Version Tested: Xbox 360 Versions Available: Xbox 360, PC
I remember sinking many hours in to the original Carrier Command on the Atari ST back in 1988, a game that required a fair amount of patience and strategy. There was nothing quite like the game out there and, despite the number of years since its arrival, nothing since.
Until now. Bohemia Interactive, those developers responsible for the ARMA games, has brought the franchise back under the Mastertronic label, itself a blast from the past, and updated it for the current generation with new visuals and a few tweeks to the classic gameplay.
Carrier Command Gaea Missions is really a game in 2 parts. The campaign is a (much needed) introduction and training mode for the larger and meatier strategy mode. It’s also been fleshed out with a full story based around the novels in the Gaea Universe trilogy, not that you need to be overly concerned with the story. One of the stranger elements, and the first thing players will notice as they dive into the campaign, is that the initial game appears to be a First Person Shooter. Thankfully, this only covers a small section of the game but, while it’s no Halo, it does mean that you get up close and personal with the robotic enemy that you’ll be meeting again when you finally make it to the carrier and begin the game proper.
Once you get into the strategy side of Carrier Command it’s clear that this is a game for people who are both patient and a little forgiving. The basic idea is to capture a series of islands one by one, using their resources to create new equipment, repair your vehicles and fuel your carrier. An enemy carrier will be doing the same and, should you meet, battle will ensue. As the space between islands is vast, they’ll often be a long wait before you actually find yourself facing off against the enemy carrier. Instead, your initial battles will be against the defences set up on the islands by the enemy.
With 2 different sets of craft to control; the air based Manta and the amphibious tank-like Walrus, the game requires careful planning to navigate around the island defences and try to reach the command centre to hack in and take control and plunder the resources for your own benefits. If only things were that simple, though. Aside from the early missions, islands have shield generators guarding the command base, usually involving taking control of smaller, but no less heavily guarded, satellite bases or finding a couple of antenna structures and simultaneously turning them on to disrupt the enemy’s defences.
The game makes you work hard for your reward, but it’s also a slow paced affair with Walruses moving at a snail’s pace across the land and the constant need to check fuel and damage before heading in to the next area. Fuel, repair and weapon stations are uncovered as you enter the various bases, though most of the time these are spread out across the map, forcing careful planning so that you don’t suddenly find yourself either defenceless or stranded without fuel. Mantas have a habit of exploding in to rather impressive balls of flames at the mere sight of an enemy anti-air emplacement or even some of the taller structures, so need careful guidance. When they are used well, though, they provide an invaluable reconnaissance service, as well as removing some of the gun emplacements and radar dishes to ensure safer passage for the Walruses.
Graphically, Gaea mixes things up with plenty of different island types that will affect the way your vehicles work, particularly the Walrus. Snow, sand and swamps give each island its own sense of identity. Buildings and environmental elements are fairly well rendered, though there’s also a fair amount of pop-up present, particularly when approaching large bases. Enemies don’t always appear from afar, either. FPS section aside, though, the game manages to do fairly well.
As with the 1980s game, there are 2 ways to control these craft. The first is to send out orders by building pathways for the craft to navigate. In theory, this should mean you never have to take full charge of an individual vehicle until you need to hack something, but unfortunately the AI is so bad that the Walruses often manage to wedge themselves between 2 buildings, trees, under rocks or in pretty much any spot that they can’t easily reverse out of. What makes matters worse is that they will try to get out by ramming themselves backwards and forwards, increasing their damage in the process. Mantas just fly into any situation and start attacking as soon as they see the enemy, even if that means almost instant annihilation. Even if you change their setting to Defensive it doesn’t seem to make them any less likely to dive headfirst into enemy fire. That’s if you’re lucky, though. Sometimes they just like to hit a nearby tree.
Switch to manual control and things are a lot better. Vehicles control fairly well and there’s a certain joy to zooming around the island in the Manta, buzzing the enemy while raining bullets on the droids or gun emplacements. Even when you’re controlling the super slow Walruses, it feels like you’ve got a pretty heavy duty weapon in your hands that displaces the pace of the vehicle and the rather large turning circle it seems to require to get anywhere. It does seem to defeat the object in what is really a strategy and resource management game, though.
It would be easy to dismiss Carrier Command Gaea Mission based on its (many) faults. It’s not the best made game in the world and there are bugs and glitches to spare, but there’s also something refreshingly new and, at the same time, old fashioned about the slower paced and more methodical strategy underlying the action and all those bullets. By the time you’ve reached the middle of the campaign and know enough to move on to the strategy game proper, all those stat screens and commands will be second nature and the game will suddenly make a whole lot more sense.
Carrier Command Gaea Mission isn’t a game for those looking for all out action, but if you’re the patient type who enjoys a challenge or even a fan of the original, it still has a lot to offer despite the odd AI and awkward design.