Cortex Command is the sidescrolling PC squad game of humanity’s transhuman, yet servile future. The game is currently in its twenty-third iteration representing seven years of dedication by indie developer Data Realms. As with its spiritual precursor, Liero, Cortex Command derives a great boost from its modding community. You can download the game off Datarealms’ website, but must purchase a key to play past five minutes.
Transhuman? Yes: you are a brain in a jar in psychic or radio control of a (rotating) clique of clone or android bodies that are dropped from the mothership that brought humanity to this unnamed planet. The canon, at the moment, must be gleaned primarily from the game’s beautiful intro sequence and a few hints from the developer’s blog. While only disembodied brains were thrifty enough to make the slower than light escape to the stars, they encountered other races more advanced. None, however, has subatomic manipulators, so matter must still be mined and – if valuable enough – transported via FTL to slake the appetites of the galactic community. Here, the multi-corpi saw an opportunity to earn their way into society and signed up with Tradestar to mine the destination planet. Alas, other factions also boarded and will compete to win the full extraction contract.
We may choose any sort of body, but the Coalition’s uniform clones probably represent the starfaring cortex community. Ronin (for their name to make sense) are probably the escaped human pets of the Coalition’s more liberal members. Dummies represent the, likely alien, AI analogue to the single-minded litter. Developers promised an “elite” whitebot faction and another alien group.
While the faction at large probably harvests a variety of unobtainium, we dig for gold. (The blog promises an x-ray for fossil archeology in a future build.) No melee weapons exist because the various flavors of diggers are compact, intense gravity field generators. Even the smallest tears doors and concrete into dust in seconds. When a gold grain is flung onto a ‘puppet’s body the player’s account increases and more implements of the lethal catalog beckon. Besides bodies and diggers, you need weapons and a means of reaching terra firma.
Tradestar rents rockets and bi-engined dropships to bring down the reinforcements you buy. If your package has to be there yesterday, shove it into a crate. Dropships, by the way, are great fun to destroy. Let me count the ways. With a single engine blown off, it will spin to the ground, roll onto foes, and jettison its doors. Perhaps instead, upset its balance with another dropship so it flies straight into the ground. Or, wear it down with shoulder missiles so it explodes in mid-air, crushing those below it with its smouldering chassis.
Cortex Command has a solid physics engine for just such an occasion. Shrapnel can fly for several screens and still gouge armor. Those doors I mentioned? They become flying plows, turning the unlucky into a red cloud of gibs. Everyone has a jetpack. You can pirouette or dive bomb with an uzi. Or, weighted by a YAK-700, bound over a clumsier sensory bundle.
Some of the canon guns are nice; all are recognizable. You can choose auto shotguns, smgs, mgs, flamethrowers, grenade launchers, pistols, bazookas, and – my favorite – the revolver cannon. It fires a deer slug capable of decapitation. The Dummy’s bullets glow, suggesting advanced alien origin.
The current build features five scenarios and skirmish gameplay for multiplayer or solitary survival. Up to four human opponents may battle, likely with usb connected game controllers. There are no plans for LAN or internet play, which is a shame but reflects the development budget. I have tested both keyboard/mouse and playstation controller formats, and both are well suited to the 16-bit environment. Hold a button and a circular menu offers switching between bodies, reloading, picking up a weapon, the buy menu, or a couple of AI settings. Ammo is infinite, so the reload times become rather important. We can load a body with any number of weapons, with significant flight penalties.
I admit, I haven’t played against a human opponent, so I can’t comment. Very likely, deployment and multitasking are paramount. Choosing the AI’s difficulty level changes how fast the rockets descend bearing grenade lobbing foes. On its easiest setting, there is ample time to dig out gold specks and nuggets, with a light watch on some defenders. On Death, its hardest setting, the sky is crowded with shrapnel and dropships to overrun your defenders. It is neigh impossible to mine, so I often cheat with weapons that cost negative gold to keep bringing down reinforcements. Even that is uncertain as my dropships get caught in the crossfire that eats away at the concrete bunkers I huddle in.
Cortex Command has a terribly easy modding structure. A mod is just put in a folder alongside the game folders with an index file, the item’s description file and any sprite resources. These are C++ files, though newer mods incorporate the Lua scripting enabled by the newest build. A young modder may alter the cost, reload time number of bullets pumped out in a single shot, or any of the hundred other attributes. I downloaded a craft mod of a pretty dropship that, annoyingly, didn’t explode upon death so much as blink out: lazy. I copied in the paths for twenty gibs (scrap pieces) from the normal dropship and now it has a satisfying Michael Bay-esque cloud of debris.
Most everyone soon tired of ‘bullet sprayers’ and discourage new entrants on the forum from submitting these pedestrian first mods. Most released mods are spectacular, not simply because some of Data Realm’s employees occasionally contribute their own toys. There are mechanical zombies that reassemble on death, Tesla guns, Fallout homages, a correctly scaled Gundam that towers almost to the upper edge of the screen, robot samurais, fuel air bombs, homing black hole missiles, a ‘coming of god’ craft that brings down rain then meteors before finally blooming into a false color sphere that explodes the heads of most actors, and guns that shoot dropship engines or blood or C4 that explodes when shot. Have you played the flash game “Body Ladder”? Someone made a mod of it. Some have made humorous mods: a Humvee, tangerine grenades, a Zepplin, guns that shoot boulders, craft that are just falling walls, hoverboards, and a honeycomb shield that releases bees when shot. The list is miles long.
While the sandbox survival modes are nice, Data promises that the final form will feature a metagame like Rise of Nations or Syndicate. You hold some territories and invest in a base and, via some risk type board, attack or defend against opposing factions. Any contest could be deferred to the ‘dice’ or entered and fought in a skirmish mode. The game is worthwhile even while we wait for that future build. If you like numerical assessments, consider this 89/100.