Carrier Command: Gaea Mission is... One of "those" games. It's a game that's incredibly fun and addictive when it works but rage-inducing when it doesn't, and it doesn't work very, very often. It's one of those games that I really really like but could never really recommend to other people because I'm having to overlook A LOT of problems in order to enjoy it. It's a weird experience which mixes joy and pain in such unison that you probably couldn't get outside of an S&M club. I guess what I'm saying is I'd only recommend this game if you enjoy hurting yourself... And also playing exotic-genre games, that too.
I'm not going to run through my usual framework for review because Carrier Command has many faces with most not having that much to talk about. As such, we'll do the good, the bad and the ugly list. But first, a little introduction:
Carrier Command: Gaea Mission is a remake/spiritual successor to the 1988 game simply called Carrier Command. It's made by Bohemia Interactive, the guys who made Arma II aka that game you have to buy to play DayZ. They're also the guys who had two of their developers thrown in a Greek prison for allegedly "spying" on a military installation. Suffice it to say that Bohemia are not a AAA studio and Carrier Command here is not a AAA game. And the reason this takes so much of the introduction is that the game's "not-AAA" status will dominate your entire time playing it.
More to point, Carrier Command is a merger of the RTS and FPS genres. It focuses on your command of the titular carrier which can carry a small contingent of amphibian ground vehicles and aircraft, which you must use to take over islands, forming a chain of your own that constitutes the industrial might with which you can carry the fight to the enemy. The carrier and all other units can be directed through a top-down map of each island, giving them RTS commands, or you can control them directly as in any vehicle-rich FPS. And you will, because the artificial intelligence in this game isn't. Basically, the idea is you take islands that either build things, mine things or serve as outposts and you keep doing this until you have the whole map.
The game's real strength lies in its retitled skirmish mode here called "Strategic" where the above is literally the whole game. There also exists a single-player campaign, however, which spices up this action with on-foot segments, rail shooter segments, cutscenes and special events, all of them completely terrible. The story of the game follows that the Earth is at war between the EDC and the CDS or whatever - Americans vs. Chinese, basically. The Americans are the good guys who lost the fight for the world water supply and must now find an alternate source - an ocean planet called... Either Taurs or Gaea, I don't remember. The Chinese are evil, they control Earth and they want to stop this from happening. That's your basic setup. On to the pros and cons.
The graphics. Surprising me most of all, this game is simply stunning. Vehicles, aircraft, the carrier and all of the islands look beautiful, courtesy of high texture and mesh details, as well as a number of fancy shaders and post-processing filters. This is enhanced tremendously by the game's singularly excellent art design, giving us a world that's part wilderness, part futuristic industrial might without either demonising or celebrating said technology. A large amount of diversity leaves vehicles looking very different from each other based on what they're equipped with, and considering the game has ONE vehicle and ONE aircraft, that's saying a lot. Add in the fact that you can always jump in the driver's seat and enjoy things first-hand and you can be sure that this game is easy on the eyes.
The "tech tree." This being a strategy game, Carrier Command has an expansive list of new technologies that need to be researched. In single player these are taken from Research Centres or given out at scripted times. What's good about this is that the tech tree is amazingly expansive and doesn't yield itself to just one "best" option. There is a staggering array of weapons and upgrades for your aircraft and even more so for your land vehicles. Do you want something that's good against land and air? Do you want an artillery piece? Do you want a conventional tank? Or would you rather have a repair vehicle? Do you want a scout aircraft or a heavy gunship? You have to decide based on what you have, what you need and what you can produce, but suffice it to say that you can make damn near everything. There are no set unit types - you field what you make, and what you make is determined by what modules you put on. Which is quite nice.
Island takeover. As I mentioned before, the game revolves around taking over islands. In fact, just in the single player campaign you take over something like 30 of them. It's good, then, that the process never really becomes repetitive. Islands can be defended by a number of different... "Gimmicks" for instance. Sometimes you need to deactivate a number of structures. Sometimes your carrier's control range is vastly reduce and you need to take out scramblers. Sometimes the command centre is shielded. Sometimes the island is simply producing a shit-ton of units and killing you at every step. More than that, every island's unique geography makes fights on it vastly different. You can use aircraft to wreck everything if you want, but sooner or later you'll need ground vehicles to take it over, and then you have to start thinking about landing beaches, hill climbs, roads and accessibility. Where you put your carrier and what terrain you go through makes a huge difference.
The campaign. The only good thing I will say about the campaign is it has a VERY cool sense of progression embedded in it. Without spoiling much, you start off naked. You and three other people steal an amphibian and dock with this pile of crap carrier that can't do anything, has nothing in stockpile and barely even works. As the game goes on, you start gaining control of subsystems here and there, gaining new vehicles you happen to find, eventually being able to build and eventually even upgrade your carrier. It really tickles my sense of progress when you start with so little and end up with so much. The story may be the pits, but the general structure of the campaign is groovy!
The carrier itself. Carrier Command is named after the single most important vehicle in it - the carrier you sail to take over islands with. It's a good job, then, that the carrier is so frikkin' cool. Not only is its design very much awesome, but the thing is modelled both inside and out simultaneously. I've never seen an RTS or FPS before where large vehicle interiors were modelled to this degree... Well, except Battlefield 2142. All four of your vehicles and all four of your aircraft are stored below-deck in a compartment made specifically for them. And when you see a lift lower one in the water or raise one to the deck, that's not a cheat. You can see through the hole and you can see the inside. Plus, the thing is huge. Despite the game's overall poor draw distance (damn that sea fog!), the one thing you can almost always see is the carrier's conning tower peering out of the mist. It's just cool to look at.
Systems design. All of it. Not a single system in this game works right. There are no tooltips for anything, there's no explanation on any icon, you have no consistent inventory, none of the weapons and gear are statted in any way aside from an ambiguous "damage" bar that isn't even true, only very few items have descriptions. And this isn't RTFM, either - I read the manual and it has next to nothing of use in it. It's vague and lacking in information. The game has a number of timers, such as when the supply sub which brings you gear will arrive, but I have no idea what time units it measures in. "34" it says. 34 what? It's not 34 seconds because it takes something like 10 minutes, and it's not 34 minutes at all. It's one of the most poorly-designed games I've ever seen, and I've played Black and White!
Unit controls. Again, all of it. Controlling units in this game is puppy-kickingly frustrating, and that's not even touching the AI or pathfinding. Heaven help you there! You really only have two types of commands you can give units that don't include you driving them personally, and those are 1. Go to location and 2. Dock with the carrier. The game allows you to give "attack" commands, but units don't seem to respect it at all, they'll just stare at the thing for hours. On paper there's an option to have several vehicles "assist" one that you drive, but unless those are aircraft, vehicles are crap at following. You can set them to be "aggressive" but that doesn't make them more aggressive, it just makes them disregard your orders. They're perfectly capable of rushing ahead and dying to gun emplacements even on defensive. Basically, you're playing with both hands tied behind your back unless you do it yourself, and that sort of negates the point to having multiple vehicles.
Direct controls. You'll find very early on that the only way to get anything more complex than "drive down a straight road" you'll need to jump in the driver's seat and pilot things yourself. This is where things go bad. Basic ground vehicles control just fine, but the majority of their weapons are horrid to fire. They're all hideously inaccurate even with aim assist and anything ballistic is next to useless in your hands because there's no barrel lift compensation. The only way to hit anything with grenades is to lift the cannon so high you don't see if you're hitting or not. And forget about using artillery. You can shoot across the island, but you have no feedback on what you hit nor any way to get units to do it for you. Aircraft piloting is just awkward. All the controls are sticky, meaning if you throttle up the thing will keep going forward and slam in a mountain. You turn your mouse, the thing spins like a top until you fight to stop it. It makes firing rockets or really any air-to-ground ordinance just painful, and the things are next to useless at doing this themselves. It's not that bad, but it's pretty bad considering you'll be doing a lot of it.
The story. This is going to show up a lot. The game's story involves a few sections of "on-foot" action and those are just awful. That's literally the first thing you play and it damn near made me drop the game then and there. Your character controls like a car, there's one weapon with terrible firing effects and no recoil, there's no reloading, aiming is terrible... The whole experience feels like a punch in the gut after a while, and it damn near made me motion-sick. Now I see why the developers were so apologetic about introducing FPS elements into the campaign. This thing plays like Duke Nukem 3D, and I would have been happier if they never included it at all. Just tell the story in cutscenes... As if those were any good...
Path-finding. Just... Path-finding. This is the game's single biggest, most ridiculous problem that WILL ruin the experience for you. I spent 90% of the first four hours of this game babysitting vehicles. Even after a number of patches, this still happens. They can't navigate bridges, they can't climb steep slopes, they pick the worst possible paths and, all too often, they'll end up reversing in a circle for an hour ON FLAT GROUND and unable to follow a simple move order. I spent a solid hour - four days in-game based on the day/night cycle - just getting two vehicles from one end of the island to the other. And it was a small island. The real kicker is that the vehicles are actually quite smart in finding their own paths. The problem is that they're being asked to do VERY difficult path-finding algorithms to put some of those real-life autonomous vehicles to shame. These aren't RTS units, this is like giving completely unscripted AI to tanks in a Battlefield 3 map and then asking them to go from any place to any place else. Excusable or not, this will make you want to smash your expensive equipment together, and it will never. Ever. Stop being an issue. Just... Be ready for it.
The AI. Like the above, but more general. The AI in this game is hopelessly stupid, and you have to rely on it. Not only will it get lost on a straight road (I'm not joking), but its behaviour in combat is just... Ugh. When left alone in battle, units will latch onto a specific enemy and keep advancing until they get line of sight of it, exposing themselves to crossfire. Aircraft armed with anti-air missiles and anti-air miniguns will consistently pick ground targets while aircraft armed with air-to-ground plasma will keep shooting at aircraft and missing. All too often, vehicles will fail to engage the enemy, even when they're within range and clear line of sight, even when they're being shot at, while other times they'll waste their entire ammo reserve shooting at a wall that an enemy is behind. Sometimes units will refuse to follow orders, yet other times they'll dash away to follow an order you didn't want them to as soon as you swap control to another vehicle, even though they're being told to "suspend." The AI in this game is not good. Don't rely on it.
The story. The actual story this time. It's just dreadful. These are some of the worst actors I've ever seen, reciting their lines with all the conviction of reading off your shopping list aloud. They're forced to act out some of the worst, most stilted and unnatural dialogue that I've ever seen, and that's when you can hear it over the atrocious sound balancing that drowns out people's lines with engine noise and breaking waves. They follow a storyline that's simply idiotic when it doesn't boil down to gaming's barest essentials of "kill stuff, advance plot" and even then their inane comments are infuriating. The plot itself is so clichéd it's offensive, and yet it continuously manages to surprise me with just HOW bad it can get. And all of this is encapsulated in cutscenes featuring hideously ugly character models animated like something out of the 1990, with characters' cold eyes staring dead ahead and their mouths moving like they're chewing gum. The single-player campaign is never at its worse than when it's trying to tell you a story. And all of this capped with the dumbest, least credible, most inept ending to any story I've ever seen. It's APALLING!
The bugs. This game is just riddled with them. They range from simple ones like poor hit detection on vehicle shots, to annoying ones like disappearing resources and items you've created, to outright showstopping ones like repeated crashes to the desktop that cause save files to go corrupt. There are, as well, a number of dead-end glitches that can leave your game literally unwinnable. I had to stop a power plant on an island by dropping coolant in a volcano (just roll with it). Instead, I took over the island thinking that would shut the plant down since I control it. Nope. And not only that, but going back to the island now doesn't spawn the coolant. Can't stop the plant, can't beat the game and your saves past that point are useless. If you destroy the enemy carrier and then immediately engage it thereafter, the game will crash. Every time. It will crash playing cutscenes, it will sometimes even crash just from nothing at all. It's buggy as all hell, suffice it to say.
I really don't know what to say. Carrier Command: Gaea Mission is kind of like a really cool sports car that goes fast and stops on a dime, but every time you sit down to drive it you're overcome by a stench of rotten eggs and old fish. Yeah, it's cool cruise around the freeway in it, but you have to put up with a really foul stench to enjoy it. And this thing will set you back I think $30. That's expensive by any stretch, and for a mess like this? The rare glimmer of hope just isn't worth it.
I'll take the fairly rare position here of NOT recommending Carrier Command: Gaea Mission to you, no matter what kind of games you like. Yes, its heart is in the right place and it can be tremendously fun, but a game this broken, this poorly-designed and this badly supported just isn't worth $30. Maybe if it goes in a sale on Steam, but it would have to be a huge sale. I wouldn't pay more than $10 for this thing, and even then it'll hurt. Maybe if you enjoy torturing yourself and have extreme tolerance for awful design, maybe then you will be able to see the glimmer in this mud stew. But most people will just drop this thing within an hour of trying it because it's just that broken and just that much of a mess.
And it's a right shame, too. This could have been a decent game. Well... Back to Hostile Waters, I guess.