Thoughts: Carrier Deck

Carrier Deck is Cook, Serve, Delicious with fighter jets.

(What’s that? You never played Cook, Serve, Delicious? Well, I’d have to say you missed out as it was the best game I didn’t review in 2012, but don’t worry – there’s a sequel coming along in August.)

That being said, it doesn’t deliver on the mechanics any near as cleanly as Cook Serve Delicious did. This is strange, because the concept would appear to fit the mechanics very well indeed: you are the air boss of an aircraft carrier (the USS Ronald Reagan, although I prefer to call it “the carrier” as I don’t even like to think Ronald Reagan’s name too frequently) and it’s your job to fuel and arm planes and helicopters and send them off on missions to counter a variety of helpfully colour-coded threats. You have to retrieve them, too, and deal with any that get damaged by sending them on an exciting elevator trip into the bowels of the ship where your maintenance team can get to work. Certain threats demand certain responses; a Sea King helicopter isn’t going to be much good against that Badger bomber that just appeared on your threat display, but it’s the only thing that can take out the diesel and nuclear submarines that will be sent against you. All of the military aircraft at your disposal are multirole, with F-18 Hornets being equally effective at eliminating aerial threats as they are strikes on surface warships, and some of the more complex threats such as cruisers and shore batteries require multiple aircraft or two-stage missions to destroy.

Sounds like a good fit, right? Never mind that underneath all of the naval guff Carrier Deck is an ultimately quite simplistic timed asset management game; the theme is at least incredibly appropriate for what you’re doing. The bottom third of the screen is taken up by the threat display, which shows incoming attacks that must be dealt with. This display is split into four layers — air, surface, submarine, and ground — and threats can appear on any or all of them at once, moving from right to left until (if not eliminated) they drop off the leftmost edge, at which point they will inflict damage to the carrier.  but the first thing you’ll notice when starting a game of Carrier Deck is that only the first quarter of the threat display is visible, with the rest being covered by sensor fog. To uncover it you have to send aloft a recon aircraft to provide radar/sonar coverage of a specific layer, and some of them are better at it than others — you can send up a bog-standard F-18 if you’re really pushed for resources, but it’ll only uncover one additional quarter of the targeted layer and it doesn’t have the endurance to stay up for long. Meanwhile the E-2C Hawkeye is a dedicated early warning aircraft with a bloody great radome on the top that provides coverage over the entire layer and can stay in the air for ages — but it can’t detect submarines. That’s the job of the S3 Viking, although you can also get by passably with Sea King coverage when Vikings aren’t available as submarines are very slow.

carrier_evening

So the very first thing you do in every Carrier Deck mission is outfit your recon aircraft to target each desired layer. This is done by selecting a plane or helicopter that is parked on the carrier deck (not on an elevator, although these can be used as convenient extra parking spaces for planes you’ve already tooled up if things are getting a little crowded) and selecting a loadout for it from a radial menu. The most common loadouts are generic ones that correspond to each of the colour-coded threat layers; a plane with a red Air loadout cannot be used to counter a torpedo boat coming in on the Surface layer, but it can use that loadout to either attack incoming aircraft or provide radar coverage for the air layer, since these are both Air missions. Planes can also take blue Surface and green Ground loadouts, but only Sea King helicopters and the Vikings can take the yellow Submarine loadouts, F-18s not being particularly known for their anti-submarine warfare capabilities and all.  Once you’ve picked a loadout you have to wait a little while for some tiny men to run around on the carrier deck fueling and arming the aircraft; once it’s armed you can then order it to taxi to a runway, and it’s only when it’s either taxiing or is actually ready to take off that you’ll actually queue up a mission for it – this is because you can only have four missions queued up at once, and missions currently have to be tackled in the order in which they are queued1. It’s therefore a very bad idea to fill your mission queue with anything unless you can immediately clear it; fortunately launching the required plane (or planes) does so, and it doesn’t matter how close in the threat you’re trying to counter has gotten as long as you launch the counter-mission before it hits the left side of the threat display.

Once launched, your aircraft will automatically destroy whatever threat you’ve launched them at — there’s no such thing as an unsuccessful mission in Carrier Deck, which is a wise choice since it ensures your attention can be fully devoted to shuffling things around on the actual carrier deck so that you can cycle aircraft as quickly as possible. You can see them moving from left to right on the threat display (your radar aircraft will also be visible) and once they get to the right hand side they’ll come in for a landing. You have three usable runways for aircraft to take off from, but you only have one landing strip and your pilots do not give a single solitary fuck if that landing strip is already occupied; they’re still going to land on it even if it means causing some spectacular pyrotechnics (and, almost incidentally, their own deaths) by driving their airplane into another airplane at seventy miles an hour. Entertainingly, if not exactly usefully, this same principle holds true if your landing strip is currently occupied by the mangled wreckage of two planes locked in their final embrace; if you have other planes in the landing pattern before the wreckage gets cleared then each of them will conga line straight into the fireball caused by their unfortunate comrades. This makes keeping the landing strip clear probably the single most important thing you do in Carrier Deck; if under pressure it doesn’t matter where you tell the planes to go as long as they’re well away from that hundred-metre danger zone on the right-hand side of your carrier deck.

carrier_underdeck

Assuming you get the plane back from a mission in one piece, that still doesn’t necessarily mean it’s undamaged. Damaged planes can be identified easily by a trail of smoke coming from the fuselage; if you have time and the spare mental capacity you can order them onto an elevator, lower them into the underdecks and order them into a maintenance space for your crews to work on (this takes some time) and then back up onto the flight deck again. This will completely fix any damage but it’s a rather involved process that you’ll almost certainly get distracted from before realising that the reason you don’t have any planes left to counter the latest threat is because three of them are idling below deck after finishing their maintenance cycle. What’s more likely, though, is that you’ll be under such pressure that you’ll have to launch a damaged plane or helicopter on a mission; they’ll still succeed, but they’ll end up ditching in the ocean afterwards and you’ll get a compulsory Rescue mission stuffing up your mission queue which requires a special helicopter loadout to clear. Fortunately losing aircraft doesn’t seem to impose any score penalty that I can see, and they’ll even be replaced after a brief time by other aircraft flying in from elsewhere. Unfortunately, while it is possible to lose helicopters in a relatively pain-free fashion, having a fighter jet cannonball into your flight deck is going to cause damage to your carrier and it’s this that will negatively impact your score, since the entire point of Carrier Deck is to get through a game with as little carrier damage as possible.

Carrier Deck does ladle on a little bit of complexity past these basics, but not too much; bigger enemies require multiple aircraft to counter, and the biggest require an ECM mission to be launched prior to the actual attack – fortunately there are many aircraft capable of this including the Super Hornet, so it’s not too onerous. Ground threats are always visible, but sometimes you have to send in a helicopter with Special Forces on board to identify it before launching a jet with a Ground loadout to destroy it; otherwise they might simply require a similarly helicopter-delivered Amphibious strike from your marine complement. Finally there are regular Cargo flights to your carrier, which must be unloaded and which automatically fill up your queue with a mission to launch it back off the carrier again once it’s done. Thanks to the four layers and the multiple threat types there’s always enough going on to amply occupy your attention despite the simple underlying mechanic of matching plane loadout colours to threat colours. Unfortunately there’s a big difference between being pleasantly stretched and being needlessly overwhelmed, and the latter missions of Carrier Deck’s campaigns have a little too much of the latter thanks to an unpleasant game element I mentioned earlier: your pilots are utter morons.

carrier_explosion

This goes quite some way beyond them being merely suicidal, mind. If they were just hell-bent on offing themselves I could deal with Carrier Deck as a sort of military Lemmings. Unfortunately Carrier Deck is, ultimately, a game that is roughly 80% about managing your aircraft as they taxi around your flight deck. Ordering them off the landing strip, to a loading bay, shuffling them with aircraft parked on the elevators to free up space, sending them down to the maintenance bay and then bringing them back up again, and getting them to the runways to launch missions – all of these things require aircraft to move from point A to point B. The problem here is that the plane pathfinding… well, the pathfinding isn’t exactly bad because there’s a very limited movement space, but Carrier Deck is a rather busy game and very soon after a game begins you’re going to have a situation where two planes want to go through the same space at the same time. What I would like Carrier Deck to do here is pick one plane that has priority, move it to its destination, and then as soon as it is out of the way have the other plane carry on to where it is going. I don’t think that’s too much to ask in as simple a game as this. Unfortunately what actually happens when two aircraft run into each other is this:

  • The pilots will stare at each other angrily. You can’t actually see the pilots, I’m just inferring that this is what happens because the planes will freeze in place for 5-10 seconds; the pilots must be otherwise engaged so I assume they’re having a stare-off.
  • The loser of the stare-off then turns around and goes back to where they came from. Even if it’s on the other side of the flight deck. This completely cancels whatever you wanted to do with the plane and you’ll have to re-issue the command.
  • Oh, and collision detection in Carrier Deck is really generous, which when combined with how busy the game gets — it’s rare that there’ll be fewer than two planes moving around the deck at once — means that you will constantly be driven to distraction by these snarl-ups.

Thanks to this pathfinding AI being so difficult what should be a game about timed asset management instead becomes a constant chore of hand-holding your pilots around the ship. It’s so easy for even a minor stare-off related delay to completely derail whatever time-sensitive thing you were trying to do, and far too often you’ll find your pilots refusing to path intelligently around the landing strip and causing a colourful explosion when the next landing comes in. Eventually you learn to work around it to take some of the rougher edges off, but this is not what I want to be wasting my time doing. I appreciate Carrier Deck will always involve shepherding planes around the flight deck to some degree, but I would like my involvement to extend to telling a plane to go somewhere, and then checking back ten seconds later to find that it has indeed gone there, not that the pilot has gotten in a huff with somebody else and retreated back to his previous parking spot to sulk.

carrier_day

This ties into the wider issue I have with Carrier Deck: it is a game that demands extremely precise responses from the player, and which puts you under extreme time pressure to deliver them. That’s fine. That’s exactly what this genre of game2 is about. The problem is that Carrier Deck doesn’t feel any obligation to provide a matching predictable response. That’s a principle that’s at the bedrock of the sort of game Carrier Deck is trying to be; it’s asking you to sequence a series of 5-6 actions that’ll end with the destruction of an enemy cruiser, and it’s asking you to do this while you’re juggling two or three other missions at once. If that’s the ask, then in order to do that properly I need to know that action A will lead to outcome B 100% of the time. That way I can trace the problem state through from A->B->C->D->E->Dead cruiser. What can’t happen, ever, is that action A leads back to action A because the pathfinding AI for my jet got confused. Or that the arming progress meter for submarine loadout freezes halfway and never unsticks, with no explanation given as to what’s gone wrong. Or that, occasionally, planes won’t land but will instead careen straight down the middle of the carrier and come around for another pass; as far as I can tell this is entirely random and god help you if you have anything taxiing out to the centre runway when it happens.

There is too much inherent unpredictability present in Carrier Deck for me to deliver that precise response it’s asking for3, and so after it became apparent I couldn’t fully mitigate those risk factors I lost interest in it. To be fair, it did succeed in holding it for around 9 hours and, as a port of an iPad game with a reasonably limited campaign structure, it’s not designed for the long-term structured metagame play of Cook, Serve, Delicious. Carrier Deck is not inherently bad. It’s just inherently flawed, and I found those flaws very frustrating when they were such comparatively small, fixable things that undid the game thanks to being so at odds with the rest of it. A little more polish would have gone a long way towards doing justice to the great idea behind Carrier Deck; it’s a small, almost experimental indie thing so I appreciate why that polish phase didn’t happen more than I do with, say, Mass Effect: Andromeda, but it also means I’m bailing on the game now and am unlikely to revisit it in the future even if the devs do eventually fix it up. In this brave new world of hyper-saturated videogame releases you only get one chance to make a good impression on your players, and while it’s a reasonably solid game in spite of the flaws I can’t help but feel that Carrier Deck has blown it somewhat.

  1. The devs recently put out a beta patch that removes the ordering requirement, which I’m in two minds about. On the one hand it was an annoyingly artificial restriction on your action sequencing. On the other removing a key mechanic like that in a game this simple is going to have an absolutely huge impact on how it plays to the point where the whole house of cards might come crashing down. Honestly I’m a little staggered it’s not something they caught in playtesting.
  2. Does it have a name? Answers on the back of a comment box if you know.
  3. Now that I think about it I had the same problem years ago with Unity of Command where some scenarios were so limited you were 100% dependent on getting a favourable Breakthrough roll to achieve success. So it’s good to know that I’m at least being consistent here.
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One thought on “Thoughts: Carrier Deck

  1. ilitarist says:

    Hope lack of comments doesn’t discourage you from making those fancy reviews of yours.

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