(Xbox 360 Review) SkyDrift

Developer: Digital Reality
Publisher: Digital Reality
Genre: Arcade Racer
Players: 1-8
ESRB: Everyone
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 7.5 = Good

For all the many arcade racers available in any given console’s online marketplace, the one subgenre that remains ill served is that of aerial combat.  Land and even sea have seen their own strong successes, but very few developers have bothered to lift gamers into the sky, giving them the freedom to explore extra dimensions of control while trying to blast away madly at their opponents. It’s a void into which SkyDrift comfortably and boisterously strides, bringing it with it a certain swagger along with its imposing vistas, nail-biting speed, and over-the-top powerups. It may not be completely successful in all it attempts to do, but it comes close enough to impress.

Like any good arcade racer, SkyDrift is completely bereft of plot: it’s all about doing what it takes to cross the finish line as quickly as possible, and doing whatever it takes to get there. The game throws three different sets of parameters for doing so, however, depending on the mode set for a particular race, and these are split along some pretty familiar lines. In one, you’ve got access to a decent slate of powerups as you battle a number of other racers to the finish line; in another, you’ve got none at all, instead zipping through speed hoops dotted throughout the course. There’s also Survival mode, otherwise known in other genre offerings as Last Man Standing; in other words, the last-placed racer is eliminated every so often until there’s but one flyer left. It’s a simple and straightforward set of modes that nevertheless manages to keep things interesting, despite offering nothing new or particularly noteworthy.

What is interesting, of course, is the aerial nature of the game itself. Rather than just having to navigate left and right, SkyDrift players will have to contend with the more complex issues of up, down, and all-around-the-obstacles navigation. This sounds like a simple matter on paper, but once you’ve got a full head of steam and the surrounding terrain is blurring around you as you tear through the air in a frenzied effort to beat out your competitors, it can be awfully challenging to duck underneath that stone arch, avoid the oil rig support beam, or peel diagonally downwards around an ice structure. Making things even more complicated—or simple, depending on your perspective—is the use of the right stick to seamlessly and quickly slip your plane into the “knife’s edge” position, where your wings are along the vertical axis rather than the horizontal. This allows you to slip between some of the extremely tight squeezes present throughout many of the courses, and indeed is quite often required to keep from crashing and losing precious seconds, over and over again. All considered, the controls are certainly a little out of the ordinary for an arcade racer, and fans of this particular subgenre may find a certain exhilaration in being given considerably more room to maneuver, so to speak. There is a dark side to this level of ability, however, and that is a much stronger level of difficulty, as you’re duking it out not only against the other players (who have weapons), your own reckless (and admittedly entertaining) sense of speed, but also against the very courses themselves. Without sufficient skill and considerable practice, you’re all but guaranteed to repeatedly smash into countless cliff faces and lava flows. For some, this challenge can be entertaining, but for others, the patience required may be too much to ask for.

There is something to be said for those courses, though, which in many ways are the real star of SkyDrift.  Surprisingly stunning and often quite beautiful, the racing venues are notable if for nothing else but their sheer visual appeal, even if there are too few of them. From dust-filled quarries to moss-covered jungles, from rivers of lava to powerful waterfalls, there’s a pretty decent quantity of eye candy at hand. And even as you endlessly watch yourself explode against its beauty as you fail to adequately navigate that attractive terrain, you can’t help but be a least a little entranced. Still, endlessly explode you shall, and all the glorious graphics in the world can’t mask courses that sometimes feel a little unfair. The treacherous nature of the courses lends a certain thrill, initially, but eventually that gives way to a sense that maybe it’s a bit much, given the inherent challenge of high-speed aerial combat racing. This feels particularly true when you’re faced with looming walls that spring out into existence on the flip side of a hairpin turn, for instance. Worse are the situations where it’s not at all obvious where the boundaries of the course really are: in many of the open-air courses, you’re led to believe you can easily soar above a certain rock ledge, because the game fails to notify you that the boundary of the course lies below it. You’ll find yourself being unceremoniously dragged down by an invisible, unavoidable hand flat onto the slab of rock until you explode, and it’s a frustrating experience that replicates itself several times across a few of the courses.

Strangely, the powerups often make things easier, not harder. Though relatively simple, this element actually helps to ground the experience somewhat more solidly, levelling the playing field a bit for those who bother to make good use of it. From missiles to machineguns to shields and repair kits, floating powerups allow players to briefly get somewhat of a leg up on their opponents. There’s depth here, too: by holding back and stacking the same type of powerup onto one you already hold, you double its power and effectiveness, making you a much more daunting foe. If you prefer, you can instead convert your powerup into boost, something that gives you a bit of a tactical choice as you consider whether trying to down the pack leader or instead blow past him with a well-timed injection of speed. It’s a series of decisions that should by all rights make the game even more challenging but instead help to make the experience somewhat more palatable for less-experienced sky captains.

Unlike many arcade racers, SkyDrift is not for the faint of heart. For all incredibly beautiful courses and seemingly blast-‘em-style approach, the game is remarkably difficult, giving very little leeway to newcomers to the aerial racing scene. The added freedom as a racer actually complicates the experience dramatically, particularly when you factor in the often breakneck speeds, wily AI, and sometimes unforgiving course design. For the first long while, expect to repeatedly explode, often in what little time it takes for your respawn invulnerability to wear off. This isn’t to say that the game isn’t often capable of providing some incredible flashes of fun, particularly when you’ve properly timed a volley of missiles against the frontrunner, or chewed up a good spot of boost to take the lead. Still, with a strong sense of challenge, SkyDrift is for a somewhat specific type of gamer who will surely find their own sense of entertainment and glory deep in its iron-fisted aerial discipline.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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