What happens when a father wants to do the right thing by providing for his family, but the only way to do so is to be shipped off into space to salvage junk cargo? Scavenging for random, seemingly trivial items, from old donuts to brains in a jar. Scavenging items daily. Repeatedly. Upgrading tools only to have to start over again each day. All for the sake of providing for a young budding family. To quote Ren Hoek, “It is not I who am crazy. It is I who am mad!”
Cargo Commander is a rogue-like platformer of sorts in which you control a lone space junk collector in randomly generated sectors of space. Each sector is broken down into waves of cargo blocks that are pulled into the space station from which your cargo scavenger passes his non-working hours listening to the same song over and over again. Where ever a cargo block collides with another block, the hull is opened and the Cargo Commander can enter in search of random collectible goods. Each cargo block has the chance of having gravity reduced or eliminated, or having the center of gravity turned on its side or even upside down. By which I mean, what is considered the floor for one block may end up being the wall or ceiling of the adjacent block when the commander moves between the two.
Not all cargo blocks can be entered via hull breeches made by collision. Another way to access cargo blocks is with a drill (which can be upgraded to allow for faster drilling) or by blowing up the hull walls. Throughout each cargo block, various lockers can be looted to increase ammo supply or pick up a secondary weapon (either a six-shooter, shotgun, or a mine launcher). Often a cargo block contains enemies which spawn from yellow crystals and don’t always appear until one of the collectible cargo crates is picked up. Enemies range from small, one-shot annoyances to hulking, tank-like brutes which don’t die an easy death. Enemies will respawn until the yellow crystal is destroyed.
Once a wave of cargo blocks is summoned, via a magnet lever within the Cargo Commander’s space station, there is a limited amount of time to explore each of the blocks before a wormhole appears and sucks the cargo blocks away. After a wormhole appears players must choose whether to continue searching for cargo (and risk being stuck in space with limited air) or race back to safety within the space station. Sometimes the quickest way back is to simply float through space (or shoot the nailgun in the opposite direction–causing a rapid boost in forward momentum). The goal of course is to collect cargo goods which can be in turn redeemed to pay for care packages sent from the Cargo Commander’s wife back home.
Any corporation that would willingly send a cargo–er uhm, garbage collector–out into desolate space sectors is obviously not looking out for that particular individual’s well being. To prove that point, as more unique cargo is found, promotions are showered upon the Cargo Commander. These promotions include upgrades to the drill, weapons, and other devices necessary to survive a day of cargo collecting. Being better equipped makes collecting cargo easier, but also requires new sectors to constantly need to be explored in order to find unique items and collect enough common cargo to fund shipment of the care packages. What this effectively does is place a somewhat artificial grinding mechanic within the game. Forcing gamers to either replay the same sector time and again, or redeem a sector pass to explore new randomly generated areas of the game (and potentially find new items which in turn provides more promotions). Finding cargo is fun, but exploring and trying to figure out how to tackle each new random environment is the real draw. While the gameplay can feel like a grind, discovering new sectors and tackling each new wave, this is the type of game that quickly begins to eat away hours of your life and is especially engaging in nightly short-burst sessions.
What also makes Cargo Commander unique is the fact that sector names are entirely user generated. A mixture of pop culture and science fiction references obviously tip the scale when it comes to popular sector names. Gallifrey, Cthulu, BobaFett, and Discworld are just a few names that I have encountered, and they clearly have had a lot of folks playing judging by the leaderboards for each sector. But pop culture isn’t the only source of inspiration. For instance, I found the VGBlogger sector to be a bit of challenge, but definitely worth a run for a sector pass. And not only is there incentive to collect new items (as this helps with promotions), but each sector explored keeps a running leaderboard for everyone that has played.
After earning a few promotions the game upgrades certain incentives that make the grinding aspect less mundane. Early in the game, the Cargo Commander only has a few Caps (the game’s form of currency) to spend on upgrades and must then rely on banking Caps dropped by killed enemies. A mid-game promotion doubles the amount of Caps to spend at the beginning of each day. Another fun promotion is a sort of endless mode titled Journey, which pits the Cargo Commander in a never ending supply of new cargo blocks without the wormhole threat. Some of these cargo blocks contain upgrade desks where Caps can be spent on upgrading the drill, suit, weapons etc. Other consoles also appear in Journey mode which allow the Cargo Commander to ship off any cargo–which in reality is the method for increasing and locking in a high score for whichever sector is selected.
At times I won’t argue that Cargo Commander feels like a bit of a grind, but it does offer a satisfying reward loop and a subtly effective storyline to keep you motivated to play on. So even though I tend to project Ren’s Space Madness into the Cargo Commander I controlled throughout my 20+ hours of game time, I find myself compelled to return even for a few minutes each night just to see if I can top my score from a previous sector raid.
Does the Cargo Commander make good with providing for his family in the end? Or does the corporate behemoth destroy his will and make him a slobbering idiot chewing on a bar of soap? I can only suggest that you play the game and find out for yourself.
+ Fun, tight mechanics and controls
+ Tons of replay
+ Subtle story offers a compelling reason to keep playing
– Only one song that loops endlessly (but can be shut off after a few promotions)
– Can feel “grindy” after a while
Publisher: Digital Tribe Games
Developer: Serious Brew
Release Date: 11/1/2012
Source: Review code provided by publisher