Space. Since the dawn of time, man has looked up at the sky and dreamed what incredible wonders could be out there. There could be new planets with advanced civilizations, moons made entirely out of dairy products, and attractive humanoid species that we can somehow mate properly with, or at least use to get our rocks off.
But one important question still remains unanswered: Can humanity scavenge enough obscure items from lost space transport containers so that they can make a steady profit out of it? The folks at Serious Brew looked up at those same star-filled skies and dared to say, “Yes!” Followed by, “But can we get some lone nut with a beard to do all the work for us?”
As it turns out, the several hours of sifting through identical space junk which follows that answer may not be as rewarding as one would hope it would be.
Cargo Commander (PC [reviewed], Mac)
Developer: Serious Brew
Publisher: Digital Tribe Games
Released: November 1, 2012
The premise of Cargo Commander is straightforward: you play as an average blue-collar interstellar salvage specialist, working long hours away from your wife and child in the hopes of gathering enough valuable items in order to advance your ranking in Cargo Corp and return to your family. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the game encountered early on is the way Cargo Commander tells its story: through regular e-mails you receive from others. Each sender has their own attitude that becomes apparent once you delve into the messages. Cargo Corp’s cold and clinical disposition when listing off its expectations for you stand in stark contrast to the warm and personal tone found in the e-mails sent by your wife.
Each sector that the player enters presents the same challenge: find as many cargo crates as possible during each wave and try to bring them back to your home container. Many obstacles litter the path to successful scavenging; glowing explosive crates, the airless vacuum of space between containers, wormholes destroying the ground from under you leaving you stranded in open space, and former Cargo Corp employees turned savage semi-crystalline undead beasts bent on doing a great deal more than just ruining your lunch break.
Once in every sector, you will be faced with a larger container to search for a Sector Pass, a key that allows you to travel to another sector or randomly generates a new sector for you to explore and plunder. This little addition does give the game a fair bit of replay value to it; with a Sector Pass to be found in each new sector, you could potentially create infinite amounts of new levels to further explore.
If you happen to die while on one of many deep space excursions, your score is added to the leaderboard, your salvage is added to your collection, and you get to repeat the process all over again from wave one. You aren't without some assistance from Cargo Corp, though -- enhancements are purchasable from the Upgrade Benches to improve your drill, weapons, and armor. These boons are only good for the current play session, and once your commander shuffles off this mortal coil, so will your upgrades. Of course, Cargo Corp’s decision of trading enhancements for the company hats of your fallen former associates seems a little questionable by most business practices, but I still thought it was a neat touch and helped make Cargo Corp seem that much more heartless.
Cargo Commander offers two main modes of play: Normal mode, which is available from the beginning of the game, or the slower-paced scavenging session of Journey mode that you unlock after reaching rank six. Journey mode tasks you to again find more crates in any sector that you have unlocked or generated yourself, without the fear of wormholes opening up but also without the safety of your home container, either. You still have access to your console before you can unload the cargo you find as well as Upgrade Benches, but now their locations are scattered in different containers. Any cargo that you don’t upload to the console will be lost, should you parish in the unending void of space.
While Normal mode is no slouch on the action and helps keeps the game moving forward at a steady rate, I still found more enjoyment from Journey mode. It asks you to take the skills you have honed in Normal mode and act with a little more caution when getting those stray crates. Without the safety net of a home container, and later on the convenience of an ammunition respawn point, players are forced to make use of any weapons that they can find as they make their way across space. Health and Upgrade Benches may be few and far between as well, so with dwindling health and ammo, decisions carry more weight.
Early on, Cargo Commander introduces you to its level progression system, the Cargo Corp ranks. In order to progress up the ranks, players will need to collect the various types of cargo that can be found in the crates. The added benefit to gaining higher ranks is that you also get a permanent reward for your character, such as starting out with ten Cargo Corp caps to upgrade your drill. In order to reach rank 16 (Super Cargo Commander) and gain leave from Cargo Corp, players will need to find one of each type of cargo available. Cargo Commander has 88 different types of items that can be potentially found throughout the game, however at the time of sector generation, each one sets six random items to be found in that specific sector.
Whether or not the game decides to give you a decent mix of rare and regular cargo, or just give you all standard cargo, is all up to chance. This sort of "collect them all" concept is nothing new nowadays, but considering how the game decides what items you can collect per sector, it seems like players will be spending a lot of time sifting through many Kitty Sweaters to find that much sought after Alien Sex Toy. Players will rank up fairly quickly early on, as every item they can find will boost their ranking. But once you hit rank four, get ready for a slow climb. It took me over an hour just to find one new item, and the rank points that I received didn’t even boost me into the next rank.
The rank system could have been designed differently to better account for the time investment of different players. They could have modeled the rank system to give each item a set amount of experience points towards the player's next rank; the rarer the item, the more points they get. In this way, even if players didn’t find a rare item, they could still make progress towards higher ranks, giving them access to better tools at the start of a wave, and moving the game along at a steady pace.
Cargo Commander supports both traditional WSAD controls as well as gamepads. Controls can also be easily remapped to any key or controller available. Once you start playing the game, you can tell that Serious Brew designed the character to be controlled using the keyboard -- and not just for the dexterity given to your mouse-assigned cross-hair. Playing with a gamepad can take some getting used to.
For starters, your targeting reticle is now assigned to the right analog stick. While the responsiveness to your action on the gamepad does match your character’s movement, accuracy takes a large hit. Shots that would be simple by using the mouse regularly undershoot or overshoot the target, wasting precious ammo. On top of that, certain areas of the user interface cannot be accessed using the gamepad. Every time I wanted to change a sector or buy an upgrade for my character, I had to switch to my mouse to confirm the selection.
One other notable mention is the addition of an “F You” button. During the course of gameplay, you can make the character shout a profanity -- or if you spam the button, a stream of profanities -- making this a case of art imitating life, at least in terms of some parts of my playthrough.
Cargo Commander does get the little details right, and it’s those little things add a great deal of charm to it. At certain moments through Normal mode, you will have the opportunity to receive a parcel of a new picture drawn by your son, in admiration of his seldom seen father. I found that all of the keepsakes and small messages from your family help accentuate what lonely environment your home container can truly be. Consider this: you are stuck inside a literal metal box that is flying through space, with your only human contact coming from e-mails from your boss and your wife; as you stare wistfully at pictures from your child. Now add to that the ever present droning Cargo Corp song in the background and it really makes you feel sorry for this guy.
The game’s music does a good job of enhancing the mood of the environment; the cold and dimly lit containers play host to an eerie industrial track while the office containers have the constant chatter of the intercom system to keep you company. The one knock I do have against the music is that there are only a few tracks. After playing for a few hours, the music can start to get monotonous. Serious Brew did add in an option to turn off your home container’s sound system as well, and I recommend using it if you are planning an extended play session.
Leaderboards are shown before entering a sector; it helps add a bit of friendly competition with others sector salvagers. There is also a notification system in place letting you know if someone else has usurped your position in the Leaderboards. As an added touch, once you make your way up to the top of the leaderboards, your commander will sport a finely crafted #1 crown, to let you savor your achievement.
The first few hours of Cargo Commander were a joy to play: the smooth animations, the satisfying feel of the weapons, and the mad dash to your home container with ten enemies on your toes, as a wormhole forms beneath your feet, was awesome. The thrill of finding some strange new piece loot in every excursion, and enjoying a small chuckle as you read the clever description. But those quieter moments stand out just as much, like reading about how your son is doing through an e-mail, and then taking the time to admire that new picture he drew for you. Those quieter moments help build and solidify that feeling of loneliness that Serious Brew was after.
It’s after those first few hours that you really start to notice some of its shortcomings: aiming weapons can feel imprecise, the limited music tracks can start to grate on your nerves, and gaining new ranks can be painfully slow. The game's biggest flaw however is its unevolving gameplay: searching through the same level, collecting the same crates in the same spots, with fingers crossed that you will find that one rare item you need to reach the next rank…only to have your hopes dashed. All that is left for you to do is to repeat the process all over again, from square one.
Serious Brew clearly aimed for the stars with Cargo Commander, it’s just unfortunate that so many nagging issues obscure the finer details that really make this game interesting.