Saturday, 18 May 2013

Defending the Republic

I've been playing Star Wars: Republic Commando because sometimes you need to step back in to the past to remember a time when games weren't all about DRM arguments and chest high walls.

Before moving on, though, I have a confession to make: I am a huge Star Wars fan. Not the new Clone Wars nonsense, but the older stuff made before Lucas went completely mad and (particularly) the Expanded Universe. For those who haven't read any Star Wars novels, the EU is the place where (mostly) talented sci-fi authors were allowed to play in George Lucas's beautiful sand pit and contribute to a (mostly) curated timeline which spanned thousands of years of Republic history. The stories explored different aspects of the central characters of the original films, but also expanded on the lives of pretty much every being shown in the films and added hundreds more besides. It's in this tapestry of supporting characters that Star Wars really shines - the Jedi may be the knights errant of the universe, but there are a tiny number of them. The other characters bring them to life.

For anyone reading this in the future, this is why Star Wars used to be great before the Clone Wars retconned a ton of stuff and Disney made some new movies which undid the rest (these movies don't exist at the time of writing - my crystal ball is not optimistic).

Republic Commando, then. It's a game which focuses on the clone commandos of the Republic (no, really) in a series of engagements during the Clone Wars. It spawned a series of excellent novels by Karen Traviss and contains no lightsabers or Force powers. In fact, a Jedi only shows up once in a cut scene and he just gives some orders and leaves again. It really is very good.

Firstly, the game feels like Star Wars. The blasters make the proper noises, the vehicles move around ponderously, the architecture looks right and the music is spot on. Secondly, and more importantly, the central characters are plausible. The commandos do joke and banter while moving around but they are focused on the task at hand. Throughout, there is a sense that the plot is moving on because the main characters are driving it onwards through their ability to complete missions, rather than hanging on while events unfold around them.

Mechanically, the game is a fairly basic FPS with some squad mechanics built into it. The squad controls are very well streamlined and well worked into gameplay. Successfully commanding your troops makes a huge difference to the frantic firefights and there are just enough options to leave you feeling in  control, without becoming needlessly detailed and fiddly. The AI is pretty good too - you generally feel part of the squad, rather than the leader of a band of special needs troopers. Your team will heal themselves, pick each other up, take intelligent firing positions and sometimes even take point when exploring - and this is before you start giving them orders. It means you can often choose your role in an encounter. Want to stand back and shoot Separatists whilst your team go and set explosives? No problem. Want to set up a sniper crossfire while you run around in the open hacking terminals and taking fire? You can do that too, and your team mates will actually shoot enemies off you.

There are problems too, of course. The AI is good, but not great. There are moments when they run off the wrong way or melee the super battle droid you want to grenade. The contextual squad controls can sometimes be annoyingly fiddly to target. You non-squad allies are, to a man, completely useless and will usually catch a blaster bolt within a moment of appearing and some of the badguys are horribly unfair as they flit around, dodging your gunfire. All of these problems are ignorable because it's so Star Wars which, after sitting through Clone Wars cartoons and that horrible cgi film is so very nice.

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