We're digging into the PC Gamer magazine archives to publish pieces from years gone by. This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 209 in 2010. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.
My wait for Imperial Commando goes on. It was never promised, never so much as rumoured, but it seemed the logical next step for this avowedly heroic FPS. You play a Storm Trooper hunting down Rebel enclaves, brutally razing Jawa settlements or setting fire to Aunt Beru. That’s dream gaming—and a precedent set by LucasArts following up saintly X-Wing with devilish TIE Fighter.
Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting PC gaming days gone by. Today, Alec Meer wipes the galactic dust off Star Wars: Republic Commando.
Unsequelled it may be, but Republic Commando coolly retains a far-sightedness and a slickness that puts GRAW, Rainbow Six, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising and the like to shame. It makes controlling an AI squad easy, fluid and rewarding, and yet it seems so alone in it. Even nearly half a decade on, other squad games flail around with banks of hotkeys, jittery radial menus and the kind of pathfinding that would earn a lifetime ban from the Ramblers Association. It’s all in the F key—one little button that totally transforms Republic Commando from linear sci-fi trudging to an icy-cool military operation.
F! You, snipe from there. F! You, lob grenades from here. F! Er, go help that last guy who just got splatted because I sent him somewhere stupid. F! Everyone, kill that big, ’orrible robot-tank-thing. F! F! F! Just one button, but it makes me feel like a soldier more than anything else I’ve ever played. And it’s all within a still-slick HUD. Location, ammo and health are all overlayed onto your character’s claustrophobic yet somehow reassuring fishbowl visor. Nothing new now, but just one of many ways in which Republic Commando was ahead of its time—and yet was forgotten.
Sounds like the kind of thing that would make ArmA fans leave this dumbed-down globe behind and colonise a hardcore planet of their own, but the truth is that Republic Commando’s a remarkably effective shortcut to achieving military gaming precision. All the reward, none of the elbow grease. This doesn’t make it stupid because this is a game about flow. It’s about walking into a new area, instantly assessing the situation, then rapidly giving a series of orders that are followed to the minimalist letter.
From your end of the affair, it’s simply a context-based button-push, but in the game’s world, your three clone-brother commandos know you so well, and think so alike, that the brief hand signal you give in response to looking at a bit of wall and pressing F is all the information they need. This is, for all the grit, pace and total lack of mythical/ religious mumbo-jumbo, Star Wars, and all the ad-hoc derring-do that entails. Puzzling over hotkeys or agonising at length over whether sniping or grenading would be best wouldn’t be Star Wars. There is no try, only do. F!
Republic Commando isn’t a truly great firstperson shooter and it never was. There’s too much corridor-pounding, some frustrating setpiece/boss fights, limited visual and locational variety, and creative hands have been noticeably tied as a result of being promotion for Episode III. But it was and is unfairly overlooked, because it’s a triumph of mechanics. In the same way Batman: Arkham Asylum masks a simple game with limited choice by having super-slick, super-rewarding controls, you don’t notice that Republic Commando is just a string of arenas and corridors full of convenient small walls. You just see what you have to do, and you feel good for doing it. You learn the weapon and grenade combinations necessary to take down bigger enemies, and you just do it. F! F! F!
The art of survival
And, at all times, the delicate balancing act—the path of maximum destruction or maximum protection. Whether you’re more or less likely to survive if you try to revive a downed squadmate. Whether your chums’ covering fire will keep you alive while you rig explosives or hack a door, or if you should rely on your own reticule-based prowess while they do the chores. There’s never a perfectly right answer—the odds are artfully always stacked just a little against you—but there are plenty of wrong ones. The key to surviving, always, is to think about your men as well as yourself. They need to live so that you can live—and they seem to feel the same way. Yours is a squad that does what you tell them.
Death comes often in Republic Commando—but it isn’t the end. So long as at least one of your squadmates remains on his feet, the game continues. And you get to watch the fight unfold through blurry, blood-splattered retina. If your men are struggling, you could order them to revive you. With you and your superior skills back in the game, the tables might turn. Or your helper might be gunned down as he injects your near-corpse with healing bacta. Is it worth the risk? Doing the right thing in death isn’t something that Republic Commando ever makes easy, and it’s an effective twist to this day.
Yours is a squad you can trust. They’re your brothers. They’re not going to get stuck on a bit of wall or decide they like it over there better. This is profoundly rare—AI chums are usually unreliable, characterless callsigns or overwritten, over-scripted scene-stealers.
Perhaps officious Fixer and jocular Scorcher don’t leave an indelible impression, even if they’re comforting presences, but Sev’s the surprising standout. He’s a gruff, near-silent hardnut, a pastiche of military grit—but when he forgets to press an elevator button because he’s too busy doing a hardman pose straight to camera, suddenly he’s human. A little hint of fourth-wall breaking and a sharp dose of comic humility, and suddenly he’s someone you want in your gang, rather than someone who you’re stuck with because the game says so.
There’s an unresolved cliffhanger involving him at the game’s close, a clarion call for a sequel that never came—and to this day I hunger for closure. Sev! Whatever happened to you? It’s a terrible cruelty. Oh, for the release of Imperial Commando.