The Fiery Gaze of Judgement: Carrier Command: Gaea Mission
Carrier Command: Gaea Mission. Sequel to a fondly-remembered game from the Dark Ages of Computing, when we thought a tape deck was some unassailable summit of data storage and the CD was sparkly witchcraft that could only be used for music and evil. I played Carrier Command: Gaea Mission. Has part of my childhood now sunk beneath the waves?
Starry-eyed with memories of controlling a mighty carrier with bonus amphibious tanks you start the campaign, looking forward to some tactical and strategic action. The intro begins. The intro ends. And lo! You are dumped into an on-foot FPS with late nineties gameplay. Did you ever play the late-90s Battlezone? Imagine the controls and feel of the on-foot sections of that. Except Battlezone wisely opened with tank driving and the on-foot bits were tiny interludes which allowed you to hijack an enemy tank, so the opening of Carrier Command is worse. I think this is possibly the first time ever I’ve thought “this is not the game I was promised” within six seconds of the game’s intro cinematic ending. You can almost hear the marketing suit bellow “And put in some of that shooting on foot like in Doom, kids love that stuff” before smoking a hooker and renting a cheap cigar. It doesn’t matter how good the game is, when you start the “gameplay experience” with a hollow shell of another genre tacked on to put a tick in a marketing checkbox, you’re going to start off with a bad taste in the gamer’s mouth. An agonising amount of floaty, completely detached shooting later, you finally wrest control of a broken down carrier from the bad guys and can begin your campaign proper. And I have to say, the first mission or so is a shockingly improved game. Your Walrus is a good-looking tank, and it makes things go boom satisfyingly. You start to wonder if the game has suddenly been replaced with something about a million times better than you were led to believe. And then, they add more units and the game’s AI suddenly comes into play.
When not under direct control, your units appear to have the discipline and killer instinct of a bag of pears. They bumble around firing wildly in the general direction of the enemy, blocking your shots with their hulls, maximizing ammunition and fuel expenditure, aiming for the minimum possible damage inflicted. Every enemy target will be attacked, in no particular order, meaning that your AI escort will happily spend his time shooting at concrete walls to eventually burrow through to destroy an AA gun which can’t actually hit your tanks… while both of you are taking heavy fire from tanks sitting in plain view in front of you. Simple “follow me” orders result in friendly units carefully aligning themselves with rocks, trees and buildings, and then bouncing gently off them until they are eventually facing roughly the same direction as me. I watched a Walrus fling itself down a cliff to get to me, then pause, think for a second, climb back up the hill, and then fling itself down the same section of cliff for a second time. Simply trying to get three tanks to follow the one you’re driving results in Walruses taking off on side excursions, driving across the map to engage an enemy installation well outside your objective, blundering through ambushes without bothering to return fire, attempting to engage infantry with quad AA guns that can’t actually depress low enough to hit anything below tree level, shooting grenades at threatening looking corners of sinister (but innocent) buildings, and driving right up to trees, apparently to inspect them closely.
My fearsome tank takes damage getting on to shallow ramps. Barrels explode when I drive close to them. There is mud, apparently for the express purpose of being annoying because the designers of your all-terrain amphibious assault tanks apparently never encountered mud or don’t consider it to be part of “all terrain”, so you slip and slide and make glacial progress. Sadly your Walrus AI doesn’t recognize mud, so it helpfully tries to take short cuts which leave it spinning its wheels happily while it glides across the surface… backwards. The Walrus appears to be well named. If it is not already pointed at its destination, the AI engages in a three minute 30-point turn with the grace and poise of a ton of aquatic mammal flopping about on its belly. The hull of the Manta aircraft appears to be made mainly out of explodium, its natural state is “spread thinly across the landscape”, and its main predators in the wild are buildings, hills, plains, trees, and thick clouds. The AI for the Manta is less prone to getting stuck than the Walrus, but this is because instead of “flop aimlessly” it has the option to “fly straight up and draw the attention of every AA gun on the island”. Sadly it also takes longer for the Manta to realize it is under threat and either acquire a target or move out of the danger zone than it takes for every gun in line of sight to fire with inhuman accuracy and shred the Manta.
You know what makes a game about driving tanks and flying aircraft and shooting things and blowing things up not fun even if you don’t have the glaring problems I’ve mentioned so far? An economy that is best described as “dysfunctional”. Your ability to field vehicles is limited by your stocks on your carrier. Once you’ve used enough stock to outfit roughly half of your force, you’re then left waiting for replacement parts. A tremendously slow submarine will helpfully deliver replacements to you… eventually. It takes time for your production islands to fulfill your production orders. And then it takes time for your supply submarine to transport the goods to your carrier- and you can’t fit much on the submarine. It’s only got a limited capacity. No, it’ll take three, maybe four trips to get all 8 vehicles from the stockpile to the carrier. Even more trips if you want to have some weapons in case you want your armoured assault units to actually assault anything. More still if you want to bring some utility modules to do things like the hacking module without which fighting your way to the command center is pointless. Oh, and you need fuel for your carrier too. Put that on the submarine. What about armour modules so your units don’t crumple every time the wind blows? Build some of them too and put them on the submarine. There’s only one submarine, and each trip is a round trip. And once you’re fully stocked, you’ve equipped your units, and deployed them… Try not to lose them again, because your stockpiles of raw materials on your production islands is now depleted and it’ll take even longer to replace the stuff you just got.
Hostile Waters is a far better game. Hostile Waters did this TWELVE YEARS AGO and brought personality by the bucketload. I miss my units talking in unique voices. I miss the pilots giving each other advice, complimenting one another on a good kill or just bickering and taunting each other when their personality chips don’t get along. I miss the satisfied victory snarl of Ransom taking down another target, the whooping of Borden as she blows something up, and the grumbling of Patton as he realizes it’s his turn in the resource collector. Carrier Command is a less structured game than Hostile Waters – not so much of a story-heavy campaign, that’s for sure. But everything Hostile Waters did, it did it better. Play Hostile Waters instead. You can get Hostile Waters on GOG. You can play Battlezone instead, too, if you can find it.