Let's face it: People are overrated. People can fend for themselves. But crates, crates need some serious saving. Enter Cargo Commander, the latest from developer Serious Brew (you know, the Overlord guys), and published by Digital Tribe Games. Cargo Commander fulfills two basic truths of any small-time release: it takes a new approach to a particular genre or gameplay and makes it feels incredibly deep, while also making just enough missteps to make it more difficult than it needs to be. Make no mistake; Cargo Commander is fun. It is at its core a 2D platformer that showcases a great deal of lateral depth. It is a surprisingly gritty action romp that has delved so deeply into its inspirations, that it has unearthed tons of interesting mechanics to play around with. If only Serious Brew knew which of those mechanics to toss in the recycling bin.
Atmosphere-wise, Cargo Commander has the aesthetic of somewhere between Starcraft II and Dead Space. You are utterly alone, but in a cowboy-on-the-prairie alone, not a 'HOLY HELL, I'M GOING TO DIE!', sort of alone. On a one-man spaceship that doubles as a magnet, it is your job is to pull in all the detritus of space and loot it for whatever cargo you can find. These space masses come in the form of boxed mini-levels. The catch is however that as you clear each one, another will pop onto the end, and you follow the chain for as long as you can go. Inevitably, your magnet will trigger a wormhole that rips apart these mini-levels, setting off a race against time to get back to your spaceship before you end up a space corpse.. As you return cargo to your ship, you are promoted through the ranks and are given various rewards, ranging from newer and better weapons, upgrades to said weapons, upgrades to your suit, and unexplored space sectors to pillage.
You can easily go about activating magnets until you are torn apart by space, call it a day, or just play to unlock new sectors. When all is said and done your score is tallied and put on a leader board that (I’m assuming),will constitute the bulk of the gameplay experience. So in essence, it’s like a retro arcade game but without all the loose change jingling in your pockets: You play for a day. Post your high score. And then it all resets when its over. And though this sounds interesting enough, in practice it just becomes a tad frustrating. Perhaps I’m a little too young to understand the appeal of arcade game mechanics but the trial and error system is more of a turn off, especially when some – but certainly not all – of your failures are a result of the game itself, and not because of your skills as a player. But this isn't the only place where this is apparent.
Weapons, more often than not, are found in various places throughout each level. When you bring them back after each wave of cargo-salvage, you are able to upgrade them with whatever currency (or Caps as the game refers to it) you came across when dealing with annoying space enemies. You would think that after going through all that trouble of upgrading your weapons that you would be able to keep said upgrades after you die. But when you bite the cosmic dust, you, and all your hard-earned enhancements, are gone. So upgrading doesn't really feel like upgrading. The whole thing is just temporary because the game is designed to make you do it over and over again. Essentially you are upgrading your ability to play individual waves, but not your ability to play the game as a whole. And on top of this, the waves are so short that finding more than a few measly Caps is something that happens after three or four life-risking expeditions, not just one. And this leads to the root of yet another issue…
One of my favorite features of the game is how destructible the environments are. Take away anything from this game and it will be busting up your surroundings. Your commander is equipped with a drill that can destroy platforms, making half of the experience an interesting kind of puzzle game. If you drill out too many platforms, you’ll never reach the Cargo Cube that’s hidden in the corner…but if you don’t drill out any of the way, you’ll never get it. What happens is that you are now playing a game within a game; making your own paths through each wave that might optimize a a number of different things. You could look for the entrance of the next cube and drill out any wall between them, or you could drill out a section of the hull so that you can float around through space to find the entrance. And even though this aspect of gameplay is so fantastic fulfilling, it is instantly neutered by the whole wormhole mechanic (forgot about that, didn't you?). There is no time to think, let alone drill AND solve the puzzle at hand, because there is a constant timer reminding you of how precious few seconds you have left. It would be like putting a death-timer in Portal. If Chell doesn’t solve the puzzle in time, a turret deploys and shoots her in face.
The added pressure of this time-trial mentality, on top of enemies and exploding crates that blow you out of airlocks (oh, we are having fun now), on top of even the magnet pulling in more containers to further mess with you, isn't at all necessary. It all just defeats part of the purpose of playing. It wouldn't even be solved by removing the wormholes (though I must admit, dashing back to the ship through the levels you created was deceptively fun), but rather by giving you more time to spawn. Getting through three or four crates is sometimes nothing short of a miracle, especially given the moments where I stopped and turned around, just because I knew the approaching wormhole would destroy me if I kept on going.
All of these gameplay hiccups add up to my initial point. Cargo Commander does what most indie games do best; it provides an enjoyable 2D platforming experience without being a two-decade old Super Mario Bros. clone. And for that, I am truly grateful. But it also does what indie games do worst; it adds a handful of bizarre mechanics that clash with the other pieces already laid out. Cargo Commander isn’t a must-have, but it’s not something to all out avoid. If you are into that arcade mindset, certainly got for it. If the Bastion-meets-Portal gameplay tickles your fancy, give it a shot. But if you’re liable to throw your mouse at the wall, I would avoid Cargo Commander, if only to save you a trip to your local Best Buy.
You can find out for yourself when Cargo Commander arrives on Steam on November 1st, 2012.
Fun Factor: Depends on your sense of fun! Arcade lovers, puzzle-platformers, and indie-enthusiasts will love this one.
Difficulty: High. There’s a massive learning curve, but a rewarding one.
Length: Variable. Possibly infinite if you want to top the leader boards, but otherwise, between 10-20 hours.
Negative Side: The arcade game system may appeal to some, but there’s definitely a reason game developers left that kind of gameplay behind.
Bang for your Buck: Depends on how well you click with the game. If you get sucked in immediately? Very high. If it’s not really your thing? About average. Then again, at the cost of 9.99 you aren't left too much in the poor house if you end up not liking it.