Eleven years ago I was at the awkward age of thirteen. Between playing with WWF action figures in my driveway and studying the art of self-pleasure, my life was pretty awesome for a kid in his early teens, or so I thought. My early years were nowhere near as interesting as the life of Dan Tabar. See, Dan was a dreamer who wasn’t about to let his dream simply fizzle away with the times.
Back in 2001, Dan Tabar created a physics engine that would stand the test of time and become the lifeblood of Data Realms’ game Cortex Command; and he made the engine while he was still in high school! Since the game’s conception, Tabar has graduated high school, turned from boy into man, gotten married, and moved from Sweden to the United States and become a US citizen. That’s an impressive amount of life events over the course of eleven years, but the most impressive feat of all just might be how his 11-year-old physics engine has held up over the years.
Cortex Command (PC)
Developer: Data Realms, LLC
Publisher: Data Realms
Release: September 28, 2012
MSRP: $19.99 [Buy now on Steam]
Flash forward to the present day and Tabar’s video game dream is finally realized as Cortex Command, a strategic side-scroller with a pixelated destructive world and aesthetics that resemble a cross between the art style of Sergio Aragonés and Terraria. In Cortex Command, players take control of a disembodied brain with the power to take complete control of any robot they spawn on the battlefield. The goal is as simple as protecting your brain while killing your opponent’s brain. In theory, this should lead to some interesting battles. Sadly, it doesn’t.
The pacing of Cortex Command is quite horrendous. The robot’s clunky movement makes the action yawn-worthy, as they walk incredibly slow and manage to trip over everything between them and their objective. Robots equipped with jetpacks burst-jump drunkenly at odd angles, making the only speedy way of transport a less than ideal choice for moving around on the battlefield.
You can only control one robot at a time, making storming the base of your enemies in a squad-like formation impossible. There’s an option to set each individual robot to patrol mode, but get used to your robots just standing around and getting mowed down by the enemy. If anything, they serve as a ‘body hopper’ for the player to quickly swap between them at different positions on the battlefield.
The physics engine itself is pretty impressive. Limbs will fly off the robots when they are shot, impairing their movement and ability to shoot, explosions scar the earth and bullets can rip though and collapse bunkers. It’s a lot of fun to tear up the world while mining for gold and obliterating your enemy’s base. Unfortunately, an adequate physics engine can’t save a broken game. Even it has its fair share of problems. Drop ships delivering supplies will land at odd angles and take out your troops, robots will get stuck between debris and sometimes even shot into the air in with no explanation. Sure, it’s a good laugh when it happens to you the first time, but it gets old quick. The unreliable nature of Cortex Command’s physics can really tamper with the flow of battle, turning victories into laughable defeats.
Cortex Command is the only game I have ever played that warns you that it is in an unfinished state before you start playing. Upon selecting the campaign option from the main menu, you are greeted with some text that stresses that the game is in a “complete, fully playable, yet still imperfect state.” It goes on to say that the game is lacking polish, audio and game balancing. At least Data Realms is honest about releasing an unfinished product, but it’s a damn shame you have to buy the game to find out the condition of the game’s status instead of reading about it on the Steam product page.
After 11 years of development, one would almost expect that the final game would be in working order. Sadly, that is not the case with Cortex Command. This labor of love is as broken and unpolished as humanly possible. It’s the indie game equivalent of Duke Nukem Forever, if you will. As a matter of fact, it feels like an early alpha build instead of a full priced title released at $19.99. Despite the game’s interesting premise and long history, I can’t suggest this game to any gamer that actually enjoys playing video games. On the other hand, if you have some sort of weird fetish where you get your jollies by playing some of the worst video games available in the indie scene, by all means, buy Cortex Command; you might just be the poor soul who this game was made for.