Carrier Command: Gaea Mission [Preview] – You are the walrus
The time I’ve spent with the preview code of Bohemia Interactive’s Carrier Command: Gaea Mission has confirmed something I’ve long suspected; that the 1988 original was a game far ahead of its own era. Bohemia’s remake will feature two modes of play when its released later this year, and this preview gave me a look at the ‘Strategy’ option. Essentially, this is a shot-for-shot homage to the original Carrier Command title. Including the somewhat daunting learning curve.
You may (or, somewhat ironically, may not) recall a ‘Memories’ piece I wrote about Carrier Command, detailing the troubles I had playing the game as an eight year old child. Monochrome wire-frames, awkward controls, a lack of clear instructions and no ability to speed up time all conspired against me in the Spectrum version of the game. In spite of this, I have fond recollections of sailing those ever-so-blue seas. In fact, that article contained this sentence: “If Bohemia re-release the game with better graphics, hotkeys and no other changes they’ll already be halfway to satisfying me.”
Well, I’m happy to confirm that Bohemia has delivered on both of those requests. As the images artfully arranged around these words should show, Carrier Command: Gaea Mission is looking rather swish. The lighting, water and (in particular) the weather effects are all quite terrific; though distances (both draw and zoom) are accompanied by minor issues. Locations in the game all seem to be surrounded by a ubiquitous fog, preventing you from seeing too far no matter how high you crank the graphics settings. When controlling vehicles, the third-person view is a little too tight to the back. Both things add a touch of claustrophobia to the proceedings, which I’m not sure is actually intended.
I wasn’t kidding about that daunting learning curve either. Until I dived properly into the manual and read a few bits and pieces online, I was all at sea in every sense. In part, this is down to the preview code focusing solely on the Strategy mode. The full release of Carrier Command: Gaea Mission will have a main campaign/story mode, which will no doubt kick off with a series of tutorials.
How the campaign will be structured has yet to be explained in detail, but Strategy mode is a stand-alone game that mirrors the original Carrier Command. You control the titular carrier and have to use your air (Manta) and sea (Walrus) vehicles to capture a series of islands. In this preview code, the island number was limited to nine, but the final release will allow you to fight over 30. Each captured island can be converted into either a production, resource or defence outpost. The former two are necessary to keep up your levels of production (providing you with fresh Mantas, vehicle upgrades and vital fuel cells), while the latter can act as a barrier to the encroaching efforts of the enemy AI carrier, who is attempting to do exactly the same thing as the player.
In practice this plays out like a light strategy game, combined with production/resource management, first/third person combat (it’s possible to take direct control of your vehicles and carrier) and tactical overhead planning. Not a bad mixture of features for a title from 1988.
Just as I used to struggle with the Spectrum version of this game, I still haven’t got the process of capturing an island down to a fine art. The idea is to use your vehicles to take down one of three defence-types (firewalls, scramblers or shield boosters) and then hack the command center. You can also opt to destroy the command center outright, but then you have to rebuild it yourself, which takes a fair amount of time. Attempting to stop you in this venture are the island-bound enemy forces, like opposing Mantas, gun emplacements and the like. So far, I’ve experienced most success with using the overhead tactical map and micro-managing my vehicle forces by setting waypoints and pulling back when under too much fire.
Apparently I need more time with first and third person direct vehicle control, because my Mantas don’t exactly last long when I’m in the drone cockpit myself. I remember this being the case in the original title though, so it’s probably more a reflection of my own abilities and a need to persevere. If you do take direct control of a vehicle, you’re pretty much abandoning your AI controlled fellows to death (because without micro-management they’re a bit hopeless), so it’s always a toss-up between flying solo missions and taking a multi-strike tactical approach.
Something which is desperately needed before a full release, though, is a map key or pop-up tooltips when you hover over island buildings. Right now, it’s pretty trial and error when figuring out what type of building or structure you’re actually attacking.
Meeting the enemy carrier in combat is currently a bit of a mixed bag, too. You run into it a lot more often in this preview code than you usually would (due to the restricted map size), and it seems to be a matter of chance whether it decides to simply murder you or sit there and take punishment until it dies. A spot of balancing here (and, perhaps, with the defences present on certain islands, which seem a little overwhelming) wouldn’t go amiss. The horrible mouse acceleration and pointer sluggishness in the menus needs to go as well.
Crucially though, I’m eager to spend more time with Carrier Command: Gaea Mission. The new look, sensible interface and central tenets of gameplay, which seem as viable now as they ever did in the 1980s, are all spurring me on. Given how accurately Bohemia seems to have re-created the ‘classic’ mode of play, I’m excited to see what the team will have done with the freedom of a campaign mode. Finally, after years of being thwarted by the game, I have a reason and an incentive to master Carrier Command.