Review: Cargo Commander

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Cargo Commander caught me totally off-guard. I was expecting something more traditional, with set levels and power-ups and some goofy story. That’s usually a safe bet with indie platformers, which makes the ones that break the mold all the more pleasing to behold. And that’s exactly what I got here, a deceptively clever roguelike that started eating hours of my time, at least once I got over some rough patches.

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You play an employee of Cargo Corp, sent off to the ass-end of space in a boxy little junker of a ship to salvage equally junky boxes. Your ship is equipped with a magnet that, when activated, draws in a random assortment of giant space containers to smash into your ship and each other. Within these containers are the random bits of space junk Cargo Corp wants, along with enemies, hazards, and weapons to handle them. Connected containers usually have gaps to pass through where they collide, forming a rudimentary platforming level, but you can also drill through walls or spacewalk (as long as you can hold your breath) to get where you want to go.

Surviving enough waves of salvage gets you a container with a sector pass, which lets you travel to another area of space with different containers and salvage. Sectors are random based on their name, and the navigation system shows you popular systems, unpopular systems, systems your friends play, random systems, and even let you enter your own name to create a new one. It’s a neat bit of continuity between players, further bolstered by the player corpses you can find and loot in heavily-trafficked sectors, and postcards from other players you can find randomly, or fill out and shoot into space if you find a blank one.

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As far as gameplay goes, that’s it. You call in waves of containers, loot them for cargo and resources to upgrade your dude (which reset for each sector), and get back to your ship before the “level” gets sucked back into space. There are basically two kinds of enemies in the game, melee monsters of varying size in the containers, and aggravating drill-squid things in space. You can find and upgrade a handful of weapons to deal with them, but combat is pretty thin and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The platforming isn’t much better, with the random containers sometimes making regular exploring impossible and forcing you to drill out tons of walls or spacewalk around obnoxious areas.

With each sector essentially the same aside from items to find and container layouts, the game risks getting repetitive very quickly. I was about ready to punch out after 90 minutes or so… until I started paying attention to the story. Cargo Commander has a surprisingly dark, dystopian plot propping up the platforming, told through darkly funny emails from corporate and charming letters and packages from your family. As you tick off the the 88 different kinds of cargo to find, you rank up with the company, getting you new tools to speed up the process and maybe making progress towards getting home someday.

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The whole package is far more compelling than I first thought, and I find myself returning to it whenever I have a free moment. The graphics are pretty basic indie 3D and the sound design works well enough, but it’s the unique roguelike format married to an interesting world and story that keep it fresh. Every level is a mash-up of space debris crammed full of goodies, and those goodies get you more tantalizing bits of the story. On top of all that there are leaderboards for each sector and an endless mode to challenge if you need more variety, but even without those details Cargo Commander is well worth digging into.

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