This is my element.
I am now out of it.
It’s foolish at this point to make a disclaimer regarding my ignorance of the flight combat genre. Foolish because I’ve made it before. So if you want, you can read those first paragraphs. On the off chance that you’re un-inclined, I’ll summarize it for you: I am not hardcore. I might even suck, just a little bit. So the grains of salt with which you take this preview should be of the larger-than-table variety.
It’s a good game, it’s a solid game, but it doesn’t know what it wants to be. There’s so much to like about it…the graphics are superb, and the FMV oozes style. It’s rather like a three dimensional actualization of fifties war comics in this regard. The menu screens are active, earth-toned and jagged, pulling you in with similar nostalgic techniques. Even the backgrounds for the briefing screens belong very much in that same aesthetic. The comic comparison holds true until you actually get into the game. Herein we discover one of the first confusions – the FMV and the in-game graphics use very different color palates. The unexpected hype I got from the intro became a mild disappointment when I got into the actual game. The graphics are good, but they don’t follow the lead. Imagine playing through a 50s issue of Bizarre War Tales!! I know that this is not going to change – the game will retain it’s cool look in the menus and CG, then go for full-on realism in the actual play. That’s very unfortunate.
So the game presented itself to me as not being fully self-aware. The folks at Asmik Ace seem to have stretched themselves – there’s a definite gap between the art design and the polygonal implementation. The fact that the box art leans towards the realism side shows me that Sammy themselves may not even be aware of this, or particularly care for it just yet.
My second major problem is the script. Now, if you’re going to lure me in with a certain expectation, either fulfill this expectation or defy it for a reason. The script is early, of this I’m aware. But at this point there’s no care going into it. In my preview build (it’s 85% complete), the text is direct-ishly translated from the original Japanese, and read by someone who’d much rather be doing something else. There’s definitely nothing of a comic in this. Even less of the ‘sci-fi’ style to which the enclosed fact sheet alludes. There’s some sci-fi in here, but it’s not in the script.
There’s no passion, no conviction to the ‘mission briefing’ (which is designed to be something more akin to story), nor in the dialogue between pilots. I love radio chatter when it’s done well, but a significant portion of the dialogue feels very uninspired, and quite often nonsensical. As an example – in one mission, I am to fly through a narrow twisty canyon, then land inside of an enemy hangar to pick up one of our spies. He keeps in contact with me via the radio. He mentions that the guards have spotted him – I hear gunfire in my headphones. But his voice doesn’t even quiver – now he’s out of ammo and heading for the hanger he says. Do the guards not follow him there? Does the fact that I pick him up a full minute after he says this not give them enough time to place even one bullet in his skull?
And they'd better put a damned pilot in the plane by the time this thing is released. As I waited in the hangar for the spy to enter the cockpit, I noticed a conspicuous lack of personnel in the driver's seat.
It could be said that I’m picking nits here. But it could also be said that the designers didn’t care to make a good script. The script is circumstantial, and secondary to the gameplay. But gameplay alone does not a good game make. If I am to become involved, there needs to be more. And it’s here, it’s just not present.
But damn, it plays rather nicely. The controls are responsive, and easy to figure out once you mess with the game for a bit. It makes me want to pick up Skygunner again and see if I wasn’t just off my rocker on the control issue.
The missions are clear, and for the most part can be completed with careful plane choice (there are nineteen, you know), and skillful maneuvering. Most of these missions are what you’d expect – shoot down the planes, blow up the ships, but the stealth missions are rather interesting…and there’s an unusual emphasis on the vulcan gun. More often than not, you’ll be attacking ground forces, at least as far as I’ve gotten thus far. In certain stages, the fly-by strafing can be quite exhilarating actually.
And as a total side note – just out of curiosity, I decided to fly as high as I could. I aimed for the clouds and passed through the closest ones. I’m used to that…but I’m also used to there being clouds above me that I can never reach. Looking up, I thought that’s what I was seeing. But those clouds I assumed to be part of the 2D plane that is the top of the sky soon passed me by. Then I was above the clouds entirely, up in the blue, where it had before been overcast. I was rather impressed by that. Turning around to return to the fight, I saw just how high up I was. I don’t know if there’s a limit to how high you can go, but…damn. I got up there.
As you rescue pilots and whatnot, they can come to your aid, joining your squad as it were. Each pilot has a different level, which can increase as they fight. But there’s an odd bit – you can only have four pilots at any given time, including yourself. Now, perhaps this makes sense in a game world. But what I’m seeing in every battle is that without my forces, every mission is doomed. I am the allied forces. So I can’t imagine an actual military force saying “no…you’ve got five pilots, but let’s leave one behind. Don’t want too many people out there fighting for our side, LOLLERZ.”
It’s just arbitrary and weird. I’d appreciate all the help I can get, especially since the pansies keep getting their planes blown up.
I’m semi-compelled to keep playing. The variety of the missions is good enough to keep me wondering what’s next. But if Sammy wants to turn this thing into an experience, they’ll need to pay attention to the script, make it engaging, hire voice actors who can pretend to care that they’re interested in the outcome of this war, and give us that cartoon aesthetic throughout. Make the narrator/mission briefings sound like he’s on a mono AM radio, or HAM or something. I don’t care that these are modern planes, you’ve teased me with the idea, now I want to see it followed through. It’s supposed to be sci-fi anyway.
I’ve only seen a few ‘alien ships’ so far, incidentally. They’re cool enough. But upon first seeing them, Grace (one of my pilots) said: “What’s that, a new kind of plane?” And that’s the extent of the conversation.
Grace: “What the hell are those? I’ve never seen anything so fast!“
Matt: “Damned if I know. But let’s see if they can die.”
[after the first of them is downed]
Whoever Killed it: “Whoooei! They blow up real nice.”
Somebody else: “keep ‘em coming!”
Now you’re in business. Look, I solved your first dialogue problem. That’ll be one dollar. Cheesy? Yes. Better? If you want a story, certainly. Sci-fi? Totally.
We’ll see if these elements are changed for the final release. If they’re not, I’m afraid Lethal Skies II will wind up just another game. It’d be a shame…there’s potential here for a lot more.
brandon sheffield would re-write their script for a solid 20 bones, if he thought they'd actually use it.