Writing the second opinion for Sky Gunner has been one of the more daunting tasks during my tenure at GameCritics.com. At first glance, the game looks like something the GameCritics.com review crew would gush over—a nicely designed shooter with some fantastic aesthetic touches that attempt to take the 2D games that guys like Brad and myself loved so dearly and convert it to 3D. Yet while the aesthetics are very nice, they can't even begin to make up for the lackluster gameplay that Sky Gunner foists upon its audience. So why has the second opinion been so difficult? Because despite the glaring flaws, there are a lot of things I like about the game. This has caused me a great deal of reviewer's angst in trying to figure out how to ultimately score the game.
After a great deal of thought, though, I'm going to agree with Brad. While Sky Gunner has some really wonderful elements (the anime opening had both fellow GameCritic Thom Moyles and myself impressed when we popped it into the PlayStation 2), they can't compensate for the bland and lackluster gameplay.
Somewhere in Sky Gunner there's a great shooter—unfortunately, it's buried under a small mountain of technical and design flaws that make the gaming experience seem more like a chore than fun.
Perhaps the biggest problem is one that Brad pointed out—the game's identity crisis. Sky Gunner isn't sure if it's a shooter or a flight simulator. It offers up gameplay elements from both styles of game, yet never commits to being either. There simply aren't enough enemies and twitch reflex moments to classify the game as a straight up shooter, nor are there enough moments where the player is required to fly with skill and precision to make it a flight simulator. Ultimately, it's a schizophrenic game that's never truly sure of what it's trying to be, and as such winds up failing in all areas.
My own personal gripe with the game involves the controls, which are nothing short of abysmal. Sky Gunner offers gamers two control settings, and neither of them works. The tail view keeps the plane constantly in the foreground, but doesn't offer radar for finding enemies. Playing in this mode will always keep the player in visual contact with his ship, but finding enemies is a major pain. Playing with this setting, I spent far more time flying around in circles trying to find the enemies than I did shooting them down. Definitely not a good thing.
The second setup will keep the enemy ships in sight at all times. However, the player will constantly be flying toward the camera and away from the enemies, necessitating a series of 180-degree turns to get back into the action. While this view is technically more usable than the first camera setting, it never seems to become intuitive for the player. The end result for either camera scheme is that the player spends far more time trying to get oriented and find the targets than he does engaging in combat. The 3D graphics only exacerbate the problem by making it so that planes cannot only be in front or behind you, but also above and below.
Finally, I have to second Brad's comments about the slowdown. This is, without a doubt, the worst slowdown I've ever seen in a PlayStation 2 game. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the framerate (number of frames used to animate the moving objects) drops down into the single-digit range at some points during the larger boss battles. There's no real excuse for this as the game isn't so graphics intensive as to be overworking the PlayStation 2 hardware.
I wanted to like Sky Gunner, but the flaws are so significant that the game is often more of a chore to play than anything. While the aesthetic design of the game is fabulous (it really does look like anime), the technical design is not. The title has a definite schizophrenic streak when it comes to its identity, and as such it never succeeds at being either a good shooter or flight simulator. Factor in the odd control scheme and some serious slowdown issues, and you wind up with a game that had a great deal of potential but failed to realize most of it.