A lengthy campaign is something that certain players may look to when trying to weigh up their investment in a potential new time sink, based around whether or not they will get their money’s worth. Strategy games are usually exempt from this line of thinking as campaign missions more often than not take a lot of time to play through, as players sit there waiting for resources to accumulate and even units and structures to be captured or built.
Carrier Command: Gaea Mission is firstly a strategy game, and even though you get to control each individual unit under your command akin to a third-person action game (or first-person shooter), the tutorial missions alone are longer than most action game campaigns. And although as a whole it varies from boring, to somewhat competent and even enjoyable, Carrier Command’s lengthy campaign is probably more of a negative than a plus.
After a cut-scene that bears all the hallmarks of a charming mid-budget game from a decade ago, that being one featuring robotic animation, b-grade voice acting, and less than stellar texture work - strangely the game begins with players taking control of a futuristic soldier in a first-person perspective trying to escape an enemy base/installation/structure-of-sorts. This is both a genre and setting (sci-fi FPS) as saturated as the colour settings on in-store TV display units - wowing the uninformed consumers and causing irreparable retina damage to everyone else. Not that it matters too much, but in this futuristic setting Earth is pretty much a barren wasteland with companies and nations (both good and bad, naturally) looking to other planets to colonise, secure resources, consolidate power, find some lost treasure to impress the new girl, etc, etc.
And it’s actually in these early first-person sections where you realise that you’re playing a strategy game, and it is not because of any particularly strategic encounters you come across. As you’re pretty much forced to run through bland industrial corridors, shoot robots that apparently don’t have any AI (a first, no doubt), and hit switches that trigger a sound effect ripped entirely from a Nokia phone charging all the way back in 2002, you’re simply left with no alternative. You'll be left thinking that there must be more to it than this and wondering when exactly the carriers come into play and how long it'll be until you get to control one and simply zoom-out via a flick of a mouse wheel.
First impressions are usually quite important and at the very least setup expectations in terms of how good the overall game will be as well as the overall presentation of the narrative. For as poor as the early sections of Carrier Command are, thankfully they aren't representative of you know, the actual game. So the running and gunning through corridors early on becomes a mere blip in the radar as you finally take control of your first carrier, a large hulking warship that can hold various land and air vehicles used to secure numerous islands and their many resources and production capabilities.
It’s about this time where your three letter vocally expressed first impressions will change from “meh” to “ooh”, as the clean picture-in-picture (PIP) interface of the carrier and detailed map deliver an experience that certainly feels different, and if you’re a fan of smaller scaled strategy games, something that can be at times genuinely exciting. Issuing orders to units is extremely simple and intuitive, and with a press of a button or two you can expand your PIP view of their progress to become full screen and then take direct control over the unit to make enemy encounters more a matter of skill as opposed to statistics.
Blending map-based strategy with third-person action can be a tricky proposition and as a whole developer Bohemia Interactive have pulled it off with Carrier Command – even though the core mechanics of how it exactly all works stem from an archaic Amiga/Commodore 64 game from the late 80’s. Keeping it simple was definitely a wise choice, and with unit caps set to four land and air vehicles respectively per carrier, switching between units and issuing commands never feels overwhelming. Consequently the skirmishes themselves take place on individual island areas that aren't all that particularly large and usually feature one large base of operations and smaller resource centric hot spots to control. The goal of each of these skirmishes is to gain control of an island through the use of your forces by employing an array of attacks ranging from the fan favourite brute force approach through to hacking satellites and taking part in other forms of subterfuge. Or to simply defend from an impending attack.
As you take control of each island it can be classed to either bolster your defense, mining, or production capabilities, depending on its location and strategic value. But in keeping it simple the pace of the game pretty much suffers right up until you’re given the option of managing resource lines through various islands, and in doing so given the option to strategically building your defenses and units whilst also planning exactly where to attack next. It’s here where the sheer length of the campaign begins to feel severely padded with each mission bringing with it usually only one new element to the table. The maps themselves although small, also result in units that move extremely slow affecting the action side of the game whilst only really bolstering the bigger picture strategy aspect of controlling numerous islands whilst locked in a chess-like battle for entire grid control.
Apart from the clean and slick carrier interface (that naturally works best with a mouse), the real star of the game seems to be islands themselves which range from volcanic, frozen and tropical whilst also implementing quite an impressive weather and day/night cycle. In fact one of the game’s stronger elements is setting up three or four strategic maneuvers with your units and then seamlessly switching between each view to simply watch their progress, and view each new terrain close up. It’s only when the action gets chaotic that the issues begin to crop up, such as the sometimes poor path finding that can get so bad it even changes the tide of what should have been an easy firefight. Even worse, sometimes the AI of your companion units perform exceedingly poor, and noticeably worse than your opponents, in what seems like a cheap way to increase the overall difficulty and focus on taking direct control over each of your units.
But the strategy core is different enough and executed well enough to provide quite a few hours of engaging combat and strategy alternating with the slower ponderous movement across a larger world of interconnected islands. It’s a shame then that the learning curve, which initially seems quite steep, is extended well beyond the patience of most people across a laboriously slow campaign. The option to simply dive head first into a ‘strategy game’ is a definite plus, and immediately highlights the game’s strengths over its weaknesses, and in doing so providing a polar opposite experience to the campaign.