Review: Cargo Commander (PC/Mac)

I shan’t beat around the station. Cargo Commander is one of 2012′s best games. It is just another showcase of independent developer prowess running with a rock-solid concept and surgically crafting a terrific experience. Bit of a token PR opener, I know, but Cargo Commander is an absolute must-play.

I suppose I better back that up. (Please do, you’ve got another 900 words to go — Pete.)

If you’ve read my previous thoughts on Serious Brew’s creation, you’d know that Cargo Commander is all about risk and reward. Players find themselves aboard a cubic base, drifting on the lip of a black hole and in search of derelict space containers to investigate and strip of goods found within. This is done so by snagging the wayward modules of varying sizes and locales by sending out a electro-magnetic wave to bring them in, something like an interstellar trawler. These containers smash into the salvage base at any angle, but, as the game progresses, slam into each other and create increasingly large maze-like structures of dank, dark and dangerous intrigue.

Your bearded spaceman, a forlorn family man on this far-flung posting, is charged with navigating his way through this labyrinthine construct to satisfy a cargo quota and trigger a sector pass, but also to climb the online scoreboard and show to the world that your particular brand of daring pays off. Clambering through the vast array of containers that become temporarily attached to the base is achieved through a variety of ways. Usually, where a container impacts another, sections of that location break and afford entry and exit points. There is also the ability to drill through walls, be they within containers or from the cold, silent outside. You can also use explosive charges to gain entry.

And like Skylab, nothing lasts forever.

What makes Cargo Commander exciting to play is the limited time a player has to investigate these captured hulks. Traversing through the confines of steel and gantry and space is tempered by the containers getting pulled apart and sucked into a wormhole. Klaxons blare and lights flash, walls and debris start to come loose before the entire structure vents its oxygen supply and breaks apart, drifting into the spiraling backdrop and on to oblivion. This is where the true strategy of Cargo Commander comes into play. The risk and reward equation. The choice between heading for home and drilling through that last section to snag cargo as the container breaks away from the base and starts to disintegrate under the player’s boots is one of perennial excitement.

Each container is governed by an independent sense of gravity, so drilling through an outer wall on the perceived bottom of a structure might have you falling upwards when you head through the fresh opening. Depending on the internal structure of the container, a player must negotiate the most effective way to both commodity cargo – the glowing blue type, for those playing along at home – and other nondescript crates that contain mystery items, such as ammunition or even hostile aliens.

About those aliens, too. Spacemen don’t just fight the clock and cosmic Hoovers in Cargo Commander. Alien lifeforms inhabit these silent, drifting boxes in increasing numbers. Strange biological entities spawning from crystal cocoons, they leap and jitter and can, if not properly dispatched via any number of weapons at the player’s disposal, quickly overwhelm even the most hardened of astronaut adventurers.

Ah yes, the weapons. The currency of Cargo Commander, caps, is used to purchase and upgrade a variety of tools and items from the salvage stage. While weapons themselves, ranging from nailguns to shotguns and remote-detonated mine launchers, are scavenged from within the bowels of attracted containers, everything can be upgraded. Upgrading drilling capabilities naturally shortens drilling time. The shotgun can have its damage increased by purchasing a plasma attachment. The player can purchase armor upgrades, ammunition, increase boot grip and so on. As the caps are, at least initially, in no great supply, this does lend itself to some very selective upgrade choices. Increase the drill speed? What about upgrading the six-shooter to deal with alien infestations? Maybe upgrade the length of time you can survive in space – after all, our hero chooses simply to hold his breath, rather than remove his trademark trucker’s hat and don a helmet.

Scrambling desperately through corridors and drilling through steel girders as the container wrenches free of its anchor and begins to collapse is thrilling enough. But when you leap into the void and try and swim through the silence for home, only to suffocate and die meters from your door, or become food for an infestation of xeno-beasts or space squid, Cargo Commander’s fail-state only ushers grins and joviality. Much like Faster Than Light, the tales of tragedy are as compelling as those of triumph. I think it speaks volumes about the ambiance.

Which is a very peculiar ambiance indeed. It’s lonely. Hellishly lonely. Not in a STALKER-esque dread-inducing string drone way, but one that evokes quaint melancholia, such as that suffered by merchant seamen dreaming of Sunday roasts and scrabble with the Missus. There’s a pleasantly glum acoustic number that plays quietly on the salvage base, an ever-present and reassuring anthem to herald each new day and comfort the ragged return from a cargo run. The sound mixing between interior and exterior is pitch-perfect, with nigh-inaudible leveling enacted as though listening to the world go by from the depths of a swimming pool. This sort of muffled, submerged audio work has been done rather deftly before, but Cargo Commander comes in with the likes of Shattered Horizon and Lost Planet 2′s NEOS level. Simply stunning.

Oh, and in a touch similar to Dark Souls, you can see where other players perished. Finding a corpse tucked away in the darkened bowels of a neglected steel mammoth is both empowered in that you aim to make it a little further than the deceased, but also bolsters that loneliness felt by being the only human alive for light years.

Cargo Commander is a fine outing for Serious Brew. The score-chasing aspect means players will want to perfect their salvage craft, pushing the limits by dragged increasingly dangerous installations in for investigation. The controls are responsive and intuitive. The aesthetic a robust and stylized affair with just the right balance of whimsy and utilitarian seriousness. I simply cannot recommend it enough. While I’ve experienced a very rare, very occasional event of getting snagged between containers, only to suffocate and become one with the void, this is one solid package — and one that is all the more impressive considering Serious Brew is just a two-man operation.

One of the finest gaming experiences of the year.

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