A couple of decades ago, around about 1988, Realtime Games released a title to much acclaim. It was a 3D strategy game, being much loved by many a gamer from the '80s because it was a lot of fun to play. Now over twenty years later, Bohemia Interactive has updated that classic in the form of Carrier Command: Gaea Mission.
Played in real time, the basic aim of the game is to capture a series of islands across an archipelago on the moon Taurus using an aircraft carrier and all the assets it contains. In order to accomplish this, it’s necessary to manage resources, take care of equipment manufacturing and maintain a reliable supply chain. This can be achieved by assigning captured islands to either defence, mining or production. The trick is to capture them before the enemy carrier gazumps the player, leaving their world in tatters.
The original title was lauded upon because of the solid 3D polygon environment, which at the time was jaw-dropping. By today’s standard it’s laughable of course, and while the look of the remake could be described as gritty and realistic, it’s functional but far from pretty. There are a number of different island environments, such as volcanic, artic and marshlands; it’s not particularly vibrant though, mostly made up of dull greens and browns, but it isn’t offensive.
There are little in the way of game modes, simply consisting of the campaign and the random strategy game. Sadly there is no multi player element which is a real shame, as a short skirmish mode could certainly have had some millage in it. The initial part of the campaign begins with a very drawn out first person shooter, a section that lasts a good forty to sixty minutes. It has little, if nothing, to do with commanding the carrier and has no strategic value at all. This wouldn’t be so bad if the combat was enjoyable, but it feels like a shooter from the 90s and it’s almost enough to put anyone off progressing with the title.
Eventually the player will discover a WALRUS which in turn can be used to take to the carrier, leading into the meat of the game; the problem is things then drag on further with new elements of the game drip fed at such a slow pace island after island, that it’s possible to hear the water freezing over. Even then it still isn't completely clear what the tutorial is trying to teach.
To fully learn everything the tutorial part of the campaign has to teach takes hours. For those who have never played Carrier Command before, it might sadly be necessary to persevere, but once the controls are understood, there’s more fun to be had by skipping to the strategy mode, even if that means working out the production and supplies part of the game via trial and error.
The campaign, along with the mechanics of the title, also introduces some irritations with how the game behaves and controls. The first of these are objectives, which are given to the player as a comms message. If missed, there’s a need to go to the carrier bridge and look through the ship’s logs, only these can sometimes seem a little cryptic.
Once embarked on a mission, further problems raise their head such as the strategic map showing an island’s terrain is only available when in command mode. Once switched to first person to control the individual vehicles, there’s only a wireframe radar type map displayed making navigating a chore. The strategic map has issues itself, it’s impossible to get an idea of terrain type or elevation; it’s an issue because the AI couldn’t path find if it had a sat-nav and a turn-by-turn navigation aid.
This means it’s all but impossible to set a path or instruction for an AI controlled vehicle and expect it to complete its mission without having to switch to first person and help it out. This is fine when there are only a couple of units to command, but once there’s an expectation to juggle eight units, a carrier, production and supplies tasks it becomes a nightmare. This didn’t happen on the Amiga with its puny processor and 512KB of RAM. It’s absolutely essential to keep an overview on what’s going on because MANTAs will fall out of the sky if they run out of fuel, and WALRUSes will be destroyed by cannon fire if they get stuck on scenery, so having to micro-manage everything isn’t satisfactory.
Initially the controls for piloting the vehicles and selecting units are very awkward. It’s obvious that the UI was designed around a keyboard and mouse, making it feel like the pad is shoehorned in to cater for all the different selections needed, such as the bizarre notion of using the Y button to switch between tabs. It does get a little easier after a couple of hours, but it’s far from natural controlling the game with the pad.
Things are a lot better in the strategy game mode, allowing the player to set up the environment with a number of different parameter selections. These include enemy difficulty, initial island ownership, starting resource levels, island output rate and victory conditions. This gives a lot of leeway for making the game as easy or as difficult as wanted. It’s a lot more fun starting off with a carrier full of vehicles rather than slog through the very drawn-out campaign – the randomness generated by these selections gives a good replay value, so long as the game’s issues don’t become too much of an Achilles heel.
Disappointingly then, the original game created in the '80s on inferior and far less powerful hardware trumps the remake, which should be a little embarrassing for a game developed this late in to the console lifecycles. The AI is painful, the controls convoluted & awkward and the campaign is a chore. However there is some amount of salvaging the game from the more enjoyable strategy mode and its replayability. Sadly, Gaea Mission is a missed opportunity.