Knights of the Old Republic tends to be the only recent Star Wars game that anyone mentions with affection (yeah, I’m aware of a certain fanbase for Battlefront, but that doesn’t stop it from being absolute garbage). This is a shame. I give you Republic Commando, the lost Star Wars game.
Being bound in as it is with the boo-yucky prequel movies, RepCom is easily dismissed as just another easy cash-in. In fact, it’s the best Star Wars FPS since Jedi Knight 1 (I'd happily argue ever, in fact), and for all the sneering LucasArts is prone to from I Remember When All This Were Monkey Islands types these days, it’s strong proof that guys who really get games still work there.
This is mostly because it’s not really very much to do with Star Wars. It’s about four soldiers, not whiny farmboys with destinies or 20-something pretties moping woodenly at each other. It just so happens that those soldiers look a bit like Stormtroopers (pre-Palpatine makeover) and there are some Wookies in it. Republic Commando is free to do what it wants, and what it wants is to be a very accessible squad-based shooter. It's even cheerfully sniffy about Star Wars, your character glancing disdainfully at a lightsaber at one point and muttering "An elegant weapon for a more civilized time, eh? Well, guess what? Times have changed." Cue big gun action. Yeah.
I’ve been contentedly replaying RepCom as a result of RPS readers mentioning it in regard to Clive Barker’s Jericho, a game that also tries to bring squad play, a dynamic often associated with wilful complexity and difficulty, to the ADD masses. Without going into too much detail on Jericho because I’m reviewing it elsewhere, one thing that bothered me about it was that its squad are arrogant dicks. I just didn’t like any of them as people. RepCom superficially has the same approach of ultra-macho soundbytes, but it manages to successfully balance on that very thin line between sounding badass and sounding smarmy and charmless. I may not be able to remember a single line said by any of my RepCom buddies, but equally I can’t remember rolling my eyes at anything they muttered. They’re often cheerful, they congratulate me on headshots, they sound understandably nervous when things look bad, and they wisecrack amiably. They’re not posers; they’re the kind of good, honest folk I’d want with me in a war. With Gears of War setting a worryingly successful precedent for AI colleagues that behave, without irony, like the cast of Predator, I’m not sure we’ll see RepCom’s more chummy type again.
Controlling this squad is, even two years on, still compelling in its mix of stripped-down tactics and encouraging you to genuinely rely on their own guile. They’ll go use a health machine or get a downed colleague back onto his feet if there’s no danger around, rather than requiring you laboriously tell them to go do something about their massive blood loss, but if you’re all mid-fight, it’s your call whether they do such things. Is leaving cover to reach a fallen comrade worth the risk? You’re in charge. You decide. They might righteously complain about it, but they’ll still do it.
Particularly interesting in this regard is when you yourself take one too many battledroid blasters to the face. You’re immobile but conscious, still able to choose whether your men continue shooting whatever they’re shooting or whether one risks his own neck to come medikit you up. The dilemma, each time, is fascinating. You’re evaluating your trust in these computer-controlled troops. Do you have faith they can finish this fight themselves? Or do you consider your own skills so important that it’s worth risking a total wipeout by telling one to come fix you? The AI, though not without occasional idiocy, is just strong enough that this remains a dilemma every time. You know they can do it. You just don’t know whether they will this time. What to do, what to do? Truth is, I trust these three Commandos with my life. I understand that when they don’t save me, it’s probably my fault as much as theirs. There are very few AI buddies I can think of who I ever developed any real degree of trust in. Half-Life 2: Episode 1’s Alyx springs to mind. She’s about it.
And, of course, there’s the matter of being bored. You’re lying on the floor, unable to so much as scratch your nose, while the other three are off having all the fun fighting that SuperDroid. You’ll risk a Game Over because you just can’t be bothered to wait. Many other games have AI chums heal fallen players. Few let you choose whether your life is more important than theirs.
What really stands out, still, is a brilliantly simple, visual approach to how you manage your team. Their icons on the HUD – a HUD that’s actually a HUD, incidentally; everything you see is what your Commando sees on his helmetcam – turn Green, Yellow or Red depending on their state of health. A crosshair over it means they’re shooting, a cross that they’re healing themselves or someone else, an explosion symbol that they’re setting a charge... Simple. Obvious. Not original, even. But it’s all one-glance stuff, those three icons capable of telling you exactly what state your squad is in within a half-second. That’s what command’s supposed to be about.
The same icons translate to the game world, and the context-based actions that drive RepCom’s play. While it robs a certain degree of choice – why does that ledge allow me to tell a comrade to snipe from it, but not lob grenades from it? – again it’s about instantly appraising the situation and reacting in kind. Enter a room full of angry Geonosians and a quick sweep of the head tells you all you need to know. Point there click F you, take cover and snipe Point there click F you, man that turret Point there click F you, close those blastdoors. There's no rifling through sub-menus or umming and aahing over what's the best way to do this. There's just instant military precision. That’s why you’re the one in charge. It’s ludicrously over-simplified compared to any squad shooter that claims any degree of reality-replication, but it makes you feel good about yourself, and surely that’s the point.
A sometimes infuriatingly linear structure, a lot of repetition and a few too many artificial restrictions mean I’m never going to slot this alongside Aliens Versus Predator, Bioshock and Half-Life on my shelf o’wonders, but it’s a clever, tight shooter I can go back to again and again. It’s a Star Wars game, you say? Nah. It’s about badass space marines shooting robots. It’s amazing how few FPSes get that right.
Interested in playing Republic Commando? There's a demo here, with a filesize to the tune of a mere 28 Peggles.