I’ve come away from Republic Commando with mixed feelings. It’s getting on for seven years old at this point, and while it was overlooked at release it’s since garnered a reputation as something of an underrated classic. I can certainly see why. Republic Commando isn’t quite unique, but I’m only aware of a single other game that even tries to do the simplified dynamic squad command that RC pulls off so well (Brothers in Arms). At the same time this is practically the only thing Republic Commando has going for it, as otherwise it’s a remarkably by-the-numbers FPS shooter.
Republic Commando sets you as the leader of a team of four clone commandos fighting in the Clone Wars. There’s a rudimentary attempt to give each of your squadmates a distinct personality, but while you’re told they all specialise in a different job – sniping, hacking and blowing things up – they all seem to do equally well at any of them, making them entirely interchangeable. To me, they were just Yellow Guy, Green Guy and Red Guy. Their basic fighting AI is decent enough; however, Republic Commando makes a big attempt to shake things up by giving your AI companions the ability to do more than follow you around like Lassie toting a blaster. As you progress through the various missions Republic Commando gives you you’ll see various icons that indicate something one of your teammates can do. Press F while pointing at a crosshair icon, for example, and the nearest commando will run up to that spot and stick a sniper attachment onto his gun for long range fire support. An explosion icon means they’ll spend anywhere between ten and thirty seconds setting up a demolition charge to blow up a droid dispenser or a barricade or something. Of course, you don’t have to rely on the commandos to do these things; you can do anything they can do, and – very neatly – they can do anything you can do.
This has particular ramifications for player death. When you run out of health in Republic Commando – and this will happen to you often, for it is a very hard game – you don’t “die”, per se. Instead your screen goes red, your commando collapses to the ground and you’re presented with one of several options: wait for your teammates to deal with the threat and then revive you, call them over to come and pick you back up now, which can be very dangerous if you haven’t killed whatever took you down, or just give up and reload the last save. It’s a really, really nice piece of design, especially in a seven year-old game, and especially when contrasted to the approach of other popular FPSes with AI teammates. Usually they’re either invincible or, while it is possible for them to be temporarily knocked out, only you can get them back up. They can’t get you back up, which always struck me as rather incongruous with the game mechanics. What is so special about the player? Republic Commando’s answer is: nothing. You are genuinely just one part of a four-man team (albeit the part that gives orders) and it goes a very long way towards making you rely on your teammates rather than just carting them around as additional firepower.
Consequently the parts of Republic Commando that really, really shine are the ones that push this squad mechanic as far as it can go. In the second mission, which involved the infiltration of a captured republic ship, I had to fight my way through a series of hangars under attack from droid dispensers. In the first hangar I had all the time in the world to set up defenses, and the droids went down quickly. The droids had already landed in the second hangar so there was an added time element to that one where I had to kill the droids present and close the hangar forcefield before more droids landed. And the final hangar was an all-out assault on a heavily entrenched droid force that involved advancing one at a time under heavy enemy fire, ordering one commando into a fixed defense turret, setting up sniper and anti-armour positions at the rear of the hangar, and relying on my squadmates to cover me while I did a thirty second hack of an exposed computer console. It’s a remarkably nail-biting experience, especially when you can see your teammates’ status degrade from green to yellow to dark orange in your HUD and you pray they can stay alive long enough for you to finish the job.
To its credit Republic Commando really does try to make the most of the squad command abilities it gives you. Unfortunately it does little else that’s interesting gameplay-wise, and nowhere is this more apparent than the extended section at the start of that ship mission where you’re inserted into the captured ship alone and have to round up your teammates one-by-one. This turns the game into a by-the-numbers shooter, and while it is not exactly terrible it is entirely unspectacular. The worst thing about it is that you’re as vulnerable as ever but your squad isn’t around to pick you back up when you get hit, meaning you end up staring at a GAME OVER screen far, far too often. This is especially annoying when coupled with one of the most unfun enemies it has ever been my misfortune to fight in an FPS: the scavenger droids. They fly around erratically, they’re really hard to hit, they can come at you from any direction, and when you “kill” then they do an unerringly accurate kamikaze self-destruct run that takes off half your health. I died more to those little bastards than all the other enemies in the game put together – even the heavily armoured super battle droids that soaked up blaster fire like nobody’s business weren’t this much of a pain in the ass.
The second worst thing about that section was that it went on for far too long. This is a complaint I could level at the game as a whole, actually; it’s split up into just three missions each of which will take upwards of two hours to complete. The first mission on Geonosis I can live with, since Geonosis was supposed to be an incredibly vicious and violent battle and the extended mission length kind of brings home how desperate the fighting was. But after Geonosis the timeline leaps forward by a year, and the commandos are now doing something completely different and separate with only the most superficial continuity between the two. The stuff they give you to do is also very definitely grunt work – the Jedi get to fight Count Dooku and Asajj Ventress in exotic locations, the clone commandos are stuck with playing lizard janitor for two hours on a grey, boring Republic ship. A little more variety would have gone a long way.
My last complaint would be that Republic Commando is a hard, hard game. Mostly it is the good kind of hard, and the presence of the other commandos makes it far less irritating than it would have been otherwise. There are certain places, however, where I started to become convinced the level designers were specifically out to irritate the crap out of me. Any level inhabited by scavenger bots, for a start, as well as those automated turrets which seemed to be intentionally put in places where I couldn’t see them but where they could shoot me while I was in cover. There’s also a rather tragic dearth of ammo; I had no idea the Republic was so stingy with the weaponry it handed out to its elite soldiers, but you’ll be lucky to find more than two anti-armour reloads in a single two-hour mission. And if you don’t have that you’re stuck taking down hordes of super battle droids and destroyer droids with a futuristic peashooter. I don’t mind tough enemies, but I do mind that they’re so tough it takes a third of my max sniper/blaster ammo to take one out, and there’s three of them, and I have to deal with hordes of smaller enemies at the same time.
I’d hesitate before calling Republic Commando an underrated classic. It’s certainly worth playing, especially at the knock-down price Steam sells it for these days, but most of the game’s imagination seems to have been expended on the squad command system that is its unique selling point. Everything else has suffered as a result – plot, characterisation, weapons and enemy design. It’s these last two that really hurt the game, as while a decently-made FPS can get away without the first two if it’s done right, lacklustre weapons and repetitive enemies would be the kiss of death for any FPS that wasn’t Republic Commando. The squad system saves it, it really does, but even so it’s still got those deficiencies weighing it down like a pair of concrete overshoes. Thankfully Republic Commando never quite sinks below the surface level of “acceptably fun”, but it definitely falls some way short of the classic status it could have achieved if it had paid a little more attention to classical FPS design elements.