Thoughts: Carrier Command.

Oh dear. I did so hope this was going to be good. I never played the original Carrier Command what with not having crawled out of the primordial ooze along with the choanoflagellates and eurkaryotes all those eons ago. However I did play the 2001 homage, Hostile Waters. Hostile Waters was a very difficult game, but the Warren Ellis-penned storyline, the cast of Brit sci-fi actors and the chip-stored personalities of the soldiers all meshed together with the action strategy gameplay rather well and ensured I still think fondly of it today despite never managing to beat the ridiculously hard final mission. Bohmeia Interactive’s remake of Carrier Command had a lot to live up to if it was ever going to match the reputation of the original, let alone Hostile Waters. Carrier Command: Pointless Subtitle certainly looks the part, with the best graphics Bohemia can throw at it as well as dynamic weather effects adding a frisson of unpredictability to the environment, but how does it play?

Spoiler: not very well.

Carrier Command is supposed to be a hybrid of supply logistics, tactical strategy and  first-person vehicle combat. As you may have twigged from the name, a prospective player of Carrier Command is put in command of a carrier attempting to take over an archipelago of islands. To do this it has a collection of eight vehicles at its disposal; four Mantas, which are VTOL attack aircraft, and another four amphibious wheeled Walrus tanks. The vehicles can all be outfitted with a fairly large variety of weapons and equipment ranging from machine guns to lasers to gatling guns to rockets to hacking modules, and then ordered into the fray against an island’s embedded defence forces via the carrier’s strategic map interface where they should in theory be able to carry out their orders completely autonomously. You have the ability to assume direct control of any single vehicle at any time, but in the meantime the other seven will be attempting to fulfil the last orders they were given to the best of their ability. The objective is to get a Walrus with a hacking module to the island’s command centre so that it can be taken over, at which point all resistance on the island ceases and you can move on to the next one when you’re ready.

The carrier itself is moved from island to island (and occasionally positioned in a specific place next to an island) on the strategic map, which is also where you take care of the logistical side of things. One of your islands is designated a stockpile island from which you can order new vehicles and equipment to replace losses to be put on the next outbound supply ship. Those new vehicles and equipment must be manufactured by you using the factories and resources acquired from conquered islands. There’s a certain degree of forward planning involved here as building a new Walrus and transporting it out to the carrier can take a significant amount of time during which you’ll be operating one Walrus down, so having spare equipment to set against losses ahead of time can be very useful, but the most crucial role of the supply ship is to refuel the carrier. The carrier can make three, maybe four hops between islands on a full tank of fuel, and if it runs out of gas at a particular island it’s stuck where it is twiddling its thumbs until the supply ship arrives. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing except for the fact that while you are sailing hither and thither taking over islands there’s also an enemy AI carrier doing the same to you, so while your carrier is out of fuel it can’t respond to an attack. The ultimate goal of the game is to take all of the islands on the map and sink the enemy carrier.

That’s the basic premise of Carrier Command’s Strategy mode, anyway. It’s a great recipe for a game, and one that’s been tried and proven to work twice in the past with the original Carrier Command and Hostile Waters. And yet Carrier Command: Gaea Mission gets it horribly, awfully wrong somehow. All Bohemia had to do in order to was stick to the script and not go off piste too much and Carrier Command would have been so beautiful.  There’s been the odd moment during the Strategy game when everything has just worked: heavy rain is beating down on my Walrus convoy stuck in the middle of a swamp, they’ve come under attack from enemy Walruses and turret emplacements, they’re running low on ammo and the situation looks dire — and then the Manta airstrike that I ordered arrives, blasts the attackers into tiny pieces with rocket strikes and then goes on to engage enemy air cover, taking pressure off of the Walrus convoy and allowing them to get to their objective. Fighting my way across an island inch by gruelling inch to get to the command centre can be incredibly satisfying. It should be incredibly satisfying. Instead what it is, mostly, is frustrating. Carrier Command is one of the most annoying, maddening games it’s been my misfortune to play in, oooh, call it the last half-decade, and it’s all down to some very basic and fundamental gameplay flaws and bugs that utterly neuter any sense of enjoyment or fun I might have gotten out of it.

For starters, the actual classic Carrier Command gameplay is hived off into a separate “Strategy mode” and pride of place is taken by the game’s story-driven campaign mode. I don’t object to this in principle, as Hostile Waters proved that the Carrier Command concept could work equally as well with a series of static pre-planned scenarios as it could with an organic strategy overworld. Unfortunately Carrier Command’s campaign mode instead chooses to moonlight as an indescribably awful FPS in a game that’s built for vehicle combat and movement, not infantry combat. Not only does the player character move incredibly awkwardly during the FPS sections but they can’t jump over even the tiniest of rocks, and if you do somehow manage to wander off the straight and narrow the game will smite you down for having the temerity to want to play Carrier Command instead of a desperate Halo wannabe. You do eventually manage to get into a carrier after about 45 minutes of this torture but the damage is already done; I certainly didn’t want to play it any further after that and retreated into Strategy mode, but this left me with a tiny problem. To wit, Carrier Command doesn’t have a tutorial. Or rather, it does and it’s called Campaign mode. In order to learn how to play the game properly Carrier Command demanded I subject myself to this scripted hell of bad accents and poor scenario design. That’s not acceptable, especially in this day and age where everything is done digitally and nothing comes with a sodding manual any more.

This meant I basically had to figure out how to play Strategy mode blind, and while I could work most of it out given one hour and a lot of trial and error there was one strange omission that I had to double-check on the internet because I couldn’t believe Bohemia would have been so stupid as to leave it out of the game: a manual time acceleration system. Everything in Carrier Command takes place in pseudo-realtime, with an accelerated (but still lengthy) day/night cycle and resupply and travel times that are entirely based on how long it will take your carrier or supply ship to physically travel to their destinations. While they’re en route you can see them moving across the map. Because it’d take about fifteen minutes for the carrier to sail to an adjacent island in real time, time acceleration automatically kicks in as soon as it leaves the vicinity of its start island and remains in place until the carrier reaches its destination, greatly speeding things up so that while you’ve got time to do a bit of housekeeping like re-equipping your units you’re not waiting around for too long to get back into the action.

Unfortunately this is the only method available to the player for speeding time up. If you want to accelerate time you have to do it by sailing between islands; there is no way to manually engage the time acceleration system. So if you’ve just finished pacifying an island and you want your Walruses to dock with the carrier before you leave, you have to sit there and wait for five minutes while they slowly plod back across the map. If your carrier runs out of fuel and you order some more via the supply ship, you actually have to wait for the supply ship to travel to you from the stockpile island in that pseudo-real time – and if you’re operating at the practical limit of your supply chain (likely if you’ve run out of fuel) the stockpile island will be quite some way away, meaning the supply ship will take 10-15 real life minutes to get to your vessel. That’s 10-15 minutes of down time. 10-15 minutes of doing nothing. I don’t want a game where I spend any time doing nothing. It’s a fucking game, not real life. While a simulation of a pseudo-real time environment can present some interesting strategic challenges I don’t particularly rate “doing nothing” as one of them. “Nothing” is not a particularly engaging activity. “Nothing” is what I do when I’m waiting for a bus. Unless your game seeks to replicate the experience of bus-waiting in all its glory you’d damn well better implement some way for the player to circumvent the “nothing” and get to “something” because it is a game. It’s an activity that the player chooses to engage in as a means of leisure and entertainment. Wasting time like this is not particularly leisurely or entertaining, and neither is any game that thinks it’s okay to do so.

Still, there’s actually a game I’ve played this year that beats out Carrier Command: Gaea Mission’s lack of manual time manipulation controls in the shitty, game-destroying “features” stakes. It’s called Carrier Command: Gaea Mission, and it takes the prize for 2012 Worst Feature In A Released Game with this stunning entry:

I went to the trouble of recording that video because the Walrus pathfinding in this game really has to be seen in action in order for people to understand just how bad it is. That’s not a special one-off case that I had to spend time setting up, it’s what will happen every single time you attempt to give a group of Walruses autonomous movement orders. I’ve spent some time studying the behaviour of the AI Walruses to try to figure out just how something so disastrous made it into the final game, and this is how it works.

  • The Walrus doesn’t plot the whole journey at once; instead it does it a slice at a time, extrapolating waypoints to what it thinks is the easiest route to a point a couple of dozen metres down the road. This is not necessarily the same thing as the easiest route to its final destination.
  • The Walrus is absolutely slavish about hitting those waypoints. If it misses one for whatever reason it will at best stop for a second to recalculate the route. At worst it’ll actually turn around to try to hit it again.
  • Because the Walrus turning circle is so large and because the AI controlling it is so dumb, turning around involves a complicated seventeen-point procedure that takes a good minute to complete.
  • This is exacerbated by the Walrus AI being utterly paranoid about running into things. Hitting a large object at speed depletes vehicle health so this phobia is somewhat understandable, but if it detects anything blocking its route, even partially, it will attempt to path around it by doing several of those seventeen-point turns.
  • On the other hand the Walrus AI doesn’t seem to recognise small obstacles at all. And by “small obstacles” I mean things which don’t have a physical presence on the map but which it is nevertheless a bad idea to drive over. Things like river banks and cliffs and the sides of bridges.

The upshot of this is that you give four Walruses an order to move into a base a half klick up the road. One of them (usually the one in front) will make it with only a few minor mishaps. One of them will be confused by something unexpected (like another Walrus) and waste two or three minutes doing seventeen-point turns until the route clears. One of them will somehow fall off a bridge and get stuck in a river where it will require player intervention to retrieve. And one of them just won’t move at all because that’s the one you were directly controlling earlier and you need to push a special button on the strategy map to make it accept orders again, despite this being implicit in the fact you gave it an order in the first place. Seven times out of ten your group of Walruses will get strung out and cut to pieces by enemy forces unless you constantly babysit them to their destination. The other three times you give a movement order they’ll just get stuck in an infinite turning loop and won’t go anywhere at all.

Walruses – which, let us remember, constitute a full half of all the vehicles in the game – are worse than useless because of this awful pathfinding; they’re an actual liability. Having them on the line of battle means they’ll get blown up and you’ll have to waste time and resources building new ones. It’s not even like you can avoid using them, either, as they’re the only vehicles which can carry the hack modules required to capture island facilities. The best you can do is keep them back from the front lines while your Mantas clear the way for them and then move the Walruses in when it’s safe. Even on a completely empty island, though, handholding a Walrus up to the command centre and back is an exercise in frustration because it can’t be trusted to carry out orders on its own.

It’s this last item which has been primarily responsible for my giving up on Carrier Command after just four hours. I figured out how to play the game in the end, and I probably would have kept it alt-tabbed in lieu of time acceleration while I was waiting for supply ships, but the Walrus pathfinding ruins everything else in the game. It makes battles far harder than they need to be because half your units are functionally useless and while your attention is occupied with trying to get your Walrus out of a ditch the enemy will launch an airstrike and ice one of your other units while you’re not looking. It makes the downtime afterwards far more annoying than it should be as the Walruses attempt to path back to the carrier and run into just about everything they possibly can on the way. Maybe they’ll patch in better pathfinding at some point but judging from what I’ve read on the forums this is a problem that’s existed ever since Carrier Command’s beta started back in April, so I’m not particularly hopeful Bohemia will suddenly decide to make fixing it a priority now. Anyway, I can’t review games on what they might become in the future. I can only give my opinion on what they are right now. No mater how much potential it might have if they fix all of these glaring issues, right now Carrier Command is a shoddy broken mess of a game and buying it is a waste of both time and money whose only real redeeming feature was that it brought just how damn good Hostile Waters was into sharp relief. I’m now playing that instead, and I’m much happier.

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14 thoughts on “Thoughts: Carrier Command.

  1. Gap says:

    This is a shame, and yeah, I should play Hostile Waters again. I did complete the final mission and yeah, I remember it being a bastard. Also reminds me of the Furies in Battlezone (the 1998 one). The mission where you had to harvest N resources with those things descending from Titan’s atmosphere and attacking you was terrifying.

    • Hentzau says:

      One of my big regrets of late is that I never picked up a copy of Battlezone when it was available despite thinking the demo was great, as it’s impossible to find now and GoG hasn’t gotten around to adding it to its library yet. It has Americans fighting Soviets on the Moon! How could it possibly be bad?

      • Gap says:

        So it does look a little dated now, plus the unit AI isn’t the best at dogfighting (this is fixed in the sequel). It’s still a neat game, though, especially with the work done to replicate bombing across the surface of various real planets and moons in a space tank.

        Looks like you can find it on Amazon for a tenner, if you’re interested and have ten pounds to spend on that sort of thing. Alternatively, I might still have the CD, and don’t know if it’d be that naughty to send you a .iso.

      • Gap says:

        Also, you might want to link to your blog on your RPS comments / the YouTube video comments. Nowt wrong with driving traffic to the site.

  2. aosher says:

    That video is so frustrating to watch.

    • Hentzau says:

      I think the best part is the Walrus which made it to the destination okay getting destroyed by a Manta while the anti-air Walrus is stuck going in circles. It couldn’t sum the problem up better..

  3. Anonymous says:

    Move your stockpile island to cut down on resupply times.

    Also, this game is not about charging in with all your units and trying to manage the fracas but planning your routes and picking off the defenses so you don’t have to worry about babysitting your walruses so much. You don’t necessarily have to deal with all the defenses on an island. It’s a slower game, but if this appeals to you, it is great.

    For example, take out all the shield generators from a distance with manta sorties (I que them up with commands but drive myself), then soften up the command center defenses and make a beeline for it from the nearest beach. Or multiple walrus raids from different positions around the island to hack firewalls.

    Always scout first with mantas, quickly at altitude first, then carefully, taking a closer look and picking your approach. Watch for AA, either pick off carefully or send in walruses once other defenses are weakened.

    • Hentzau says:

      Jim Rossignol made this point in his RPS review; if you *are* prepared to wait around then I imagine Carrier Command is a great deal more palatable. Methodically taking apart an islands defences with Mantas was the way I was doing it, too, and it’s why I don’t think the concept of Carrier Command itself is flawed, it’s this particular implementation of it. I was using Mantas for surgical strikes on the most important/toughest targets and then sending in Walruses to actually take and hold the ground the Mantas had softened up, since Mantas have no staying power. Then the Mantas would hit a little further inland and the Walruses would follow up again, and they’d gradually chip their way closer and closer to the command centre.

      And I was enjoying all of that, Walrus pathfinding problems aside. I have no problem with a slow war, but I *hate* waiting around for things to happen in a game. I think I should always be doing something; there should be periods of downtime to break up the fighting and give me a breather, but those periods should only last so long as it takes me to put in a few production orders while I wait for my Mantas to rearm and my Walruses to repair. If the downtime lasts longer than it takes me to finish my housekeeping tasks and I end up twiddling my thumbs while I wait for something to happen, I consider that a failure in a game’s design. It’s a philosophical thing more than anything else and there’s plenty of scope for disagreement, but Carrier Command’s particular approach was not for me.

      (Also I was paranoid about moving the stockpile island since the Carrier Ai is a little bit erratic about which islands it chooses to attack, often striking two or three islands past the “front line” deep into my territory. There was nowhere I could have put it that it wouldn’t have been under threat, although it’s possible I simply needed to gird myself, pick a new spot and switch its type to defence so I could at least have the time to get to it if it was attacked.)

  4. I’m really loving the theme/design of your weblog. Do you ever run into any web browser compatibility issues? A number of my blog readers have complained about my blog not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Safari. Do you have any tips to help fix this issue?

  5. Mark says:

    Thanks to Arma 3, BI has only been able to keep 2 developers working on CC:GM. I only got the game a few months ago, and either I am incredibly tolerant of stupid behavior, or they have greatly improved the Walrus’s AI since this review was written. There are still a number of problems, like the game randomly crashes every 6 hours or so, and a few unit behaviors are still annoying, but for what it is, I still find the game to be incredibly fun.

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