Are arcade racers really as thin on the ground as I think they are? I mean, in terms of anything remotely high-profile, I can think of Mario Kart, Wipeout, the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, and the hugely underrated Blur. (I suppose there’s also Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, but that’s not quite in the same vein.) I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but I have no idea what.
As such, SkyDrift is a remarkably enjoyable breath of fresh air. The twist here is that rather than driving cars along improbable tracks and shooting improbable power-ups at the other vehicles, you’re flying planes along improbable courses.
Snark aside, it actually makes a fair difference. Your craft travels faster (and builds up the genre’s omnipresent turbo boost bar) the lower it flies, although this also significantly increases the chance that you’ll hit an obstacle. Conversely, if there’s a tricky section ahead you can always fly over it… but at a much slower speed, and at risk of hitting a level boundary.
Full credit for the flying, though. SkyDrift takes a goodly amount of inspiration from ageing air-shooter classic Crimson Skies and from pretty much every action movie that’s ever featured an aircraft chase; while most of your steering is done via the left analogue stick, the right twists the plane 90 degrees, letting you skim through thin vertical stacks in canyons or between huge iron towers. It feels incredible.
That or you bugger it all up by misjudging the angle, and promptly noseplant a cliff and explode in a fireball.
Flaming death isn’t as much of a setback as it sounds. Exploding causes about as much aggravation as getting hit with a shell in Mario Kart: here, you respawn maybe a second later, with the biggest problem being the loss of speed.
Death can also come from your foes. The usual plethora of power-ups litter the skies, from machine guns and rockets to an EMP-like blast and mines, and there’s a repair tool and a shield for defensive purposes. You can carry two at a time and each can be “powered up” by picking up a duplicate of one you’re already holding. Two missiles become four, cannons power up dramatically, and a single mine becomes a rotating array of three. These can also be converted into boost (which also rockets up as you down your competitors).
If there’s one problem with this, it’s that victory or failure can sometimes feel down to luck. At the start of each race there’s the traditional mad scramble for the first set of weapons, which is inevitably going to blow up at least a few competitors. For better or worse there’s no rubber-banding in evidence, so the planes that get blasted to the back of the pack aren’t going to auto-magically catch up, but this combines with a lack of powers that target the race leader to mean that if the plane in first gets a reasonable lead and is a decent flier then nothing short of a freak accident is going to let you catch them up.
Equally problematic is that there’s no way to fire backwards. Considering that your targets are frequently above and below you this makes sense, but it also means that unless you happen to have a shield or a shockwave to hand, you’re probably going to end up eating more rockets than you’d like. If you get caught ahead of three or four foes in a relatively open section, you’re almost certainly going to get blasted behind them.
Power-ups aren’t the only way to play, though. While Power Race is the primary gametype there’s a Survival mode (every 30 seconds, the plane in last place is knocked out until only one remains) and Speed Race (fly through rings to get ridiculous speed boosts). The latter is a personal favourite; after going through two or three rings in quick succession your plane starts careening around the course at the sort of barely-controllable speeds that made Wipeout such a joy – and rather than going around a set track, you’re weaving in and out of tunnels and dodging your way through canyons. It’s exhilarating.
Which is true of the game on the whole. Much as there are some issues with the balance they don’t detract overmuch from the enjoyment: there aren’t many games in which you can fly down a narrow tunnel while under machine-gun fire, activate your boost and rocket around a corner to narrowly avoid a missile, and then hurtle down towards the base of a dam before pulling up at the last second to skim the water and rebuild the boost you just used. And then smash into a refinery tower.
Some inspiration was perhaps taken from Split/Second, too, as the courses tend to fall apart. It’s purely cosmetic but – once again – there’s something grin-worthy about a course’s volcano centrepiece erupting as you swoop past, or crumbling cliffs dropping huge boulders mere inches away from your wingtips, and it goes back to the theme of action movies.
And then, inevitably, there are a few more downsides. There’s an extensive Campaign mode which unlocks more planes as you progress, but no Single Race mode. If you want to do a Survival round on Petrol Coast, you’ll have to flick through the Campaign’s stages until you find it, rather than simply setting it up manually. The game also commits the cardinal sin of having no split-screen multiplayer. This is somewhat understandable considering the screen-space required to fly effectively, but it’s a disappointment nonetheless.
Making it slightly more problematic is the complete lack of an online community. While there’s usually someone looking for a match, I’ve only once managed to play an online match with more than one other person, and the game really isn’t built around the far more common 1v1 races.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the AI racers had a bit more personality, but, er, they’re really just names. There’s no sense of that bastard Yoshi smacking into you at just the wrong time – it’s just other planes, and it feels like it. This is excluding the one occasion in which the game inexplicably renamed AI player Speedfreak to “Speefreak” for one race, which made me laugh so hard I nosedived into the ground three times in a row. I am a beacon of maturity. Still: excellent bug, and it could only have been improved upon if he became Peefreak.
Impossibly, none of this really impacts the enjoyment. The flying action – weaving in and out of refinery towers, skimming under rock formations, rocketing through dark tunnels, turning at just the last second when an exploding foe clouds your view of a rapidly approaching wall – is honestly that good.
Part of this is down to the course design. Each one is fairly large and has unique obstacles and challenges to surmount; most have risky shortcuts for ace pilots, while all have something twisty that’s fun to manoeuvre through. There aren’t that many – seven, I think – which is mitigated somewhat in that each can be played in reverse, although some of them get rather confusing when played backwards thanks to the way the courses are designed.
Certainly, SkyDrift isn’t as good as Blur or Mario Kart. It’s not as well-balanced, it’s not as expansive, the multiplayer is lacking (both through lack of community and lack of split-screen) and it doesn’t have a cohesive personality to tie it all together.
Despite this it has many, many successes of its own, giving a rather unique spin to the arcade racing genre, and I’d highly recommend you consider it because it deserves attention and it’s excellently priced for a game of its ilk. Despite flaws it’s a cheap and extraordinarily satisfying way to scratch that racing itch – and if enough people do so, that multiplayer problem might cease to be a problem at all.