SkyDrift, the latest title from publisher Digital Reality, couldn’t be more different from their last, the zombie themed outing of Dead Block. This time round they’ve swapped fending off undead hoards for a spot of racing amongst the clouds. The question is whether it does a barrel roll, or just slams right into a cliff face?
The game makes its intentions clear from the start with a lovely little intro movie that sets the scene for a series of arcade style racing events, replete with tons of devious shortcuts. Inevitably many will compare it to Mario Kart, but the best direct comparison should be with the superb Hydro Thunder since they share a similar colour palette and irrepressible perkiness.
A racer is nothing without a quality selection of tracks and thankfully here they’re as varied as they are impressive, teeming with variety and intricate detail. The Dam feels like it could’ve been ripped straight from the likes of Sega Rally/Outrun Online Arcade, such is the wonderful blue sky surroundings married to a lush visual acuity. Petrol Coast is an arctic wasteland punctuated with oil rigs and giant tankers, Wrecks is aptly named with the gutted corpses of tankers dotted along its coast, while Lagoon with its South East Asian setting features lush vegetation and islands that rise out from the sea.
Each course provides multiple opportunities for some classic risk/reward gameplay by attempting to clear tight areas or else clip the sides and crash and burn, with control of first place chopping and changing. There’s a great incentive to clear stages to see what’s lined up next, and it’s to the developer’s credit that it doesn’t disappoint, pushing the player onwards.
Thankfully the planes mirror the tracks in diversity and quality with a nice feel to them. Controls are spot on making it feel well thought out and a lot of fun to play. One aspect that might throw a few people is tilting the plane is handled with a flick of the right analogue stick, but after a while it soon becomes second nature and invaluable for making last minute turns and manoeuvres in tight spaces. The player will be rewarded with an increase in their boost meter the closer they fly to the ground/water, or from causing the destruction of an opponent, so having a devil-may-care attitude is certainly a welcome attribute.
Dotted around each area are a selection of power-ups that provide little in the way of surprises (shields, missiles, etc.) but which do the job amicably. None of them feel overpowered or game-breaking and the ability to convert any collected ones into juice for extra boost is a nice touch, with a balance struck between offence and defence depending on track position. Enemy AI feels solid for the most part and the rubber-banding doesn’t feel obtrusive.
It seems as if Digital Reality knew that just the straight forward races would start to lose their allure after a while, so decided to mix things up the further the player progresses. The Speed Races are an excellent take on the ring race mode seen in the likes of the seminal Wave Race, but with the added challenge that passing through each ring increases the speed at which the plane travels. This means a deft touch with the controls is as important as keeping the momentum going to negotiate towards that coveted first place. That all of the action occurs without a single drop in the framerate is also a point of note since there really is a lot going on in each track. It really is to Digital Reality’s credit that they’ve managed such a feat.
At the time of writing there’s a sizable online community for SkyDrift, so there’s no problem in finding games to join. On times the friendliness from the community reminds this reviewer of the sublime Snoopy Flying Acewhich still, to this day, has a hardcore following who are willing to play long after the initial allure has worn off.
What holds SkyDrift back from being a roaring success is the fact that it’s all over far too quickly. The singleplayer campaign doesn’t last much beyond an afternoon, even for the most lackadaisical gamer who will quickly see all the game has to offer offline. This means you also have to factor in the price point which feels ever so slightly on the high side; even though the quality on offer is beyond reproach, it can be hard to shake the feeling that the game might have more of a chance of developing and keeping a loyal fanbase in this crowded marketplace if it had come in at a slightly lower point of entry.
Regardless of any of these reservations, SkyDrift is blessed with a colourful look and a cracking set of tracks, proof if needed that a studio can build upon an underwhelming previous title and turn things around with aplomb.