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Review: SkyDrift (PSN, XBLA)

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SkyDrift Review

You know that moment in gaming where you’re no longer making conscious decisions and instead find yourself relying on pure, razor fast instinct? This is how I felt for almost the entirety of the time I spent with SkyDrift. Much like the fantastic Split/Second, SkyDrift‘s brand of racing puts you on the verge of death constantly, and everytime you manage to narrowly escape certain doom at the hands of the track’s terrain or your opponent’s weapons it feels like a miracle.

It’s amazing how much the concept of flight changes how a racing game plays. The added verticality of racing in an airplane instead of a car allows for a sense of freedom that really makes every race play out differently. This is also helped by some really superb track design. There aren’t a ton of tracks, but the ones that are there are filled to the brim with branching pathways, a ton of variety, and plenty of extra dangerous obstacles that reward players willing to take risks.

The closer you fly to the ground and walls, the more you will fill up your boost gauge. Every minute you cheat death is one that will make you faster. Sometimes it’s easier to fly above or around archways or avoid a narrow slit in a rock face, but if you can survive the danger it can be your ticket to a shorter path, a sweet power-up, or simply a proximity-based boost reward.

Each track sets itself apart by having you fly through anything from the wreckage of an old boat to the lava flow of an active volcano. And since each track has that extra dimension that flight adds, the reverse versions feel drastically different. There’s also a great sense of openness not unlike the underappreciated Excite Truck (but with a bit more focus).

SkyDrift

Weapons in racing games must be handled delicately in order to retain balance and fun. Thankfully, SkyDrift hits the nail on the head. Icons clearly indicate which power-up you’ll receive so you can grab what’s best suited for the situation. Each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses without any of them becoming the “I win” button. Even homing missiles aren’t a guaranteed hit due to their straight flight paths. Sure, they will follow their target, but they can’t distinguish between the terrain. Steer your plane behind the other side of a rock mass and you’ll be safely out of the city limits of Explosion Town.

Most importantly, re-spawning is extremely quick. There’s nothing worse than waiting as a Lakitu slowly fishes a go-kart out of a lake. SkyDrift avoids this problem by never letting you have enough downtime to break the flow of the lightning fast gameplay while still disadvantaging you enough to motivate your survival.

If you have a power-up you don’t need, you can sacrifice it for a bit of boost. How much you get will actually be determined by how far back you are to help you play catchup when you’re doing especially poorly. So why even use weapons? Aside from slowing down your opponents, killing them also increases your boost gauge and does so often to a much greater extent than absorbing a power-up would. Killing sprees always let you end in boosting sprees.

Each weapon has a more powerful version if you pick it up twice. You can also hold two different weapons at a time and cycle through them. This all adds up to a lot of different ways to tackle each situation you find yourself in. Will you use your EMP shockwave to take down the surrounding planes or to counter a missile the moment before it hits? You might find the answer is “neither” as you quickly realize there’s a mine to destroy that’s blocking your favorite, secret path.

Not every race features weapons. A small handful of races in the campaign use rings instead. Flying through rings while racing other planes might not sound terribly exciting on paper, but when each one ramps up your speed at an exponential rate reminiscent of Wipeout‘s Zone Mode, it’s one of the most adrenaline pumping experiences in the game (especially when you break the sound barrier).

While playing SkyDrift, I felt like I was transported back to a time when arcade racers were king. That’s not to say the game feels dated (it doesn’t), but I could just see myself in some sort of crazy, plane-shaped contraption of a cabinet, shooting down enemy planes as the whole thing swivels back and forth. The fittingly rocking music and bright, colorful visuals certainly didn’t hurt that feeling.

SkyDrift is an absolute blast. It’s a fresh spin on the weapons-based racing genre that manages to bombard you with explosions and exciting close calls while retaining a sense of coherency and balance. The dual-stick controls take a little getting use to, but you’ll be glad you put forth the effort. Once it clicks, it’s a hard game to put down.

This review is based on the PSN version of SkyDrift provided to the reviewer by Digital Reality.

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4 Responses to “Review: SkyDrift (PSN, XBLA)”

  1. September 13th, 2011 at 5:02 am

    Barrel Roll! #133 – “They’re All In Purgatory” – WingDamage.com says:

    [...] Ex: Human Revolution, played the crap out of some Star Fox 64 3D and also gives us the rundown of SkyDrift. Meanwhile, Jonah was sucked into Disgaea 4 and may never be heard from [...]

  2. September 13th, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Dan Diemer says:

    I may have to check this out, simply because the top screen brought back nostalgia for this arcade cabinet called Prop Cycle that I used to love.

  3. September 13th, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Jonah Gregory says:

    I joked about this game having a Prop Cycle peripheral with Jesse, but he didn’t remember the game :/

  4. December 9th, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    Review: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed Does What Nintendon't - WingDamage.com says:

    [...] Jets move in all directions, bringing to mind the aerial, racing action of Digital Reality’s SkyDrift. And yet each of the three vehicles still have enough common elements to avoid feeling jarring [...]

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