The console flight sim market has remained relatively stagnant, with Namco’s Ace Combat series essentially reigning the gamepad-driven skies. Last year, Sammy Studios challenged the crown with their release of Lethal Skies, an intriguing mix of futuristic plotlines and modern-day aviation weaponry. While commended for its gameplay, many critics complained that the port of an older title couldn’t stand up to its competition. A year later, Sammy Studios seeks to quiet those gripes by releasing Lethal Skies II, a newly designed title that builds upon the strengths of the first title, making this flight series a formidable presence on the PS2.
Keeping the futuristic theme from the first game, Lethal Skies II takes sometime this century during a time of catastrophic global disasters. Two international factions have waged a lengthy war across the surface of the earth, creating even worse global warming problems than today and unleashing ecological destruction on a massive scale. Following the events of the first title, an uneasy peace is finally declared. However, the losing organization takes time to mount a counter-offensive. In a sudden sneak attack, a radar outpost in Newfoundland is attacked, launching a new global war for the control of Earth.
Gamers are cast as pilots rising to the challenge of repelling this separatist group throughout 20 levels of the single player campaign. Your instrument of destruction: 19 aircraft doled out to you as a reward for successfully completing missions. Consisting of familiar planes such as F-14 Tomcats, F/A-18 SuperHornets and MiGs, you’ll also gain access to classified experimental craft as well. Initially flying solo, you slowly accumulate wingmates who accompany you through most of your sorties against the enemy. Better believe you’ll need the backup, because Lethal Skies is true to its name, throwing tons of bullets, missiles and anti-aircraft fire at your team. Even trickier, Lethal Skies restricts the number of armaments your plane holds to their realistic counterparts. Gone are the days of constantly firing missile after missile; once you’re out, you’re down to your machine guns, so you better learn how to dogfight effectively.
Air-to-Air, Air-to-Sea and Air-to-Land missions are merely generic terms within Lethal Skies to explain the basics of your operations. Intercepting bombers, performing rescue missions and launching raids of your own are merely a few of the exercises that you’ll receive. If you decide to take a break from saving the world, you can challenge friends to a dogfight, a test of aerial accuracy or other multiplayer modes to see who’s the true Red Baron in your neighborhood. Or if you need a little refresher yourself, you can launch the training and re-discover how to fly right.
Lethal Skies II is a marked improvement over its predecessor, with larger, cleaner models for each plane included. The heads-up displays do a great job of making you feel like you’re in a plane with a back seat view of the action, and watching many of these aircraft on the tarmac or soaring through the wild blue yonder is a large bag of eye candy. While the planes will blow you away, the camera angles will add to your amazement, featuring 5 independent cameras that track inside and outside of the cockpit with first and third person viewpoints. Dynamically capturing every mission from start to finish for its spectacular replay feature, which successes and failures with scenes, you’d swear some of this footage was taken from an unnamed Hollywood project and not your flying. You’ll still run into jaggies every now and then, along with generic explosions and flat, non-descript ground texturing that suddenly pops into focus. Additionally, many of the backgrounds on briefings can be so cluttered with color that it’s hard to pick out the actual text, but for the most part, action within Lethal Skies is visually impressive.
Sound isn’t anything particularly incredible, vacillating between a slower, bluesy vibe and a hard-edged rock theme. Effects, on the other hand, are incredible, with tons of gear creaks, rattles and clicks to give you the sense of actual involvement with your plane. From the whirring of an afterburner getting kicked in to the incessant buzzing of an incoming missile, Lethal Skies deserves high marks for these aural touches. Voice acting also deserves a nice mention, with above average voiceovers and deliveries provided by the actors. There are moments when it falls flat and almost monotone, but for the most part, it’s a good addition.
Lethal Skies, however, might turn some players off by its controls, especially novice pilots. Unwieldly and tricky to learn and master, expect to take plenty of time getting accustomed to the basics of taking off and landing. There are multiple instances where you’ll have to perform solid touchdowns, and considering the limited sensitivity of the analog sticks, you might have to develop the hands of a surgeon to successfully avoid becoming a fireball. Plus, if you become accustomed to the controls of one craft, the skills you’ve learned don’t necessarily apply to the next, so you may spend a lot of restarts applying your knowledge to the new machine. This can be deadly, especially if you’ve found yourself in the midst of heavy dogfighting and you’re just picking up how fast or maneuverable a plane is (right into the computer’s crosshairs for a few well-placed blasts, that is.) Additionally, performing some maneuvers requires quite a bit of force to execute. Afterburners sometimes take two or three presses of the shoulder button before it kicks in, just as air brakes sometimes do. Quirks like this often lead to tons of crashes, especially when your plane should be more agile than it acts onscreen and smashes into an object. While much of these facets could’ve been addressed within the training mode, there’s absolutely no instruction to be found, reducing the training mode to more of a number of sample missions than tutorials on gameplay.
Lethal Skies performs an admirable job of fusing a unique, futuristic plot with realistic, accurate aircraft to create a new kind of flight sim. Being able to take off into the skies in the military’s most trusted aerial machines is quite a rush, and Lethal Skies provides more than enough challenge to satisfy adrenaline junkies. However, the control scheme goes a long way in marring what would’ve been a great game for fans of flight sims or novices looking to get into the genre.