It's not unusual to predict that players curious about Lethal Skies will measure it against the merits of Ace Combat 4. By far, this game has been considered the most balanced and wholly entertaining title in its genre to date. First impressions led me to believe that the game would deliver more innovation in its final form. Unfortunately, Lethal Skies doesn't offer any significant distinctions to speak of, obiviating its aim to be considered a strong competitor.
The gameplay is something of a mixed bag, adopting an arcade-style control setup along with a few simulation elements thrown in for added spark. Initially, you'll have the option to fly one of three crafts (F-14D, F-16, and F/A-18 E respectively), varying in speed, mobility, firepower and stealth capacity (if applicable). More advanced jets become accessible upon completing certain conditions in the game (usually by achieving a specific grade per level). Commonplace functions include rolling and alieron control (an aspect I found to be a bit too sluggish to be considered highly useful). Although there are three response settings, respectively Slow, Normal and Quick, none of them felt entirely perfect. You can spend a great deal of time trying to adapt, and even then, it's difficult to find a happy medium.
One area where the simulation aspect shines through lies in the capacity of weapons which your craft can realistically carry. Thus, using your weapons requires the utmost moderation and strategic use if you expect to complete your missions (or spend a seemingly tedious period unloading your Vulcan Cannon on designated targets). Speaking of which, targeting air and ground enemies isn't very consistent. When dealing with ground targets, the concept is as simple as point-and-aim, which actually irriated me to no end (avoiding incoming fire while trying to acquire a target it hard, and it not like my craft has Batman-type ablative armor) Though most of the time, I felt like it was hit-and-miss. This is quite a contrast from air-based targets, where you're given a targeting aid, simply by aiming in the general direction of the intended target and bam - down in seconds. While it's certainly helpful, this is just one area where the gameplay shows some inbalance, and minimizes the true experience of dogfighting.
It seems rather obvious that Asmik endeavored to make the missions as realistic as possible, which is great for players looking for an wholesome challenge. The learning curve is rather steep, despite the option to adjust the difficulty settings per level. Thankfully, the game features training modes designed to familiarize you with the different types of missions and dogfighting. There's also a freeflight mode, which is great for testing out the various craft and developing a strategy at which is best suited for a particular stage.
Many of the objectives you'll encounter in the more advanced levels won't seem to matter regardless what difficulty you set it to. I am not sure if this was an oversight or simply intentional. What I do know is that I will never forget how frustrating the fifth level was. Ever. Basically, your mission is to defend the SW home base from enemy raiders. It just so happens that since this is a pre-emptive strike, you've had little time to refuel from the last mission. Thus you'll need to swiftly take out several enemy craft, refuel, and eliminate an mildly armed copter in the process. Never mind the fact that your wingman seem to bite it (or run out of fuel) way before the battle's over. I've went through so many different outcomes to fail that mission that it's easily become my favorite - to avoid.
As highlighted earlier, you're given a limited weapon supply. Even with the ability to customize your inventory, you can only carry but so many air-to-air/ground missles in order to complete a mission. I understand the aim was to provide some simulation aspects, but the game is not a simulation, far from it actually. Here's where your wingman come into play. Before entering a new mission, each of your wingman can be assigned specific instructions to exclusively attack ground/air targets, all enemies, or assist you as a support in whichever targets you're focused on. This feature can work to your advantage if used properly. Initially you'll begin with two, but will pick up an additional wingman later thoughout the game. I found myself starting to rely on this feature here and about, because half the time my wingman were whining about how they were suffering engine failure and planning to bail. Which is why I was rather disappointed at the extremity of your weapon limitations. It's a strain on your nerves when you're trying to complete more advanced levels, namely for defense and escort when you've already unloaded your payload on a bevy of enemy targets. Weapon management has never been so vital. Then of course, there's my favorite, the canyon level (which seems to be officially known as the "Firefox canyon mission"). I couldn't quite decide what was more of a threat - the unfriendlies, or the canyon itself (boom, boom...some alieron control please, kthx).
Beyond its gameplay oddities, Lethal Skies delivers a visually solid model design, easily going head-to-head with Air Force Delta. The developers put a high degree of emphasis upon depicting modern fighter jets, faithfully recreated down to the cockpit design and weapon modeling. Missles are fired in real time, dropping off the wings and all, complete with a blast of exhaust and creating a very realistic effect. Additionally, other optional features include a motion blur effect to signify a greater sense of speed and a G-force effect in which the screen will display a reddish glow or go dark when making sharp turns or other wild manuevers.
I wish I could say that stage design was as impressive. Although the graphic integrity is solid, it's just very flat and unappealing. Much of the backgrounds consist of low-res textures and don't really deliver much of a dynamic atmopshere. One of the most amusing level designs happens to be the first stage you encounter - set in a post-apocalyptic era where Manhattan is entirely submerged underwater. Other locations, like Paris and Tokyo carry this theme throughout. Many of the game's levels can be appreciated moreso by playing through the Battle Theater, designed as a pre-recorded demo of each of the stages you clered.
It's baffling as to why Asmik didn't integrate some distinction and personality into the soundtrack, which is as much a significant element in combat games as the action itself. All developers should be aware of this fundament. Initially I was under the impression that the theme played in the training modes were exclusive to that area alone...but I ended up hearing them throughout the main game levels as well. The theme was so mild and ambient that you won't actually even notice if it's the same track repeated in each new level. I know the developers could've put forth a stronger effort, especially when it comes to the dialogue which I felt was poorly scripted and as redundant as the commentary track notoriously featured in Madden games. The occassional chatter from your wingman and C.O. balance out what otherwise would be considered a very dull and quiet experience. The voice acting could've been tigher, or at the very least, more diverse. I could only take but so much of "Yeah, that's the way to do it..." and "Have mercy on my soul!". Man, where's my mute button?
Bottom Line: Lack of innovation is what truly hurts this game from capturing a solid niche of interest. The fact that it adopts elements that have already been established before it's development will leave players to write it off with a "been there, done that" vibe. Beyond that, I couldn't recommend this title as a warrnted purchase. It's purely a game that's only recommended for players who absolutely must indulge a new flight combat shooter.
· · · Bahn