Salvage: Cargo Commander’s a Drill, Baby (Drill)

How appropriate is my “What Worked” title for game reviews, “Salvage,” when discussing the game Cargo Commander, a randomized and iterative space adventure in which you play a lonely space explorer tasked with salvaging space junk from an infinite number of sectors? The core concept of Cargo Commander is what’s worth discussing today: every day, whether it’s because you went to sleep or were cloned after dying, you’ll begin by navigating to a fresh area (selecting from popular locales, random ones, or by generating your own by typing any old word/phrase) and then using your home/ship/office’s space magnet to attracted a variety of cargo holds. Zipping out into deep space (with a limited amount of air), you’ll drill into these containers and then pillage them, fending off mutant space monsters at the same time, but you’ll have to work fast, as wormholes have a tendency to rip apart the container segments if you aren’t fast enough in hurrying back to your base. Each sector has six different types of goods, and your ultimate goal is to discover all hundred or so types, and herein lies the problem: because there’s no real variation on the arcade action beyond the first hour, doing so is work.

Perhaps that work is part of the point, as it is in the recent Papers, Please, which tasks you with the soul-crunching tedium of paperwork and reducing unique people to easily checked (and profiled) categories. Or maybe the game grows to be more than it at first appears, as with the excellent and devastating Little Inferno–but I wouldn’t know, as I can’t bring myself to continue on. The grinding is simply too visible: killing monsters earns you “caps” with which you can upgrade your gear, but it inexplicably resets at the beginning of each day, and the only way to get permanent boosts is by ranking up–done by collecting five new objects. This progression is simple at first, when you’ve barely found anything, but after a few hours, you can go entire in-game days without much of a sense of progress. Granted, if you’re simply trying to beat the game, you can zip through–after three or four waves, you’ll have probably found all the unique items a sector has to offer (and if not, there’s always the next, and the next, and the next), and you’ll have collected the sector pass that allows you to unlock a new zone to travel to. But if you get stuck trying to beat the high scores, fully upgrading your gear, the successive waves get more complex–and needlessly frustrating, especially when dead end paths with undrillable walls fence you in, or hordes of monsters that you’re ill-equipped to deal with swarm you, boxing you in. (Worst are the triangular parasites that float around in deep space, following you back into what should be the safety of your home, and killing you there.)

Granted, you’ll get e-mails from the wife you left behind, progress reports from your overseers (which are dystopic and depressing messages that continually come up with reasons why you can’t return home yet), and pictures of your daring achievements from the son whose face you’re forgetting. But these aren’t compelling reasons to continue on–and it’s not just the scarcity of story. After all, other rogue-likes, like The Binding of Isaac, encourage multiple replays (occasionally under similarly unfair conditions) for pithy “item collecting” rewards and make you start over from the beginning each time. But whereas there’s a goofy challenge in BoI in which the variety of rooms, enemies, and weapons changes each time–especially the way they all combine–Cargo Commander only gives you four weapons, an extremely limited set of upgrades, and runs out of things to show you after the first four crates that you magnetize. The controls are simple enough to keep you zipping through–the zoom feature is especially nice, “in” for close combat and headshots, “out” for deep-space diving and the discombobulated dashes back to your home–but there’s only so many times you can fire that six-shooter (six, to be exact) before the game starts firing blanks and coming up empty.

I’d love to hear that I’m wrong and that the game opens up later on, or throws some new tricks at you, but given the randomized design of the levels, I don’t really see how that’s possible. Like Symphony, the waves can only get harder and more frenetic–they can’t actually get more inventive or interesting. And that’s what this all boils down to–I’ve sunk countless hours into Dota because of the human element, in which I learn new things each time I play, but a game like Cargo Commander, having shown me the grind that it’s going to require to get to the end (or to the next set of new things) can’t shake me out of this sense of entropy. Thanks, but no thanks.


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