To say that I used to be a massive Star Wars fan is quite the understatement. One of my earliest memories is getting a copy of Star Wars on VHS when I was around 4 years old and setting out on a childhood obsession that would rage incredibly intensely. I was exactly the right age to think that the Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were Shakespearean masterpieces and as I got older and discovered the wider extended universe, Star Wars had cemented itself as my favourite thing in the whole world.
I was the kind of kid that thought Knights of the Old Republic is the greatest RPG of all time and would always say that Empire Strikes Back is my favourite movie. It wasn’t so much that I was a fan, it’s more that Star Wars was genuinely just part of my life. Of course as with any childhood/teenage obsession, it began to wane as I grew up and entered the delightful adult world of work but I always knew inside that I’d have a place in my heart for this franchise that had absorbed so much of my childhood.
Or at least it was until Disney purchased the franchise in 2012.
At first I was actually pretty optimistic about what they’d do with it. Given how much respect and effort they’d put into the Marvel universe, I had high expectations. I remember speculating with friends about the possibility of 10 interwoven Star Wars films all culminating in a grand finale or seeing far off corners of the galaxy in spin off movies of all sorts of kinds. With a company like Disney at the reigns, all of the fantastic corners of the extended universe could be brought to the forefront and celebrated! I mean who didn’t dream of an old republic or Thrawn movie?
Unfortunately the reality ended up being tragically disappointing. Instead of plumbing the creative depths of the Star Wars universe, Disney decided to play the Force Awakens painfully safe (it’s an uninspired remake of the original Star Wars) and then proceeded to mire the following movies in controversy, reshoots, poor storytelling and generally just failing to make good on any of the potential we all saw when they purchased it. It’s a topic for an entirely different article but for someone who loved the old Star Wars universe, this new sanitary corporate version of it was an enormous turn off.
Weirdly though, despite absolutely detesting the new movies, I think the Disneyfication of Star Wars has actually turned me back into a bigger fan. I’ve found a new appreciation for the creativity and imagination that went into the stories people crafted when there were very little rules about what Star Wars could be. There was a time when LucasArts was a widely respected video game producer and comic book company who crafted some genuinely really engaging stories. It’s this new found appreciation that’s led me to revisit some of the games from the old Star Wars universe that I never got to try the first time around.
So that leads me neatly onto the topic of the day – Star Wars Republic Commando.
Released in 2005 for the original Xbox, Republic Commando is one of those games that I’d always heard good things about but never actually played. While I don’t remember exactly, I’m almost certain that the reason for this was because of the release three months earlier of a little game called Halo 2. Words really can’t describe what a big deal that game was at the time so it’s hardly surprising that a game that revolutionised console online shooters cannibalised all of the potential audience for a rival shooter, even one using the Star Wars IP. Safe to say, I had very little idea of what this game would actually be like.
You play as the leader of Delta Squad, a specialist clone commando unit fighting in the clone wars, warring with a faction of separatists trying to leave the Galactic Republic. If you don’t know anything about Star Wars, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like an intensely political and interesting set up but unfortunately you’d be wrong. The “separatists” are represented almost exclusively by their battle droids and we get almost no further insight into why they actually want to leave the republic. Evidently they are powerful and rich enough to afford billions and billions of expendable battle droids so I’m not particularly clear on what their grievance is. In fact during my entire playthrough I never actually saw a single separatist character outside of the legions of personality devoid droids that I blasted through.
In fact, Republic Commando isn’t particularly concerned with the wider narrative of the war at all. The game consists of three large scale missions which consist of multiple smaller levels. Each mission takes you between three distinct locations, the desert planet of Geonosis, which you may recognise from the finale of Attack of the Clones, before moving onto a derelict Republic battleship and finally ending with a lengthy mission on the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk. While you’re given mission briefings about the importance of destroying this maguffin or capturing that whatsit, the story never really expands beyond the very immediate need to blow things up. It’s very simplistic and is only really interested in the action happening right in front of your eyes rather than going anywhere more engaging.
I’m sure that a Star Wars game with a non-existent plot already sounds like a recipe for disaster but that’s not really the reason to play Republic Commando. While it might lack narrative heft, what it does have is absolutely bags of clever aesthetic design that makes it feels like a true blue Star Wars experience.
While it’s really easy to criticise games from this generation as looking bad by modern standards, a lot of care has gone into making this world feel really distinctly “Star Wars”. The sound of blasters firing and the chatter of droids as you blast through them is something that’s completely unique to this franchise and Republic Commando absolutely nails it. Despite the world being that generic mix of grey and brown from 2000s FPS games, moving through the forests of Kashyyyk with their massive trees or crawling through the vents of the republic battleship are so obviously Star Wars even from a quick glance.
Where Republic Commando sets itself apart from other Star Wars games is that it’s definitely going for a more mature and intense atmosphere than the more child orientated movies and cartoons. Not only do battle droids blast into pieces but Geonosians explode in bursts of blood that splatter across your visor, Trandosian warriors leave green blood stains on the floor when you knife them with your melee attack or disintegrate completely when hit with a thermal detonator. The comically bad aiming of the Empire’s stormtroopers has been replaced with snipers headshoting aliens and clone troopers being carried off into the dark by monstrous insects. If it wasn’t for the fluorescent alien blood and blasters this would easily be an M rated game so it definitely stands apart simply for the intensity they are going for.
The character of Delta squad is clearly massively influenced by the snarky sarcastic tone of the marines in movies like Predator and Aliens. While progressing through firefights, your team will constantly quip and joke around with each other while the carnage erupts around you which adds some much needed contrast to the ever increasing scale of warfare. It’s another area where the Halo influence comes through. First person shooters before Halo tended to be a solitary affair, Doom or Half Life were you against the world scenarios mostly devoid of interaction with other characters, but Halo brought a sort of ongoing companionship to the fights in the form of the marines who would laugh, joke and comment on what was happening. LucasArts clearly wanted to emulate this and as there is virtually no character interaction in the story, almost all of the character development of your squad is done through this.
The combat in Republic Commando is actually fairly unique compared to other FPS games from the time. Unlike in Halo, where you carry two weapons at a time and swap them out a lot, or Half Life, where you carry a wide arsenal of different weapons, you only have one consistent weapon but can attach a different attachment to it for different situations. Along with the standard blaster rifle, there is a sniper mode and an anti armour attachment which you’re encouraged to use with plenty of ammo dotted around the levels. On top of this, different missions have different enemy weapons which can be equipped such as a Trandoshian shotgun or a rocket launcher and you’ll find a variety of different grenades which all have different uses. It’s a strange set up as it means you have a pretty static toolbox for handling the different situations the game presents but it does well to make you use all of them to their full extent.
By the end of the game I was switching between different attachments on the fly, sniping elite enemies before blasting the fodder with my repeater and jumping in with a shotgun to finish off the stragglers. What helps it all is that the shooting itself is amazingly smooth for an older console FPS which is surprising considering it was LucasArt’s first FPS game. Generally speaking many FPS games from this period have quite clunky aiming but Republic Commando has a really impressive smoothness to it. It’s the foundation that the rest of the game sits on and luckily it’s really good..
On top of running and gunning, the levels are absolutely full of context sensitive instructions which you can give to your squad which help spice up the gameplay. This ranges from simple stuff like telling someone to snipe from a vantage point to more complex moves like splicing a terminal while the rest of the squad protects them. At first you’d be forgiven for thinking these are sort of pointless but as the difficulty increases it becomes really important to set up your squad properly in order to maximise their damage output and protection. Some of the late game set pieces are actually surprisingly difficult and without getting good at giving your squad orders on the fly, I’m not sure they are actually possible to beat.
It was actually the difficulty of some sections of the game that took me by surprise. The later levels throw absolutely tons of elite units at you which are definitely more on the bullet sponge side of things, as without the proper ammo, some can feel borderline impossible to kill. One of the most frustrating mechanics is in certain sections where you have to destroy droid dispensers that endlessly pump out enemies. Late game levels have you fighting two or three of these dispensers that are pumping out Super Battle Droids and if your squad member who’s planting the charge dies, or you run out of anti armour/sniper ammo, it can feel like an utterly ludicrous challenge.
Part of the difficulty is thanks to the health system, which is one area where I feel like they really could have taken MORE influence from the Halo series. Each commando has a health bar that consists of about 5 or 6 hits worth of damage before they are downed and can be revived by a team mate (if everyone is down, it’s back to a previous save). The issue is that some of the firefights become so large scale and hectic that it can be really easy to take lots of damage and never finish even small fights unscathed, that being especially true for your squad mates who you can’t directly control. The developers obviously realised that health was at a premium so placed an insane amount of Bacta stations (star wars magic healing goo which you see Luke floating in after his injuries in Empire) for you to heal up at. There is basically one after almost every single fight in the game which gives the flow of the levels a really odd stop start feeling. You get into a fight, once it’s over you pause and all heal up at the Bacta station before moving on. It makes sense on the Republic battlestation but why would the Wookies have these in their sewers or among the branches of trees?
What they should have done is taken the regenerating shield mechanic from Halo as it would suit the flow of the game perfectly. The Bacta recharge stations are almost identical in effect so it makes sense to just get rid of them and allow the player to duck behind cover, recharge and then jump right back into the fight. It would also get rid of having to tell each squad member to heal individually which never stops being annoying. It’s a curious decision because shields are such an established idea in the Star Wars universe, it feels like they were scared to draw too many Halo comparisons and ended up leaving out the one element that might have really improved the gameplay.
One area which Republic Commando excels in is the sound design. The whole game sounds absolutely perfect from the blaster fire to the fuzz of the shields recharging or the crazed beeps of droids blowing up. There is a particular sonic identity that Star Wars games have which Republic Commando absolutely nails. You’d know you’re playing a Star Wars game from just the sounds of the menu let alone anything else.
The soundtrack also deserves a mention as the composer, Jesse Harlin, doesn’t seem to have worked on a huge amount of games so he deserves credit for his work here. Most Star Wars soundtracks tend to be pretty close to a John Williams impersonation but Harlin took Republic Commando in quite a unique direction. There is a huge amount of booming male choral singing over the orchestras which adds this ancient warfare feeling to the music. Anyone who’s heard Jeremy Soule’s amazing Skyrim soundtrack will know exactly what I’m talking about and it works really well here. Outside of these big booming choral tracks, there are lots of slower atmospheric tracks that play during the downtime in between fights which contrast nicely. I’d recommend checking out the track “Vode An (Brothers All)” which plays over the main menu if you want a taste of it. It’s really interesting how it blends the big orchestral sound which is typical of Star Wars with something new.
I think that’s the thing about Republic Commando that does make it stand out in the endless catalogue of Star Wars games. It was something fresh and new for the franchise even if it’s not incredibly original by FPS standards. Yes, Star Wars had had shooters before (the Dark Forces series) but this was the first time that LucasArts had taken the large scale battles and managed to replicate them in the digital world.
It blends just the right amount of classic Star Wars aesthetic with elements that were new to the franchise and it means that the game still feels relatively fresh to this date. I don’t want to turn this into a rant about Disney but can you really imagine them releasing a Star Wars game so clearly intended for a mature audience? One that is happy to do something completely new rather than just repackaging safe bets.
If you compare Republic Commando to the more recent Battlefront games it really tells you all you need to know about where the franchise is in 2020. Those games, while great looking, were essentially reskins of the existing Battlefield formula. Despite depicting massive battles they’re almost devoid of the intensity that that setting should convey. Lightsabers clip bloodlessly though enemies and the same John Williams score we’ve heard for 40 years plays over every battle. It’s just so incredibly stale.
It’s a crying shame that LucasArts never made a follow up to Republic Commando, a sequel could have really ironed out some of the stranger design choices and perfected what the game did well. Take a look at any “Best Star Wars game” and you’ll be sure to see Republic Commando fairly high up the list as despite there being virtually no characters or story, people really connected with the feel of the game and what it was trying to do.
I’ve got to say, I also really appreciated it and definitely enjoyed my time with it despite its flaws. Yes, it has almost no story and characters but on the merits of its atmosphere and gameplay, I’d say it’s very worthy of its place in the franchise and I’m sure I’d have loved it had I played it on release.