Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Rebooting Carrier Command was never going to be easy, but not for the reasons you might expect. Whilst some games of the era were incredibly simplistic and constrained by the hardware, this 1988 Spectrum and Atari classic was a true trend-setter, a majestic genre hybrid that arrived years before its time. Players explored and dominated enormous island chains in powerful aircraft carriers, controlling a fleet of aerial and amphibious assault vehicles using a mix of RTS and action mechanics. To this day, it's still considered to be a uniquely forward-thinking title, and one that was almost too complex for any developer to consider revisiting. Until now.
Gaea Mission had a lot on its plate, and I'm delighted to report that its randomised Strategy (skirmish) mode delivers the goods.
I wish that I could say the same about the singleplayer campaign.
The Strategy mode is a pitch-perfect recreation of the original Carrier Command. It's your carrier versus the enemy in a battle to take over a massive sprawling archipelago of islands, which bristle with AI defenders, turrets and fortifications. Your mobile HQ can be ordered about from an intuitive map screen or steered directly in third-person view, enabling you to bombard the islands' inhabitants with withering firepower, granting you a satisfying feeling of absolute naval supremacy. Should you encounter the opposing carrier, a tense and exhilarating showdown ensues, rewarding you with the win depending on your custom victory conditions.
Conquering an island (which will reward you with additional resources, defences or the ability to stockpile your wealth) requires a more hands-on approach. To liberate an atoll, you'll either need to crush its robotic defenders and destroy its command centre or hack its AI control core, both of which are far too subtle for your hulking barge to accomplish by itself. To this end, your Carrier carries things: namely a small fleet of robotic aircraft and all-terrain vehicles. Four hovering Mantas can bring speedy destruction to land-based targets, while the versatile Walrus tank can traverse open water or land with equal mastery. Brilliantly, you can equip your modular drones with a massive variety of weapons, equipment and gadgets - such as radar modules to increase your tactical awareness or hacking units to crack an island's AI core - granting you a wealth of potential strategies and solutions. Using your units effectively takes practice, but the intuitive tactical map and some ROE settings make setting up sweeping gambits as mechanically streamlined possible. If you've ever played an RTS before, you'll be well away.
Better yet, however, you can leap into any unit at any time to control them directly in third person vehicular combat.
Combining the RTS and action genres offers some unique gameplay opportunities. Leading an aerial assault on an enemy base and prioritising key targets is a consistently visceral thrill, for example, as is sneakily hacking a fortified command post with a coastal Walrus incursion. Once you've logged a little experience, you'll begin to experiment with some advanced strategies, such as using your Mantas as 'spotters' for your Carrier's cannons; watching where your shots land and then zooming back to your command ship to correct your aim. You'll need unimpeachable spatial awareness and plenty of practice to leap in and out of units to advantage - something that will only come from many, many defeats - but beating your head against the monolithic learning curve will eventually grant you the skills you need.
It's also a welcome respite from the slower pace of the strategic micromanagement, which can get bogged down in housekeeping busywork once the action subsides.
That said, you'll frequently be forced to assume direct control to contend with some dodgy pathfinding. Manta pathfinding is understandably perfect since they can travel as the crow flies, but Walruses exhibit some seriously strange behaviour when left to their own devices. They frequently forget that they're all-terrain vehicles, continually stopping and starting, slowing down to a snail's pace, going around in circles and getting stuck on the scenery. Sometimes they'll follow your commands, but watching them in action is occasionally eerily reminiscent of a BigTrak toy programmed by a five year-old. If your strategy revolves around a perfectly-timed Walrus assault (usually it will), you're better off handling things personally.
This niggling annoyance aside, though, the Strategy mode proves to be a successful reboot of the classic Carrier Command gameplay and benefits from a surprisingly varied art style and crisp visuals. You'll be punished to within an inch of your patience by the initially formidable interface and stern difficulty level, yet finally emerging victorious rewards you with an intense feeling of hard-earned satisfaction.
Carrier Commander's strategy skirmish mode could have released on its own as a £10-£15 PC download, but it also provides the perfect foundation for a tense 1v1 multiplayer experience. Though the maps would have to be drastically reduced in size to make for shorter games, the idea of two opposing carrier commanders facing off, chasing each other around the archipelago and eventually meeting in a tense ship-to-ship battle royale is almost too exciting to bear. With multiple carriers involved, perhaps bickering over a single large island or even cooperating with other players controlling individual Mantas and Walruses, the potential is enough to make one go weak at the knees.
Would have, should have, could have. Unbelievably, Gaea Mission offers no multiplayer of any kind and instead tries to justify its price tag with a crushingly mediocre singleplayer campaign.
What should have been a tutorial followed by some exciting missions turns into a protracted and infinitely more annoying version of the Strategy mode: the same basic setup, but limited by linear progression and accompanied by some of the worst voice acting and least relateable characters on the market. The throwaway storyline involving a barely-explained conflict over a colony world, hackneyed scripting and pedestrian character designs are unbelievably generic to the point of laziness. A good singleplayer campaign should act as a showcase or highlight reel, but here, it's just a rehash of the skirmish mode sullied by noxiously awful drivel being pumped into your ears on a regular basis.
Worse, players also have to suffer through potentially the worst opening level of all time, ever. After the barest minimum of setup, you're inexplicably thrown into a traditional ground-pounding FPS in an engine built for vehicular combat. As a result, movement is floaty, unrealistic and unsatisfying; compounded by hopelessly dated and linear level design that forces you through drab corridors against pathetic AI opponents. You can't reload or even switch weapon. It's not even the same genre as the rest of the game! Your suffering will end in under an hour, but for a game designed around freeform ocean-based strategy, kicking off the proceedings in this fashion actively serves to deter players before they've even had chance to set foot on the Carrier itself.
Why weren't we thrown straight into the ocean, perhaps deployed in the carrier from orbit in an epic cutscene, and given a taste of what to expect from the get-go? Baffling. I wouldn't be surprised if many players just quit after a hopelessly generic section involving a train track (that would have been critically panned as outdated in 1995) and never return. Frankly I wouldn't blame them.
I have never marked down a game for not including online multiplayer before. Not once. Never. I detest that many publishers pressure developers into including inappropriate multiplayer elements and rail against some of my fellow critics who encourage them to do so. But that unambitious campaign, coupled with the higher price tag, continually acts as a slap in the face that constantly reminds you of how much fun you could be having if a few friends were involved. And, just as annoyingly, makes you wish that you could buy the skirmish mode as a cheaper standalone download.
For the vast majority of gamers, £29.99 (£39.99 on Xbox 360) is a seriously big ask.
- Involving hybrid strategy/action gameplay in skirmish mode
- Huge randomised island networks to conquer with multiple strategic options
- Detailed graphics and satisfyingly chunky vehicle designs
- Unambitious and generic campaign with terrible voice acting and a biblically awful FPS introduction
- Inconsistent Walrus pathfinding
- Steep learning curve and seriously questionable value at RRP
- Multiplayer would have been nice?
The Short Version: Carrier Command: Gaea Mission boasts a tough and satisfying randomised skirmish mode that recreates the 1998 classic and brings it up to date with deep hybrid gameplay. Despite a few flaws, it would have been a fantastic niche proposition as a standalone download.
It's a shame that Bohemia Interactive decided to unsuccessfully justify the premium price tag with a weak and unambitious singleplayer campaign instead of innovative multiplayer or extra polish.