Objects in Space: Cargo Commander

Did you know that an anagram of "Cargo Commander" is "Mecca Dong Armor"? It's true! And now you know how desperate I was to find a title for this article.

I think there’s something terribly romantic about the notion of being a space scavenger. I’m not sure where the feeling comes from — the fringe living of Firefly (who doesn’t want to be Mal Reynolds?), the dark intro cutscene to the original StarCraft, my inborn love of sorting through tremendous piles of rubbish… regardless, Cargo Commander from Serious Brew has been scratching the itch.

"Let some mysterious piece of space debris / Puncture the roof and set me free" happens to be one of my favorite lyrics of all time. COINCIDENCE? I think not.

Exploring derelict cargo containers.

My ship is basically nothing more than a floating magnet with rudimentary life support and a bathroom, designed to pull space junk out of the void and slam them into my hull. In this instance it’s a big one, and it hammers right through my bedroom wall. On my way to this improvised airlock, I grab a mug of coffee, and jump high to reach the spot where my ship has shaped and merged with the mysterious object. Gravity realigns, up becomes down, and I twist to reorient myself. Now I’m on the top floor of a twenty-story structure that looks like it was once used for clerical work: computer workstations and filing cabinets line the halls, a broken furnace blows plumes of fire across an open shaft, and deep below there are stacks of crates — crates that might hold precious cargo.

I run through the halls and use my magma-drill to burn new passageways through floors and walls, and all is quiet except the sounds of my drill and a few papers that flutter from desks as I pass. The entire station shudders briefly, impacted at the far end by another enormous container drawn in by my ship’s electromagnet, and is still again. And then, as I cut through another floor and drop down another level, I freeze.

I only see the one at first. No big deal, I tell myself, any dumb schmuck can die out here. Maybe he collapsed the roof on himself with some misplaced mag-mines. But no, I can see others — two. No, four. Five total.

Dead cargo scavengers, and nothing around that could have made them that way.

I can use the apples, but unfortunately, they mean that the scavengers didn't starve.

Two bodies and some canned apples…

They each have a name, some normal and some silly with numbers in them, and all yield a little something — a handful of nails here, a discarded scavenger cap there. I take everything, especially the caps — after all, they’re the main currency out here. I pause to consider abandoning this hulk to search another, since I don’t want to end up the sixth man at this little party, but the piles of crates just a couple more levels beneath me are calling my name. After all, I’ll never get home if I don’t bring in more cargo, and it’s not like cargo is easy to come by.

So I burn my way down and start busting open crates with my hammer-fist. Most are empty, but one near the bottom has exactly what I’m looking for.

Cargo.

Not very good cargo mind you. Just a broken disc. Still, the corp will pay, and that’s good enough for me.

Then I hear them, high above me — mutants, swarming through the hulk, following the path I made with my drill. They’re on me before I can scramble out of the crate pit. I fire my revolver, killing the first few, but I only had a handful of rounds left after the last salvage mission, and I’d chosen to spend my scavenger caps on extra mag-mines instead of bullets. Now, in close quarters, that’s feeling more and more like the wrong choice. So I take the only option left: I run. I sprint down the hall away from the horde of mutants that’s getting closer with every fraction of a second, and with only half a moment to spare I throw one of my mines against the outer hull and detonate it. The blast hurts, though not as much as it would have if I hadn’t invested in anti-explosion armor, and I’m sucked out into space. Most of the mutants, which were traveling at a good clip after me by now, tumble out too. As they writhe, I’m swimming — there’s no better word for it — towards another derelict, hoping to drill through its shell before I run out of breath.

Or best to run and then goad them into dying in the vacuum, then stealing their caps.

It’s often best to run.

I succeed, though it turns out this ship isn’t a place I want to be, filled as it is with bloated exploding mutants. I hurl myself back out into the emptiness of space, madly firing my last few bullets into the ship. One of the bloaters gets clipped and goes up with a thud that I can hear even though we have a fair distance of vacuum between us, and the rest of the mutants join in on the chain reaction. In an instant the ship is gutted, caps and cargo tossed around and fair for the taking.

There’s not enough time though, because things are starting to fall apart. Already the outermost derelict is falling apart, and red warning lights are spinning in this one too. I scoop up what I can and start climbing back towards my ship, crossing through two more wrecks and taking another space-walk to get there. Safe back home, I log my cargo and get a message from HQ — turns out I’m the number one ranked collector for this sector.

Well, whoopty-doo.

There are some truly immense containers, but they don't look as good zoomed out. They dwarf their competition.

A pile of derelicts can look impressive.

And that’s what Cargo Commander is all about: searching for silly cargo items, avoiding or fighting mutants, and getting high scores. It’s also the best time I’ve had with a roguelike since… well, since Spelunky. It even shares a few similarities with Derek Yu’s masterpiece, such as randomized levels, deformable terrain, and a burning love of high scores.

Its setting reminds me more than anything of the discouraging corporate future found in Vlaada Chvátil’s boardgames Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker, which basically posited that the Soviet Union won the Space Race and started building ships out of all those exploding television sets they’d been stockpiling. It’s the antithesis of the clean Star Trek fantasy, a universe filled with simple folk indentured to corporations that reek every bit as much of ineptitude as they do of totalitarianism — so pretty much what you’d expect from the glorious corporate future of tomorrow. Your character is just a guy who wants to get home to his family but can’t, and all because your company didn’t have the foresight (or more likely the motivation) to ease their employees’ suffering. As such, your ticket home can only be bought by a whole mess of cargo.

As the corporation struggles to motivate its desperate employees to bring home more scrap, it introduces gamification elements, justifying the much-visible tables of high scores, as well as the dead scavengers you’ll find littered throughout the levels — those bodies you might stumble over are previous players, their corpses located at their farthest point of accomplishment in that sector, and their loot corresponding with whatever they were carrying at the time (though you won’t get a ton of it). In theory, this could give players in difficult sectors a boost if enough people have played and died there, which is a cool mechanic even if the benefits of searching corpses aren’t usually that compelling.

And getting caught in obnoxious gravity loops is just part of the fun.

The gravity and physics are pretty dang impressive too.

Despite my enjoyment for Cargo Commander, there are two things I hope they improve on.

The first is a problem that any game that relies on generated levels must contend with: it could use a bit more variety. There are only a handful of weapons. There are only a few navigational “puzzle” elements on ships (the main two being spouts of flames you can turn off at furnaces and impassable laser-walls you can toggle at consoles). After maybe two hours I’d already encountered all the enemy types the game has to offer. Spelunky handled this by changing up its setting every few levels, and I’d love for Serious Brew to add some more distinct sector types in the future, perhaps including some “master” sectors. Additional weapons, enemies, and ship components couldn’t hurt either.

The second is that score-chaser games rely on an element of risk versus reward, but there currently isn’t all that much risk in Cargo Commander. Upon completing a cargo scrounge, you’re given the option of either continuing the search for cargo or ending the work day. My first assumption was that ending the day would “bank” the points I’d earned, while continuing on and risking death might mean a lower score. However, this isn’t the case — there’s absolutely no reason to ever end the work day, because when you die you keep all your points up to that very moment. In terms of score, it’s always preferable to press on.

Complaint three: the bright yellow aesthetic for the mutants is a little distracting.

Dang space zombies!

Still, these are minor complaints. Cargo Commander is satisfying and addictive, and it encourages score-chasing in all the right ways. It’s easy to learn and play, and its game-space is a joy to navigate. There’s possibly no higher compliment I can pay to Cargo Commander than this: I sat down earlier to take a couple screenshots for this writeup, and ended up playing for two hours and taking over a hundred and fifty.

Final score: a hundred and fifty screenshots.

Posted on November 2, 2012, in Indie, Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. You had me at Firefly and killed my wallet with Vlaada Chvátil’s Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker references. Super excited to try this one out since I’m done with my score chasers atm. Though FTL had a problem with variety too but I had tons of fun while I was playing. Hope it’s on GoG 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: