[EDIT: I made the comments below BEFORE my P&C Beta came... and so, I was *WRONG* to worry about it. They kept the 4 & 4 vehicle layout... and the battle has that smaller, intimate feel that I was looking for, as well as all of the critical elements. Two thumbs up!]
OK, I've cranked up the old 1988 version of CC to get reacquainted with it, and I have some perhaps radical ideas as to why it worked as well as it did.
As it turns out, the limits of technology back them, caused them to swerve into success in this way:
Because of the amazing growth of power in PC's, RTS games have become unit heavy behemoths! Players are given a wide array of tools that are designed to command LARGE GROUPS of units, and let AI do much of the rest. The scale of the conflict in a modern RTS is grand, and there is a place for this... but what made CC DIFFERENT is that it presented an amazingly smaller and believable scenario. In other words, RTS mano a mano. It was a gunfight in the middle of town, except your holster had a few extra toys in it.
Walrus 1 and Manta 3 were not just arbitrary units... out of thousands to be deployed and lost... with only 4 of each, you could literally think of them as individual characters... and try to coordinate them... like NASA controlling a pair of robots on MARS. Those robots had NAMES!
Carrier Command was a game of limited hardware locked in a precision small scale battle.
With newer CPU's, programmers have decided that more is better... and now we see spectacles we can barely comprehend... and we are stuck letting the numbers tell the story.
The story scenario of the Original Carrier Command (OCC), was of a rogue carrier designer defecting, and taking control of an automated carrier... one of two. The other carrier is given to you, and with your limited resources, you must prevail. OCC presented an INTIMACY of conflict and of the hardware that was more like controlling the rovers on Mars, than it was like directing the invasion of Normandy.
This expansion of conflict seems to be one of the problems with Hostile Waters... too much going on. Impressive as a technical achievement, and enjoyable in it's own right, but still, OCC was a DIFFERENT game, and placed the player in a different frame of mind due to it's smallness.
Already, the expansion of Carrier Command: Gaea (CCGM) with EIGHT of each type of craft (and naturally more enemy) starts to strain the abilities of the human mind to associate itself closely with the many new actors. The fact that one can get into any of a thousand vehicles in a massive battle, while a nice feature, doesn't suddenly make the total experience intimate... if you are storming Normandy in one of 5000 landing craft, it doesn't much matter if you are in #173 or #2188. It's the same damned thing in a different seat.
As I watch CCGM, I am instantly annoyed at what seems like endless reports of "Manta program 1 completed. Manta 7 program completed. Manta 2 Program completed. Manta 3 Program Completed. Manta 6 program completed." An endless barrage of important information.... on too large a scale.
I personally think that if CCGM went to three Manta and three Walrus.. they might have a better game!!!
This is like the astronaut and his three robots in Silent Running... or the difference between the film Alien, and Aliens. Very different, yet very similar... but different enough that they literally became different KINDS of movies. If CCGM enlarges itself too much, it will become "just another RTS".
I would sure like to see a "TINY MISSION" option... where resources are much more limited, and the player can focus on more of the detail of the smaller things, instead of engaging in a war of numbers and attrition that require statistics to comprehend.
This, I think, was the critical key to what made OCC a success... forced on them by computers with only 256K of ram.