Reviewed: September 22, 2003
Released: September 9, 2003
The Frontier Nations' (FN) military, with the elite fighter squadron Team SW among their ranks, had overcome the vicious attack launched by the separatist World Order Reorganization Front (WORF). Though still coping with the effects of global warming, the world seemed to be on the road to recovery. A Global Coalition was formed, with the mainstream countries of North America leading they way towards rebuilding their power structure.
But seeds of resentment slowly bloomed in Europe. While these nations had industrial strength, their weapon technology had proven inferior to that of the mainstream countries, primarily the FN forces and its powerful Air Force.
The remnants of WORF saw their opportunity. Their technology in the last war had been superior but they lacked broad support in the war. They quickly dispatched intelligence to pinpoint where distrust of the FN was strong and secretly contacted governments to lobby their cause.
A vicious storm rages in the skies above the FN outpost of Newfoundland. Defense radar picks up unidentified craft headed for the city. They are fighters escorting a fleet of B-2™ bombers. Further east, FN radar stations are picking up more signals. Massive, supersonic objects are bearing down on the city from sub-orbital space.
There's only one fighter ready for take-off. The solo Team SW pilot scrambles into action. War has begun…
If that isn’t enough to get your adrenaline pumping then you are already dead. Seriously, the backstory for Sammy Studios’ latest game, Lethal Skies II does an amazing job of setting up one of the best flight action/sim titles to hit the PS2 since Ace Combat 4. Which leads to the obvious question, “Does Lethal Skies II equal or even surpass AC4?” Read on.
Lethal Skies II features:
Console air-combat games have always treaded a fine line between action and simulation. After all, if you make it too hard the gamers lose interest and if you make it too easy the sim-enthusiasts complain. Lethal Skies II manages to successfully blend both sim and arcade elements to create a perfect mix that can be further tailored to each pilot’s strengths through options and difficulty settings.
Lethal Skies II is a significant improvement over last year’s original air combat game with much better mission designs that compliment both air and ground combat thanks to an improved and somewhat exaggerated arsenal as well as noticeably improved flight dynamics and control. Often in these types of games switching between the various planes only offers statistical and visual changes, but in Lethal Skies II each of the 19 planes has very distinct handling and performance properties. You’ll often have to relearn how to fly.
Weapons were realistically restricted in the first game, but planes now have exaggerated payloads that allow pilots the luxury of a few missed shots without having to restart the missions. Sure, it might not be realistic to have a plane with 20 rockets but it’s a lot more fun, especially in light of the new and improved enemy AI.
The enemy is much tougher to shoot down and ground targets are much more aggressive in their targeting. Typically in these types of games air-to-air combat is a breeze requiring you to get a tone and fire off one or two missiles. The enemy pilots in Lethal Skies II are incredibly nimble, even in the easy skill level, and will often break your lock. Most planes take multiple missile hits and you have to reestablish tone before each shot, which will have you favoring your guns for most of your dog fighting. This was a refreshing change since I almost never use guns in these games unless I am totally out of all my other weapons.
Lethal Skies II offers you a crash course in flight combat with a four-part training mission that covers take-off and landing, air combat, ground combat, and a final exam that merges all these. Each test can be taken at Easy, Normal, and Hard (must be unlocked) levels and the challenges increase with each level. For instance, on easy you get to land on the airstrip you take-off from but on Normal you have to land on an aircraft carrier. Hard involves a VTOL aircraft and an even smaller landing area.
Control is very nice, both with a standard Dual Shock or a joystick like the ThrustMaster Fox 2 Pro Top Gun. The planes control as you would expect with the left stick while the right stick gives you panning views around the plane. You have several excellent views to choose from including HUD, cockpit, and external and all are quite playable. Some are more useful than others during certain parts of the game.
The game itself is quite challenging if not downright difficult, even on the easy skill setting. Kicking things up to Normal or Hard is painful and the unlockable Extreme mode is only for those with suicidal tendencies. Doubters only need to tackle the fourth training mission on Normal difficulty where you find yourself under attack from three planes and two ground targets before you are 100-feet off the runway.
As you make your way through the 20 levels that make up the overall campaign you will engage in all sorts of missions ranging from intercept, escort, defend, and even some amazing boss battles. These are interspersed with some exhilarating cutscenes that show just how cinematic the designers wanted to make this sequel.
My only complaints with Lethal Skies II are minor ones and include silly things like automated landing gear that deploys whenever you get too low and flares and chaff that are deployed by the computer, usually at the wrong time. When you finally are able to control flares and chaff (hard skill level) you’ll be too overwhelmed with enemies for it to matter. Again, this is all minor stuff and most gamers will probably find it more helpful than annoying.
Graphically, Lethal Skies II is about as close to perfection as it gets, at least for this genre of game. There is an option to cycle through various levels of motion blur to enhance the blinding sensation of speed. Medium seemed to work best as High just put too much blur into the scenery. There is also an abundance of special effects for weather, explosions, missile trails, tracer rounds, and billowing smoke.
The plane models are what really steal the show in this game though. In-game models now look as detailed as the planes we are used to seeing in pre-rendered cutscenes. You’ll see the exhaust cone expand and contract when you use the afterburner and all of the control surfaces and speed brake move realistically.
Your choice of camera views is greatly varied and for the first time in my gaming history all of them are playable and even useful depending on the situation. The HUD opens up the entire screen and overlays your display while the cockpit cam offers two levels of zoom with a free-floating cockpit and working instruments. The external cameras are equally as exciting and even a bit distracting with all the moving parts of your plane.
The opening movie will blow you away. It starts off with what I “believe” to be FMV then cuts into game graphics but the transition is so seamless that it’s hard to tell where the video ends and the CGI begins, or if there ever was any video. It’s just that good. The between-mission movies are definitely CG with a unique visual style that doesn’t try to mimic realism but offers a colorful painted look. It might not be as artistic or original as the comic book presentation of AC4, but it certainly is more cinematic.
The post-mission replays are excellent and recap the entire mission from nearly a dozen different cameras including a tactical camera that shows the planes as arrows on a 3D grid. There are even some cameras and special video effects that you have to unlock. All of this visual goodness is wrapped up in a great menu interface to complete a topnotch presentation.
Somewhere there is one guy who makes all the music for these flight combat games. The music in Lethal Skies II sounds just like the music in any other air combat game you have probably played. It’s all your typical thumping rock that is supposed to maintain that level of anxiety, but instead wears thin after the first few missions. Surprisingly, the military themes in the menus and the opening score are excellent.
There is plenty of speech in the cinematics and mission briefings and the acting is some of the best going. A lot of the speech is heard through in-game radio chatter as you talk to your wingmen or receive updated orders from base. It all combines to put you in the cockpit and in the action.
Sound effects are excellent but don’t really go anywhere that we haven’t been before. You get the tracking beeps and tone of a missile lock, the rat-a-tat-tat of the cannon, the whoosh of rockets and missiles, and the hum of landing gear retracting. All of these sounds are appropriately adjusted based on your current view.
Plan on 10-15 hours to finish the campaign mode on the Easy level. You’ll certainly develop strategies that will help you replay these missions on the harder levels if you so desire. You can unlock the Hard and Extreme modes as well as several other goodies like movies, artwork, and game features.
The main game does conform to a linear story and progression of missions that won’t change on future replays, so your only incentive to replay is to increase the challenge and meet it. There is multiplayer support for split-screen and iLink, which may add some additional life to the game when you’ve conquered the story mode.
So to answer the question posed at the beginning of this review, Lethal Skies II easily equals the quality of Ace Combat 4 and in some ways it may even surpass the competition. A lot of your decision will be based on personal preference. I found the story and overall presentation much more involving in Lethal Skies II and the gameplay was more challenging and realistic.
Chances are, if you are a fan of the genre then you have probably already placed AC4 and maybe even the original Lethal Skies in which case this is the next logical step in your console flight sim career. Lethal Skies II is an excellent game that will appeal to a broad range of gamers and one that you won’t want to miss.