SkyDrift Review

By: Armaan Khan

Combat racing is a pretty sparse genre. You can find a few games on the consoles, but I’d be hard-pressed to name one that’s available on the PC. Digital Reality has now filled that void with a port of their excellent combat racing game, SkyDrift. It straps you into the cockpit of a prop-driven aircraft with the goal of defeating your opponents using a combination of speed, weaponry, and good old-fashioned flying skill. Overall, SkyDrift is a fun little title, but has some issues that make me unable to recommend it unconditionally.

Taking to the Skies

There are eight aircraft to choose from, each with its strengths and weaknesses balanced in such a way that no one craft is outlandishly better than another. Even the starter planes can be successfully used against more advanced craft thanks to the balancing of stats, especially if the player knows how to use the pickups scattered throughout the levels.

There are six types of pickups that cover the usual tropes you’d expect from a combat racing game. Offensive weaponry consists of guns, guided missiles and mines, while repair kits and shields exist for defensive purposes. Then there’s the Shockwave.  It can function in either offensive or defensive roles, depending on how and when you use it. Every pickup also has a second level, which is activated by grabbing the same pickup twice before using it. This second-level variant is significantly stronger than the first, giving you a good reason to wait before using your weapons/defenses.

You don’t have to use the pickups you collect, however. They can be converted into boost power instead, which allows you to unleash a temporary burst of speed that can help rocket past the competition, or simply catch up if you’re lagging behind. This last point is especially noteworthy: there’s no rubber-banding in the game.  If you fall behind, you will need to work hard to catch back up. You’ll also get boost from destroying opponents and flying close to the ground.

Taken together, these mechanics provide a lot of opportunity for strategic racing. Victory will not go to the pilot who flies the fastest or most powerful plane, but to the one who flies the smartest. The emphasis on skill is always nice to see in a racing game.

Zooming Around

There are six levels to race in and twelve if you include the reversed variants.  While this might seem like a small number, they are very well designed and a far cry from the generic tracks of most racing games. Every level is visually distinct, containing numerous twists, turns, and tight spaces to test your flying skills. They all look beautiful too, almost to the point of distraction.  This isn’t helped by the number of dynamic events that come into play as you fly, either. Depending on the level, you’ll see falling boulders, collapsing bridges, exploding volcanoes, erupting geysers, and all manner of commotion that are sure to make you crash into something if you’re not paying attention.

Luckily, if you do crash, you don’t have to wait long to respawn. It takes two or three seconds at the most, so you won’t lose your lead if you’re way ahead, or fall behind too far if you’re in the middle of the pack. This quick recovery applies to your opponents as well and, combined with all the other gameplay mechanics, turns SkyDrift into a very intense affair where you need to remain alert to ensure victory.

Flying High

There are three modes of play in singleplayer and multiplayer. Power Race is the standard, wherein you fly around picking up weapons and defenses in an effort to come in first place. There’s Speed Race, which replaces pickups with golden rings that boost your speed as you fly through them. Then there’s Survivor, which is an elimination event that removes the last person in the race every 15 or so seconds until a single plane is left in the air.

Single player takes the form of a 7-stage campaign comprised of 32 races, with Easy, Medium, and Hard difficulties available for each. The AI was great and gave me a good run for my money even on Easy. Sadly, there’s no custom match option for solo play, which is a pretty glaring oversight considering it’s been a standard option in every racing game for years now.

Multiplayer offers Quick Match, Player Match, and Custom Match. Quick Match will randomly select a game mode, track, and number of laps, and then wait for someone else to join. Player Match allows you to specify what type of game you’d like to play, but the track and number of laps are randomly determined. Custom Match lets you customize everything as you’d like. Multiplayer is incredibly fun and stable. I didn’t experience any lag or dropped connections in my time online. Then again, I didn’t find many opponents online either, so most of my races were against one or two other players at the most and wouldn’t have taxed my connection.

Stalling Out

On a technical level, SkyDrift is a bad console port through and through. The developers tossed in keyboard support, but it’s not a good way to fly these planes. The controls are designed for twin sticks, and keyboard play just feels awkward as a result. There are too many buttons that need to be pressed simultaneously for you to fly effectively, and while you can rebind the keys to your liking, I couldn’t find a configuration that worked better than just plugging in an Xbox 360 controller. Oh, and don’t bother thinking that your flightstick will work. I connected my Logitech Extreme 3D Pro and found the experience lacking. Binding the buttons worked well, but axis configuration is severely limited, and there’s no way to adjust sensitivities, so flying never felt right.

Don’t bother thinking about using your mouse, either. There’s no support for it at all, even in the menus. I don’t know about you, but I like being able to get around a menu system quickly. I like clicking directly on a menu option to go to it, and don’t enjoy constantly pressing down arrow, down arrow, down arrow to get to where I want to go. That simply isn’t possible here.

Ironically, support for the Xbox 360 controller isn’t even complete. All the button prompts displayed are for the keyboard, so even if you have a controller plugged in, you’ll have to spend some time guessing what all the buttons do in order to navigate the menus.

Multiplayer matching is shoddy. I’m not an expert on multiplayer by any means, but I’m used to having a lobby system, which shows how many people are online, displays a list of available games and lets me choose which one I want to get into. Nothing like that exists in SkyDrift. You simply pick your mode and hope for the best. Also, if you decide to set up a custom game, you have no control to make it private or kick out people you don’t want to play with. That seems like basic functionality that should have been included, but wasn’t for whatever reason.

The multiplayer community is small as well, so if you’re buying this primarily to play online, you might want to take that into consideration. I had to wait five to ten minutes before I got connected to even a single other person to play against, and most of my online races were against one other competitor. It was still fun, but it wasn’t as intense an experience as it could have been.

In game, you’ll have to deal with the problem of invisible walls. They are everywhere and while they didn’t bother me most of the time, there were several instances in every track where I forgot about the wall and had it force me into a solid obstruction, which usually cost me my position in the race. I understand the developers needed to enforce course discipline, but it breaks immersion. Surely they could have found a better method to keep players on track?

Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?

Time for a bias alert: I love games with airplanes. I once played a game where I flew an airbus full of passengers across the country, in real time, and enjoyed every uneventful minute of it simply because I was flying a plane. I also enjoy action-packed combat racing, and these two factors mean I had a lot of fun with SkyDrift. It’s fast-paced, exciting, aerial combat racing, and I’d love to tell you it’s worth every single penny of the ten dollars that it costs. In fact, my initial draft of this conclusion said exactly that.

But here’s the problem: SkyDrift is a shoddy console port. It’s missing basic functionality like a single-player custom race mode and a proper lobby system for multiplayer. The controls suck if you don’t have an Xbox 360 controller. And the online community is too small to make it a truly compelling multiplayer experience. With that in mind, I can’t honestly recommend it to the TPG crowd.

SkyDrift Technical Summary:

  • Time Played – 5 hours
  • Widescreen Support – Yes
  • 5.1 Audio – No
  • Bugs – None
  • DRM – Steamworks
  • Control Scheme – Keyboard, Gamepad/Joystick
  • System Specs  – Intel Core2 Quad @ 2.6 GHz, 4GB RAM, Radeon 4800
  • Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
  • Availability – Steam
  • Demo – Yes

TPG Review Xtra – SkyDrift DLC Review:

Gladiator Pack ($2.99)

The Gladiator Pack adds Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes to SkyDrift, as well as six open arenas to play those modes on, because the developers wisely realized that playing Deathmatch on a linear racetrack is stupid. It’s a ton of fun and worth the investment if you own the base game, provided you can find opponents to play against.

That caveat is a big one. The Gladiator Pack is multi-player only, with no options to play with/against AI opponents. SkyDrift’s already small user base and the pack’s add-in status means there are frightfully few chances to really play good deathmatches with lots of players. Most of the time, I could only find one other player online, although I once lucked out and had a match with four.

Worth the money? Objectively, yes, because the pack adds in a wonderful dogfight mode to the game. BUT, since it’s multiplayer-only, and the community is very small, you might want to consider holding out until the developers can implement some kind of bot capability to the game.

Extreme Fighters Premium Airplane Pack ($1.49)

I was initially worried that the Extreme Fighters Premium Airplane Pack would upset SkyDrift’s balance by giving owners of the pack an advantage over other players. Fortunately, the three new planes are only slightly better than the three best craft you can unlock in the base package, so my worries were unfounded. In fact, the new craft are almost exact copies of those best three, just with a different model and an extra star thrown into a random stat category. That single star isn’t really enough to completely upset the balance of the game and skilled players will have no problems holding their own against these new craft.

Is it worth the money? For most of you, no. You’d be paying a buck-fifty for content that boils down to reskins of the three best planes in the game. If you love SkyDrift, though, it’s worth it to have some new planes to look at, but you can safely exist without it.

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