Carrier Command – Gaea Mission had a public beta. By ‘public’ I mean anybody who preordered got access to the beta. It’s a bit of a change for Bohemia Interactive Studios, makers of the venerable ARMA series of military shooters, and is one of their cross-platform titles, appearing on the PC, 360
and PS3 my mistake, not PS3. I intended to do a piece on the beta back when it first landed, but I didn’t end up doing it. In short, one of my biggest concerns was with the AI. In my unpublished article (which I guess I might throw up just to prove a point) I wrote about how BIS have a history of terrible pathfinding for vehicles (well actually for anything save for aircraft) and I was concerned that this might not be resolved for this game. Back in the beta, the wheeled amphibious tanks called Walruses displayed all the same behaviour as a tank in any of the ARMA games. That is it was piss poor at navigating anything except a wide open field. Has it improved? Were my fears unfounded? Read on.
EDIT: Also it might be worth noting that BIS worked on this game along with Black Element Software, so who’s to blame? Who knows. But given that BIS games have issues with pathfinding, it’s tempting to lay it at their feet.
Also, it’s time for a new review system! Under this system, games get points from two categories – Game Engine (covering sound and graphics), and gameplay (covering pretty much everything else). Top score is 5 out of 5, which doesn’t mean “universal appeal and absolutely flawless” but just a particularly good game that is definitely worth checking out and playing. Zero out of 5 is a broken mess that should have been aborted before release. 3 points are awarded for gameplay, 2 points for the engine (one for graphics and one for audio). Half points can be awarded, and no points may be awarded if a game is particularly bad. Generally to earn a full point, a game needs to do fairly well at something in that category. For example Crysis 2 would get a full point for graphics under Game Engine. Half a point is generally awarded for doing something fairly average. No points are awarded if it’s broken or bad.
Carrier Command – Gaea Mission is the spiritual successor to Carrier Command, which is a fairly old game (they tell me Doom is old, so this one must be older) where you are in control of a futuristic aircraft carrier battling another carrier for control of an island. To capture the island you have two types of remotely operated vehicles at your disposal – the aforementioned amphibious tank called a Walrus, and a flying VTOL fighter called a Mantis. You can have 4 of each deployed at once, either under your direct control, or being operated by the AI under your orders. You and the enemy carrier fight to capture facilities on an island and kill each other. That’s the basics.
The game includes a campaign mode that serves to introduce the basics of gameplay and gives some background for the fight. The basics of the story is that you play as an officer of the United Earth Coalition (UEC), who lost a war with the Asia Pacific Alliance (APA) over dwindling water supplies or something. You head off to another solar system and hit up a planet to fight back, stealing away an old and beaten up APA carrier and commencing your crusade to take over all the islands. There’s also a more standard skirmish mode too, which plays more like the classic game.
Game Engine (1 Point)
We might as well start here because as you know, BIS engines tend to perform very poorly on release (and then 4 years down the track they’re not much better). I’m not sure if it’s the requirement for a console release, but whatever happened, this engine does not suffer the same performance issues. On my i5 2500k, 6GB RAM, 570GTX and Windows 8 rig, the game ran flawlessly on High at 1920×1080. That’s a nice change of pace from every single ARMA release, where they all ran at 10FPS on pretty much everything at any settings. Some of the audio issues from the ARMA games seem to persist here though – volume mixing is done in a pretty piss poor manner, with some things being buried under other sounds (particularly dialogue) and due to the weird balancing there’s no way to really fix it. Other than that though, it’s a fairly good effort and surprising. Graphically, the game is fairly impressive, particularly when it comes to weather effects. Storms rage and blaze and dump rain, sunlight streams through trees, and the various terrain types look fantastic, from desert wastelands to boggy swamps.
Gameplay (1 Point)
The most important part of a game is the gameplay of course, so how does it play? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. During the beta I was quite optimistic, because it managed to create a fantastic atmosphere of tension when you were moving through the mists and approaching an island for the first time. Flying out on a scouting mission with your Manta felt great. But there were issues, namely with pathfinding and commanding your units. After all, you can only directly control one unit at once, while the others are left to the AI. Because you are invariably going to be better than the AI at fighting and moving, you’ll naturally pick a strong unit for yourself, but you can’t fight alone. Hence a slick command system and a decent AI is pretty important for a game like this.
Quite frankly, I’m disappointed. In the beta, getting a Walrus to move anywhere was an exercise in frustration. On open water or an open field they’re fine. Anything else and you might as well give up. They can’t navigate so much as a single tree or wall without screwing up. If they get anywhere between two objects, they’ll fidget backwards and forwards ineffectually. They frequently try to drive up slopes that they have no hope of getting up, but it doesn’t stop them trying. They’re also ridiculously slow. If you observe them while driving along, you’ll find that they almost come to a complete stop at every single turn for some reason. Actually any change in direction generally requires them to stop and then turn a bit, before stopping again to drive off. Fortunately they can shoot straight, but that doesn’t help when they can’t drive properly. By contrast, the AI handles the Mantis very well, and can be left to their own devices. But they can’t drive a Walrus at all.
It might seem strange to spend so many paragraphs going on about this, but it comes very close to breaking the game entirely. I spent 30 minutes trying to get three Walruses to resupply at a base on the island. One of them managed to get there more or less intact, albeit very slowly. Another insisted on trying to drive right through enemy territory, despite a much shorter and safer route being available (and the game would randomly cancel my other routing). The final one chose the correct route, but had a panic attack trying to drive past a low wall, drove itself up a slope, and stalled. I gave up and took manual control. But when you’re being shot at you can’t be everywhere at once. When I give them orders to move towards the enemy base to attack, I damn well expect the AI to be able to manage it. But they can’t. Their pathfinding is abysmal, and their driving is shockingly bad.
BIS, I can sort of accept that this stuff is really hard to do. Truly, I accept that it’s a big ask to have a decent pathfinding system and I’m the first to admit that I can’t do any better. But other people certainly have done a better job. The pathfinding issues seem identical in behaviour to the abysmal driving skills of the ARMA AI that has existed since Operation Flashpoint first came out. They never get any better, despite patch after patch claiming to improve it. I love you guys, honestly I do, and I’m a big fan of the ARMA series (and even Take on Helicopters), but I’ve lost all faith in you being able to make a driving AI. After so long, I don’t think you can manage it. In a game like ARMA you can sort of get away with it since it’s slower paced and has wide open spaces, but in this game where it’s a fast paced action game relying heavily on the AI to control your assets, it’s inexcusable. They were broken in the beta, they were broken in every ARMA game ever, and they’re broken now. Sorry guys, but it isn’t good enough.
Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s talk about the command interface. The strategic map is pretty good, and works well. Direct control is also very well done and easy to use. Where I think it falls down is in first person ordering mode, or that stupid command wheel thing. This was supposed to be a quick way to order assets around, but it doesn’t work as you’d expect. By default, the “Dock” command from the command wheel causes EVERYTHING to dock, but selecting the “Assist” option (which basically means ‘Follow me to your doom!’) only seems to affect assets of the same type. You can manually select what assets to give orders to using CTRL and a number key. Now why would you have that kind of system? What was wrong with the F keys? That worked for ARMA, it’d work just as well here. Pressing the number key corresponding to that asset takes you to it instantly and puts it under your control unless it’s executing orders. The command system isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s a step backwards. I generally find it easier to force the Mantas to follow one Manta or the Walruses to… well actually I just don’t bother because they never manage to drive anywhere anyway, I just take direct control and position them somewhere where they might do some good. The command system isn’t bad, but it’s not fast and easy like it needs to be, and it’s one of the issues I had with the beta. It needs to be much easier to select units for the Command Wheel.
Also the game needs a “stop” order that also clears their waypoints. Too often I take control of a unit and suspend its orders, only to have the game resume them later on when I don’t want them to. It’s annoying, and was particularly frustrating in an early campaign mission that required you to quickly switch between two units to hit two switches.
But then the pathfinding isn’t being useless, and when you come to grips with the issues involving the command wheel, the game starts to shine. That tense feeling of hunting and being hunted, flying a Mantis in a heavy storm scouting out enemy positions, smashing an enemy Walrus from the air, driving through a muddy swamp… these all build up the atmosphere that makes the game feel great. When you do manage to pull off a combined air and land assault, it feels great. It’s pretty special to smash the coast from your carrier, send off your wing of Mantas to soften up some defences, and then have your Walruses roll (slowly an erratically) in for the capture. It’s at points like that when the game is exceptionally good and is fun to play. Sadly, that relies on the pathfinding not being terrible, which more often than not frustrates any enjoyment you get.
Also the campaign features an FPS segment at the start which goes on for too long and is absolutely ridiculous. It’s laughably easy and very boring, and nothing really important happens that couldn’t have been explained in a much shorter cutscene. On the other hand, the soldier movement is much improved from any of the ARMA games, which really isn’t saying much, and is still far behind the fluid movement of pretty much any other FPS game.
Overall: 2 / 5 – POOR.
I’m disappointed. I really am. I was tempted to give this a 2.5, namely because there’s so much potential here, but I can’t, namely because of BIS. I’ve wanted a fix for the vehicle AI in ARMA for ages. Since OpFlash in fact. It’s never happened. The vehicle Ai have been consistantly bad at pathfinding and driving. If they never managed to fix it during the entire ARMA series (stretching back to 2001!) then I highly doubt they’ll fix it now. It’s a crying shame, because there’s a good game buried under this monumental issue. At times you see glimpses of it and think “Yes, this is a classic game brought back in all its glory.” But it fades very rapidly. The worst kick in the balls though is that Hostile Waters did this several years previously, and did it much better. Hostile Waters had tanks that weren’t useless at path finding. Why, in 2012, can’t we manage that?
It’s worth keeping an eye on Carrier Command: Gaea Mission, but as it stands, there’s a fundamental problem with the game that prohibits most enjoyment. It’s a bit like (Dr) Derek Smart’s Battlecruiser series where there are fundamental flaws that sap most enjoyment from the game, except in this case there is enjoyment to be had. In Smart’s case, there isn’t. At all.