There’s a strange deception in the initial moments of Serious Brew’s deep space platformer, Cargo Commander. Dreary isolation surrounds what seems to be a deep and varied experience that comes with working the titular job. It’s treated as mundane and simple in what little contact with the outside world you receive, but instead the job is a difficult and life threatening one. The irony here then, is the repetition that sets in. While there seems to be an initial feeling of depth, the eventual lack of variation and expansion in gameplay keeps Cargo Commander feeling like a bite-sized engagement rather than one worth coming back to.
You play a deep space scavenger working for Cargo Corp in a home cube that acts as your hub for work. By activating a magnet, other cubes with various forms of cargo slam into your hub, allowing you to explore them for whatever goods they might have. The main purpose of the game is to move up the ranks by finding new cargo. There is no promise of cargo in each cube, and often times you’ll find hostile undead former employees, weapons, and possibly destructive explosives that can end a run in an instant. Luckily, your commander is a fairly capable worker, using a drill and nail gun initially, and eventually earning armor, weapon, and drill speed upgrades that slightly speed up the pace of the platforming.
The ability to create your own path is easily the most unique aspect of the game. With your drill you can enter cubes from the outside and eliminate ones that block your path. It’s an enjoyable amount of freedom to have, but the lack of structure can lead to cubes that often seem pointless and missing any sort of direction. The game flourishes though, when you earn drill speed upgrades, and moving through cubes becomes a fast and hectic experience. More difficult cubes rotate constantly, and adjusting to this while trying to get a simple foothold is an exciting, yet occasionally tedious experience.
As you journey through the cubes there will eventually be a wormhole to suck up all of the exterior cubes, requiring you to rush back to your hub as fast as possible. It’s here that the tone switches from exploration to panic, and the tension of watching everything collapse around you is intense and satisfying. When you’re free-falling in the zero gravity of space with only a limited supply of oxygen, zooming out and trying to find a way to float back home, or into a collapsing cube for air is when the job is most exciting. It can often feel anticlimactic when you've explored every cube before the wormhole destroys the cubes however, and the removal of the tension of finding cargo or rushing back home is a major disappointment. It occurs far too often, and it can suck all the excitement out of a cargo run.
All of this leads up to a final cube with a sector pass, which allows you to leave your current area and unlock a new one. These sector pass containing cubes seem like they would be far more eventful, but there really isn't much challenge relative to the regular cubes. You'll then have the option of going further to find more cargo for a higher score, or jumping into a new sector. Community created and randomly generated sectors add an online twist to level layout. Sectors unfortunately lack the variation you'd expect with this twist however, ultimately resulting in far too many areas that feel similar. You can end the work day at any time, cashing in cargo that you've found and restarting the sector from the beginning. Death has the same affect as manually ending a day, and although this removes some frustration, its a missed opportunity for creating an intriguing risk and reward relationship. The big structural problem here is the lack of incentive to continue after you've found a sector pass. Sure, there's the pursuit of high scores, but the basic flow of the game makes obtaining the sector pass feel like a natural stopping point for a run.
Progression is very quick initially when you come across nothing but new cargo, but around level 5 the game becomes a lengthy grind. Experience is only given when finding new cargo, and when that grows rare many sectors can end with little progress. It’s frustrating considering the sectors can get so repetitive, and despite some variation, the aesthetics never really change. The upgrades you earn don’t carry over from each sector or upon death, adding more to the lack of real progression.
As you progress further through the ranks you’ll eventually unlock journey mode. This removes the need to double back to your home hub and instead has you going further through cubes, only stopping along the way to deposit your cargo and grab a few upgrades for the road. Without the home cube and wormholes opening up, it feels more like a survival mode where you can take your time and attempt to survive as long as possible. It’s an interesting twist on the main formula, and works well as a score attack mode better than the regular structure of the game. I found myself more engaged with Journey mode as a pick up and play experience over the grind of the main campaign.
Cargo Commander does a great job of setting the mood. You really get a feel of just how distant and lonely your home cube is from civilization. The single music track that plays in your cube makes you reminiscent of home, but gets repetitive later in the game. The sound of floating in space and the musical shift when cubes start falling apart adds excitement and tension when wormholes arrive. Graphically the game is simple; sporting a clean look that makes it easy to distinguish what walls can be drilled on or not. The visual language is easy to understand and rarely obscure, which is crucial when things get hectic.
The only outside contact you get with others is through emails. The corporate emails are fairly dry and convey a pedestrian tone to the perilous work that you’re doing. The mail from your wife occasionally contains adorable drawings from your son, further emphasizing the isolation of your cargo commander. While this naive tone is meant to contrast with the reality of your work, the unfortunate truth is that the game lacks enough depth and variation to fulfill that side of the bargain. The basic structure of the game never really changes. You’ll active the magnet, find cargo, and rush back home. The layout of the cubes often feels the same even if you change sectors, making everything feel more like a grind than it should. In the game’s attempt to contrast the feeling of work with the actual excitement of the job, it too often does feel like work.
Cargo Commander does a lot of things right. When the risk of getting cargo mixes with the need to return to your home cube it's an exciting feeling. It requires you to think of how you’re going to get through the more difficult cubes in order to get the big cargo reward. Unfortunately, the game's repetition and unchanging structure keep it from capitalizing on its strong foundation.