Wot I Think: Cortex Command

By Tim Stone on October 9th, 2012 at 10:00 pm.


Robot-building, base-constructing, side-scrolling, brain-protecting, physics-physicking slapstick tactical combat game Cortex Command finally has a campaign version and so is, in a sense, finished. It’s also out on Steam. Tim sent his own brain in to investigate.

On reaching the lip of the service shaft, combat robot no. J89/7007 pauses and looks down. 50ft below, glittering in the gloom, are the bullet-shredded remains of combat robots J89/6998 to J89/7006. The automaton thinks about vomiting, then, remembering his lack of digestive system and fear circuits, opts to walk forward instead. By the time he lands with a jetpack-retarded crunch in the midst of the junk pile, his minigun is spinning at maximum revs.


The next six seconds are utterly devoid of love, compassion, or mercy. The first to perish is a crippled MG drone in the mouth of the right-hand tunnel. Next a Coalition sniper crouched behind a concrete block on the left, gets his skull-top sliced clean off by the intruder’s whirring bunker broom. The bot is busy reloading when a red-hot blast of Mauler shrapnel from another cover-hugging Coalitionist tears the minigun from his alloy fingers and traumatically amputates his left leg.

Smoke and bouncing sparks dissipate to reveal the now monopedal J89/7007 hopping valiantly towards his mutilator. On arrival the homicidal pogo stick uses his mining tool to turn his target into a cloud of crimson man-mince. Falling flesh chunks splutch onto the debris-littered corridor floor while, in the far distance a defeat-facing gamer can be heard emitting a sound that’s half wail of anguish, half gasp of awed amazement.

Wave a soggy wrist stump at Cortex Command. Assuming you’re one of the eight RPS readers that don’t already own this £14 tactics test-tube, be aware that every session is studded with dozens of wincingly brutal combat moments similar to the one just described. A vast arsenal of weapons combined with a fabulously physical physics system, guarantee you some of the most gripping and grisly RTS warfare this side of Men of War.

I often find myself thinking of MoW while playing Cortex. Though Team 17′s wiggly signature series is the more obvious touchstone, the bone-crunching destruction has a tactile, unpredictable quality to it that devotees of Direct Control are sure to recognise and relish.

When it comes to combat subtleties and realism, Cortex might actually have the edge over its Best Way compadre. In addition to the aforementioned gore and dismemberment, this is a game that encourages fox- and mouse-holing, and lets you snipe through the narrowest of self-hewn loopholes. A Battle of Stalingrad or Battle of Ortona title using an adapted form of this engine could be goshing incredible.

Of course, any WW2 spin-off would have to dispense with the gold mining. In most Cortex missions, in addition to orchestrating combat you’re also watching over troglodytic gold gleaners. Because dropship-delivered reinforcements are purchased with the game’s only resource, and that resource is buried below the surface of battlefields, if you don’t assign a portion of your force to subterranean scouring then you eventually run out of the cash necessary to sustain assaults or replenish defences.

The other key concept shaping slaughter sessions is brain preservation. Usually victory is achieved by locating and eliminating an enemy faction’s force-coordinating brain-unit. This could be a static organ sitting in a jar in a reinforced vault at the heart of an enemy bunker system, or a mobile brain-robot busy assisting its own war effort through mining. Unless you’re defending a domestic bunker, the opening phase of any scrap generally begins with some frantic defence preparation. While a cordon of turrets and troops is airlifted in, you rush to get your fragile perambulating cerebrum into a newly excavated tunnel network or defensible cave. Mismanage this crucial stage and you can easily find yourself looking on helplessly as terrier-like foes scramble through the mouth of a refuge-turned-rat-trap.

And “scramble through” isn’t wishful thinking in this instance. The mix of QWOP-style soldier skeletons (though, happily, directly controlled units are moved with WASD keys) and endlessly deformable battlefields means every scenery pixel matters when it come to pathfinding and Line of Fire calculations. Troops slither, squeeze and tumble through catacombs. They widen home-made portals with mining tools or attempt to seal them off with concrete sprayers. Bullets nibble at trench edges and chip away at bunker walls. The options for using and abusing the environments are mind-boggling.

Hence, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to hear that AI-controlled forces can struggle to compete against us wily humans. While difficulty settings and single scenario victory conditions guarantee challenge, there will be times – especially when you’ve got a few days of battle experience under your belt – when you find yourself sitting back and giggling while the CPU either shoots itself repeatedly in the feet, or dithers suicidally while you scheme. Certain base designs (in the campaign, you’re free to design your own fortresses) can baffle artificial assaulters. Certain weapons and tools, it ignores or uses with splashtastically fatal results. Where possible I always recon-by-fire and advance with a medbot scuttling just behind my scout. The AI, unless scripted to do so, never exhibits this kind of canniness.

Cortex has other flaws too. It might be years since its demo first turned heads, but devs Data Realms still haven’t managed to eliminate all slow-down and crash bugs. The biggest disappointment in my book, is that they’ve also yet to find a really compelling and coherent way of contextualising those savage, surprise-strewn firefights.

This is how campaigns currently work: A selection of up to four factions fight over a planet’s lucrative mining sites. From an overview map accessed before battles, you select which sites you’re going to contest, and which bases you’d like to improve. The more sites you wind-up controlling, the more income you have available to finance assaults and home improvements. Once a player’s limited supplies of brains have been used-up, that player is out of the running.

It sounds fine on paper, and, most of the time, works reasonably well in practice. What it lacks is tonal variety… interesting supplementary activities… characters… a sense of import. It feels like a barebones mechanism for delivering skirmishes rather than a doorway into Cortex’s incredibly rich armoury or enigmatic lore.

I’ve been publicly pillorying the deliverers of linear RTS scenario sequences for more than a decade, yet in the case of Cortex find myself wishing the campaign was a little more conventional and story-heavy. In a game as splendidly provisioned with weaponry, tools, and building materials as this one, it’s a travesty that everything is instantly available at the start of the campaign. Perhaps if we’d been forced to scrape by with bog-standard SMGs , pistols, and shotguns for an outing or two, then more exotic kit, when introduced, might have felt special. Slowly researching or scavenging/reverse-engineering new tech might have helped reduce bewilderment too. The present tutorial leaves large swathes of the game unexplained.

There’s so much wonderful chaos, so many alluring tactical options, within Cortex’s combat, I’m not sure the game needs the AI-straining freedoms of a sandbox campaign. A set of skrmish modes plus a skilfully wrought mission sequence spiced with bespoke tech tree clambering, would have made Cortex a far more rounded and approachable creature. As it is, you’re almost certain to fall for its charms faster than a combat robot corpse tumbling down a bunker shaft (especially if you’ve got a pal/spouse/sibling ready and willing for split-screen action) but you may end up wishing it was a little less free with its hardware, and a tad more traditional in its campaign attitude.

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59 Comments »

  1. TheEddevilish says:

    I think you’ve definitely managed to get across what it is that can make CC so damn fun at times, but you forgot one important thing – MODDING. The modding capabilities and the huge number of mods on the main forums are where CC really shines and it’s a shame to think that a large number of people don’t even know about that part of CC. It really increases the longevity of the game when you get bored of the vanilla factions and missions.

    • Nevard says:

      It’s even got to the point where half of the game’s actual content was made by the mod community, as people hand-picked by DaTa

    • Bremze says:

      Modding and hotseat is what Cortex Command is all about. Anyone willing to get into the game should just forget about the campaign, grab some mods, friends and tear up some skirmish map.

      • scorcher24 says:

        Don’t use modding as excuse for a broken, overpriced game please. Indie Developers must face the same level of criticism than other developers and this game is clearly not fit for purpose.

        • eks says:

          While I agree to an extent that you should judge a game based on how it was released by the developers, I also believe modding is worth something and is a valid selling point.

          You’re also absolutely wrong if you think it’s being unfairly applied here, modding is used as an answer for almost every game that supports it. A recent AAA example that comes to mind is Skyrim, the answer to practically every major criticism with that game (apart from the shit writing) comes with a “there’s a mod for that” answer.

          Minecraft is an example of a major indie title where that attitude is also prevalent. The fact is, the PC has a long history of using modding communities as a valid selling point so calling it out in this particular instance doesn’t make sense.

          • scorcher24 says:

            Mods should extend a game’s content, not fix bugs or making up for mistakes of the developers.

          • caddyB says:

            What you think is a mistake might very well be a selling point for someone else, that is why modding is great.

          • eks says:

            scorcher24, it’s not up to you to decide what mods should and shouldn’t do. That’s what’s great about modding, anyone can do whatever they want to do and change the game however they please.

            Your original argument was that indie games that offer modding should fall under the same criticism that AAA titles do. I’m saying that they do and modding is used as a saving grace in every type of game.

            You can argue that this shouldn’t happen at all in the industry and that’s fine, you can have that opinion. I would honestly be tempted to agree with such a statement. The fact is though that it’s not being “unfairly” applied here.

          • Gnarf says:

            Doing a review of a game and all of its mods together quickly gets weird. It usually makes more sense to just review the game on its own, and/or do reviews of different mods if they’re important.

            I guess in some cases it makes sense to get weird about it and review, ah, the experience of messing around and trying different mods or something.

            Mostly it’s just important that you’re clear about what it is you’re reviewing. I think it makes sense that something titled, like, “Wot I Think: Cortex Command”, is about the base game of Cortex Command and not about Cortex Command with and without some random selection of mods.

            I don’t see a problem with, say, giving Cortex Command a bad review on its own, while also recommending that people get it because awesome mods.

        • Gnoupi says:

          Agreed. Modding is and should remain a bonus. It shouldn’t be the universal answer to a game’s flaws. The Elder scrolls series especially comes to mind when it comes to “oh, the base game is broken, that’s normal, install those mods”. I ran Morrowind for months with unofficial patches, because the base game was crashing so often.

          Modding is not an excuse. And it certainly shouldn’t be used as a counter-argument for a game’s flaws, in reviews.

        • enobayram says:

          I agree with your views on modding not making up for the weaknesses of a release, but CC is by no means a broken overpriced game. If you appreciate what it has to offer, it’s a truly unique game, a niche, and $15 isn’t at all overpriced for that.

        • MellowKrogoth says:

          It takes effort to make a game easily moddable, effort that could be spent on more content. So I think moddability is a selling point.

    • jonfitt says:

      I am on the hunt for user created “scenes” that replicate some of the scant scenarios in the base game.

      I’ve tried the CC forum, but it’s not geared towards displaying that information. Much is spent on modding complex story scenarios or re-skinning someone else’s IP into the game.
      That’s fine, but what I really want is more of the single shot scenarios like the zombie cave and the one where you assault the base.

      I tried the custom scenes, but when I added my base bits and started I immediately won the game because there was no enemy.

      Any recommendations?

    • jonfitt says:

      General mod question:
      Is there a GUI mod out there that will print the name of the currently equipped weapon on the screen?
      Sometimes it’s hard to see what the guy’s holding and I’ve blown myself up that way.

  2. Klonopin says:

    A research tree of some kind really seems like a no-brainer (no pun intended) for the campaign. It would add a lot of tactical depth to the game, deciding whether to invest more money in your bases and assaults, or to hold back and research better tech. It would also create more varied deployment schemes. As of now, it’s a little to easy to figure out what the best combinations are for your faction and just stick with that throughout.

  3. jonfitt says:

    It contains some amazing fun, but there is also an incredible amount of frustration in the game. When your robot won’t mine autonomously, or you can’t master walking up a particular set of stairs or climb a ladder without the spirits of ragdolls past laughing at you.

    There is no mid-mission save that I know of, and the campaign is not explained at all. You really have to put in effort to get something out of CC.

  4. Mr. Mister says:

    The masked dudes in the picture instantly reminded me of those things that shoot small bursts at you in the toxic labyrint (as well as secret waterfall) in Super Mario 64.

  5. tomeoftom says:

    It’s a special thing, it is.

  6. Bloodoflamb says:

    The controls are so extraordinarily wonky/cumbersome, I couldn’t bring myself to play more than a couple of minutes.

    • jonfitt says:

      I totally know what you mean. I bounced off the tutorial mission twice before (it’s pretty easy to lose completely!), but finally with 1.0 I tried it again and it clicked.
      I couldn’t possibly describe what was missing, but as soon as it clicked it became a lot of fun.

    • tomeoftom says:

      Yeah, they’re absolutely, unforgiveably useless. I think the game’s a case of brilliant engineers with a huge degree of playfulness and creativity but who don’t have a tonne of design sense. Those controls will similarly bounce many players away, and it’d be the slimmest effort to make them useable. It’s obvious they’re designed around gamepads but even then the system still makes no sense. It’s supposed to be built around intuitive flicks but the “flick zones” change depending upon what’s equipped, and they’re too small to hit accurately.

      It should instead be:
      you hit a button to bring up the ‘AI modes’ ring, or a different button for the ‘weapons’ ring, and another for the ‘abilities’ ring and so on – never having more than four or five zones to choose from.

    • enobayram says:

      I agree that the right-click menu could be improved, it takes time to realize what’s what, and you usually don’t have that kind of time during the game. About the physical control of the characters though; you have to take into account the fact that those characters are indeed rag dolls constrained by very strict laws of physics. When you tell it to walk left, it has no choice but to swing its legs hoping that there’s something to push it forward. The alternative is to have a very sophisticated AI for actually carrying out your orders in that world, but that AI has been a hot research topic in robotics for decades (and the games will be much more fun when it’s solved).

      • Bloodoflamb says:

        It’s not an AI controlling the robot’s motions, though. It’s SUPPOSED to be a human brain, which are far more sophisticated than any AI, and should be more than capable of controlling a mechanical body given the appropriate interface.

  7. Spengbab says:

    So… What, really? I get the impression its still at the level of development shown throughout the various alpha’s, beta’s, earlier Bundle releases etc. From what I gather in this WoT you seem to think it’s a good idea with great potential, but it doesn’t really tell me whether I should start throwing money at the screen or register an account on the dev’s forums and call them nasty names.

    Does the AI still stand around doing nothing when there’s a wall of a few pixels high in its path? Do your robots actually MINE like it says on the box?

    This is EXACTLY the type of game I want to enjoy (180 hours on Terraria), but it seems like the devs bit off more than they can chew with this game. Worrying, after such a long time in continuous development.

    • jonfitt says:

      Sometimes I wish it had the ease of use of Terraria. CC is on the verge of something still. It’s so much more cumbersome to do anything than with Terraria. If the two could have babies, it could be great.

    • dE says:

      My impression – and it’s really not meant in any nasty way:
      It’s not quite there yet. It may get there, but I’m not entirely sure it ever will. Not that it matters much, when it runs, you get great fun out of it. Just expect crashes. Lots of them. And don’t bother with the campaign, it sounds nice in theory but the execution isn’t that great.
      Skirmishes and mods are where the fun is at. Can’t crack some bunker? Call down a nuke, done. Cheap? Hell yeah it’s cheap but damn satisfying seeing half the map being blown away.

  8. Yodas_Brother says:

    Why is there no up-to-date demo? I cannot find a demo on steam or the official page and the only links I find are 4 year old ones which are either dead or lead to softonic or other ad-supported download-manager crap.
    The thing is I am really interested, but before I ditch 18 € I’d like to at least try the game before… (especially as people report clumsy interface/controls and that’s something that you just have to try for yourself and can’t gleam from gameplay vids)

  9. Dominic White says:

    I’m both surprised and very happy to see Tim reviewing this. It really does have the same sense of disorganized, beautiful, unpredictable chaos as Men of War, but with a level of physical simulation quite unlike anything else.

    Yes, it’s sometimes wobbly and difficult to control, but no other game I can think of will let me actually dig out a spider-hole in the side of a hill, crawl in completely prone and make it into a sniper deathtrap. Or just fill an unpadded box full of napalm bombs and drop it from orbit onto the enemy camp.

    It’s amazing sandbox fun. Moreso if you find some mods you like. It’s sad to see so many people angry about it elsewhere. No joke – I’ve gotten hate-mail because I’ve recommended the game. The developer’s inbox is apparently rage central. Sad times =(

    • FunkyLlama says:

      @Dominic White
      It’s hard to blame people for being angry, though. People have a right to be pissed when they prepurchase a game and then the developer proceeds to do almost nothing for the next god-knows-how-many years.
      (All of which is not to justify people sending you hate-mail for recommending the game, of course.)

      • Dominic White says:

        It always said that you’re buying whatever version is currently on offer with no specific promises on future development – same as any alphafunded project ever. If you don’t trust a developer with your money, then don’t pre-order things. Simple as that.

        • sinister agent says:

          This makes sense to me too. The first beta game I bought was Mount and Blade, about five years ago, and honestly, I’d have been content to play it as it was then forever (though there have been many improvements since, obv). I wouldn’t pay for a game on the off-chance that it’d get better in future, and sure, I’d be disappointed if a game didn’t turn out how I’d liked, but getting pissy because about it is pointless. I don’t pay for things that don’t exist.

          • Phantoon says:

            I still think the game is great.

            I’d just like a way to play the game I paid for years ago, now that it’s finally finished.

        • Beelzebud says:

          That’s no excuse now that it’s on Steam and being sold as a full game. It’s not in ‘alpha funding’ anymore, and it says nothing like that on the Steam page for it.

        • Phantoon says:

          I’m still waiting on a reply for a new key, my old one doesn’t work.

          Now I know WHY I’m unlikely to get one soon.

  10. malkav11 says:

    I was really hoping that the purported campaign would be exactly that: a story-based at least semi-linear campaign with scripted scenarios and gradual introduction of toys, etc. A very very light shell around skirmishes doesn’t suffice for me pretty much ever. Oh well. :(

  11. phenom_x8 says:

    I forgot that I’ve bought this game as a part of my last year HiB, thanks for remind me, RPS. Time to download it again.

  12. rapchee says:

    is there a manual on the campaign? i managed to do the tutorial (on the 3rd try, by shooting at the enemy before they started moving, and still the bulky smaller thing got under my brain somehow) but i cannot manage to pick a fight in campaign mode so í’m just doing turns while the ai builds it’s base
    my google fu fails, i only find dated manuals, that say ‘there’s no campaign so don’t ask about it’

  13. crinkles esq. says:

    I guess I’m the only RPSer who has never heard of this game, and the gameplay videos I watched make it seem a fantastic time, but the price seems a bit steep for a very-unfinished-and-yet-somehow-labelled-1.0 game. I think I’m sadly going to have to back away from this one slowly, and probably accidentally bump into XCOM instead.

  14. haradaya says:

    Overlooked this, it looks exactly like my kind of thing. But €18,99 does seem steep.
    Then I found out I got it in the Humble Indie Bundle 2. YESSS.

  15. Victuz says:

    I bought this game in the Humble Bundle 2 ages ago but I have no idea how to claim the damn thing…

  16. JiminyJickers says:

    It doesn’t work in full screen for me at the moment. Will wait until they fix it before trying it again.

  17. yourgrandma says:

    It’s pretty much the same clumsy broken techdemo it was 5 years ago. Don’t bother.

  18. Josh W says:

    I remember playing this with a friend and having to create all kinds of strange house rules, like “no tunnelling through someone’s base in build mode with your own tunnels” “no rockets full of crabs”, and “no waypoint mining if you have the mouse”.

    It reminded me of the experience of playing old broken 80s wargames I’ve forgotten the name of. Maybe we invented them? Anyway, the same feeling of “that could be sooo broken, ok I’ll do that instead, wait, sooo broken!”

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