'Republic Commando' Explored the Horror of Star Wars' Clone Armies

You're born in a vat, you spend your whole short life training for war, and you die for a little green bug.
June 1, 2021, 1:00pm
A clone trooper talks to a hologram of Yoda.
'Republic Commando' screenshots courtesy of Aspyr

In the decade-and-a-half since its release for Xbox and PC, LucasArts’ Republic Commando has developed a reputation as one of the most essential entries in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, a bright spot at a time when the franchise's video game track record was looking grim, and one that gave insight into an area of Star Wars little seen in the often Force-focused movies, comics, and cartoons. 

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Recently remastered for Switch and PS4 by Aspyr Media, Republic Commando is not just a story about the Galactic Republic’s commando elite—it’s one of the elite shooters of its era. In terms of its tactical, squad-based approach, Republic Commando is most reminiscent of games like Rainbow Six, but it moves with the speed and agility of a Doom or Wolfenstein, a throwback to the alleged “Doom Clone” Dark Forces. Beyond just the general fast-paced FPS flavor, Commando feels even more like Doom specifically because it’s the rare Star Wars game to feature projectile firearms in addition to lasers: a shotgun. Commando is in many ways a startling change from the vast majority of Star Wars games, which generally focus on precise lightsaber button-combos or superheroic Force powers. This is the kind of game in which your avatar is constantly wiping goop, ooze, and alien guts off their helmet visor.

The game begins as you are awoken from a life lived out in constant combat simulations to experience the “real thing.” You are RC-1138 (one of many winking nods in the franchise to George Lucas’ very first film), or “Boss,” the leader of Delta Squad, one of the galaxy’s finest fighting squadrons. With your D-pad, you issue orders to your clone comrades: “Scorch” detonates explosives, “Fixer” hacks or “slices,” and “Sev” is an expert marksman. The members of your squad are distinguished by the coloring on their armor, but also by their hard-boiled personalities.

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The game’s perspective shifts from the galactic setpieces of the movies to nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes Black Ops missions. As opposed to the planet-hopping that usually defines Star Wars games, Republic Commando centers on three detailed missions, at different points throughout the Clone Wars. The game opens with a different vantage point of the battle that ends Attack of the Clones, as you race through spires and catacombs to assassinate a Geonosian general. Your second mission is deeper into the war, as your squad investigates a Republic starship that was stolen by reptilian mercenaries and Separatists, and the game closes with the liberation of enslaved Wookies on Kashyyyk during Revenge of the Sith. There are no stunning vistas or fantastical landscapes, just tunnels to crawl through and maintenance hatches to blast open. Occasionally you break off for your teammates for a stealthier, Sam Fisher-like mission, to detonate bombs or disable battle droids. 

A planned and scrapped game sequel would have taken Delta Squad past the events of Revenge of the Sith and into the early days of the Empire, a saga that was continued by author Karen Traviss in the Republic Commando series of novels, like Order 66 and Imperial Commando. Karen Traviss took the opportunity to expand the culture of clones beyond what’s suggested in the game: in her revised canon, Jango Fett brought in elite Mandalorian warriors to train the commando elite, passing down not just combat skills and technical know-how but Mandolorian culture, rituals, and language. Mandalorians have been a crucial part of Star Wars since Boba Fett first intrigued fans decades ago, but the race the Fett family belongs to has now become a household name thanks to The Mandalorian. The canonical development of the Mandalorian people within the Star Wars universe is owed in large part to Traviss specifically: the musical theme from Jesse Harlin’s score for the Republic Commando game contains a few lyrics in Mandalorian, which Traviss expanded into an entire language with a working grammar system called Mando’a.

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Before writing science-fiction, Commando author Karen Traviss served in the British Army Reserves and the Royal Navy Auxiliary Service, and her tactical, infantry-focused books are so clearly informed by her own experiences in and around the military and defense industries. Traviss was clearly interested in the ordinary foot soldiers of the galaxy, not its white knights, a little like a sci-fi take on Oliver Stone’s Platoon—Traviss shares more with the original version of Apocalypse Now conceived by George Lucas, which would have featured black-and-white 16mm battle sequences, than the nightmarish trip produced by Francis Ford Coppola. 

Traviss eventually parted ways with the Star Wars brand after non-payment issues, but it’s hard not to read creative differences into the dispute, especially considering “Is it true you hate Jedi?” warranted a Frequently Asked Questions entry on her personal website. Traviss took particular issue with how she felt fans valorized and almost worshipped the Jedi; in her sarcastic words, Star Wars lovers defended the Order’s development of “a slave army of cloned human beings [to] use them in war, and cloned humans aren't proper humans like us, and it was too bad the clones died, and the Jedi had no choice.” Unsurprisingly, after the end of her service with Lucasfilm, Traviss has gone on to pen tie-in novels for a number of explicitly military science-fiction franchises, like Gears of War and Halo, as well as G.I. Joe comics. 

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Lucas’ prequels have been criticized as boring, wooden, and confused, but after the failure of Disney to shift a rekindled Star Wars franchise into overdrive, his intentions have come into sharper focus: he wanted to unpack the relatively cut-and-dry morality and ideology of the original series, which in the years since had been interpreted to various political ends. In the original trilogy, we only see remnants of the Jedi, and what Luke wants to restore is largely an idealized, imagined version of the Order: in the prequels, we realize that the Jedi in reality were often corrupt, colonialist in intentions, and beholden to the bureaucracy of the supposedly democratic Republic, which easily transitions into an outright fascist empire. It’s a political metaphor that’s only become more resonant and obvious in the last 15 years of American politics, and problematizes an acclaimed cultural touchstone in a similar manner to how DS9 has become a cult classic for raising valid questions about its predecessors in the Star Trek universe.

Commandos are a step above the trooper grunts born to be disposed of on the battlefield, both in terms of military rank and the personalities they are afforded. There’s an obvious air of tension between the commandos and the NPC infantrymen they interact with, who resentfully call the elite soldiers “deluxe editions.” That jealousy might stem from differences in rank or training, but it’s clear the commandos’ lives are valued more than ordinary troopers, who are written off as “a waste of genes” by your squad members when they die in the line of duty. Delta Squad are afforded the ability to develop more distinct personalities compared to infantrymen bred from the same embryos. Because the commandos are regarded as somewhat more “human,” receiving distinct names instead of just numbers, the contradictions of the very idea of a “clone army” come more into focus. The Republic’s special forces might be held in higher regard by their makers, but the clones are still not designed to be independent people—each squad as a whole is like a fully-formed individual that acts as one. The game’s central feature is how you have to delegate responsibility and issue orders. Though you can set bombs and slice terminals on your own while your teammates are pinned down under fire, almost nothing in the game besides the brief solo missions can be accomplished alone. You are as much a soldier as a strategist, blasting away battle droids while assigning your squadmates to turret duty or sniper positions, making sure everyone is healed before breaking down the next door.

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In between levels of Republic Commando, you’re treated to grim facts about the life and training of the clones, exposing the brutality and trauma of Fett’s training regimine. For every hardened warrior, a hundred more troopers didn’t make it out of the simulation alive. More than the high-intensity shooters it visually recalls, Commando brings to mind Metal Gear Solid, another military shooter about cloned warriors who are conditioned for violence and don’t get a chance to truly live, though Kojima’s political ideas are of coursemore deliberate than the subtext of a Star Wars game. There’s a kind of sad irony to the game’s last mission, the liberation of Wookies on Kashyyyk, as Delta Squad and their fellow clones are forever pressed into a life of service for an empire about to go full mask off.

As a player, Republic Commando makes you aware of the fact that the clone army is a superweapon for which a need was manufactured, and the humans that make up this force are viewed as expendable and interchangeable, despite the clear personalities that emerge between the members of your squadron, who you command and order. As you take on one super battle droid after another, one of your teammates wisecracks that “they’re a copy of a copy of a copy,” unwittingly painting a self-portrait made all the more bleak for its lack of self-awareness. We're in on the joke, observing the clones through the lens of a video game that probably isn't all that different from the simulations where they were raised and formed, taught that a job and an objective were an adequate substitute for individuality and freedom.