Bohemia's remake of a classic 1980s hybrid strategy game, Carrier Command: Gaea Mission, landed quietly on the beaches of a PC release last week. But will it now storm the citadel? Or simply wash away with the tide? Here's wot I think.
If there's one thing that Carrier Command: Gaea Mission makes clear, it's that the 1988 game Carrier Command was an extraordinary vision. Not too much about Carrier Command: Gaea mission really feels dated in a design sense. There are technological issues, certainly – this has been tuned to work on a 360, and the PC version, although significantly stronger in a number of respects (overall visual options, mouse control) it has nevertheless been hamstrung in a way that the Arma games were not. Don't get me wrong: this game has moments of profound beauty in it, particularly in the misty sci-fi landscapes – they're richly beautiful – but I can see, quite clearly, that it could have been more.
Still, the point stands that despite being a relatively faithful remake of a game from /twenty-four years ago/ it's remarkably fresh and sophisticated. Hell, that lone fact casts on a long, grim shadow in contemporary game design. Things change, and somehow we end back at the design ambitions of two decades ago? Oof.
What this is, then, is a sci-fi duel between two futuristic carriers. It's a prolonged battle for control of an archipelago on an alien planet. The game exists in two halves: a strategic half, driven by the map and menus, and the tactical half, where you get stuck in – often firsthand with direct control – with vehicles that are attacking and taking control of the precious islands. There are two ways in: a campaign, with a story-arc, that acts as a (necessary, by any measure) tutorial, and the open strategy game.
The campaign does something quite unlike what the 1988 game did, and that's a sign of the times: it tells a story, with animated dudes, cutscenes, and voice acting. There's even an entire FPS section tacked onto the start of the campaign, erroneously suggesting that you are about launch off into a budget version of Halo. If you didn't know anything about the game this could have been pretty confusing. This is not actually an FPS in the foot-soldier sense – despite what those opening minutes suggest – its entirely about the vehicles. The carrier, its flying 'Mantas', and its amphibious 'Walruses'. Running around on the ground with a gun is not what this game is about.
What the game is actually about is capturing the various types of island. Islands are defended by the enemy carrier – although not all the time. It moves around, battling you here and there, but most of the time you are resisted by “automated” defenses. This means AI mantas, walruses, gun turrets and robots, which are produced on the island. When you are on the offensive these must be carefully burned away with a selection of weapons, allowing you to get hacking walruses in to hack “firewalls”, and then hack the main control facility of the island itself. It's a surprisingly complex operation, and a mean challenge at times – the vehicles can be kitted out with a wide array of weapons and equipment, but they remain fragile.
This fragility is critical to keeping you engaged as you play. This is not RTS where you throw away units without a thought, no, every loss is a major blow. Keeping your craft alive is critical, and you'll be sending them back to the carrier, or to rearming and refuelling stations across the island, to keep them alive. Vigilance must be constant, and it feels like an operation on a knife edge.
That vigilance is partly necessary because the AI is so woolly. It will navigate and fight to some extent, but all too often you'll find a walrus nudging its way around the scenery because it has somehow got “lost” on its way to where-ever you sent it. Bohemia claimed, as this game was demoed, that it would be possible to play the game as a pure strategy, without the need to take much direct control of the vehicles. I have to say that I did not find this to be the case – constant and careful hands-on control of the vehicles was required at all times. I could not expect the AI to take care of anything.
The other thing you have to take care of – although this is far less problematic - is your supply line. As you capture islands you earn production facilities which will keep the carrier filled with weapons, vehicles and fuel. Better things are unlocked on better islands. The different islands each offer different services, and so holding a good deck of islands is critical to your campaign. The carrier can repair itself, but only at the cost of fuel – which is also required to get around. The enemy AI carrier will, of course, be attacking your islands, too, and they can only defend themselves for so long. This aspect of the game is rewarding, and is where I found myself most attentive: thinking about what to do, what I needed, and where I was going. This is a case where the planning before the execution was actually most satisfying.
There are two main points I want to make to really underline what this game is about, and what it means.
- The first thing is that this is (AI worries aside) a solid and capable experience. You soon grasp what you're required to do, and settle into the long haul. It's a war, and the individual battles make up the patchwork of a much wider, ongoing struggle. Nor do individual battles really stand out, which is a shame, because after a while they become somewhat rote. The minimal variety of enemies and the lack of imagination on the part of the AI means that the fights are not, after the first few hours, particularly engaging. Sure, there are new weapons to enjoy, but that's it. Battles might still be fist-bump worthy from time-to-time, because of what they mean to your campaign, but the campaign is everything. For a certain type of gamer – a sort of armchair colonel, who likes to get stuck in, but really cares more about operational matters – this will sound a exciting klaxon. It's a well-craft game in most regards.
- Secondly, the pace of the game is slow. You do not charge in to attack an island. You pick away its defences. You make refuelling and rearming runs. Once an island is taken you have to slowly trundle back to your mobile floating base. Between islands you watch the carrier slowly (although time is sped up) pilot its way to the next destination. Slow and steady. It's not exactly a killer pace, but for a game of both action and strategy, it's a relaxed affair. And that's fine. It's just that some gamers – not that armchair colonel – will find the pace far too sedate.
I like Carrier Command a great deal - and I will never get tired of zooming the VTOL mantas around the beautiful islands - but ultimately I wonder if that twenty-four year old design did actually need a sprinkling of the intervening decades. Carrier Command: Gaea Mission lacks something, some reward, to keep my attention from wandering to other, more immediately rewarding games. Hell, I am man who understands what it is to love slow and boring games – I have made a career out of a few of them. But I nevertheless know that Carrier Command is missing some spark that could have pushed it into genuine greatness. Instead it is soldiering on, carrying out its orders, fighting that decades-old fight. And it does it dependably.
Perhaps, if it makes the money it's required to do, Bohemia will now build on this project. Perhaps. And gamers might then end up with something truly memorable. Actually, come to think of it, I suspect a Battlezone remake would be a better idea.
Carrier Command: Gaea Mission is out now.