The original Carrier Command practically defined its own genre when it released in 1988. A cross between vehicular action and cerebral strategy games, it let players loose into enormous island archipelagos at the helm of a mighty aircraft character. A fleet of robotic planes and could be deployed, ordered around from an overworld map or controlled directly, providing a true genre hybrid that was years before its time. Put simply, Speccy and miggy owners had never played anything remotely like it.
Bohemia Interactive's reboot, the somewhat confusingly-subtitled Gaea Mission, plans to change everything... and nothing at all. By staying true to the original game but providing a new lick of graphical paint, tightened mechanics, greater scope and a few new features, the studio behind the ArmA series may be set to accomplish one of the most difficult feats of development possible. An arcade reboot that's actually worth a damn... and an action/strategy hybrid that works properly.
Now that I've gotten my feet wet in the preview build, I'm in a position to deliver some operational intel. Get your towels ready. It's about to go down.
As before, players are given full control over their own personal aircraft carrier - and I mean full control. You can move it directly from a third person perspective, feeling its mighty engines thrum into action as it propels the steel fortress across the water. It's more than just a base of operations, since powerful deck-mounted cannons (especially outrageously potent plasma cannons) can rain devastation down onto landlubbers within a terrifying radius.
However, a quick tap of the keyboard or Xbox 360 controller whisks players into the control room, providing a tactical overview of the situation. Using a detailed zoomable map, you can see an entire collection of islands waiting to be conquered, most of which brim with robotic enemy units, turrets and emplacements, or set waypoints for your carrier to follow like a traditional RTS. Resources generated from captured islands can be used to repair your carrier or upgrade it with new weapons, armour and defence drones... or enhance the fleet of war machines held deep within its steel belly.
The operative word, as I daresay you've noticed, is carrier. They carry things. Specifically, in this case, a small task force of Manta aircraft and Walrus amphibian assault vehicles. Mantas deliver ruinous aerial firepower while Walruses excel on both land and sea, capable of mounting beach landings or approaching enemy positions from multiple fronts. Though these are the only two vehicle types available, they can be modified for radically different engagements with different weapons and modules (and replaced if destroyed after a substantial payout).
These units can be ordered about from the control room, handling much like any other strategy game in terms of setting multiple waypoints and selecting unit groups. Commanders will need to factor their limited fuel and operations range into account, calling them back to base or taking advantage of maintenance depots on the islands. At any point, however, you can also opt to control any unit directly from a third or first person perspective, at which point you can use your reflexes to devastating advantage against the AI. By hopping between different vehicles and setting waypoints, you can orchestrate some seriously impressive strategies, such as using a Manta to gradually correct the aim of your Carrier's cannons by changing perspective after each shot. It's a fine example of how two seemingly disparate genres can fuse into a single cohesive experience, with neither side or set of mechanics overpowering the other.
Once you've wrested control of an island by destroying or hacking its command centre, Gaea Mission reveals another layer of depth. Individual islands can be designated into one of three categories - mining (resource generation), production (build timer cooldown) or defence (guns!) - and linked together to provide bonuses to adjacent atolls. Connect a defence island to a mining island, for example, and you'll bolster the vulnerable resource-production facility with extra turrets and automated units, making it that much harder for your enemy to assault. Creating a perfectly-weighted supply chain that balances a healthy war chest with enough firepower to repel counter-attacks may be difficult, but it's an important part of any strategy.
Players will need every shred of defence that they can muster, since an enemy carrier (complete with its own complement of Mantas and Walruses) also patrols the waters and actively seeks to control the archipelago for itself. Facing off against the opposing juggernaut is a tense and brutal spectacle, either a display of overwhelming force or a frightening game of cat-and-mouse if the enemy has installed plenty of upgrades. You'll have to marshal your troops, equip them effectively and continually hop into the most opportune units in order to triumph.
Things are looking rosy for Gaea Mission's strategy gametype, but there may be a wrinkle in the package. In order to justify a full-price retail release, Bohemia are also adding a singleplayer campaign that tells the story of a small squad of marines retaking a colony world from its robotic occupiers. Controlling your carrier and vehicles is as fun as ever, but my hands-on with the first few missions were slightly worrying.
See, many of the missions (especially the tutorial) force you into the eyes of a marine in a traditional FPS perspective... in a game that's designed primarily for vehicular combat. The preview build feels floaty and unsubstantial from a mechanical standpoint, and the shove from freeform skirmishes into uninspired linear level design seems jarring to say the least. Of course, my observations are based on beta code - so it's likely that the finished version will be far more polished.
Carrier Command: Gaea mission is certainly looking impressive ahead of its September 28th release date, potentially a long-overdue remake of an absolute classic. We'll bring you a full review nearer the time.