Lethal Skies Elite Pilot: Team SW Review
Developer: Asmik Ace Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2
In the near future, the world is ravaged by global warming. Coastlines are completely reshaped as the rising ocean submerges low-lying areas, swallowing up whole cities in the process. Some of those cities are rebuilt as giant floating platforms – a marvel, but a vulnerable marvel. The worldwide catastrophe widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots, as the have-nots were without the means to recover from this disaster. As a result, they have taken up arms against the World Alliance (your side). Backed by a former World Alliance country, the disaffected countries are now bound up in the World Order Reorganization Front (your enemy). With that backdrop, you hop into the pilot's seat of a large selection of modern fighter aircraft as well as some fictional, futuristic "black program" fighters. You'll fly over 20 missions, both air-to-air and air-to-surface type, and unlock secret prizes along the way if you're skillful enough to earn high mission ranks.
Rob de los Reyes
Comparisons between Lethal Skies Elite Pilot: Team SW and Namco's Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies are inevitable if for no other reason than that there are relatively few fighter combat games available for the PlayStation 2. In fact, notwithstanding the differences between fatal and fragmented skies, the casual observer may well have difficulty spotting the difference if you were to put both games into a third-person view demo mode. But anyone who plays will soon enough uncover at least one key difference: Lethal Skies is sometimes extremely (and artificially) difficult, even at the lowest level of difficulty setting. This is not, in and of itself, a value judgment, but it is probably the first and last thing to consider before putting Lethal Skies in your shopping cart. In between those bookends, you'll find that Lethal Skies is both attractive and fast, with clean-looking mission briefings and user interfaces.
That cleanliness, however, can range to the clinical since, unlike Ace Combat, there is no discernable story line nor cutscene cinematics to add personality. This is largely a shame. The basic backstory, while hardly original, offers a structure sturdy enough to support a more vivid rendering of a world torn apart. Still, Lethal Skies delivers exactly what it promises in this regard: action, action and more action. Shorn of cinematic interludes, you end up with a game that flows quickly and is easy to stop and start. As with other contrasting elements, your view of the absence of story is a matter of taste. Still, every game requires drama in one form or another, if not through a unified story, then at least through a steady increase of mission intensity that keeps pace with your learning curve. Lethal Skies occasionally stumbles here, putting simple missions next to sadistically difficult missions. The effect can be frustrating for the impatient (such as your reviewer), as you curse the TV and wonder how the hell you suddenly got so much worse at the game than you were five minutes ago.
That said, the missions of Lethal Skies are pleasantly tighter than those of Ace Combat. You tend to start missions almost right on top of the action, and even when required to land after destroying targets, you rarely have far to go. In other words, unless you were absolutely enchanted by the radio banter of Ace Combat, you'll find the lack of long, uneventful stretches of free-flying a welcome change. In fact, on this basis if no other, you may find it a bit tough to revisit Ace Combat after playing awhile with Lethal Skies. The overall aesthetics are comparable, and, at points, an improvement on Ace Combat. The planes are absolutely gorgeous, though you may miss the wobbling of the heated air behind the thrusters and the movement of wing flaps. The sounds of the aircraft are also top-notch, from the drone of the engine to the hammering of your vulcan gun to the "phffffffst" of a launched missile. The concepts of the terrain are clever, including the submerged skyline of New York and burned-out husk of Tokyo. The trouble is that, while adequately rendered, the environmental catastrophe in the story seems a thin excuse not to do more with the quality of the landscape and its structures. Even so, it's a trifle in the end; you'll be far more interested in keeping your eyes on your sleek plane and your doomed target than on the ground.
The difference-maker here is the mission design, and, more to the point, its difficulty level. The control scheme is almost identical to that of Ace Combat, and takes only a little practice to learn how to do some impressive maneuvering. Unlike Ace Combat, though, the ordinance rig is fairly realistic. You have unlimited ammo for your vulcan, but your missile complement is much more limited. Some missions require you to be letter-perfect with your missiles or face the prospect of relying on your guns. Again, depending on your tolerance for realistic versus arcade play, it's possible to enjoy the light sting of indecision as you wrestle over whether to load your L pylon with a fuel tank or one more set of missiles. The key to designing difficult but entertaining missions lies in your ability to blend the challenges into the background and to reward your players with the feeling that they are more skilled than they really are. Lethal Skies runs into some trouble here. Having opted for a more realistic, more difficult mode of play than Ace Combat, those design imperatives become more urgent. What is occasionally delivered, however, is an unpleasant straddling of the simulation/arcade divide.
Canyon runs (the flight game equivalent of jumping puzzles) don't test your flight skill as much as they test your sense memory and your luck. After the twelfth run, you'll start to instinctively turn right, right, up, left, down... but, oops, you were off by a centimeter. It's more work than fun. The second canyon run, complete with stone ledges to fly under and over (remember the original Star Wars arcade game and its Death Star trench run?) is so frustrating that you'll wish for a cheat code to drop a tactical nuke from a B-52 and get on with the game. Contrast this with the more subtle but still challenging Alps mission. Your targets are on the uneven ground of the mountains, making certain attack angles more favorable than others. The WORF planes and the mountains themselves are enemies, but just to the extent they would be in real life. In other words, whereas the canyon run feels like blocks are dropped for the sole purpose of screwing you up, the Alps mission spreads the challenge into an overall ambience. When you beat the canyon run, you feel like a video gamer. When you beat the Alps mission, you feel like a pilot.
Affection for Ace Combat is deeply entrenched, and this could present an obstacle for Lethal Skies. But it need not. Lethal Skies is visually beautiful, rich with sound and punctuated by thrilling moments. It is, unfortunately, also punctuated by awkward and punishing mission design. The good news is that most missions are relatively short, so if you can muster the patience to get through the troublesome levels, they soon fade out of memory. Whether a flight combat game needs a deep storyline is a matter of personal taste. Even if you prefer a story, you likely won't feel cheated by its absence. You will, however, feel cheated if you lay out $50 only to discover that you can't get past the "boss" in the fifth mission. Do yourself a favor and give Lethal Skies a test flight at the rental counter. You may find you're readier for the challenge than you thought.