I remember when we all complained about weeks going by without XBox Live Arcade releases. There are times when I almost wish we’d return to that simpler time, if only for a little while. It’s not that the games coming out on the platform are bad, quite the opposite. There are just so many titles being released each week that some real gems aren’t getting the attention they deserve. One of the latest hidden treasures is Digital Reality’s SkyDrift.
If you were to put Mario Kart, Blur and Crimson Skies in a blender, SkyDrift would be the delicious smoothie you’d pour out. The game shows its arcade heritage through and through; complete with deadpan announcer that uses some humorously stilted language (You are now the first!). For a $15 downloadable title, though, SkyDrift offers up a huge amount of single-player content, heaps of multiplayer customization and enough unlockables to keep you coming back again and again.
The game features six different tracks, each of which also has a reverse course, doubling the number of arenas. There are three different race types: Power, which is similar to kart racing and features six different power ups of both the offensive and defensive variety; Speed, which has no power-ups and instead features speed rings to rocket you forward; and Survivor, which combines the Power type race with a timer that eliminates the last-place racer when it reaches zero. The three different race types are compatible with all 12 tracks giving you 36 basic race combinations and that doesn’t even factor in the variable number of laps or time pressure for Survivor races and the two different weather settings for each track.
The single-player mode features a campaign with a hands-on tutorial followed by seven stages, each with multiple events that you can take on in any order. You don’t need to complete ever event in a stage before moving on. Completing certain amounts of races in each stage will unlock new skins for each of the eight planes. Each of the vehicles is rated in five areas: speed, boost power, acceleration, armor and maneuverability. The type of race will guide your choice of aircraft as you’ll want to be optimized for the track conditions.
As you soar over sand, sea, snow and more, you’ll want to pull of stunts to increase your boost meter. Drafting behind other racers, flying close to the ground or terrain, taking down other aircraft or breaking the sound barrier will all net you boost. You can also trade in power-ups for boost. The value of cashing in is relative to your current placement. The further back you are, the more boost a power-up will be worth.
You can pull the right trigger to accelerate or the left trigger to brake. A engages boost, while X activates power-ups, B trades them in for more boost and Y switches between power-ups if you happen to have two. Power-ups can be stored and leveled up by collecting a second of the same type. This increases the magnitude of the effect, whether that’s damage or protection. You’ll steer with the left thumbstick, but the true nuance of flight comes when you add in the right stick. This allows you to “knife edge,” making sharp turns and narrow escapes possible.
Given the speed and armaments, you’ll inevitably crash your aircraft. SkyDrift features a very generous respawn, which happens nearly instantaneously. More than once, I took a bad turn in first place only to restart without having lost ground. It’s not always that forgiving, but clearly Digital Reality understands that crashes are going to happen and has engineered it such that going down won’t ruin your chances for a good finish.
Unfortunately, SkyDrift isn’t a perfect game. I often felt that the game didn’t go far enough to communicate the damage I was taking. There is an armor meter, but sometimes I didn’t even realize I was being hit until I had already been destroyed. There are also some typos in the descriptive text. By no means is this a huge deal, but for a word nerd like me, it was surprising to see that in a final retail product.
The visuals are solid, with interesting ship designs that are as distinguishable from one another as they are from standard aircraft we might see above us. They game does a fantastic job of conveying a sense of speed. It’s the mark of a good racing game when I find myself leaning in my chair trying to do everything in my power to make a hairpin turn.
The audio presentation is competent, but doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself. The music tracks provide a good beat and driving impulse, but I won’t be humming any of the forgettable tunes. I wish there were a little bit more meat to the gun effects, especially on the receiving end. It all works, but it doesn’t excel.
The most important thing to take away from this, though, is that SkyDrift is a lot of fun and I was glad to jump online and see others that had already discovered this for themselves. I had no problem getting into an online race with three others, and I suffered absolutely no lag. SkyDrift strikes me as the perfect game for speedfreaks and those looking for a good trashtalking experience with friends. Don’t let this one pass you by. In a sea of releases this fall, SkyDrift deserves your $15.
Review copy provided by publisher.