Cortex Command Is Still Unfinished, Amazing

By Jim Rossignol on October 18th, 2011 at 12:14 pm.

Hastily mocked up screenshot.
I love Cortex Command. It’s one of my favourite indies ever. The current build of this brain-defending, bunker-building, robot-deploying, side-scrolling tactical digging and shooting game means that it has a tonne of interesting scenarios you can set up and play, but currently the campaign (which I’d jumped into to take a look at) is a bit completely broken. Cortex Command has been out in “work in progress” beta form for about 47 years, but there’s been a bit of progress of late, and so I’m hoping we’ll see that campaign built upon soon. Nevertheless, for those of you who’ve not played this yet – and you really should have done by now – there’s a free (and sadly harshly limited) demo on the site.

A warning: this one of those games that takes some getting used to before you see the real magic of it, and I suspect the demo isn’t long enough to get all that across. The quirky mannequin clunkiness of the character is the whole point: it’s an absurd slapstick physics robot battle toolbox, and it has a bit of a modding scene now to make things even more ridiculous. I’ve posted what is now quite an old gameplay trailer below, but I think it gets the point across.

I am definitely not going to recommend getting the full game unless you’ve played the demo, as it’s definitely an acquired taste. It can be fiddly, and really takes some time to get into the pace of it. But when you’ve got a great scenario ticking over properly, and robots get smacked all over the place, and you are managing on crisis after the next, it’s hilarious.

I plan to play a bit more and perhaps write some more thoughts later in the week. Join me?

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59 Comments »

  1. Dominic White says:

    I’ve seen SO many people furious about Cortex Command, and it gets continually rolled out as a reason why alphafunding is a scam and why indie developers should just get a business loan like non-hippies. Also: Bootstraps.

    Have to say I’ve gotten a lot of fun out of it and its countless mods over the years, though, even if it still isn’t complete.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      I’m not surprised, frankly. Development of it is tortuously slow. It *is* frustrating.

    • Dominic White says:

      Oh, no arguing that the progress of development is annoyingly slow. The developer doesn’t seem to have communicated with the outside world in about a year, either, although his twitter feed is full of small code updates.

      I’m kinda baffled by the people who got angry despite getting the game for almost nothing in a Humble Bundle, though. And yes, they do exist.

    • PodX140 says:

      I have also had waaay too much fun with it, but I agree with Jim. Development is torturously slow.

      Also: The campaign would work fine if the devs just added in lan functionality, at which point scanning becomes valuable. Otherwise, they’re where they are: confused and doing it all over.

    • Dominic White says:

      From the very earliest days of development, it has been said that the game will have no LAN or internet play support, because the physics engine (every single pixel of every object is physically driven) would basically freak out, explode, and burn your house to the ground.

      So don’t expect networked multiplayer. It’s always been solo or split-screen.

    • PodX140 says:

      Damn, that’s really sad to hear, I was really hoping to get more monitor space (Because 30 inches split 4 ways just isn’t enough.) That and be able to stealthily build a base and hunt down my opponent in fog of war matches. And play a working campaign where I don’t see my opponents every move. And play with more than 4 people.

      Now I’m really sad :(

    • Bremze says:

      “I’ve seen SO many people furious about Cortex Command, and it gets continually rolled out as a reason why alphafunding is a scam and why indie developers should just get a business loan like non-hippies.”

      I’ve always found this baffling and moronic. If you aren’t satisfied with the state of the game, when you give money to the dev, then for the love of god, don’t! This is both true for indie and AAA games.

      I paid 20$ for the game as soon as I could, because I’ve gotten several times my money’s worth sinking tons of time into the game. I guess it’s because I was around for the earliest builds and knew that It is basically a box of lego. Don’t take it too seriously, mod the hell out of it and you’ll have lots of fun, especially if you find someone to play co-op(which usually turns into vs halfway through) with. Playing a user-made recreation of Facing Worlds with my brother, shooting the ai as often as each other was one of my favorite experiences in gaming.

      Edit: I’ve pulled a Wulf, haven’t I?

    • Dominic White says:

      Yeah, the engine prevents it from ever going online. The physics are amazing, though. Ever notice that if enough soldiers walk over a patch of ground, they’ll wear through the grass layer, leaving just packed dirt and mud? Bullets will put small, visible holes in armour, too.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      From the very earliest days of development, it has been said that the game will have no LAN or internet play support, because the physics engine (every single pixel of every object is physically driven) would basically freak out, explode, and burn your house to the ground.

      That’s a fairly odd excuse. No internet play, fine. But LAN? We’re talking latency on the order of about a millisecond here. Maybe 2-3ms over wifi. You let one player host the thing, then treat the other player as another input device / dumb terminal. Don’t do any compensation at all.

      Or can it only handle being centered around one player? Because that would be a bit odd too.

    • DrGonzo says:

      No, never noticed that. I reckon most won’t. That kind of detail is far less appealing than multiplayer is if you ask me. That decision is baffling, not the development.

    • ChampionHyena says:

      “I’ve always found this baffling and moronic. If you aren’t satisfied with the state of the game, when you give money to the dev, then for the love of god, don’t! This is both true for indie and AAA games.”

      See, this is the thing. When I first bought Cortex Command, updates were being rolled out on the regular. I even had the dev blog bookmarked so I could compulsively check for new builds. More than that, I paid the premium price for the Super Bonus Indie Support-o-Version.

      And then… things pretty much just shuddered to a halt. New builds stopped, and we (the community) didn’t hear word one from the developer. That Twitter feed of code changes is only a recent peacemaking endeavor to keep the alpha funders from burning the forums down. I never really got in on the rage, but that doesn’t mean I’m not very, VERY disappointed with the sluggish pace and lack of communication.

      If you like the demo, by all means buy it. I still adore the potential of this game. I just don’t know if that potential will ever actually pay off.

    • PodX140 says:

      Actually, that physics engine is intergral to the game, I often use my own bullets to carve out paths in walls to shoot enemies. It’s also why diggers work, and why its possible to get non-jetpack troops stuck in snow. I love the engine, and I wouldn’t trade multiplayer for it, I’m just disapointed that it’s incompatible with it.

    • enobayram says:

      If you have a fast enough connection (LAN), there could be a server running with all the physics, the other players (clients) could just fetch the entire image from the server. Shouldn’t be a problem for modern computers as long as the connection is fast enough (LAN)

    • Kirasath says:

      Even though it never will have network i wish it could get multiple screen-support so instead of splitting one you could have 2 screens that are facing different directions instead..this would be great as it would be almost like LAN

    • Mctittles says:

      @enobayram
      I’m not sure what you mean by image. Like an actual image ala On-Live style?

      Anyway to me the answer seems simple. Just do what most games do and only send player movements and allow each computers cpu to figure out the rest. Have to make sure and sync up the random seed you are using for both pc’s. Might be difficult to prevent cheating this way, but at least it’s a playable solution.

      On another note, I tried the demo on a somewhat slower computer and with too many units it runs terrible. I have a feeling their physics is quite the spaghetti loop going on in the code.

    • rooski says:

      Dominic White says:10/18/2011 at 13:23
      Yeah, the engine prevents it from ever going online. The physics are amazing, though. Ever notice that if enough soldiers walk over a patch of ground, they’ll wear through the grass layer, leaving just packed dirt and mud? Bullets will put small, visible holes in armour, too.
      ———————

      The physics do not matter , anyway the server wouldnt handle the physics , that would all be calculated on the client , all the server/other client would have to worry about is the location of actors , what weapon they have equiped , where they are moving and if they have fired , then it would just create all that on both machines and let the physics engine run it. the devs said that lan/internet multiplayer wouldnt happen because its incompatible with their engine , just meaning to get it working they would have to rewrite some of their code + add in udp packet transfer code and deal with internet players.

      meaning the devs are too lazy to add it in.

      still a great game , i started playing around build7.

    • steviesteveo says:

      I can’t help but think that diggers would work better if it modelled dirt at levels bigger than 1 pixel. I used to find myself stuck on a 1px wide pillar while trying to dig down.

    • Flappybat says:

      Don’t worry kids, if you’re not able to reach deadlines or produce the product people paid for just hand wave the problem away with the excuse of being indie!

    • Data says:

      LAN multiplayer IS technically feasible.. the simulation would need to be made completely deterministic (not that hard to get 98% there, VERY hard/time consuming to get 100% perfect – which it has to be), and a lot of work put into the actual networking code by someone with the competence. I do not have it, or the patience to acquire the skills necessary.. I figure a decade is long enough to work on a project, so I’m trying to wrap it up and polish the campaign mode and move on the the next game before I die of old age.

      That said, if anyone is or knows someone who might be up to the task, I’m willing to consider bringing them on board to make it happen! Seriously. The entire source is very well documented and organized, so someone with real networking programming chops with games/sim experience and a lot of time/patience should be able to do it. If they do a great job and make it actually work, I’d be happy to do revenue share with them as compensation for the effort. Pls email leads to talent@datarealms.com

    • edit says:

      Nah, I love this kind of development. I love to pay a developer for the game when it’s pre-alpha or whatever and watch the thing grow over time. Of course you need to support the ones you know you will get the value out of, no matter what the final fate of the game or pace of development. Minecraft and Overgrowth have been wins for me. I haven’t picked this one up but I had a great time with some of the early free builds. The value of watching incremental development and playing early builds is higher than the cost of your average indie game imo.

    • tenseiga says:

      Nothing in physics is ever deterministic thanks to the little things that creep into calculations like that. Floating point errors mostly and the way very small numbers are handled on different machines. They’d prolly have to transfer each physics object across and considering every physics object is gameplay it all needs to be the same on both sides.

      Also this is setting a very bad precedent for all indie developers who sell pre alphas. I dont think i’d want to pay for another prealpha game and they are basically hurting the whole indie community.

    • Data says:

      hey smartypants.. there are ways to make the FPU calculations consistent across different architectures.. this has been solved many times before, just not by me.

      Also, exactly how are we setting a bad precedent? By taking our sweet-ass time in first developing a novel (if naive) bitmap-based physics engine from scratch, then a tactical game on top of that, then a strategic metagame on top of that? all while learning how to even make a game in the process? I am convinced I couldn’t have avoided getting burned out on the whole project without taking it slow with many hiatuses.

      Feel free to go make a game faster if you can :)

    • enobayram says:

      @Data

      Great game guys, and I think you’re making yourselves a very solid place among the indie classics. The game has an incredibly serious atmosphere in it, a very new feeling. It’s very clear that it’s your first game, but it has a really novel feeling to it.

      If I know anything, neither you nor anyone in this world can get to make that game engine completely deterministic. Especially since you’ll have trouble synchronizing the engines, there’ll be packet losses, etc… Take your time with it all you want, but give us the option to have multiple screens from the same game, LAN multiplayer should be easy to simulate with vnc or the like then. Multiple screens should be trivial for you, right?

  2. Kemuel says:

    The forums have all kinds of awesome stuff on them- scenarios, weapons, full new armies- but without the main game being a bit more.. I don’t know.. complete though I’ve struggled to get in to it all.

  3. Moni says:

    It’s one of the games I got in Humble Indie Bundle 3 (+2) that I still haven’t tried, I should probably do that right now.

    • staberas says:

      Actually its the reason i donated on indie bundle is for this game , i like it because it kinda reminds me of the Worms game ..

    • phenom_x8 says:

      @moni
      Same with me ! Got it from HB3! Installed it, finishing the tutorial (quite love it) and then starting new campaign just to get absolutely lost about what to do next (why they didnt explained it thoroughly on tutorial mode before?)

    • max pain says:

      Do we, the Bundlers, get the updated version? Anyone know if the latest version is on the bundle site?

    • PodX140 says:

      Us bundler’s DO in fact get the latest build. You just have to redownload it from the HIB site.

    • max pain says:

      Oh good then. I just wish there was a notification system in form of an email perhaps, whenever they update a game on the bundle.

  4. pakoito says:

    I never got the hang of it, the control just trumps any fun experience I’m trying to have with it.

    • jamesgecko says:

      Trying not to fall on your face while shooting an enemy player who is flailing around hilariously as the ground underneath them collapses is half the fun!

  5. Brahms says:

    If I got it in the humble bundle, does that mean that I’m allowed to get the most recent build?

  6. MonstroUK says:

    I happily threw down cash on this a few years ago and I tend to return every 18 months or so. I’ve gotten so much value out of the game to date I don’t really care (as a consumer) if it ever comes out. Here’s hoping though.

  7. Bluerps says:

    Huh. That’s still in development? I remember playing Cortex Command on my previous PC, and I bought my current machine several years ago…

  8. spiderwebby says:

    I paid out for this years ago and never regretted it. It’s a brilliant game!
    …even though it runs like it’s feet have been chopped off…

  9. HybridHalo says:

    I was super-pleased when this got added in to the Humble Indie Bundle 2 as I’d played and enjoyed the demo previously. I think it’s ace, even if I haven’t been able to finish a single scenario :)

  10. Jesse L says:

    The creativity and quality of the modding scene is a selling point. I haven’t played CC for a year or two, but at the time there was a comprehensive unit mod for Warhammer 40K orks that was riotously fun. They seemed to suit the ‘always on the brink of messy self-destruction’ feel of CC perfectly – blowing their own legs off, running out of jet pack fuel at high altitude and exploding into bits on hitting the ground…and another nob marching in from behind to scavenge a flamethrower out of the leftover bits.

    • Davie says:

      Orks are alive and well in the current build, and wonderfully overpowered–a Mega Armored Nob with a kustom shoota can walk in a straight line firing his gun and cut a hole right through the wall of a concrete bunker by the time he gets there. Then of course there are the goblin bombs, which cost 1 oz of gold and basically kill absolutely everything.

      Somebody put together a compilation of the 40k mods for the current build, and it’s excellent.

  11. caddyB says:

    Oh this isn’t finished yet? Maybe it should just go Dwarf Fortress way of being eternally in development.And just asking for donations.

    Because frankly, buying the game is just that at this point.

  12. Kollega says:

    Ah yes, Cortex Command. I think the 14 bucks or so i paid for it were more than worth it: the game is tons of fun, even with vanilla content. And it has picked up the pace of development lately.

  13. LTK says:

    I’ve seen this game covered before but didn’t play the demo until now. After I figured out how to buy stuff, a rocket arrived and spat out a soldier. When the rocket tried to leave, it got stuck under a roof, crushed the soldier it had just delivered to bits, and exploded. That was extremely hilarious. I like this game now.

  14. SoupDuJour says:

    It may be unfinished, but I heartily applaud such experimental games. It’s just awesome how much funny stuff happens spontaneously. I guess this is just one of those games where the creator takes the initial step and the mod community takes it from there.

  15. Zarunil says:

    CC is awesome. Wish he’d hurry up and finish it.

  16. TorrentHKU says:

    Development has been admittedly snail-like for the past few years, but after the HIB Data really got his shit together. He’s been releasing new builds much more frequently, brought some more quality modders and people from the community onto the dev team, and he’s gotten a ton better about communicating with the forums.
    Also, mods really make Cortex Command. if you’re not playing with mods, you really aren’t playing CC right.

  17. jonfitt says:

    I played the demo yonks ago, and then got it in the HIB. I had some fun with it, but I never managed to be more than malco when controlling the bots. I find that I’ll typically get stuck on a rogue pixel, flip over, shotgun myself in the face, and fall off a cliff, or something like that. It’s hilarious, but gets frustrating.
    .
    My main gripe is with those individual pixles. It’s fine to model them all, but when a pixel is left isolated in space, perhaps it should decay and disappear? I found mining to be near impossible as there would always be something left blocking the path.
    .
    Any tips?

    • Joseph says:

      Move Sloooowly. baby steps. And bear in mind weight is a big factor — dont carry 10 guns if you want to get anywhere. Most of the digging tools should make short work of loose pixels.

    • jonfitt says:

      I typically can only afford a single gun per guy. I do move pretty slowly, but the enemy are fast and effective. If they decide to rush me, I’m toast. I’ll update and have another bash.

  18. The Army of None says:

    Yes please! Write more on this! Me and my dorm mates play this semi regularly. It’s so absurd in the best way possible.

  19. Davie says:

    This is the thing about Cortex Command. It’s buggy, it’s frustrating, it’s hard to control, the singleplayer campaign is only usable via modding, it updates twice a year at best, and I have gotten more fun out of it than any other indie game with the possible exception of Minecraft.

    My brother and I play splitscreen skirmish defense, and it is beautiful. Dummies raining down from the sky in ineptly piloted dropships, frantic screaming of “DUCK! FUCKING DUCK!” as bits of wreckage fly through our entrenched position at supersonic speeds, kamikaze bombing the enemy with nothing but a grenade, a jetpack, and a significant absence of limbs, a simultaneous wince and high-five as a single shot from a heavy sniper rifle takes out six or seven enemies via the wonderful physics system…I could go on all day.

    Basically, the game is full of the most ridiculous emergent situations possible, and playing the same map twice will never be the same experience. And there are so many mods that add new weapons, units and missions you’ll never get bored with the content available. Like I said, there is frustration and there are some elements here and there that will make you bang your head against your desk until it bleeds, but the sheer insanity of it makes it all worth it.

    • Tayrtahn says:

      Heck yeah! I haven’t played this game in ages, but I got some two-player splitscreen action in a few years ago. What an awesomely chaotic experience! This way back before the campaign existed at all. We set up a simple gamemode: modify the files to have an essentially unlimited supply of gold, build some sort of base and buy a few soldiers to guard the innermost parts, and set the difficulty to the highest (which I believe just controlled the rate at which enemy dropships arrive). Then we would try to survive as long as we could. There was a fairly significant issue with the game at the time where the shards of exploded dropships would add mass to the world, but the explosions wouldn’t take anything away, so the wreckage would pile up over time.

      The results were spectacular. Absolute chaos rained down from above as the terrible, terrible dropship pilots ceaselessly rammed their ships into the ground, our base, and each other. Severely de-limbed enemy troops crawled their way out of the wreckage and desperately tried to destroy our brain-jars to make the madness stop. The world would slowly fill up with dropship shards and corpses, creating giant towers and deep pits of twisted steel and flesh. Traversing this landscape was equally deadly and hilarious, as lose dropship engine tore through the sky and splattered anything fleshy in their paths.

      Perhaps my fondest memory of the game was a moment during one of these matches where I was trekking across the scrap heap. My friend was offscreen somewhere and he fired at an approaching dropship. We heard the telltale sound of an engine breaking off, indicating that the nearby area would soon receive a large helping of exploding steel wreckage. I took off running to the right, away from the blast and toward a large crater in the land ahead. The chaotic placement of metal shards had created a small, man-sized cave directly inside the crater. As I heard the explosion of the dropship smashing into the ground behind me, I reached the lip of the crater and held the down key to dive low as I went over the edge. What whatever reason, my toe caught on lip of the crater as I dove, and I was quickly flung around, arriving upside-down in the relative safety of the cave below. With perfect timing, one of the dropship’s engines immediately came flying horizontally across the screen, glancing off the lip of the crater. Had I not caught my toe and been flung into that cave, I would have been pulverized.

      My friend experienced a similar situation in another round we played. Only in his case, the engine came from the opposite direction and perfectly fit into his little cave, forevering sealing his mangled body into the hillside. All in all, some very good times!

    • Data says:

      we love you guise. just wait til the metagame campaign is properly playable.. should be in time to play it with your grandkids!

  20. JB says:

    I do so love playing the One Man Army scenario. I drop everything but the assault rifle and then try to scavenge weapons from the mercs.

  21. squareking says:

    More thoughts on this, please!

    Also, if anyone know of decent and/or must-try mods, please let me know.

  22. data01 says:

    Nice! appreciate the generous writeup and many comments.. will try to address some of them here asap

    Also, Jim, if you’d like a newer build that has a slightly less unfinished (can’t be “broken” if it never was working, can it ;) campaign mode, shoot me an email!

  23. OJSlaughter says:

    The mods make this game’s lack of development much, much more bearable! HL2 Gravity Gun Mod, enough said!

    The only part of the controls that annoys me is trying to climb up ladder: made much more annoying by missing an arm and a leg, damn you scouting rifle :(

  24. Non says:

    So, yeah. TorrentHKU and a couple others already said it, but I’ma say it again. We modders of DRLFF would really love new guys to make mods with. The game is an acquired taste, but it’s an amazing flavor whether you like it or not.

    For those who say that it’s hurt Indie Gaming, then you obviously haven’t been thrown into the thick of the Indie movement. This, though not the epitome of Indie Games (I would give that title to Cactus, because it is as far from AAA as you could humanly imagine) gets pretty close. Sure, development is slow, sure sometimes a long awaited update isn’t so large, but it doesn’t matter because there is almost always new content being pumped out.

    And yes, one may say that it’s hard to play, but when you get even decent at it, the clunky, slow controls open up like a box of springs. Quickly, that is. I, myself, am doing a lot of work on making movement much faster for the player. At the moment I can get it inhumanly fast, and it’s as fun as a pool of poodles. You have to think ahead. It’s not an FPS, where you can power through, spamming bullets, it takes finesse to blow away retarded AI.

    Give it a try, it could easily be way up your ally, but if it isn’t, then it probably will never be.