A squad-based Star Wars tactical shooter, hmmm? Normally we're a tad suspicious of LucasArts for its obsession with continuously yanking on the flaccid teats of its most lucrative intellectual property - and for very good reason. It's not that our attitude instantly defaults to cynical the minute we see the licence; it's more based on years on being mostly let down by patchy (and often plain cynical) attempts to seemingly cover all genre bases known to man, while, y'know, canning the stuff we actually want to play like Sam & Max 2 and Full Throttle 2. Sigh. We digress. Even so, the idea of Halo meets Rainbow Six in the Star Wars universe sounded like a pretty inspired concoction, admittedly while still running a huge risk of being a Clone War of the wrong kind.
If you're still groaning over that last sentence - and admittedly it does veer dangerously close to tabloid in terms of gratuitous punnage - it does at least give you a clue as to what we're dealing with here. Given that LucasArts can practically do anything (and usually does) with its treasured property, we have one of those non-movie-based Star Wars games set in between 'Episodes' - in this case snugly between the timelines of One and Two. Now, before this review degenerates into one of those discussions about the relative merits (or otherwise) of these hotly debated films, there are still rich pickings to be had from a game developer's point of view. Could this game be better than the films that inspired it?
In this case we're given the chance to explore the adventures of a four-man team of elite Clone Troopers. Effectively a band of (supposedly) personality-free nobodies, this gives LucasArts the opportunity to steer away from the main action and zoom in on the foot soldiers, get inside their heads and find out what the little guys were up to while the movie events rumble on elsewhere. Voiced by Temuera 'Jango Fett' Morrison, you take charge of 38, the leader of the four man Delta squad, on a three-campaign-long foray that takes you across the planet Geonosis and through a ghost ship before concluding on the lush Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk.
But although the general mission objectives and gameplay mechanics share a lot in common with other squad-based shooters, it doesn't take more than a couple of minutes to discover that Republic Commando is much faster-paced. Like the Rainbow Sixes and Ghost Recons before it, you take control of one man in a four-strong squad in a series of seek-and-destroy situations and follow all the familiar door breach/flash bang counter-terrorist manoeuvres that we've long been used to, but the sheer enemy count and the pace of the action is that much more intense. It feels like a well-judged compromise between the hardcore watch-every-step style of Rainbow Six and the all-out action run-and-gun style of the best sci-fi shooters out there.
In addition, many of the more superfluous commands have been radically streamlined into context-sensitive one-touch orders that let you get on with the business of shooting instead of wrestling with a command interface. If you need someone to lay an explosive charge on a droid generator, 'slice' (i.e. hack) a control panel while all hell's breaking loose or take up a sniping position, then you can issue all these commands with impressive efficiency by merely pointing your reticule at a context-sensitive icon and hitting A while laying down some laser fire on your aggressors. It's a seamless, efficient and flexible system that's so impressively intuitive that you'll barely even blink before you've issued an entire array of orders that would have probably resulted in a swift death in other comparable games.
Get over here!
If you find yourself impatient waiting for your squad to amble over to a particularly vital fixture that needs blowing up, you can take all of these matters into your own hands - albeit at the risk of being shot to pieces in the dangerous process of spending anything up to a minute out of firing action. On top of that, holding down the A button brings up a Red Storm-inspired command menu that gives you the option of issuing all-encompassing commands to your squaddies, such as Search And Destroy, Form Up, Secure Area and Cancel Manoeuvres, or the brilliantly useful ability to get them to concentrate their fire on a specific target by just hovering your reticule over your enemy and tapping A.
But as slick and superb as it undoubtedly is, there are still the odd moments that you're left cursing that they didn't take action sooner, or wondering why the game ends up misreading your input because you're not in the exact 'zone' required; for example, issuing an explosive command to the AI despite the fact you're clearly standing right in front of the thing trying to do it yourself. As intelligent and useful as your squaddies are, they also seem to enjoy ignoring the regular Bacta (health) stations until you more or less force them to recharge - in the heat of the battle it can be a real wind-up to note such self-defeating behaviour.
And it's on the issue of health that the often ferocious gameplay hinges. In Republic Commando you don't die as such, but have a Halo 1-style shield protecting initial blasts, followed by increments of health that get taken off one by one once your shield is down; take too much damage and you'll become incapacitated, slump to the floor and view the continuing action immersed in a wonderfully messed up and warped visual state. Handily the Deltas carry emergency Bacta guns that appear to inject you and 'jump start' you back to half health, which is LucasArts' cunning way of allowing you to more or less cheat your way through the game. In addition to that, you can also revive your fellow Commandos, nip off to a nearby infinite health station when you're flagging and keep dashing back to the action to finish off the stragglers. It's this central cheating gameplay mechanic that effectively keeps you going, and even when all four of you get wiped out the 'save anywhere' facility and regular checkpoints mean there's very little in the way of frustrating back tracking. Although we approve of games that don't annoy us to levels of pad-throwing unfairness, this level of kindness means it's the sort of game you'll rip through in under ten hours without breaking too much of a sweat, which is in itself a problem.
And now onto our favourite subject
Still, as much as we felt that there must be a better way of keeping players in the game than effectively giving them infinite lives, the overall level of consistent entertainment Republic Commando offers is so high for it to only be an issue when the odds are stacked unreasonably. Sometimes, the going seems to get so tough that the game itself seems to resort to a transparent form of respawning cheatery, which is so cheeky in game design terms that we're almost awestruck with admiration at the bare-faced nature of it.
As we've alluded to many times before, we're not the biggest fans of respawning AI enemies in the world ever, but when destroying the source of these replicating menaces becomes an integral part of the level design it's almost endearing. It's like they're telling us right to our faces "we know how much you hate respawning enemies, and how lazy you think it is as a design decision, so we're going to produce these bot replicator boxes and make it mission critical to swiftly demolish them lest you get overrun by the bastards". At first it's quite amusingly self-deprecating, until - that is - the awesomely well-armoured Super Bots appear and require a small army's worth of lead, grenades, plasma, sniper fire and the like to destroy, while simultaneously making them so powerful that you're lying prostrate if you're unfortunate to cop a few of their blasts.
Damn them! Still, despite all of this total unfairness, the fact that you can semi-cheat your way to victory with skillful use of infinite health probably makes it even more unfair on them. In short the team made a game so loaded with (often respawning) enemies that they probably soon realised that without infinite health you'd be toast in no time. Clearly that wouldn't have been fun, so they made it fun at the risk of removing any semblance of credibility and the crucial suspension of disbelief. But, ach. Get over it. It works. It's a lot of fun. And it looks good. Just as Halo gets by with decent AI and drawn out chase-and-retreat firefights, so too Republic Commando's central appeal is the quality of its combat and the feel of being utterly immersed in huge firefights. The satisfaction of reducing skinny bots to scrap metal and knife-wielding chasing lizards to green goo is worth the entry fee alone, never mind the more challenging foes such as the lumbering Super Bots. It's not exactly reinventing gaming itself, but it twists two popular styles of gaming we love into a quality experience wrapped up in a technically impressive way.
A sight for sore visors
Indeed, although we've rattled on about the actual gameplay for ages, the audio/visual side of the game is easily among the most impressive we've experienced on the Xbox. Given the strangely low profile build-up to the launch we were quite pleasantly surprised to find just how slick the whole thing is, with an unflinchingly high standard throughout. Wherever you look, be it the scenery, the texturing, the lighting, character models, the particle effects, the destruction or even the physics, it's right up there with the very best console gaming has ever delivered. Some of it comes at a price, though, with noticeable V-sync tearing on occasions, a disappointing lack of widescreen support and the odd frame rate dip evident when your rifle fire slows down in the heat of the battle. Having said that, it rarely affects the gameplay to any significant extent.
Audio-wise, meanwhile, has there ever been a better sounding game? Having gone to great lengths to employ Hollywood special effects gurus the whole game really comes to life in surround sound with not only some of the best use of subtle spot effects we've ever heard, but great characterization in the voiceovers, some amusing one-liners by consistently good voice actors, perfect gun effects and even good footsteps. As an audio experience there's almost no let up, with literally hours' worth of dialogue adding a brilliant layer to the already excellent atmosphere, underpinned by the usual high quality sweeping Star Wars score that we've come to expect over the years. And if you hadn't noticed how good the audio is already, an unlockable documentary goes through the process to demonstrate with pineapples just how you get the sound of squelchy giant lizard footsteps. A nice touch.
All that remains at this point is to mention that once you've recovered from the shock of an astonishingly anti-climatic 'conclusion', there's always the added bonus of multiplayer to keep you going. Judged against the competition it's fair to say it's not exactly going to have Xbox owners abandoning Halo 2's multiplayer mode any time soon, but it does at least cover the usual suspect essentials. Whether via four-player split-screen, 16-player system link or 16-player Live you can engage in Republic Vs Transoshan Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, or eight-player Capture The Flag or Assault.
Coming with the standard Quick Match and Optimatch options, it's not going to be the game credited with changing the very face of multiplayer gaming, but the 10 maps we scoured through are of high enough standard to make it worth a few matches - if only to have another opportunity to use some of the game's cooler weapons (the rocket launcher appears, what, twice in the whole campaign?). What's most disappointing about the whole thing, though, isn't so much the lack of me-too deathmatch variants, but that LucasArts didn't bother to allow players to play the campaign mode co-operatively as Red Storm achieved so successfully in the likes of Ghost Recon 2, Rainbow Six 3 and Black Arrow. In a sense it's unforgivable given how much fun this mode would have been (and is in other similar titles) and we don't understand why such an obvious idea wasn't implemented. A missed opportunity if ever there was one.
With that in mind, Republic Commando's rather short-lived single-player campaign becomes somewhat more of an issue than it might have otherwise have been. With a bit of co-op action we'd have happily run through the whole campaign again with some mates as it's a wonderfully entertaining experience with set-piece after set-piece testing your resolve to the very limit. Whatever you might argue should have made it into the package, and the whole issue over the dubious health mechanic, what's there in single-player terms does add up to a consistently satisfying whole. Having chugged our way through Dark Forces and through the patchy Jedi Knight series over the past ten years, it's heartening to finally come away from a Star Wars FPS feeling genuinely happy that LucasArts has used its much-abused license in a relentlessly entertaining way.
We hardly have to encourage LucasArts to make another Star Wars game, but more of the same focus on quality with a little less of a half-hearted approach to multiplayer and it'd be impossible to ignore. As it is Republic Commando deserves huge respect for managing to be the best Star Wars shooter ever.