Cortex Command, produced by independent developer Data Realms, has been a long time coming. Over a decade in fact, but perhaps that's not surprising when you consider it was produced by a tiny team with a minimal budget. The concept has always been high-minded: What happens when you combine SNES-era platforming with RTS mechanics and wrap it in a competitive multiplayer bow? The answer is a game that does everything in its power to deceive you The real question, though, is after a decade, does the game have what it takes to be an indie darling?
Gameplay in Cortex Command is characterized by manipulating a series of autonomous characters across a 2D map, gathering resources, and eventually taking out an enemy stronghold. To accomplish this, players must strategically task characters for various tasks, such as resource collection and building structures. Soldiers protect the brain (more on this in a moment) or explore territory. Over the course of each match, a vast array of new drones, machinery, and assorted tools can be purchased from an in-game store using currency gained from harvesting. When seeing Cortex Command for the first time, it's easy to believe that the game is a retro-style platformer but nothing could be further from the truth. In practice, it is a 16-bit, side-scrolling RTS where platforming is purely utilitarian. Drones move slow and often get stuck on terrain, and jet packs are inaccurate. Moving across the map is an exercise in patience, ending with a decisive, sometimes awesome, showdown with the enemy.
I will say this, the game tries hard, perhaps too hard. Booting it up for the first time presents you with a pixel-art narrative that would feel right at home in a pulp sci-fi rag straight out of the 1950s. The main thrust is: Society has evolved to a point where humans no longer need to risk adventures of planetary exploration. Instead, they strap themselves into a full body computer and control a personal army of automatons ranging from straight utility to full on sniper-soldier.
The tutorial is passable and does very little well. At this point, it is pertinent to note that the game is broken into two distinct segments, the campaign and four repeatable scenarios, the first of which is crafted solely for learning basic gameplay mechanics. Those opting to jump right into the campaign, however, will be left completely in the dark as Cortex Command does little to aid those who “start wrong.” The tutorial itself unfolds simply by walking past a series of signs which scroll small, barely legible sentences on a set timer. While reading these and completing the objective for each area seems simple enough, it's made cumbersome by the slow, uninspired delivery system. Even so, the basics are simple enough once the controls are mastered.
The above culminates into one simple fact: the game does not explain itself well. While learning to switch between characters is easy enough, learning how to actually play is another matter. Natural real time strategy questions like, “can I control more than one character?” and “what should I be buying and upgrading” go unanswered. The interface is barebones and offers no help.
Unique strategic gameplay, depth.
Bugs, steep learning curve.