I’d like to, if I may, take you back in time. Back to a time of green screen monitors, Amstrad home computers and a game that was critically acclaimed to be the number 1 title of 1988. That game was the original Carrier Command and although I didn’t have the opportunity to play it at the time (I was too busy playing Chuckie Egg) it caused ripples in strategy gaming circles that can be seen in modern games even now. There have been a few attempts to resurrect this gaming ethos and it has spawned a number of spin-off books and fan-fiction, but now, Bohemia Interactive and Mastertronic have brought the IP kicking and screaming into the modern age, but is it as good as it used to be?
Part of the original game’s charm seemed to be that you could afford the time it needed to invest in the strategic gameplay and defeat the enemy carrier. Today’s gaming expectations are different however. The idea behind the game is that you are based on Taurus, a planet-moon covered in fresh water. There are two factions fighting for control of the various islands scattered throughout the moon and you take the role of Myrik, a specialist in one of these factions. The goal is simple enough, control the moon, control the water. It’s like Dune but without the spice.
Now, in my eyes, the opening of a game should find a way to grab you, to pull you in and make you want to play more, it’s pretty basic stuff. Gaea Mission has taken this concept, studied it and firmly screwed it up and consigned it to the pile marked ‘maybe next time’. If they had released a demo which included this short, back-story creating, first person shooter, it would have put most people off buying the game. The animation of the opening scenes is jerky, less fluid, more plasticine and the character faces seem cross-eyed in a way only usually achieved by following the point of a pencil to the end of your nose. You play Myrik, a specialist in your field, sent out with a small squad of troops to overrun a Command Centre and capture the idle Carrier ship docked in its harbour. Sounds difficult enough, sounds like it might take a while, especially seeing you’re only armed with an automatic rifle. You’d be wrong. The opening mission will take you ten minutes, maximum, that’s if you can stand to have the volume up enough to listen to the frankly awful dialogue. You shoot your way to the core of the Command Centre, where your faithful ‘Tech successfully hacks the system and disables the rest of the defences. The controls for this section are hideously over-sensitive. Normally in a first-person shooter I’d be carefully picking my shots, in this I had to fall back on the faithful spray & pray. Once this has been painfully completed, you are introduced to one of the two types of vehicles in the game. The aptly named Walrus is the amphibious multi-purpose attack vehicle that will aid you in your quest to control every island on the moon of Taurus.
As this particular vehicle goes, it looks like a giant BigTrack, and handles just as awkwardly. In fact, as you meander around your new Command Centre, wondering where you’re supposed to go next, you could be forgiven for driving off into the sunset and running out of energy to return. As it is, you have to struggle to pilot your overgrown BigTrack to the damaged carrier and dock it, thus providing you with your first carrier to command, with battle unit. A quick scout through the ship’s bowels to sweep out the droids left in there, which involves more first person spray and pray and, thankfully, that’s the opening sequences out of the way.
After sitting in the Captain’s chair, you now forego the laborious running around to concentrate on piloting the various craft the ship has docked, and the real-time strategy part of the game finally can begin. As it happens, to start with, you only have the one Walrus to command as you attempt to take over your first fully enemy held island. Navigating to this island takes place through the toggle map screen, which gives you a general overview of the surrounding area to your carrier, and allows you to select your next location and issue the command to travel there. While this is happening, the real-time window which usually shows you your actual ship with all that is happening around, it turns into a Time Warp and time speeds up. This is also the screen you use to select, repair and upgrade the weapons and equipment on the carrier’s attack craft. Repairs and travel take up fuel, which can be replenished from your controlled islands, so balancing your fuel with the amount of repairs you undertake is just one of the things you have to juggle to get the balance just right. In truth the Time Warp is the only difference between the Campaign mode and the more original-like Strategy mode. In an effort to speed the Campaign up, it is the only real difference, as it takes some time to sail to the island in question while playing the original mode. Once you’re there and it’s been captured, the aim is to start producing resources to reinforce your defences.
At this island, you have to use your only vehicle to remotely hack into the enemy Command Centre while fighting off the enemy droids that are defending it. Once more, you are faced with the impossible controls of the Walrus, only this time, with the added confusion of a gun turret on top. The turret is controlled with the right stick and the direction and speed with the left. For anyone used to driving and steering a Warthog in Halo, this is a nightmare to get your head around. It would have been much simpler to have the turret automated if you’re driving and vice-versa if you decide to take control of the shooting side.
The other vehicle type you can obtain and control from your Carrier is the Manta. This is a flying, hovering attack craft that, again can be upgraded with various weapons of differing effectiveness against different targets, with the ultimate anti-ship hardware, the Torpedo being the most coveted. You can control only one vehicle remotely at a time, which makes a mass assault fairly difficult, and although there may be a pre-programmed option you can take, the AI is so bad I ended up destroyed on the first and only time I used this, as one of your squad of three remaining troops gloats at you over the intercom that you have no more units to control. The difficulty ramp is another let down, with their being little to nothing in the way of an in-campaign tutorial. You go from nothing to deep-end in one huge leap of faith and the fact that you have everything to control and upgrade with fuel to look after and enemies to destroy all at once makes you open up with the turret cannons in frustration. There seems to be no happy medium when it comes to easing you into the game and this ultimately may very well put you off playing this altogether.
If you can get past the initial shoddy first mission, voice acting on a par with Eldorado, poor AI, controls that seem to have not only a mind of their own but also the will of a stubborn three-year old and immerse yourself in the Gaea world, there is a good strategy game to be had here and the die-hard fans of old will warm to its familiar feel, and updated visuals. The gameplay of the original is still there, but it’s buried so deep that it almost gets smothered by the flaws in the developer’s attempts to modernise and appeal to a new section of fans. The game itself suffers from this and the lack of a proper tutorial leaves you floundering off the mainland, desperately hoping someone comes along to teach you how to swim.