Publisher: Digital Reality / Developer: Digital Reality / Platform: PC, PSN, XBLA

Arcade racers have been one of my favorite genres since the days of Mario Kart 64. So when I saw that SkyDrift looked to be Mario Kart (or more accurately, Blur) with planes, I knew I had to give it a whirl.

But would it live up to my high standards for arcade racers, or would it end up being the disappointing Diddy Kong Racing to Blur‘s Mario Kart?

Unfortunately, despite some beautiful locales, and at least one new innovation to the genre that I wouldn’t mind seeing become standard, it’s definitely the latter. Only, when I say that both games have tracks that at times feel like they were originally designed for cars (SkyDrift even offering you a bonus in the form of filling your boost meter for flying near the ground), at least Diddy Kong Racing had the excuse that its tracks were designed to let you choose between planes or cars.

But let’s focus on the good first. The thing that SkyDrift does best is its implementation of the power-ups. There are six item types: Cannon (which shoots bullets), Missle, Mine (a floating proximity mine), Shockwave (which Blur fans might recognize as “Barge”), Shield (which only seems to block weapon damage, not collision damage), and Repair.

There is no boost power-up, as it has instead been replaced with a boost meter. You fill the boost meter by doing “stunts” (such as flying close to the ground), or by destroying a rival plane.

The style of the item boxes are borrowed directly from Blur, but with icons well-designed enough that you’ll know what almost all of them do the very first time you see them (my only complaint there being that Shockwave and Mine look a little too similar). But unlike Blur, you can only hold two items at a time, not three.

Now the part that made me smile: if you run into an item box of an item you’re already holding, it turns into an upgraded version of that item! This adds an extra layer of strategy: do you use the power-up now, or do you wait until you’ve upgraded it? This was my favorite aspect of SkyDrift.

Unfortunately, the items all come across as a little underpowered, the developers perhaps not wanting them to have too much of an effect on a race’s outcome. Destroying a plane rarely feels satisfying, because they restart so quickly that it almost feels like you didn’t do anything. If you shoot someone down who’s far enough in front of you, you’ll actually see them reset still in front of you.

Most weaponized arcade racers include power-ups to help out people who are way in the back, so that no one ends up too far left behind, but not SkyDrift. There is no equivalent of the “Blue Shell” or “Shock” to keep multiplayer games interesting. To make matters worse, because performing “stunts” fills your boost meter so slowly, while shooting down planes fills it up quite a bit, it can become even harder to catch up to the pack if they get too far ahead of you.

On the reverse side of thing, I also missed being able to shoot weapons backwards at the racers behind me, but I suppose that at least evens things out a little.

My two biggest issues with the game are the track design, and the controls. I thought the planes themselves controlled fine—though they take a little getting used to—but the way the buttons are mapped is much more awkward than it needed to be. The big supposed innovation is that the right stick is used to tilt the plan sideways into “knife edge” position. But this leads to several problems:

– You can’t boost while in “knife edge” position (you have to take your thumb off the stick because your thumb is used to press the Boost button).

– You can’t activate items while in “knife edge” position (you have to take your thumb off the stick because your thumb is used to press the Item button).

– With the right stick in use, there is no way to adjust the camera angle while you fly, resulting in some frustrating moments where you can lose sight of the track if you bank up or down too quickly.

You’d think using the right stick would at least allow for more control over the degree to which you tilt your plane, except that they’ve set it up as digital instead of analog; no matter which direction you push the right stick, the only option available is 90 degrees (perfectly vertical). Or 180 degrees (upside-down) if you push the stick down. It would’ve worked better to set the trigger buttons to tilt the plane (holding both to go upside-down), and right stick as the camera.

But at least they had the foresight to include an option to change pitch inversion. That’s more than some people can manage.

And then there are the tracks. Most weaponized arcade racers include a minimum sixteen tracks—often four circuits of four—with most modern, disc-based releases offering closer to thirty-two. SkyDrift has six tracks. Six.

The Campaign Mode doesn’t have circuits, it has “stages.” There are seven stages, with all but the final one containing four to six races. To add variety, there are three race types: Power Race (standard power-up racing), Speed Race (no power-ups, but passing through rings gives you a boost), and Survivor (power-up racing where the last place racer is eliminated every time the counter reaches zero). Each of these race types also contains a “reverse” version, where you race through the track backwards.

So you see, between the six tracks, three race types, and reverse versions, it’s almost like there’s really thirty-two tracks! Except there’s not. There’s six. And they’re grouped in such a way that no one stage contains versions of all six tracks, sometimes resulting in it feeling like there are really only three.

The tracks themselves look nice…but are some of the most poorly designed tracks I’ve ever encountered in an arcade racing game. It’s not even like Diddy Kong Racing, where the tracks are simply bland and forgettable. Some of these tracks are at least memorable, but are just designed so poorly.

A good art team will know how to lead racers in the direction they’re supposed to go using various tricks, such as using contrast or color to draw their eye to a particular area or path. SkyDrift‘s method, on the other hand, is to plaster everything with arrows. Arrows can certainly be good at directly someone where they need to go, but if you overuse them, they can become like white noise. They stop sticking out much at all.

And even with the arrows, I found myself constantly running into invisible walls, until I learned the tracks well enough to know where they wanted me to go. In trying to make the tracks feel “open,” they’ve constructed things so that there are actually more invisible walls than regular walls. I understand that they don’t want you to fly just anywhere, but even giving you a “you have gone out of bounds” clock and resetting you back on the track would be preferable to invisible wall paradise (and even then, there are better potential solutions out there).

The worst part is that the tracks do contain some alternate paths and shortcuts, but it only took me running into invisible walls about twenty times for me lose any desire to seek them out. Normally I like to explore, but eventually, if it looked like I wouldn’t be likely to run into an invisible wall, that’s the direction I’d fly. And then I’d still run into a few.

At this point, it probably sounds like I’m saying this is the worst game ever. It’s not, it’s just a game with several faults that keep it from reaching its full potential. I wish I could tell you that there were some additional modes that added enough value to the game to make it worth the full price, like a Battle Mode, but that’s being saved for DLC (as well as three pay-to-win planes, as a separate DLC pack). Ultimately, it’s an average game that strives to be something more.


SkyDrift: Second Opinion

By James

I think SkyDrift had the potential to be something really great, but ultimately fell flat. It isn’t a terrible game; I found the tracks to be an exciting throwback to the old N64-era racing games (let’s have them race around a volcano!). And although there isn’t a huge variety of planes to choose from, each individual plane has four different skins to choose from, which give you something to work for once you find a plane you like. While the weapons are pretty fun to use, their effects are a bit lackluster with little more than a small, cheap-looking explosion signaling that you were hit with a missile. I would’ve preferred the planes to control something more akin to Crimson Skies, and like Kate I did find myself running into way more invisible walls than I should have.

In all, I found SkyDrift to be fun, but it isn’t really something I’d recommend to anyone except those that may be completely starving for a new arcade racing experience.