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Re-Retro: Republic Commando

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Combing my hard drive for dusty manuscripts to rehome on RPS, I stumbled happily across this revisit to Star Wars: Republic Commando, originally written for PC Gamer. Admittedly I’ve already given RepCom a little retro cuddle on RPS, but as Lucasart’s Star Wars shooter is now available on Steam it’s well worth restating its surprising marvellousness…

I’m still waiting for Imperial Commando. It was never promised, never so much as rumoured, but it always seemed the logical next step for Lucasarts’ surprisingly vigorous Star Wars squad-shooter to take. A sequel to this avowedly heroic FPS in which you play a Storm Trooper hunting down Rebel enclaves, brutally razing Jawa settlements or setting fire to Aunt Beru? That’s dream gaming – and a precedent laid down by, years previous, their following up saintly X-Wing with devilish TIE Fighter. Republic Commando seemed to be the way back to great things for this so-long unreliable developer – if you will, a new hope.

Unsequelled it may be, but it coolly retains a far-sightedness and a slickness that in some respects puts GRAWs and Rainbow Sixes and Flashpoint 2s and the like to shame. It makes controlling an AI squad easy, fluid and rewarding, and yet it seems so alone in it. Even nearly half a decade on, other squad games flail around with banks of hotkeys, jittery radial menus and the kind of pathfinding that’d earn a lifetime ban from the Ramblers Association.

It’s all in the F key – one little button that totally transforms RepCom from linear sci-fi trudging to an icy-cool military operation. F! You, snipe from there. F! You, lob grenades from here. F! Er, go help up that last guy who just got splatted because I sent him somewhere stupid. F! Everyone, kill that big, ‘orrible robot-tank-thing. F! F! F! Just one button, but it makes me feel like a soldier than anything else I’ve ever played. And it’s all within a still-slick HUD, location, ammo and health overlays on your character’s claustrophobically yet comfortingly fishbowl visor. Nothing new now, but just one of many ways in which RepCom was ahead of its time – and yet was forgotten.

Sounds like the kind of thing that’d make ARMA fans leave this dumbed-down globe behind and colonise a hardcore planet of their own, but the truth is that RepCom’s a remarkably effective shortcut to achieving military gaming precision. All the reward, none of the elbow grease. This doesn’t make it stupid – because this is a game about flow. It’s about walking into a new area, instantly assessing the situation, then rapidly giving a series of orders that are followed to the minimalist letter.

From your end of the affair, it’s simply a context-based button-push, but in the game’s world, your three clone-brother commandos know you so well, and think so alike, that the brief handsignal you give in response to looking at a bit of wall and pressing F is all the information they need. This is, for all the grit, pace and total lack of mythical/religious mumbo-jumbo, Star Wars, and all the ad-hoc derring-do that entails. Puzzling over hot keys or agonising at length over whether sniping or grenading would be best really wouldn’t be Star Wars. There is no try, only do. F!

RepCom isn’t a truly great first-person shooter, and it never was – too much corridor-pounding, some frustrating setpiece/boss fights, limited visual and locational variety, and creative hands noticeably tied as a result of being promotion for the stodgy, fan-service nonsense that was Episode III. But it was and is unfairly overlooked, because it’s a triumph of mechanics. In the same way Batman: Arkham Asylum masks a simple game with limited choice with super-slick, super-rewarding controls, you don’t notice that that RepCom is just a string of arenas and corridors full of convenient small walls. You just see what you have to do, and you feel good for doing it. You learn the weapon and grenade combinations necessary to take down bigger enemies, and /you just do it/. F! F! F!

And, at all times, the delicate balancing act – the path of maximum destruction or maximum protection. Whether you’re more or less likely to survive if you try to revive a downed squadmate. Whether your chums’ covering fire will keep you alive while you rig explosives or hack or a door, or if you should rely on your own reticule-based prowess while they do the chores. There’s never a perfectly right answer – the odds are artfully always stacked just a little against you – but there are plenty of wrong ones.

Death comes often in RepCom – but it isn’t the end. So long as at least one of your squadmates remains on his feet, the game continues. And you get to watch the fight unfold through blurry, blood-splattered retina, squinting to see whether your men are winning the day. If they’re struggling, you could take a risk. You can order them to come revive you. With you and your superior skills back in the game, the tables might turn. Or your helper might be gunned down as he injects your near-corpse with healing bacta. Is it worth the risk? And are you doing it because you honestly think they need your help, or just because you’re bored? Doing the right thing in death isn’t something that RepCom ever makes easy, and it’s a brutally, thrillingly effective twist to this day.

Key to surviving, always, is to think about your men as well as yourself. They need to live so that you can live – and they seem to feel the same way.Yours is a Squad that does what you tell them. Yours is a squad you can trust. And that latter is really saying something – you never seen any of your three compatriots’ faces, but you know them. They’re people. They’re your brothers. They’re not going to get stuck on a bit of wall or decide they like it over there better. They’ll do whatever you tell them to – because they trust you. This is profoundly rare – AI chums are usually unreliable, characterless callsigns or overwritten, over-scripted scene-stealers.

Seriously – give me RepCom’s Delta Squad over Alyx any day, and certainly over that /other/ Delta Squad – Gears of War’s preening, leering ogres. They’re all from the Aliens school of character design – thinly-sketched to the point of stereotype, but given enough bombast and enough distance between you and them that a raft of intangible, indescribable subtleties somehow sprout and blossom from them.

Perhaps officious Fixer and jocular Scorcher don’t leave an indelible impression, even if they’re comforting presences, but Sev’s the surprising standout. He’s a gruff, near-silent hardnut, a pastiche of military grit – but when he forgets to press an elevator button because he’s too busy doing a hardman pose straight to camera, suddenly he’s human.

A little hint of fourth-wall breaking and sharp dose of comic humility, and suddenly he’s someone you want in your gang, rather than someone who you’re stuck with because the game says so. There’s an unresolved cliffhanger involving him at the game’s close, a clarion call for a sequel that never came – and to this day I hunger for closure. Sev! Whatever happened to you? It’s a terrible cruelty. Oh, for Imperial Commando.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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