Lethal Skies II Review

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Publisher: Sammy Entertainment
Developer: Asmik Ace Entertainment

Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

Sammy and Asmik take to the air once again in this near-future jet combat game. In addition to the slate of modern day fighters such as the F-15, F-16 and F/A 18, the skillful player will unlock some speculative planes of the future for a total of 13 playable jets. But until you unlock the double-secret future planes, the weapons of today will simply have to suffice for all your death-from-above needs.

Rob de los Reyes

FI has spent enough time with Sammy Entertainment to know that it's a legitimate up-and-comer with a plan. Of course, even the best laid schemes are prone to a bump in the road here and there... even if traveling by jet. The original Lethal Skies (developed, as was the sequel, by Asmik Ace Entertainment) was a mix of well-executed ideas and pure confusion, but, for all that, was still something to sit down and enjoy. Lethal Skies II, while a giant step forward in some ways, is a troubling setback in others. It has attempted to capture some of what makes Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies so popular while maintaining what set the first Lethal Skies apart. And Asmik has partially succeeded in that regard. Unfortunately, it succeeds mostly at the (not unimportant) surface layer without digging deeper into what really makes Ace Combat worth playing. Like its predecessor, Lethal Skies II has some memorable play to offer, but you'll have to slog through the rough spots to get to it.

Looks Good

But let's start on an up note. The original Lethal Skies boasted some good-looking visuals   Lethal Skies II greatly improves on that already impressive base. The planes look even sharper now thanks, in part, to missiles that are visible under the wings. The biggest advances, however, relate to the ground and objects on the ground. In the original, these items were noticeably dull, even if they didn't detract overmuch from the overall experience. Or so you might have thought until you see what a difference there is now. The land and the air finally look like they belong to the same game, and it's hard not to be impressed with the total visual package. Lethal Skies II is simply one of the better looking PS2 games you'll find out there.

In addition to these "in-mission" enhancements, Lethal Skies II also includes interstitial, hand-drawn scenes to tell the story (more on that ahead) and serve as backdrops for mission briefings. This is clearly a nod in the direction of Ace Combat 04, and, by and large, it does deliver a nifty sense of something like an old war comic. Having said that, the setup and briefing stages are now a little on the cluttered side as they shoot for a "Hey, wow! We're in your face!" feel. In the first Lethal Skies, those screens were clean to the point of being clinical. Surely there's a middle ground to be had. If not, Asmik would probably do better to err on the side of clarity in screens that are about understanding what to do.

In another nod to Ace Combat 04, Lethal Skies II beefs up its story component. The original game feigned at a story, but didn't work too hard at fleshing it out. Maybe that mattered to you, maybe it didn't – whatever was involved in the story, Lethal Skies was really about arcade-style jet combat action. Here, pains are taken to make sure a fuller story is presented and illustrated. The trouble is that while the superficial mechanics of storytelling are observed, the story itself doesn't have much to offer. Its grammar is awkward (sometimes it seems like haiku), its plot is opaque, and the story is totally devoid of characters. Something about a jet fighter squadron, people attacking and your duty to stop them... who knows? In the end, if you deliver solid mission design and engaging action, players tell their own stories just through their actions. Perhaps it doesn't really matter if Asmik doesn't quite pull off the story thing.

But Hurts Real Bad

Unless, of course, it also fails to deliver the gameplay to make up for the lack of story. And here, no two ways about it, is where Lethal Skies II struggles. The first Lethal Skies was hit-or-miss on mission design. Some were rollicking fun, others were teeth-grindingly irritating. Adding to the problem was the lack of flow between missions. One mission would seem tough but fair, the next would be impossibly hard, and the one after that was no harder than a training mission (though most missions were difficult at any setting). Just when you started to feel like you knew what you were doing, the game slapped you down with sadistic glee. But at least you could get fairly deep into the game before encountering problems more significant than a nuisance. Mission design in Lethal Skies II is just as troublesome, but worse from a marketing point of view since all the flaws are on display right up front. The first mission is a slick air-to-air intercept mission with a clever twist, but is still easy enough to manage while learning the controls. The second mission adds ground targets, which seems like a good second step. That is, until you realize that rather than gradually introducing you to the unnatural and dangerous act of diving at ground targets at inordinate speeds by, say, setting up some targets on flat ground, it gives you moving targets hiding in a canyon. As it turns out, the mission isn't as hard as it might seem. I beat it by taking out one set of targets then flying around in circles until the game declared the mission complete.

In what may be the final straw for renters thinking about a purchase (and hence the aforementioned poor marketing decision), mission four turns out to be one of the most difficult in the game. Not only must you fly through a twisted canyon with the death-by-explosion condition that you not fly over the top, but you must then land a plane in a clearing, pick up a person, and take off again, all while ground emplacements shoot at you and winds try to force you into the ground and walls. Canyon missions are the flight game equivalent of jumping puzzles in first-person shooter games. They're hard in ways that are capricious and unrelated to the task they purport to simulate. They're a crutch, an artifact of days of more limited technology and game design possibility. Such missions are troublesome enough for the novice pilot without adding the landing challenge – a mission requirement, by the way, that you were able to dispense with in the original Lethal Skies. But not here. Play the mission on the easy setting, and you're still faced with the elements that make it arbitrarily difficult, like gale force winds and landing the plane. The spirit-crushing feeling of making it through the canyon only to miss the landing is something like playing an action game or RPG with a thirty-minute slog up to a boss monster only to discover you're out of health potions and there's no save point before the fight.

Throw Me a Frickin' Bone Here

Lethal Skies II adds a "training" mode, one element of which is landing practice. That's a good idea and an absolute requirement if you're going to force landings. Except that training mode doesn't offer any training, just practice. Crash your plane seven times in a row trying to land, and you'll have no better idea on the last failure what you're doing wrong that you had on your first attempt. What's the proper landing speed? When should you be braking? Are you meant to get the nose up? How do you do that given the arcade-style flight model? You'll pick it up eventually, some of you more easily than others, but those that need the help will be frustrated by its absence. And those who'd rather chuck the whole landing bit altogether will be done at mission four.

And it'll be a shame if people give up there. After mission four, the game eases up a bit, though erratic difficulty levels remain a real problem. If you've found a way to master landing, you've solved half the problem. Moreover, you don't have to wait too long before you start to see the creative flashes that make Lethal Skies II worth a shot. Mission seven sends you on another prisoner rescue, this time equipped with a VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) jet. You take out air targets, destroy the prison's turret positions, then execute a vertical landing in the prison courtyard to grab your man. If wrecking the enemy and dropping out of the sky like an avenging angel doesn't get your testosterone flowing, nothing will.

Yet even with such bursts of novelty and excitement, too much else waits to drag you down. Too many missions are cloaked in fog and darkness, especially early on when you're still learning. There's an enunciation-obsessed narrator. The documentation fails to offer any explanation of the rating system used to unlock new planes. And the background music has gone from merely generic in the first Lethal Skies to actively irritating in Lethal Skies II. In the end, such defects risk overwhelming some of the game's powerful advances. In addition to the mightily improved graphics, your wingmen are now actually worth having around. Useless wingmen are a long-standing complaint of such games, and it's good to see real progress on that front. In the end, there's probably nothing wrong with an arcade-style jet combat game that's all form and no substance... as long as you actually get a chance to see the best of the form. Such a game might not win many awards, but (since flying combat planes is one of the inherently "cooler" things ever simulated) there's something to be said for cooking up a few hot-looking planes and getting out of the player's way. That's the premise that the Lethal Skies series only seems to grip in bursts. It needs to hold on for the whole game.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 3, 2003 10:51 AM.

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