As much as I try to avoid hype, it usually catches up with me and helps to ruin games that, thanks to said hype, I expect far too much from. Fortunately, this is not such a game. I purposely ignored all the hype because I knew the game was being developed for the XBOX as a Halo clone with stormtroopers, and that the PC version was going to be a tacked on afterthought. I was right on both counts, and though the multiplayer aspect of the game is beyond pathetic, the single player campaign is a mildly entertaining diversion from the drudgery of office paperwork. If that sounds like a limp endorsement for an action game, then that's because this is a pretty limp excuse for an action game.
As is standard of highly hyped first person shooters, the game is powered by a well known engine, in this case an offshoot of standard Unreal technology. I'm not sure if it's Unreal 2 or Unreal Tournament 2003/4 – My guess would be the latter, as its movement feels more skittish and touchy than the solid feel of movement in Unreal 2. It's academic in the end, as the graphics are quite poor. The levels are all very low geometry affairs, and though the character models aren't too bad, they aren't great. As with many XBOX games, Republic Commando uses bump mapping extensively, even to the point where you get sick of seeing it on almost every surface as a replacement for modeled level geometry. Now don't get me wrong, bump mapping is a great effect, but it's not a replacement for old fashioned level creation and geometry. Until this game, Knights of the Old Republic was one of the worst offenders I knew about in this area, but Republic Commando trumps it easily. The lack of level geometry and the use of excessive bump mapping might look fine at the low resolutions of the XBOX and the poor picture quality of most televisions, but on a PC you can easily tell the difference between this and well designed first person shooter levels, even of the same engine (Splinter Cell comes to mind as one example). The textures used here are also quite low resolution, and repeated endlessly, as you'd expect for a game designed for a system with such a low amount of memory. The Star Wars galaxy might be an impressive wonderland in the movies, but here it's a drab, ugly, low-poly piece of crap.
Fortunately the audio doesn't suffer from the same problems. The score is well done, though not especially memorable, and the voice acting is quite good. There is a good deal of squad banter, and while this often comes across as cheesy and lame, that's how action movies and games are meant to be. If you want realism, go play Raven Shield (another Unreal engine game that blows this one out of the water graphically).
The gameplay is easy to describe to anyone who has ever played Halo – It's almost identical. Completely linear levels with only one way to complete each objective are mated to a small squad of super commandos (who can't even die). Enemies then spawn at regular intervals along your path, and mayhem ensues. One small innovation that Republic Commando throws at you is the use of squad commands – With one button you can tell your squad to heal up at bacta dispensers (which just happen to exist everywhere you go), plant explosives, breech a door, or take cover, amongst other things. There is generally only one way to do things, so you can't tell your squad to breech a door that's not specifically placed in the level as a breechable door, for example. Each of your squad mates is proficient at one skill, so you'll spend time telling each of them to hack, snipe, and blow things up. Oddly enough, these guys have distinct personalities, despite being clones. Considering they were all grown in tanks and fed intelligence through a flash teaching setup (see, I know something about Star Wars lore) there should be only negligible difference between each one. Of course, Lucasarts stopped caring about consistency in the series about a decade ago when they started making Jar Jar Binks breakfast cereal and Mace Windu Suppositories. Ok, I made that last one up, but my point remains – If making a new Star Wars product will generate revenue, no matter how derivative, useless, or tiresome said product is, George Lucas is game. Bill Watterson (of Calvin & Hobbes comic strip fame) was correct in noting how the saturation of a market with products derived from an original idea decreases the integrity and value of that original idea. Be honest with yourselves folks: Do any of you really give a rats ass about the upcoming Episode III , or even the Star Wars universe in general? I was once one of the biggest Star Wars fans you could imagine, but the magic is gone now, and it may never return. Games like Knights of the Old Republic are not good because they are Star Wars games, they are good in spite of that fact.
As the levels are so mind numbingly linear (even worse than Halo in every respect), it helps a little that the action is frantic: Enemies are always attacking, seemingly in endless waves. This is good for those that like nonstop action, but be prepared to turn your brain off for the duration of the game as there is almost nothing in it that requires an IQ higher than carbon paper. The enemies are just dumb, and your squadmates are barely any better, often ignoring your orders and doing nonsensical things that get themselves 'killed' – I put killed in quotes because nobody actually dies in this game, at least, not in your squad. If you go down, you become unconscious (even though you can still see and give limited orders, for some reason) and you wait for one of your men to revive you with a medpack, should they survive the current encounter long enough to do so. You can do the same to your squadmates that are knocked down in the line of duty, but it shouldn't happen too often, as with such dumb enemies and numerous bacta dispensers you rarely will find yourself in a situation where the enemies are tough enough to take out any one member of your group, much less the entire party. The decision not to allow you or your teammates to die in Republic Command was a strange one, and I can't see why they allowed the development team to overlook the glaring deficiencies inherent in such a design. In making each squadmate only good at one 'key' area of the game, be it hacking, explosives, or sniping, and making the player unable to do most of these things, they made the squad commanding aspect mandatory and the squadmates absolutely essential to getting anywhere. Instead of redesigning that aspect of the game so that the dead squatemate duties could be picked up by the living, or by adding new team members during the missions, they simply took the cheap and easy way out and made everyone invulnerable. This is a perfect example of bad, lazy design, but I can't say I'm surprised: Look whose logo is on the box.
Because the single player campaign in Republic Commando is so short (I estimate most will conquer it in around 8 hours) and somewhat weak, it is doubly important that the multiplayer aspect offer some lasting value to keep the buyer satisfied. However, this is easily the worst aspect of the game. There are only limited multiplayer modes (the coveted co-op is nowhere to be found) and they are generic as hell, typical of a thousand other first person shooters. The four modes are: Deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and assault. Let's see, where have I seen these modes before... oh, yes, of course! Every other FPS in history! The difference is that here they aren't even well done. The levels are tired, ugly, and repetitive, like playing one of KOTOR's endless sets of prefabricated hallways in first person mode. To top it off, the weapons are unbalanced and overpowered – You will often die before you even knew anyone was near you. It is a stark contrast to the single player game, where you can take seemingly limitless damage and not bat an eyelash. Also, there are numerous level design glitches where polygons overlap and flicker – This might have been present in the single player game as well, but most of the time it was paced too fast to notice. The multiplayer aspect of the game just suffers from a serious lack of polish and inspiration – It was made by people that don't like playing computer games, and it shows.
This is a disappointing entry into computer game history, even for consolized Lucasarts spew. It was clearly designed to cash-in on the huge market success of Halo, and while it apes many of Halo's basic gameplay ideas, it lacks the innovation and storytelling of its inspiration. It's also about 4 years too late, and so despite massive marketing hype it is destined to be griped about on gaming forums for a time and then just as quickly forgotten as a game that was 'kinda fun', but that lacked any compelling elements to make it memorable. It's a damn shame its sales will convince Lucasarts that the Star Wars franchise hasn't been thoroughly raped yet, and so you can soon expect to see, on a store shelf near you, more bland garbage from a galaxy far, far away...
A video of me playing the game can be found here.