I don’t know about you, but I love a good Star Wars game. For a franchise as vast and all-encompassing as Star Wars, it’s inevitable that there are an awful lot of games, and an awful lot of them are a bit naff. That means though, that when a good one comes along, often they’re really good. Even among the good games it’s undeniable that many of them are about being a Jedi. Of course, that’s not terribly surprising; the franchise’s mystical warrior monks and their effortlessly cool signature weapon in the lightsaber is obviously the thing you want to get to play with. However, Republic Commando eschews this completely; in the words of the Boss, our player character and leader of our titular commandos, as he remarks when he finds a fallen Jedi’s lightsaber: “Times have changed.”
Star Wars: Republic Commando (PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox [reviewed])
Released Feb 2005 | Developed / Published: LucasArts
Genre: FPS | HLTB: 9 hours
If we’re not Jedi then, who are we? Instead of Star Wars’ iconic Force-wielders, we take control of Delta RC-1138, a clone trooper nicknamed “Boss”. The game is set during the Clone Wars, one of the most important and wide-ranging events in the Star Wars canon (both the new and the correct canons, in fact), during which the Galactic Republic commissions the creation of a huge army of clones to fight a bitter civil war against a faction of seceding planets. However, sheer numbers don’t solely win wars; to that end, small cadres of commandos are formed, with clones specially trained to fulfill unique roles and able to act independently behind enemy lines. 4 such clones form the ranks of Delta Squad: RC-1140 “Fixer” is an expert at hacking into computer systems, RC-1262 “Scorch” is an explosives and demolitions specialist, and RC-1207 Sev is a stone-cold sniper. Together they are led by Boss, a trooper specifically trained to be a crack leader capable of adapting his tactics to any combat situation.
For a game with comparatively few opportunities for extensive writing – and indeed, like many first-person shooters Republic Commando is focused on getting players embroiled in the action over indulging in deeper narrative moments – Republic Commando still packs a surprising amount of heart and depth in its character writing. I suppose I’m more used to games using quieter moments or places to expand their writing; it’s one of the reasons I don’t play a huge array of FPS games, although I admit my general lack of skill at video games is a bigger barrier. That said, Republic Commando undoubtedly puts a huge amount of effort into ensuring its characters feel well-rounded, and much of that ends up coming out through the constant stream of chatter and banter the squad provides. In fact, they natter on all the time, and it’s in this where it becomes clear that the writers got to flex their muscles a little as each of Delta Squad’s members have beautifully designed and clear personalities. Fixer maintains a calculated professionalism and is quick to step up and issue commands if Boss is incapacitated; in contrast Scorch is the self-described heart of the team, supplying a constant barrage of wisecracks and brotherly jibes with the other Deltas, particularly the stoic and often bloodthirsty Sev. While the wider narrative isn’t really anything to write home about – I mean, there isn’t really an ongoing arc or anything, it’s just that the Clone Wars is happening – the character writing is very strong. Perhaps fans of the genre might know of better examples, but for my money Republic Commando is a great example of FPS characterization. In some respects, the fact that it’s a Star Wars game becomes irrelevant, with much of it mostly functioning only as set dressing; to that end, Republic Commando should probably be accessible even to players who aren’t well-established fans of the franchise.
At the core of Republic Commando is a robust first-person shooter experience. You know the drill; you wander around levels until some baddies show up and then you fire away at them before you get merked. The enemies in question are, of course, Star Wars-themed, so you’ll spend most of your time blasting away at gangly battle droids deployed in their droves by the Separatists. However, along the way Delta Squad come face-to-face with a range of foes, from the bug-like Geonosians that flit and fly across the battlefield, to the bulky Super Battle Droids and shield-equipped droidekas used by the Separatists when they feel like they need competent droid soldiers. Each of these enemies represent a more significant challenge to Delta Squad so to that end players get a variety of options to deal with them.
Tactical squad-based shooters definitely became a thing as the early- and mid-aughts marched on, as developers tried new ways of injecting a bit of life and realism into the otherwise uncomplicated FPS genre. Because Boss has been built to be a tactically flexible leader, in gameplay terms that translates into giving players a range of contextual tactical options to change how Delta Squad either individually or collectively respond to situations. For example, if a location looks perfect for a bit of sniping, one of your commandos can be ordered to set up there and pop shots to thin the enemy ranks, while bigger pieces of cover offer opportunities for a squad member to bunker down and lob grenades or bring some heavy ordnance to bear against your enemies. Certain pieces of scenery can have explosives planted on them, and computers can be hacked to turn on turrets or open up alternative routes. Although each member of Delta nominally has their own preferences and competencies, in gameplay anyone in the squad can be assigned to any role. While it’s a shame to see gameplay and writing separated in that way, from a purely mechanical, player-friendly standpoint it’s obviously much better to have all your squaddies capable of doing everything. Delta can also be ordered around as a group, with Boss able to issue simple commands such as directing them to form up, or to advance aggressively, which they do with gleeful abandon. If a clone takes some damage, Boss can also order them to break off from combat and heal themselves, although the AI is often smart enough to sort that out themselves when a battle starts dying down. In fact, the squad is generally capable of a level of independence, including if Boss is downed in combat; rather than a game over, your clones will continue fighting and attempt to revive you, which helps keep the flow of the game moving along.
Utilising your tactics sensibly is the key to surviving what Republic Commando throws at you. I admit to being a bit crap at shooters, but even so it’s not the easiest game; there were plenty of times I found myself face down as Boss at a few too many blaster bolts and collapsed, waiting impatiently for a wayward Delta to revive me, and I saw the game over screen more times than I care to say as droid forces overwhelmed my plucky group of commandos and scored a total party kill. The game is generally fond of throwing waves of powerful and highly resilient enemies at you, such as the aforementioned Super Battle Droids, whose rockets can tear through your squad if they’re not ordered into effective positions quickly, and can easily take over 100 blaster shots before crumpling. You can use a tactics prompt to order the squad to concentrate their fire onto a single problem target, but even then specific, tougher enemies can take a ton of punishment. While it can be frustrating to die at points in the game, at its best it perfectly captures the feel of being a single part of a unit that is infinitely more capable when working in concert.
It’s almost a shame that Republic Commando is so short, frankly. There are only 3 levels – one for each act – and so your campaign takes you from the opening day of the war on the arid trenches of Geonosis, through a wrecked Republic space hulk, and finally ending in the dark, tree-bound Wookie cities of Kashyyyk. However, each level has a multitude of stages and as your objectives get updated by Republic Command, Delta Squad find themselves dragged across wherever they happen to be. For example, after touching down on Geonosis at the start of the game and infiltrating an outpost to assassinate a local noble, Delta are quickly forced to detour across no-man’s land to take out a droid control ship before it takes off. The whole package is barely longer than 6 hours at beast, but it at least never outstayed its welcome.
I wasn’t really sure where to stick this, but I’d like to take a moment to talk about what is probably my favourite tiny, inconsequential detail in the game. Well, I say inconsequential, but this is genuinely something which has stuck in my mind all the years since I first played it, and that is Republic Commando’s spectacular use of diegetic elements in its interface. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, diegetic elements are things you can see in-shot which exist in the world of the narrative. Some games go a step further and use these elements as part of the interface, so what the player sees and what the character sees are one and the same. I’m not suggesting for a second that Republic Commando is unique in doing this, but its implementation of a diegetic interface was one of the first times I can remember understanding the concept and seeing it in action; that makes it influential for me personally, and it’s why it remains so resonant for me. I adore the way the helmet visor forms the shape of the screen, with the edges lit by the ice-blue of the helmet lighting, and the way squad details blink up onto your on-screen HUD. It’s in the small detailing, like the ammo counter depleting in real time on your weaponry, or in the way certain attacks are designed to mess with clone trooper suit systems, such as the scavenger droids which try and drill through your visor, leaving cracks and shatter lines across your vision until your shield’s automated repair system kicks in and flashes across your screen to fix the damage.
Obviously, I’m not an FPS fanatic. I don’t always know what makes an excellent example of the genre, but I do know that I enjoyed Republic Commando. It might not have a huge variety of guns or lots of levels, but I’m not sure that matters. Its tactical options are relatively simple but implemented very well and treated as a core mechanic which you need to engage with, and the enjoyable character writing means Delta aren’t just a collection of faceless, charmless goons (well, they are faceless I guess, but never charmless). It all comes together in a package laced with personality which elevates it above other FPS games I’ve played, and earns its place alongside other hallowed Star Wars games.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.