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Game Name:  Star Wars: Republic Commando
Developer:  LucasArts
Publisher:  LucasArts
PC Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  March 7, 2015

Like many Star Wars junkies, that galaxy from a long time ago evokes a range of conflicted emotions.  For a socially awkward kid who was acclimating to a new school after his parents’ divorce, the original movies and expanded universe novels were a lifesaver.  Whether it was Yoda spouting wisdom from an overused VHS tape, or Luke struggling to train an apprentice in the pages of a dog-eared book, the Jedi code provided structure for a lapsed Catholic like me.  Childhood adoration rarely survives into adulthood though, and George Lucas’s prequel trilogy only sped that process along with its blatant disregard for fans of the series.  Unfortunately, the greed and selfishness behind those films has been a fixture in the realm of gaming for many years, with developers hoping to cash in on such a popular franchise.  Despite my wariness, the recent Star Wars-themed Humble Bundle caused me to give Republic Commando a shot, and I am incredibly glad that I did.  Not only is it an excellent game if you strip away all of the licensing, but it proves the strength of its source material in a way that I have not seen since playing Knights of the Old Republic.

Reverence like this is no small feat, especially considering Republic Commando’s position on the Star Wars timeline.  Any prequel-era game would illicit some amount of skepticism, but kicking it off with the invasion of Geonosis is a particularly bold choice, since its depiction occurs in the single worst film of the series.  From this moment in Attack of the Clones, until Yoda’s defense of Kashyyyk, which is seen in Revenge of the Sith, LucasArts treats players to one of the grittiest interpretations of the Star Wars universe since The Empire Strikes Back.  Unexpectedly, this is accomplished in large part by a decision to exclude the Jedi Order from the game’s events.  Thinking back on the prequel trilogy, how else could this have been done?  Moviegoers had trouble buying into the Clone Wars since it was fought between political groups without any real skin in the conflict.  Superman fatigue clung to the Jedi combatants, whose force-infused antics made them unstoppable, and nobody cared if a separatist battle droid killed a nondescript clone trooper who was created in a test tube.  War without consequence is boring, and imagery like the string of dead Wookies, in the game’s third act, go a long way towards changing this perception.

Delta Squad’s heroics help on this front too, since good writing makes it easy to become invested in the characters.  Amidst the clamor of Republic Commando's battles, the four clone troopers at the center of this tale exhibit a remarkably diverse range of personality types which are eerily reminiscent of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  While the player fills the role of the group’s resilient leader (Leonardo), his supporting cast includes the technical wizardry of Fixer (Donatello), the brooding aggression of Sev (Raphael), and the comic antics of Scorch (Michelangelo).  Smart and snarky dialogue bridges the gap between firefights, and also makes gamers care about unfolding events.  In a testament to how engaging these characters are, legitimate frustration is felt when orders come through that put Sev’s life in jeopardy.  By that point, he is no longer just another clone to players.  Scorch’s response resonates perfectly, and mirrors our own when he shouts back, “He’s my pod brother!”  By the time the credits roll, gamers may still harbor a disinterest in the wider Clone Wars, but the same cannot be said about this squad.

On the other end of Delta’s blasters is a wide array of enemies that only add to Republic Commando’s atmosphere and fun.  Bug-like Geonosians will leap, fly, and latch onto walls in the game’s first campaign, introducing a vertical element to combat which most shooters lack.  When Republic forces are ordered to enter the hives of these creatures, they must then contend with swarms of hatchlings in battles that clearly pay homage to Starship Troopers.  In the next campaign, Reptilian Trandoshans present the closest thing to a human adversary that players will face.  Expect to be challenged by AI that works in groups, seeks cover, and flanks targets.  One of the coolest moments in the game is when these lizard commandos turn the tables on Delta and employ their own breaching maneuver against them, replete with demolition charges and flashbangs.  Helping both of these groups are the separatist droids that get so much screen time in the movies.  Sporting a slightly altered appearance with sinister eyes that now glow, they look far my ominous than their film counterparts.  Consider the fact that they are generally massed in large numbers and will continue to attack if an arm or leg gets blown off, and they are not unlike the waves of zombies in a game like Left 4 Dead.  Compared to traditional military shooters, the sci-fi subject matter is a plus, and allows for far more diverse encounters than what is seen in a game like Call of Duty.

Republic Commando further distinguishes itself from the dudebro shooters with its rich tactical command system.  Engagements are meant to be challenging, and can rarely be soloed by the player alone.  Fortunately there are preset locations scattered around the game world where squad members can be assigned to lay down sniper fire or lob grenades from, with nothing more than the click of a button.  While these positions are sparse early on and it is painfully obvious how to use them, later levels require some serious thought since there are many more available than can be filled.  Without the need for an expansive command menu, objects and characters can have actions performed on them in a similar fashion.  Kill targets can be assigned, gun turrets can be commandeered, computer terminals can be hacked, and medical care can be given to downed soldiers with that same button.  Beyond these direct orders, the function keys can be used for more general commands like making the squad move as a single unit, sending them to seek out and destroy enemy units, or having them defend a given position.  Until voice recognition becomes a prominent feature in gaming, it is hard to imagine a more intuitive system for doling out orders.

Despite these positive features, Republic Commando is definitely not perfect.  It may still hold up well, graphically, but modern players are robbed a bit since most of today’s video cards do not support the title’s bump mapping.  How infuriating is it to play a ten-year-old game on anything but maximum settings?  Also, do not expect any narrative closure when the title ends, as the final campaign builds to a massive cliffhanger that is never resolved.  According to Brett Douville, former lead programmer at LucasArts, a sequel named Rebel Commando was cancelled before it could address this mystery and show the birth of the Rebel Alliance.  Worst of all, however, is the fact that the high difficulty curve conflicts with some of the game’s timed mechanics.  At one point, players are asked to plant demolition charges aboard a giant starship and escape before detonation; standard stuff for a military shooter.  Surprisingly, the countdown is not accurately recorded at the moment of a quick save, so players are forced to progress flawlessly through challenging maps and at breakneck speed, like the Contra players of old.  Moments like these may not happen often during a playthrough, but they are infuriating when they do.

As terrible as these foibles sound, gamers who view them as deal breakers are doing themselves a disservice.  Squad-based shooters are rare enough to warrant attention under the worst circumstances, but this one is actually good.  Combining an intuitive tactical interface with solid first-person shooter mechanics, LucasArts helps to eliminate many of the subgenre’s faults, which are clearly seen in games like Freedom Fighters.  Players will not get bored from the game overstaying its welcome either, since total playtime clocks in at a reasonable nine hours or so.  More importantly, however, is what this title does for fans of the Star Wars universe.  Sure, the story is no longer officially canon now that Disney has purchased the franchise, but it still manages to do something that George Lucas failed to do in his films; it makes the prequels cool.  That, in and of itself, is enough to warrant a recommendation of Republic Commando in my book.

Verdict:  Recommended