We’ve covered many Star Wars games at Good Old Reviews, from RPGs, to space sims, to lightsaber combat simulators. Whatever their differences in genre, most manage to capture the epic sense of majesty and wonder everyone saw on the big screen. Star Wars shooters, however, are a little bit different. Games with blasters – outside of being as clumsy and inelegant as Obi-Wan implied – have more room to experiment with a Star Wars formula that rarely includes the Jedi.
The best example of this is Star Wars: Republic Commando, released by LucasArts back in 2005. On the surface, it looks like another grey-and-grim shooter that happens to star faceless clone troopers. Once you start playing however, it’s clear LucasArts wanted to put a new spin on its traditional trooper battles. Between its strong characters, rich atmosphere, and rock-solid squad-based tactics, Republic Commando pushed the limits for what a Star Wars game should even look like.
Star Wars: Republic Commando follows the adventures of Delta Squad, an elite squad of clone troopers which operated between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. You play as Delta RC-1138, or Boss, a uniquely-designed soldier who was bred to lead elite troopers in special operations. With your band of brothers – Scorch, Fixer, and Sev – you’ll explore deadly warzones and assault enemy territory to complete objectives even Jedi Knights couldn’t accomplish alone.
Right from the start, Republic Commando establishes a strong atmosphere that breaks from the ragtag heroism of Star Wars. You wake up as a cloned infant surrounded by hundreds of your brothers, rush through advanced weapons training, accept your trooper armor, and meet your squad within two minutes. While this sequence is minimal, it goes a long way towards helping humanizing the protagonist. This is a hardened soldier bred for war whose childhood disappeared in a flash – it’s hard to view him or his squad as faceless troopers with that context in mind. Even today, these flashes pull at the heartstrings and remains one of my favorite video game intros.
The game proper extends that atmosphere into a gritty military spin on Star Wars lore. Unlike most Star Wars stories of its day, Republic Commando almost completely downplayed the influence of Jedi in the galaxy, and are forced to depend on Delta Squad members and local assistance to complete each mission. The music is no less unconventional, breaking from John Williams’ crescendos to introduce a dark and foreboding soundtrack. Even the level design breaks from Star Wars pacing, moving from fast-paced battles with Separatist to a survival horror-esque exploration of a derelict cruiser.
Yet with all the changes, Republic Commando never quite breaks from its Star Wars roots – it simply reimagines the setting in new ways. Those Separatist droids which broke apart when Obi-Wan or Anakin touched them are your primary enemies, rushing you in swarms that make them an actual threat. Their larger battle droid cousins are even deadlier, packed with armor and heavy weapons that let them devastate the battlefields. The Genosians have gone from annoyances Jedi swatted from the sky to horrific monsters who rush at you with a terrifying howls. Do you really want to know what Star Wars looks like to lowly troopers? Republic Commando is that experience, and it’s a far bleaker visual than A New Hope implied.
And then there’s the Wookies. My God, the Wookies. Gone are the lanky, lovable Chewbacca-archetypes Star Wars fans grew up with. Republic Commando‘s snarling Wookies tower over the player, filling the screen with broad shoulders and thick muscles. Han warned that Wookies would tear an opponent’s arms off when provoked, but Republic Commando was the first time I actually believed it. Thankfully, they’re on your side – but can you imagine if the proposed Imperial Commando sequel had been made? You’d have to fight Wookies, and I’d legitimately need to clean my pants afterwards.
Of course, all the atmosphere in the world doesn’t mean a thing without solid gameplay, and Republic Commando delivers there as well. The game boasts solid squad-based mechanics that are simplistic compared to Rainbow Six, but incredibly satisfying to apply in the field. You can order your squadmates to hack terminals, take sniper positions, breach doors, and more. Scorch, Fixer, and Sev each come with their own specialties – sniping, demolitions, and technical – but you can also give general commands that address formations or taking point on room clearing.
What’s more, the game uses these systems effectively, mixing run-and-gun action with tactical thinking. Even the most intense enemy engagements can be overcome by changing formations, moving into cover, or finding ideal vantage points. If you fall in battle, squad members will continue their objectives unless you order them to revive you – and considering how heavy the fire is, you may not want to risk them. Combined with strong performances from the voice actors, you might even develop a bond with Delta Squad, and worry about them on the rare occasions they’re out of sight.
That’s not to say everything’s perfect in Star Wars: Republic Commando. The entire game consists of three large missions, forcing repetition in much of the level design. While the longer missions make your actions feel more significant, having smaller missions to break things up would’ve been a huge help. The squad-based systems themselves have no sense of progression – everything is unlocked when the game begins, with no leveling or ability improvements to show you’re becoming a more capable trooper. Then you have an abrupt cliffhanger ending which sets the stage for Revenge of the Sith and a potential sequel, one we now know is basically our heroes betraying and murdering the Jedi.
Looking back on what Republic Commando achieved however, my biggest quibble is that there wasn’t more of it. The Imperial Commando sequel LucasArts hoped to release never materialized, which could’ve been a fantastic addition to the following console generation, especially if it embraced the four-player co-op trend of Left 4 Dead. And we’re unlikely to see anything like it for some time – the current crop of Star Wars games are focused on the original trilogy, which probably means replicating its tone without experimenting like Republic Commando did.
The latest Star Wars Battlefront proved fans want shooters in a galaxy far, far away, but its time seems to have come and gone in mere months. Maybe it’s time to get back to Star Wars games that try something new. We could start by scaling shooters back to smaller operations – ones that make hardened troopers feel like valuable teammates instead of disposable infantry.
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