It's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop.
Despite years confined to virtual life in front of a monitor, I've actually flown a real plane. It was an old training biplane with dual controls. The real pilot was in the back and I was in the front cockpit. He took off, took us up to a respectable altitude, and then dropped the yoke, leaving it up to me to buzz downtown Atlanta with my Navy Stearman.
After some urban aerial hijinks that would never be allowed in the post World Trade Center world, the real pilot pointed me back towards the airport. As we got close, he took the controls back because I was definitely not allowed to land the plane.
Flying around, it turns out, is easy. You just grab the stick and throw it around like you've done with a dozen games, from Red Baron to Wing Commander. Landing, on the other hand, is a bitch. Every pilot knows that the skies are nowhere near as lethal as the ground.
And the same can be said for Lethal Skies II, a game that is at its best when you're actually dogfighting up in those not-quite-as-deadly skies.
Lethal Skies II is the sequel to Lethal Skies: Elite Pilot: Team SW. Not only has the name been mercifully shortened, the game has been improved almost across the board. Those WORF (not the Klingon) fiends from the first game are back again, this time taking advantage of desperate European nations to begin their quest for global domination. You, naturally, must stop them.
Lethal Skies II takes its new plot very seriously and spends time delving into the political intrigue surrounding your aerial strikes. That attention to detail along with some terrific in-game movies really helps flesh out the game and makes it feel like more than just a bunch of unconnected dogfights.
The graphics have also gotten an overhaul, mostly in the plane department, with 19 exquisitely detailed fighters for you to fly, including the well known MiGs and F-16s to special "black ops" planes. But while the planes look great, the terrain below them can still look a bit goofy with some very primitive textures, and while the game runs solidly 95% of the time, the framerate can start to stutter during hectic battles.
These battles are the best part of the game, and are good fun thanks to some sharp, intuitive controls. Every button on the controller is used, but somehow the controls all make sense and are surprisingly easy to learn. Even ordering your wingmen around is a breeze, and they're pretty smart fighters. Good thing, because they're much more important in Lethal Skies II. My one complaint about the controls isn't even the fault of the game: L1 and L2 are your throttle controls, and would work better with a proper trigger rather than the PS2's (light/hard/jam your finger) pressure sensitive buttons.
Almost everything in the game has more arcade flavor than the first Lethal Skies. Weapon loadouts are more generous and less rigorous than before, so you can have fun for longer. And missiles have been weakened this time around, so you'll find yourself dogfighting much more rather than launching from a mile out.
However, gravity sometimes still rears its ugly head, and the game goes back to thinking it's a serious sim. It still becomes frustrating when real world considerations about fuel and the necessity to land come into play. Nothing is as infuriating as (nearly) completing a long mission, flying back to base, and then having to start all over again because your landing was a little off and that lethal, implacable ground was waiting for you the whole time. If only I could just hand back the controls to that real pilot again.
At least the new split-screen multiplayer won't force you to land, although the framerate slows down enough to be bothersome. For longevity, what Lethal Skies II clearly needs is some online multiplayer, and these days there's really no excuse anymore for not having an online component.
It was always a little embarrassing as a kid to win the "Most Improved" trophy, but that's clearly what Sammy Studios gets here. Everything has been improved over the original, and yet nothing reaches the heights of greatness. Graphics are better but not perfect, gameplay is more fun but still bogs you down sometimes, and multiplayer is finally here but it's not the online dogfighting it clearly should be. But until they lighten up at the airports and flight schools, Lethal Skies II isn't a bad choice to fall back on.