Deadly Skies III
The series that first debuted at the Dreamcast launch is back for more, but can it fly higher than Ace Combat?
It would be fairly accurate to say that console gamers haven't been drowning in conventional flight combat games: if you were forced to recollect a seminal example from the genre, chances are the old school gamer in you would cite AM2's Afterburner, whilst the PlayStation generation would happily extol the virtues of the Ace Combat series. Obscured by both of these titles is the Deadly Skies series. Debuting alongside the launch of the Dreamcast, Deadly Skies (aka Airforce Delta) was a graphical showcase, but never managed to establish itself as a monster franchise. With the Xbox receiving it's own incarnation of Deadly Skies in recent times, it was inevitable that the market monster that is the PS2 would be host to the third game in the franchise, Deadly Skies III.
For those who have sampled previous Deadly Skies games, you'd be forgiven for concluding that the cycle of mediocrity permeating its predecessors will be perpetuated with Deadly Skies III. Despite having a huge range of craft to fly as well as a story that helps to tie the missions down to some sort of stable foundation, it won't come as a surprise that these attempts at rejuvenating the ailing series do nothing to address the problematic fundamentals of gameplay that have been present since the first outing. It doesn't look like we'll be jumping off the good ship Mediocrity just yet, folks.
But hold your horses, because Deadly Skies III doesn't make this immediately clear, thanks to an initially impressive roster of additions to a worringly dated formula. To wit: the first breath of fresh air that gets pumped into the series is the presence of a story - or at least it might've been had any discernable effort been put in to making this anything other than derivative and generic padding. In the not so distant future (oh my - it begins) Earth is the host to two warring factions, both intent on controlling the globe. You are a pilot with Delta Squadron, Lt. Ken Thomas, a disaffected and unfeeling combat ace. Also joining you in Delta Squadron is a whole host of other pilots and officers, the female portion of which are unfeasibly beautiful (for armed forces officers, at least). The story itself could sustain interest regardless of the glaringly obvious parallels with Macross and Independence Day. Indeed, were the pacing and execution of the narrative of the same standards as its inspiration, there might have been hope for it.
The second most notable addition to the existing formula is the expanding list of fighter planes on offer, a catalogue far in excess of both the Xbox and Dreamcast incarnations combined. With each plane having its own unique handling and abilities, there also comes the capacity to repair and upgrade your machines, using money earned from successful missions. This works well to a degree, but you never really seem to benefit from the upgrades unless they're weapons-based. The cosmetic side of things (changing paint jobs and so on) is largely expected but certainly nothing to crow over.
Both the story and upgrade content are wrapped up in a presentation not too dissimilar to Squaresoft's Front Mission 3, with your ability to move around the airbase depicted by still drawings. The dialogue between you and NPC's is even less laborious, with the exception of spoken dialogue being used at the more pivotal stages. For all the in-between moments in areas like the cafeteria and the shop, text-based dialogue is accompanied by manga stills of your friends and colleagues. Whilst this may present a problem to those with an aversion to the Japanese design ethic, Japanese RPG fans will immediately feel at home in their surroundings.
Visually speaking, Deadly Skies III does a fairly good job with rendering the fighter jets, especially when you consider the huge selection on offer. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the combat environments, which range from functional to outright ugly. Landscapes are often lacking in detail and in some instances are made up of nothing more than what appears to be 3 or 4 different colours. On the one hand, a lack of detail is forgivable given the average altitude at which you'll be flying at, but exceptions such as air to surface strikes are where you'll notice this the most.
Couple this with the gameplay sections that are just as dull and repetitive as every other Deadly Skies game and you soon realise we're back in mediocre territory. Fundamentally, control of your fighter jet isn't so much a problem - the control scheme is well laid out and the gameplay itself isn't particularly complicated. What grates with this reviewer is the lack of dynamic movement within the game. It's fair to say that Fighter Jets are fairly fast and manoeuvrable, but not in Deadly Skies. The only way to tell how fast you're going is by using the cockpit details, as there's no discernable speed change on screen. This in itself is an annoyance, but soon becomes a problem when you have difficulty in judging your speed relative to, for instance, a land-based target.
So where does the aforementioned boredom creep in? As with many games, it's the missions and their content that can prove to be their undoing, and with Deadly Skies III, a distinct lack of variety makes for a dull experience. From mission to mission, you'll find yourself repeating the same tasks dressed up in new clothes with some story slapped on for good measure. Literally, you're entire playing experience will largely consist of dog fights/defending installations/attacking installations.
Almost everything about this game is functional. Not fun, not engaging, merely functional. It would be churlish of me to suggest that this relegates the game to the doldrums where nobody save the most hardened flight fans will touch it, as there's certainly a lot going for Deadly Skies III. Unfortunately for Konami the 'III' suffix is a terrible burden for a game where its predecessors have gone largely unnoticed.