Cargo Commander is that rare game that is completely and utterly summed up by its rather excellent title theme, Down the Drain. It’s a tune that permeates every part of the game—it plays in your home container, you can hear it in the distance as you race through disintegrating offices, and the game over screen uses it as an utterly brilliant leitmotif. But better yet, the song’s bluegrass pessimism sets a certain mood for the dangerous blue-collar job that makes up the central gameplay. Cargo Commander isn’t an epic space opera about saving the galaxy, but simply a touching tale about a man trying to support his family by scavenging the cold, dark reaches of space.
But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. What exactly is Cargo Commander? Well, it’s a game that is a part of this new wave of roguelike-likes, an impromptu term to describe the many indie games that use roguelike elements in new genres and settings. There have been quite a few indies using this design strategy, including popular hits like FTL, The Binding of Isaac, and Spelunky, and Cargo Commander more than deserves to be counted among their ranks. It’s a terrific and tense platformer that balances fun upgrades, cool levels, and some excellent social features to make for a well-rounded experience you certainly shouldn’t miss.
In the game you take on the role of a bearded gent aboard a cargo container retrofitted into a space to live, work, and travel the cosmos in. Each day you travel to a new sector and engage your magnet, which causes abandoned cargo salvage to smash into the side of your home, allowing you access to the treasures within. Armed with a meaty mechanized fist, a handy drill, and a weak little nail gun, your avatar must explore every container that is sucked in to pick up bits of cargo and set new high scores. However, the containers are often quite treacherous, being filled with dangerous space mutants you’ll need to fend off. Also working against you is a time limit in the form of a wormhole, which opens up after a certain period and causes each container to break off and disintegrate. This leads to some wonderfully tense moments as you scramble back to the home container, leaping into space and then frantically drilling the side of a container before your spacewalk becomes permanent.
Yes, with the rigours of space salvaging comes the fact that your death is all but guaranteed. There’s a certain degree of permadeath in Cargo Commander, with each wave of containers bringing new enemies and longer gauntlets to run through. You have a whole host of upgrades to help you out, but dying throws your score into the leaderboards and completely resets you to square one in terms of both weapons and purchases (fortunately, you are allowed to keep any banked cargo). However, bolstering all of this is an overarching meta rank based on the number of unique pieces of cargo you pick up. This rank offers new upgrades to the home container, better starting equipment, and various helpful tools for tracking down new types of cargo. Each sector offers the same cargo and container layouts every time you play it, so this forces you to try out a bunch of different sectors in your ongoing pursuit of loot. It’s a nearly perfect way to balance progression, dividing the game into small chunks to fit into short bursts of gaming time, while simultaneously rewarding your overall progress in a way that most roguelike-inspired games do not.
If it’s not clear from the last two paragraphs, the gameplay is really terrific here. However, it’s made even better by some excellent social features. Even if you normally roll your eyes at the way every game seems to include a tweet button or a “social hub”, Cargo Commander does things a bit differently with score-based asynchronous multiplayer. Each sector is randomly generated by typing in a name as a seed, and anyone using the same name is presented with the exact same level. You can use your own names, but you can also sort the list of explored sectors by popularity (sci-fi standbys like Gallifrey and 42 dominate the list) or even see what sectors your Steam friends are trying out. Each sector has its own leaderboard, so you and your friends can use a shared name to create impromptu grudge matches as you try to outscore each other on your own private levels. Even if you’re not normally into multiplayer or leaderboards, Cargo Commander implements these features in such a clever and unobtrusive way that it greatly enhances the experience.
In terms of presentation, the first paragraph already praised the title theme quite extensively, but the rest of the sound design is of a high quality as well. The graphics use a fairly simple and straightforward art style, but it suits the material well and the engine captures the physics of the wormhole-based destruction rather nicely. The camera can be a bit iffy; you have full control over the zooming functions, but finding a good angle for each container while on a time limit can be a bit of a pain. There’s also the problem of repetition; though the gameplay is quite fun, playing it for longer periods can cause it to lose some of the shine, so short bursts is definitely the way to go. There’s also a few issues regarding controls, with a gamepad being the peripheral of choice but most menus only supporting a mouse. Still, these minor blips are a small smudge on an overall great experience.
Final Verdict: Cargo Commander is a fine example of this new wave of roguelike-influenced games, with the lure of loot and the thrill of racing back to the home base making for a seriously fun time. It’s all framed by a sweet, touching and subtle little narrative about the perils of a blue-collar job in space. Any indie game fan should be sure not to miss this one.
This review is based on a review copy of the Steam PC version of Cargo Commander provided by Strange Brew.