SkyDrift: Fast aircraft meet lofty ambitions

September 20, 2011

The item-based racing genre has tried before to take action up into the air. New Mario Kart games introduce jumps and gliders, and Diddy Kong Racing had planes, back in the N64 days. We haven’t really seen a true implementation of airplane flight, though, and Digital Reality’s SkyDrift tries to take on that challenge in a $15 downloadable title for 360 and PS3.

In SkyDrift, you jump into one of a few different planes and navigate tracks, using collected items to boost and attack opponents. While the team describes the gameplay as “if Mario Kart took to the skies,” we didn’t see much that borrowed from the Nintendo monolith. Really, SkyDrift borrows from most of the series’ competitors. The items? You can hold two, banking and switching between slots in a manner much like Blur. Those power-ups? Collecting more of the same one stacks into a more powerful version of that attack, notably the mechanic that drove ModNation Racers. The terrain of many levels changes wildly due to various collapses and things in the last lap, a concept we saw in MotorStorm Apocalypse and, in a somewhat different form, in Split/Second. When the courses didn’t remind us of the invisible-wall-filled, chasm-tastic Kirby Air Ride, they brought back memories of the lightning-fast, dodge-those-terrain-obstacles-and-feel-cool-if-you-manage-to-do-it Star Wars Episode 1: Racer.

All this borrowing is fine if SkyDrift‘s core mechanic change is interesting enough on its own. And it is. Controlling a plane is just different, and at that point, putting in a few familiar elements is almost comforting. You don’t get simulation control here; after all, it’s a game with power-ups. But much of the steering mechanic involves moving with the left analog and banking with the right, getting extra turning capability and also fitting in thinner spaces when needed. And while you can avoid most of the danger by flying higher, the game gives you a boost meter that refills if you fly close to the ground and avoid things that way. You leave yourself open to opponents and crashing there, but you won’t win without risking it sometimes.

While most of the game’s visuals and controls are well-polished, we’re not sure the voice acting and menu text received the same level of attention and care. It’s kind of amusing, actually, as while it’s easy to figure out what it’s supposed to say, just a bit shines through to throw things off. Whenever you zoom to the front of the pack and hear the announcer say this: “You are in the first place, now!” It couldn’t have been done on purpose, but we’re glad it ended up that way.

The campaign includes two main types of races. Power Race is your standard item-based fare, while Speed Race gets rid of those and puts speed rings throughout the course, turning things into a hold-on-for-dear-life affair that has its own appeal. (There’s a third mode, Survival, where last place is eliminated periodically until one is left. It seems to be in as a bonus of sorts, though.) Playing through this unlocks more planes and plane skins, and there are three different sets of awards to unlock for reaching certain milestones.

Of course, the showcase mode of any racer is multiplayer. SkyDrift supports eight-player online races, and they seem to have the kinks worked out there. We didn’t encounter any problems with matchmaking or hiccups in gameplay, and that’s great. Unfortunately, there’s no local multiplayer. In recent years, many games have dropped local play, but item-based racing titles never have. There’s a good reason: they shine in that environment. Digital Reality plans to add a dogfight mode as DLC, but it would have been nice to see it as part of the core product.

SkyDrift, while a few check marks short on the feature list, has a core experience that’s worth, well, experiencing. If planes are your thing, you may be hooked. If not, it’s an interesting change of pace for a bit.

Pros: Smooth flight controls, interesting tracks
Cons: No local multiplayer, battle mode

Score: 4/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.