Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 3
SkyDrift is a fast paced arcade racing game that combines the addictive elements of flying and frantic aerial combat. Though racing games are all too common, this type of circuit based air combat is a rarity. The gameplay is reminiscent of an old PC game called Slipstream 5000 but the title I have decided to compare it to in this review isn’t even a flying game. If I had to describe SkyDrift to somebody in one sentence it would be that it is like Blur from Bizarre Creations only with light aircraft instead of cars. Sadly, these two titles also have something else in common and that is despite them being good arcade combat racing games I can’t help but think they have both been overlooked and not got the recognition they deserve.
The game is developed and published by Digital Reality and is available through the Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade and a PC version can also be downloaded from Steam.
One of the first things you notice when playing SkyDrift is how good the game looks with its bright detailed environments. It has great track design with different themed courses to race through, rock formations to avoid and other natural and manmade obstacles. The tracks feature long straights, twisting canyon turns and elaborate hazards that will test your flying skills and reflexes. There will sometimes be alternate paths and the environments can even change as structures collapse around you. There are only 6 courses but these are doubled with reversed versions of each one.
The themed tracks take you through a tropical lagoon paradise complete with flowing waterfalls and there is another course set around a huge dam structure built in a desert environment with natural rock archways to navigate through as well as the dam itself. One track takes the player around an active volcano with dangerous flowing lava while in stark contrast another is an arctic course where you need to avoid the jagged icy interior of a glacier. There are more dangers lurking in the remaining tracks where you will soon run out of room as you race through oil refineries, under oil rigs, cranes and even inside the broken hulking remains of wrecked ships.
After the introductory tutorial the campaign mode consists of 33 races across 7 stages. To unlock the next stage you only need to earn a top 3 position in the required number of races. To keep the gameplay varied there are also different event types which include Power Race, Survivor and Speed Race. In Power Race you compete against 7 other opponents using your flying skills and collecting power ups to assist you. Survivor is a last man standing event where the pilot in last place is eliminated from the race when the timer runs out; this is repeated until only the winner remains. Finally, there is Speed Race where there are no power ups but instead speed rings are strategically distributed throughout the tracks which progressively accelerate the plane to blisteringly fast velocities that can even break the sound barrier. The final stage consists of only one challenge and is a hybrid of Power Race and Speed Race with power ups and speed rings scattered around the course.
There are six power ups that give the player and the AI offensive and defensive combat abilities and these are surprisingly similar to those used in Blur. You can pick up and store two different types of power up at a time and each one can be collected a second time, upgrading it to a more powerful version. I have been playing the Xbox 360 version where the Y button switches between the available power ups and the X button uses the currently selected ability. The B button converts the power up into energy which partly fills your speed boost meter, with more being added for level 2 power ups. Holding the A button uses your available boost and increases the speed of the aircraft until you release the button or the boost meter is depleted. Since the goal is to win or at least complete the race in the top 3, converting power ups into extra boost is an option but each kill will also add to your boost meter while also helping to slow down your opponents.
The Cannon is a machine gun with 40 bullets to cut through enemy planes when they appear in your crosshair, while the level 2 version of the weapon does increased damage. This might not sound like a lot of ammo but it has generous auto tracking making it easy to hit rival planes when the crosshair turns red. The Missile power up is very useful and fires off 2 or 4 rockets depending on which level you have available. These will lock on to the planes in front of you and it is possible to shoot down multiple planes at once as all the guided missiles fire simultaneously. Mines are surprisingly useful power ups especially when dropped in tunnels or anywhere where space is limited and the level 2 version is much harder to avoid.
Shockwave sends out a burst of electrical energy around your aircraft damaging and slowing down any rivals within 120 metres while the level 2 power up increases the potency of both effects. Shockwave can also be used defensively to destroy nearby mines and incoming missiles. An even better way of defending yourself is by activating your Shield which can last 4 or 8 seconds depending on its level. Finally there is the Repair power up which will be invaluable since you are going to take damage from other enemy planes as well as have some close calls with the environment. A level 2 repair will increase your armour to above its normal level.
Throughout the campaign and also by playing online multiplayer you can unlock up to 8 aircraft each with its own flying characteristics based on unique stats for speed, boost power, acceleration, manoeuvrability and armour. Choosing a plane that matches your playing style is just as important as the course layout or race type. The game also keeps track of all the stunts you perform, adding a small amount of boost as a reward for when you need it. Stunts can include flying close to the ground, passing through narrow spaces, reaching speeds that break the sound barrier, drafting behind rival aircraft, close overtaking and stealing power ups ahead of another plane. Combat related stunts that add boost include killing or damaging enemy aircraft with power ups, using Shock and Shield to counter or defend and repairing damage to your plane.
The game also features an addictive Awards system that encourages the player to try a bit of everything in order to unlock bronze, silver and gold badges and earn a variety of medals. These range from combat or stunt related feats of daring to winning races without using power ups or completing a 50 long speed ring chain. This definitely adds to the lifespan of the game with an incentive to keep playing.
SkyDrift can be an exhilarating adrenaline rush as you navigate twisting tracks and battle other pilots. The early portion of the campaign eases you into the game but by stage 5 and 6 the airborne competition really heats up with frantic air battles and strategic use of power ups becoming essential. The game is at its best when you are in the middle of the pack vying for position, firing off missiles and cannon fire ahead of you while trying to balance defensive abilities and disrupting the efforts of those around you. It can become challenging and the decision whether to convert a potentially helpful power up to add a bit of extra boost can determine the winner of a race. There are many times while playing SkyDrift when all the different gameplay components pull together and Digital Reality’s vision of air combat racing soars to great heights.
Unfortunately, when visiting new tracks or reversed versions of some courses for the first time the game can cause unnecessary frustration and that vision can become less rosy. This is because SkyDrift has an inconsistent yet sometimes aggressive application of invisible walls that forces the player along certain routes. On the surface the courses might look wide and expansive but in reality the game sometimes funnels you down a portion of it or round an unexpected turn and it isn’t always clear where you can go and where you can’t. You might think you can fly round the outside of a pillar of rock but then the game pushes you into it to crash and burn. The same can be said for some natural rock archways and other times when there are invisible walls forcing you down one side of a canyon when you think you should have more freedom. There are blue and red arrows/chevrons indicating the direction and severity of turns but these are not always evident. Once you know the routes it becomes less of an issue but you can easily lose races at first because of this.
The planes have arcade flight controls with pitch and turn but I would have preferred an option for a slightly more realistic pitch, yaw and roll system. Instead with the right analogue stick you can move the plane into a ‘knife edge’ position which is ideal for flying through narrow vertical gaps or for helping you make sharper turns. In practical terms it means you turn sharper if you move the left and right analogue sticks in the same direction at once. This combined with accelerate on the right trigger and brake on the left will see you through every tight turn. But the ‘knife edge’ turn doesn’t automatically level out if you let go of the right stick which can make it a bit fiddly until you get used to it.
SkyDrift has a multiplayer mode with every track and race type playable online in public or private games. Leaderboards function well with separate single player and online multiplayer stat filters, allowing searches by track and race type. You can compare friends’ times, scores and even number of kills – assuming any of them have the game that is. I would have liked to test the multiplayer side of the game more for this review but unfortunately I only managed to find one other player and you really need a pack of competing planes in SkyDrift. It is my hope that the game becomes part of a ‘Deal of the Week’ or is permanently reduced in price in order to encourage an influx of new players to bring life to the online multiplayer. Even some of the achievements like obtaining all the badges, planes and skins require online multiplayer wins or kills to unlock them. It is unfortunate that a game which I’m sure would be enjoyed by many people isn’t more popular.
It is also worth mentioning that there is a DLC pack that gives you access to some online multiplayer arenas for some more focused air to air combat but with very little online activity at present it would be a poor investment.
SkyDrift combines the elements of fast paced arcade racing with frantic aerial combat to make a very addictive but sadly overlooked game. Between the 12 tracks and the different race types there is plenty of content throughout the single player campaign, with badges and medals to aim for after that. Based on what I have played I think 1200 Microsoft points would have been a reasonable price at launch with an active if short-lived online community. I regret not buying this when it was first released because I would have enjoyed 8 player online races. SkyDrift might not be perfect but it does a lot of things well and if you are a fan of Blur then this might be just what you are looking for.