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Cortex Command

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Rating: 4.8/5 (155 votes)
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Cortex Command

JoshIt's been called brilliant. Simply amazing. A unique and innovative spin on the bunker-warfare genre. Then again, others call it a letdown. A big tease, just vaporware; an over-hyped concept that will never truly come to fruition. cortexcommand.jpgBut it seems like no matter what side of the fence they're on, critics can't deny that Cortex Command is one of the most intriguing independent games to surface this year. Developer Dan Tabar of Data Realms has been working on Cortex Command for over seven years, although most of that work's momentum has accumulated only recently (Tabar quit his job in 2006 to work on the game full-time). The newest release (Build 22, making the game technically still in beta) came out last month and proved to be a milestone for the project, with the inclusion of new content, optimizations and a Mac OSX version.

Best of Casual Gameplay 2008In Cortex Command, you assume the role of a disembodied brain (floating in a jar, actually) that's able to network with — and telepathically control — a variety of machines and soldiers. The basic premise is that you're setting up shop on hostile alien worlds to mine for resources, while your enemy is doing the same. Superficially, it sounds more like a real-time strategy game than a turn-based warfare game, which is one of the main reasons Cortex Command has so much potential; it's both! Actual gameplay is much more of the latter, but the resource-gathering and ability to let the AI control your units are hallmark elements of RTS games. Your "brain" is secured inside a bunker on one side of the map, with your opponent's on the other side. The goal is to use robots and foot soldiers — armed with an almost ridiculously large arsenal of weapons to choose from — to infiltrate the other player's base and destroy their brain.

One of the best features of the game is the many "actors" (units) and weapons that you can buy. There are robot and human actors, as well as aliens, zombies and dummies (that's right, as in crash-test dummies). There are literally dozens of weapons; pistols, machine guns, shotguns, flak cannons, sniper rifles, laser rifles... the list goes on. Additional items (like riot shields or explosives) make for an almost-limitless number of gameplay scenarios. All of these items are bought using the gold gathered from the map, which need to be mined from underground (although you'll start off with more than enough money in most of the demo maps). They appear as tiny yellow dots in the dirt, usually found in clusters. Your units can equip different "digging guns" that basically burrow into the ground, Dig-Dug-style (only in this case, it's detailed down to the pixel, much like the Sand physics webtoys you've probably seen online). Everything is purchased through a slide-out "shopping" menu, where it's all categorized. You can choose units, weapons and items (and even have units equipped with the items if you place them under each unit in the order list), all of which are delivered from orbit.

cortexcommand2.jpgYou can even choose between several ways to deliver your cargo, depending on how much money you want to risk. Cheaper transport like the rockets are harder to control, while the more expensive drop ships are easier to stabilize. Why does it matter in the first place, you might wonder? Well, the answer is just one example that illustrates how detailed the game mechanics of Cortex Command are. Not only can you crash your ship (destroying its cargo, as well as anything it lands on), you can accidentally burn up your allies if the ship's thrusters get too close to them. On the other hand, it's usually in your interest to be able to place units exactly where you want on the map, something that takes high maneuvering skill without a more expensive ship. Once your cargo is offloaded, you can return to orbit by flying off-screen and get your money back for the price of the ship.

Unit movement is controlled by the [WASD] keys, or can be configured however you want. The [Q] and [E] keys switch your control to the units left and right of you, respectively. To choose any unit in free look mode, just hold down either button and move the mouse cursor around. For the UI, the developer implemented the click-and-release "menu rings" system that you might have seen in modern games or software. Instead of crowding the screen with buttons and boxes, you simply hold down the right mouse button to make a menu ring appear around your target. While still holding the RMB, you can move your mouse pointer around the ring to highlight various options, depending on the unit you have selected. To choose an option, you just release the RMB while the cursor is still highlighting it. This intuitive system can be used to pick up and switch between weapons, set various AI modes and more.

Analysis: Bunker-warfare games like Worms and Gunbound have consistently proved to be a popular genre. Similar games have been released on multiple platforms over the years, even within the Web-game communities (Mutiny, Artillery Live!). Cortex Command follows in these footsteps, but adds many new dimensions that we've never seen incorporated in these types of games. For example, the physics engine alone feels much more advanced; characters move and react to the environment like rag dolls (which will prove to be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how well the developer can perfect this). Even more impressive is the "vital anatomy" mechanic, a disturbingly realistic combat system in which bullets (among many other projectiles and factors) can injure specific body parts like arms and legs. Consequentially, you can immobilize an enemy, or take away their ability to fire back. On the other hand, robots don't need legs to move around as long as they have their jetpacks, so it's not uncommon to see a torso flying around, raining down bullets from the sky.

cortexcommand3.jpgMany players complain about having a hard time controlling units, presumably because the rag-doll physics can hinder movement in certain scenarios. You might find yourself getting stuck, or having a tough time navigating with enough agility to play effectively. Remember that your direction is influenced by the mouse, as well as the [WASD] keys. You might have better luck if you point the mouse in the direction you're headed.

Even though the game is remarkably playable, it's important to keep in mind that Cortex Command is still in beta. The game is still in development and doesn't include a full campaign (or "story") mode yet. In fact, there are only three campaign levels available to play, including the tutorial. There are just a handful of "skirmish" (mission) levels available, half of which are more aimed at demonstrating the game's physics and engine more than anything else. Multiplayer is available with up to four people, using split-screens. There's a nice level editor included if you're interested in making your own content, and since the game was made compatible with the Lua programming language, some fans already have mods available on the official forums.

There is a lot of potential in Cortex Command. Not only in the possibility of what's to come in the final release (full campaigns, objective-based missions), but everything that the fan community will undoubtedly cook up as well. For now, you can buy a "discounted" license, which is essentially like pre-ordering the game. You'll be eligible to download and unlock all future releases, including the final retail release. But make sure you read all the info; the reason you can buy it at a discount is because there's no guarantee that the game will ever see a "final" release. But if you're one of the fans that's been tracking the progress of Cortex Command over the last year or two, you're probably more than happy to pay a small fee to get lifetime updates, even if that means the game stays in beta for another two years.

Download the demo Get the full version

Mac OS XMac OS X:
Download the demo Get the full version


Readers be advised: The first screenshot contains weapons/craft gibs from a popular mod, DSTech. It can be found on the DataRealms Fam Forums, in the Mod Releases section.


Wow. Do you crave frustration? Then you'll love this game. It's a shame, so much wasted potential. The concept is amazing, the execution is virtually unplayable.

The sad thing is it only needs two changes to make this the kind of game that redefines a genre:
1) The ragdoll stuff is an interesting idea that just doesn't work. Admit it, scrap it and replace it with reliable animations. You might gimp your limb-shooting functionality but you'll actually be able to play the game.
2) Don't deform terrain that you're just walking over. It's almost impossible to get your characters to walk over stuff. Not fun. Instead, only deform terrain as the result of explosions, heavy fire or digging intentionally.


Can't get movement controls to work, tried to config a dozen times.


Installs under Wine in Linux OK but doesn't then work :-(


Oh, yeah, for controlling configurations:

It is inadvisable to use the "HJKL;" line, as old code has hotkeys there. This is planned to be removed by Build 23, hopefully.

As for the terrain crushing, if walkability is wanted, just use a harder material like concrete. A sprayer is an inexpensive way to do this, or just use bunker blocks in build mode.


You forgot to mention mods! Mods make the game replayable!!! Why didn't you mention the ability to mod?!

I think I may kill myself. O_O


It would be nice to be able to skip the intro.


Accidentally exiting the game is too easy. Makes the unskippable intro even more annoying.


Okay I guess. The thing is that I basically cannot win. I've even shot the opponent's team's brain and nothing happens. It's a shame really. I would have thought it could have been better.


The intro IS skipable.
In build 22, the newest one, at least.

If you play in skirmish mode, there is NO WAY to win.
Skirmish is basically an infinite mode of death and destruction.
If you can defend your brain, at least.


Wow. Lua is only 1/100th of the modding of this game.

Don't be dense about it, Lua hasn't been in CC that long, and even so is still only supported by scenes; all the actors and things you see: Made completely without Lua.

You really should mention the easy modability of this game more.


Controlling the bodies is a matter of learning, you don't learn the tricks of every game the second you open it. Controlling can be hard at first, after a while it's as easy as putting on a sweater.


Also, those screenshots are from AT LEAST 4 builds ago. Everything is much better looking now.
You can skip the intro with the space button a couple of times.
And the skirmish mode is actually meant for defence, not attacking.


Perhaps it's wise to mention this as well: CC is more fun (at least, in my own opinion) with friends. Failing that, a good Mission is a nice way for some goal-oriented killing. Several mission mods are available in CC's Mod Releases Forum.

And yes, you CAN skip the intro. Spacebar, people.


The Mac version seems to have some problems... most notably, right-clicking doesn't work, making the game very difficult to play....


Resolved the right-click issue. Mac users: go to system preferences, mouse, and "enable two finger touch as secondary click".

For some reason, control-clicking isn't good enough! A fun game, although the interface is still a little clunky. Hotkeys, anyone? Physics in a game like Worms works so well because you don't need players to keep up precise real-time steering (most of the time)


Is there a blood and gore filter? If not could one be made so my child could play this? He saw me playing this and wanted to play but I had to say no :-(


The best I could offer on a "blood and gore" filter would be to play with robots. Or dummies. Or skeletons. Or any other non-human first-party actor.


The movement physics, impact damage, and weapon lethality are all very realistic. Unfortunately, all the distributed, motor-skill-based controls that humans use to deal with the hazards of the battlefield are totally missing.

That's why most games abstract away the particle physics-type detail - because unless micromanaging detailed world interactions is the point of the game (as in the deliberately horrible controls of Toribash), these features are just making it harder to play the game you really want.


This is fab. It's like Worms on acid.

Had to buy it; not just because it's nice to play for more than five minutes running, but I actually wanted to give money towards such an ambitious and innovative project.

Complete it. Perfect it. Could be something really special.

Agentd00nut December 24, 2008 9:43 AM

I'm not sure why people are having trouble playing this game... I've been following it for about a year maybe more, and i've never had too much trouble controlling it. When mouse and key control was introduced i didn't like it, i think the game is much easier to use with the "classic" controll setting *hjkl* because when you switch your direction you don't need to move your mouse across the screen, try it out. Someone mentioned walking as well, but does anyone really walk THAT much anyways? I jet pack around it's way easier, and besides in about 3 minutes the entire ground is covered with harder gibs to walk on so its not a big deal.

I think the mods weren't mentioned enough, there are hundreds upon hundreds of mods in the forums. Ranging from simple tweaks to damage or a new sprit, to entire new factions with mountains of guns and actors and ships, ALMOST too many.

This game is 100% amazing, I love the physics, the gibing, the over-the-top weapons and explosions, the destructible environment, but most of all how easy it is to mod. Frankly i have more trouble making the models look good cause im a bad artist than i do thinking of ways to do something new and awesome with the weapons. Go to the forums and try it out, you'll be surprised how easy it is. 97/100 for me


Un-modded game is very unbalanced killing much of the fun involved. Playing the full (zombie-)campaign level and then accidently killing your brain by jumping over and _slightly_ touching it with a light soldier is ridiculous.
AI-digging is just like telling my cat to solve my math-problems. Is there ANY way to remove the AI-assignment for a body?

I think this game has much potential but the player base will be rather limited unless there's an "easy" skirmish mode for casual players with largely limited physics.


I've been following this game for 8 builds now, and It's been modded for longer than that.

Lua is a new thing which is scenes-only at the moment, ALL the weapons and actor mods available are non-lua, a fair chunk of the game's code has been written to make modding not only possible, but incredibly easy. You really should clear that up a little.

The un-modded game is unbalanced in this build due to the weapons just being put in, they need tweaking a LOT. Next build, which should be released in the next month, will hopefully fix this.

This is my favourite game of all time, yes, walking can be tough, but that's why most actors have jetpacks.


I really wanted to like this. Unfortunately, the thing I thought would be the coolest about this game ended up being the thing I hated most. In order to do anything- land a rocket, shoot at an enemy, even move around- you have to fight the physics every step of the way.


I love the amount of mixed criticism CC receives.
some of the review is a little misinformed, for example Lua is only used in making scenes in the current game, the "normal" mods are made through .ini file editing and spriting.
on the "blood and gore" filter, that would require a lot of modding, but i might think about it. if it would allow more people to enjoy CC, it could be a good thing.
in any case, the coming year will see a lot done to make CC more "noob friendly" for lack of a better word, we should see a lot more pick-up and play compatibility happening, and a little more balance.
im a tad annoyed at the screenshots though, they dont reflect the game all too well, as they are from old builds (versions) :/


I find it comical that the majority of the criticism falls onto the physics engine. The fact that people are appalled are realism scares me to even contemplate their life in the real world. The other problem I see is that people are complaining about the difficulty. Want to play something easy? Go ahead. This game wouldn't be for you. It wasn't meant to be super-easy, so it won't be. This is a game for people who can take something new for a little while and not whine about it not fitting their dreams. Take the craft landing situations. Tell me, would you think that it's possible to land people in a heavy combat area and have the helicopter get away in one piece? Do you think that walking on dirt does nothing to it? Footprints, people, footprints. Data has taken a concept and brought it a great distance from the beginning and has made it something great. You don't like it because it doesn't make sense or your controls don't work or you die every ten seconds? This game was (and is still being) developed. By now, the creators would have realized if it was too hard and thus, unplayable. Instead, they set up a forum that takes feedback and helps people.

Now, I'll take a moment to directly address the comments that I see were misinformed.
To poster #2:
This game was built with a precise physics engine made by the developer. Your tripping over things is a result of you attempting to get up speed. Let's take a look at real life for a minute here. Say that you actually had a jetpack and it worked nicely. Wouldn't you say that flying with a directly upward thrust on one point on your back wouldn't eventually end up in spinning if you hit a rock while going too fast? I believe so. Animations would have been fine if it actually made sense, but they don't. The whole idea is that different parts react differently. You can have a single leg removed, yet still laboriously walk when using an organic character. Your health will drop, but nevertheless, you'll have mobility. However, take away both legs and you'll become lighter and able to make a nice kamikaze attack on some approaching clones. If Data were to, as you say, set specific animations, we'd have nothing more than a basic side-scrolling shooter with some nice physics. Also, I already answered your little idea about walking not hurting.

To all you people trying to play on Linux:
Currently, it's not supported. If you pull it off, more power to you. The impossible has been done before.

To people with control issues:
Go on the forums and put down a topic in support. Use search first, though. Don't make multiple topics on the same thing.

Finally, I shall give my own review:
A friend first showed me Cortex Command on his laptop in the car when we were on our way to my house. I was sort of confused at what could be so awesome about it, mainly because there didn't seem like much to it. We got to my house and kept playing around with it. He showed me the great physics in it and the epic result of crashing a drop ship into the tutorial bunker. After he left, I went on my own computer and downloaded it. I played around with the weapon awesomeness and enjoyed it more and more. I remembered that he had mentioned something about mods, so I looked it up. Sure enough, there was DRLFF with its incredibly fun mods that made the already awesome game more enjoyable. Eventually, I had gotten just about all the mods that were fun and kept playing around. I saw in someone's signature that Build 21 would be coming out soon, so I hopped on board with that hype. The build came, and along with it was Lua capabilities within scenes. The number of awesome mods quickly rose. Then, unexpectedly, Build 22 was released. I'm not even sure if anyone at all was expecting it, but heck, there it was. I played it and my joy in the game was renewed. I had incredible fun for about a week without downloading a single mod. Eventually, Christmas came and someone got me a key. Well, here it is now, still fun, still awesome.
Here's why I love it.
Thanks to the engine, two things never happen exactly the same. Each time you play, something different is bound to happen. When you add in all the awesome mods and new weapons that have different strengths, new actors and ships with different capabilities, your mind is just blown. No matter what, I don't think I'll ever stop liking this game. I just have to say that I'm glad that I caught it when I did. If it was any sooner or later, the thrill would have been lost due to how pathetic it was or the fact that I would have missed out on the anticipation of the new builds. I have no idea how Data did it, but it's pretty obvious that he got the formula right with everything about this game. I hope that he continues it with the new builds.

A little message to all of you who think it's missing something: Post on the forums with a suggestion or just read the yellow words at the beginning: "Remember that this game is far from finished, so set your expectations accordingly."

Have a cookie if you got this far.


You said it Ultric! Thanks for the uber post. lol


I shall now reward myself with that cookie for reading that epic post.


Steep learning curve to deal with the massive bugs, but once you adapt it's amazing. Also, greatest weapon in he game. The crab bomb.

Step one, select a missile (I.e. ship)
Step two, fill it with 50-100 crabs depending on how sadistic you are.
Step three, launch it where, watch everything die due to crab shrapnel.

[Edit: Spoiler tags added. -Pam]

hackeesackr January 19, 2009 1:10 PM

this game really has potential. im loving it so far. it did take awhile to get used to the physics, but i when finally got the hang of it, i realized how fun CC really is!


The tutorial is worthless; everyone dies, the gray robot eats them and tries to dig hole under brain; orange robot gets stuck in doorway of other Hq. After smashing around going up the shaft, the miner goes left to dig for gold and digs through the bottom of the screen never to be seen again.

PyroKinesis1019 February 1, 2009 6:47 PM

Ultric: Best post ever. Ever. Ever. That single post embodies everything I have ever felt about posters for this game, this game, and posters in general. I am in awe. I made an account just so I could tell you how awesome your post was. You get the First Ever Prize of Awesomepwningyougetacookieverylongname Prize. You get a Dummy Dropship full of crabs. They're cheaper than cookies...

I really, really hate when I start rambling on posts and stuff...

sss505sss February 7, 2009 9:24 AM

Ok i love this game. The Physics are annoying but somehow i love them. They make the game more challenging and i enjoy a good challenge. Any body that dosent like somthing about the physics needs to practice. But my favorite part of the game is the massive catalog of weapons, actors, mods, ect. I somtimes play so long i make my mom yell at me about how im going to melt my eyeballs... no wait thats my dad.
*munch munch munch* mmmmm cookie

Markonite2 April 5, 2009 7:56 PM

This is my fourth favorite game of all time, which says a lot. And I don't even have the full version! I just wish there was some way to acquire it, but I'm broked from getting G-Mod and AudioSurf...

benjabby April 12, 2009 2:28 PM

I think a lot is wasted by using the ragdoll physic, if you look at the code for "actors"(characters)
you will see there are so many things like climing, crawling, ducking, but with the ragdollness it makes it virtually imposible to really do any of these thing properly

But apart from that, it's a great game... I just hope they finish it and don't "give up"


Dan just won a couple of IGF awards at GDC a couple of weeks ago for the game, so I doubt he's going to "give up" on the game.

He may, however, be motivated to finish it up now so he can begin work on something else, as I am sure he has received all kinds of offers and opportunities because of it.

lifemare May 2, 2009 1:00 PM

What are you supposed to do on level 2??? I get the control ship, kill all the invaders and exit the cave, but nothing happens...

sss505sss May 14, 2009 2:21 PM

BUHAHAHAHA build 23 !!!!!! awsome. Im still not done trying out all the new lvls. its going to take awhile...

sss505sss May 14, 2009 2:23 PM

sorry bout double post

Use a drop ship and click to open it. The guy will enter on his own.

anonymous August 18, 2009 3:04 PM

best game ever


This game is great, whenever I'm bored I just get a couple more mods and PWN some zombies.
the only problem is the loading, becuase when you have lots of mods it takes ages, but you could just move the mods to a different folder, which is what i do

Foothilldrummer February 10, 2010 3:18 AM

YAY! I get a cookie. :^D I found CC in PC Gamer Magazine. It was on a cd that came with the mag. I was also in Iraq when I saw it. I downloaded the game from the disc, and played the demo. AWESOMENESS ensued with myself and 3 fellow marines. We passed the time well with CC, and we thank DataRealms for doing what they do.


Pretty damn good! Already played it more than many triple-A commercial games, but that's becoming the norm nowadays.
Many years ago I aimed to make a game crossed between Exile and Worms (despite being too much for my coding skills at the time) and this is that game! Joy :)
Only improvements I would say at this time is to reduce damage from collisions and from just walking on things.


[I realise I'm responding to an old comment, but felt I had to.]

If you love this game, more power to you. As far as I'm concerned, the controls are hideous and the tutorial is damn nigh impossible to get through on first play. If you think that's normal, good for you.

As far as I'm concerned this is a game with great potential and a HUGELY unbalanced learning curve that should be addressed by the developers if they want to turn it into something more than a just another indie title that's worshipped by a tiny minority of players and studiously avoided by the rest.

Of course it's a work in progress. Of course it's shaping up to be an amazing game - hence my reasons for buying it - but that does not make my criticism (or that of any other frustrated n00bs) any less valid.

As for this comment:
The fact that people are appalled are realism scares me to even contemplate their life in the real world. The other problem I see is that people are complaining about the difficulty. Want to play something easy? Go ahead. This game wouldn't be for you. It wasn't meant to be super-easy, so it won't be.

This just about the most arrogant thing I've read all day. I mean, seriously?

If I wanted to go and blow things up with real world physics I'd go and join the army. Instead, I choose to support a talented Indie developer by buying their game and trying to get some enjoyment out of playing it - and at the moment, I am not. Fin. ANY real life, able-bodied person would have less trouble climbing up a hill than the 'actors' in this game.

I'm not saying that the physics engine isn't impressive or that it needs to be dropped - I'm merely pointing out that the current experience is broken.

To close, this comment:
This is a game for people who can take something new for a little while and not whine about it not fitting their dreams.

Is just mind-bogglingly ignorant. Seriously, if you WANT to support the game devs, stop p*ssing off new players with your attitude and start suggesting some ways to ease up the learning curve so that more people can enjoy it.

So go have your cookie and eat it too.


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