When I was younger, I was a console gamer first and foremost, with PC gaming never really appealing to me. Part of that came down to extended relatives; whenever I’d watch a cousin play a PC game, it’d be either a chaotic RTS that my young mind couldn’t grasp or some kind of sprite-based shooter like Wolfenstein 3D, both of which turned out to be genres that even now I have a great deal of trouble enjoying. One fateful day, however, my younger brother and I stumbled upon a game box that looked interesting, and F-22 Lightning II became one of the first PC games we owned. For years, we entertained ourselves with the “quick missions,” most notably one where you’re tasked with protecting Air Force One. Kids have a way of being evil, though, and we’d repeatedly play through the mission solely to go rogue and blow up the president, all the while cackling things like “take that, Bill!” Nothing brings family together like high treason.
Getting this to work was a pain
I don’t have a ton of experience with DOSBox, and even using the D-Fend frontend for it wasn’t enough for me to be able to get it installed. Every once and awhile I’d try to get it to work, only to soon after abandon the attempt in a fit of frustration. This time, however, I bent my morals a bit and downloaded a cracked version to see if that version would actually work, which it did. Problem was, there was no sound. It was only when I copied the installation files off the legit CD, set up the installation through DOSBox (taking care to get the sound effects and music configured properly), set up the resulting program files through DOSBox separately, and replaced the game .exe with the one from the cracked version that things finally seemed to work properly. Needless to say, getting the game to run was a hassle.
And it was worth it! For awhile, at least
Part of the reason I was so intent on getting F-22 Lightning II to work was that I recently got a flight stick and wanted it to be the first game I used it on for dumb sentimental reasons. Once I set it up in a way I liked (which required using a bare-boned preset configuration in combination with Xpadder since the sticks it allows you to select between are old and it often mapped things in wonky ways as a result), the first order of business was clear: I was going to escort Air Force One.
“Escort.” Right into the ground, just like old times. Doing so was a rush of nostalgia, while looking at the game with more modern eyes gave me an appreciation for its mixture of arcade and simulator gameplay that manages to be both and neither. The keyboard is littered with all kinds of shortcuts, everything from ordering your wingman around to throttle control, gear control, and pilot ejection. Small intricacies began to become apparent, such as the fact that you can’t fire missiles while your wheels are down. It seems obvious in hindsight, but only because the game does a good job of teaching you these little things through gameplay rather than lengthy tutorials. Everything was exactly as I remembered it, and that made me very hopeful for the campaign mode that I’d never actually tried before.
First though, learning to play
The quick missions not only cover every mission in the campaign (it turns out the president mission is actually the last mission in the fourth and final campaign), but also include a few starter missions that teach you basics such as following waypoints and landing, both things that seem difficult and important, but that I immediately disregarded in order to pull a Top Gun and play by my own rules while Danger Zone played on repeat in the back of my head. Seriously; I made it to the final mission of the third campaign without ever needing to land or follow a waypoint. Neither seemed to ever become necessary for some reason.
The campaign really isn’t fun
Why the final mission of the third campaign? Because that’s where I gave up on the game. The reason is simple, really: the campaign isn’t fun. In fact, it’s the opposite of fun. It’s the death of fun. It’s a black hole in which entertainment is sucked in and crushed down to a singularity, never to be seen again. It’s truly impressive how not-fun the campaign managed to be given the drug-like mix of nostalgia and relief that came with finally getting the game working. Missions seem to break down into a few different types which are repeated over and over and over again, which wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t all terrible in some way.
First, there are the “shoot down a group of enemies” missions. These are simple enough: take off, fly toward the enemies on your radar until your long-range AMRAAM missiles can lock on, then cycle between the enemies and pop off one missile at each. They almost never miss, so early such missions are boring because there’s no challenge, while later missions become artificially challenging by not giving you enough missiles to take down every enemy fighter. Instead, you have to rely on your wingman and/or other allies, which wouldn’t be a problem if they didn’t consistently demonstrate the intelligence of a goldfish. Sometimes you’ll order your wingman to attack an enemy and they’ll oblige. Sometimes they’ll do nothing. Sometimes they’ll fly in front of you right as you shoot a missile, or wander off over a SAM site and get themselves blown out of the sky. Other AI allies fare similarly, and having to rely on their hit-and-miss competency to complete certain objectives can make missions a chore through no fault of your own.
Second, there are the “protect these certain allied planes” missions. These are escort missions, pure and simple, and the AI’s incompetency can render them nightmarish. Most of the time you’re best served just destroying all the enemy craft like that was the goal in the first place. As a result, these missions fare similarly to those mentioned above, with the only real difference being the frustrating willingness of your allies to disregard their own safety as they fly within the range of SAMs and enemy missiles and take control of the mission out of your hands.
Things get much uglier than that, though
The third type of mission is the “bombers are coming, so destroy them before they blow us up” type. This is rarer, but manages to be incredibly annoying because switching between enemies becomes a hassle when they fly together in tight formations, with it being incredibly easy to target everything around the aircraft you’re looking for, but not it. I can’t even count the number of times I had to repeat missions like this because I couldn’t target all of the bombers in time, much less shoot them down, and I only got past these parts thanks to the strategy of turning off radar (which makes you invisible to planes, but not to SAMs for some reason), flying high, then swooping down behind them and picking them off. Even then, it would take 20-30 tries before I finally got lucky enough to find all of the bombers in time. It’s just not fun, with the difficulty coming from the game’s abysmal targeting mechanics instead of well-crafted levels and clever design.
The fourth and last type of mission is the “bomb certain locations” type, and this is the kind of mission that caused me to finally quit the game. These suffer from the same problem as the bomber missions, that being that you can’t actually target the things you need to be attacking; before quitting, I tried over and over to find the targets that the game wanted me to destroy, even relenting and following the waypoints in the hopes that they’d lead me to an angle that would let me target my objective, but I never once found either of them. Even in a group of same-named SAMs, I never managed to target the specific one required by the mission, and the frustration of this is compounded by the fact that 2-3 missiles are constantly coming at you while you’re looking. It’s like playing hide-and-seek in a minefield. This is not remotely entertaining, and missions suddenly highlighting the shortcomings of the mechanics was enough to turn me off of the entire thing.
Most of your weapons are useless
I remembered liking Sidewinder missiles when I was young, but looking back, I think I just liked the cool name. In reality, AMRAAM missiles are your everything. They have great range, are incredibly accurate, and typically destroy enemies in one hit. Sidewinders, on the other hand, have something like a third of their range, constantly miss, and seem incapable of destroying a plane by themselves. That’s not even an exaggeration—for all the hours I played learning this game’s ins and outs and making my way through three-fourths of the campaign mode, I never once took an enemy plane out with a lone Sidewinder. It always took at least two, and since their range sucks so bad and you only have 2-4 of them, they’re practically worthless for actually engaging planes. The machine gun is similarly bad, and while I appreciate how realistic it feels to fire a hundred bullets and hit nothing (they are fighter pilots in open space, after all), bullets also have a terrible range that prevents them from being useful for damaging ground units until you’re dangerously close to flying into the ground or a mountain.
This is apparently the first game in the series
Wikipedia claims that this is the game that started the F-22 series (which also includes Raptor and Lightning 3, neither of which I’ve played). I’m open to the possibility of Wikipedia being wrong—it certainly wouldn’t be the first time—but my inability to find an earlier game lends credence to the claim. Why call it Lightning 2 if it’s the first game in the series, though? Talk about a weird decision.
Decent graphics, repetitive music
For a game released in 1996, the graphics here are actually surprisingly pretty. I mean, the N64 released in 1996 and 3D was suddenly a big thing. We’re talking about the same year Super Mario RPG and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall were released. It’s kind of amazing how advanced the graphics look compared to others of the time, and while they obviously don’t hold up to modern standards, they still have charm to them. The music, on the other hand, is an abomination. That’s not to say that it’s bad, because it isn’t, but there only seem to be two songs in the entire game: the title screen song, and the one that plays in missions. In all missions. Over and over and over and over again until the notes are trapped in your skull, clawing their way out with a vengeance. The sound effects were worth all the trouble it took to enable them, but getting the music working was a huge mistake.