to Survival or Quick games. In the latter mode, the player selects the number of randomly generated threats to be faced (12-30). In the former, the computer keeps hurling hostiles at you until you succumb.

All game modes break up their lengthy periods of fury with fleeting moments of calm. The impatient can shorten these lulls with help from the time-accelerating space bar. Generally, I prefer to catch my breath and sight-see via the various secondary cameras. Although CD's aircraft models are roughly hewn compared with equivalents in titles like FSX and DCS World and often garishly coloured thanks to task-indicating tail, wing and fuselage flashes, watching a launch,  landing, or, better still, a wave-off, from deck-level can still be exciting. Blob-like infernos and aircraft that never seem to end-up teetering on deck edges or slumped on collapsed undercarriages, mean accidents aren't quite as eye-catching or varied as they might be, but as it's wise to switch back to the standard sideways-scrolling overhead view the second things go pear-shaped, these aren't flaws that loom large.

Buy Carrier Deck expecting an original military management game in which time is precious and dilemmas are rarely bicorned and you shouldn't be disappointed. Feed your crumpled greenbacks into Steam's purse-lipped money slot realising that your interest in shuffling/sequencing sleek strike aircraft and toadstool-toting sky sentinels will probably have waned within a week (happy annual reunions can't be ruled out) and modest enthusiasm for this modest game is almost inevitable. In a genre where engines frequently go on for years and designers often cling to themes and formats the way drowning mariners hug flotsam, Johan Nagel's willingness to rove, and experiment with the small and the cheap, is, I'd argue, a wonderful thing. I want to play more modern wargames that remind me of those energetic, idea-fecund ZX Spectrum years.

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Carrier Deck is available now from all good chandlers, priced $10

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