by Kiran Sury
reviewed on PS3
Mario Kart Who?
As a competitive combat racer with power ups and a cap of eight players, SkyDrift draws immediate comparisons to the Mario Kart franchise. DigitalReality itself has acknowledged this, stating that if Mario Kart took to the skies, the result would be SkyDrift. I disagree. While SkyDrift owes an immense debt to Mario Kart as the paragon of the genre to which all others aspire, the changes DigitalReality has wrought result in a game that plays differently than Mario Kart, but in a good way.
Not So Cute and Cuddly
The most obvious difference is that SkyDrift goes for a more realistic vibe (at least, as realistic as you can get while flying over lava and through sunken ships). The sounds are unexceptional, which is a pity because different themed soundtracks would have ratcheted up the tension. The environments are crisp, with clean lines and defined structures that are important for a racing game. SkyDrift eschews individual characters in favor of eight separate planes with different stats making them suitable for different game modes. The HUD is well designed. It displays pertinent information in the four corners and bottom of the screen, but leaves the center free and clear of distractions. Information is given graphically when possible. There may have been a health bar somewhere, but I didn’t notice it. I always knew when my plane took damage by the fire and smoke that issued forth. When an enemy shot at me from behind with a cannon, the screen didn’t flash red as it does in most games – bullet holes appeared across my screen, as though they went right through my windshield. It was a nice touch, showing something that is evident throughout the game – SkyDrift has class.
Rubber Bands are for Losers
The controls in SkyDrift are easy to learn and use, and are helped even further by an excellent tutorial level. Normally complex simulator moves like the flying sideways are handled with the push of a joystick. The sense of speed is also handled well. I definitely felt it when I accelerated, but I never felt too out of control. I often don’t like going to fast in racing games because after a while I feel like everything is down to luck, but I really floored it (skied it?) in SkyDrift. In no time at all I was blazing through the three game modes.
Power Race is your standard race to the finish with power ups. Speed Race removes all power ups and adds floating rings that give you a tremendous boost of speed when you fly through them. It is a purer form of the sport, and focuses solely on player skill. The final mode, Survival, was my favorite. It’s basically Power Race, but with a timer. When the timer counts down to zero, the player in last place is eliminated and the timer resets. It has all the speed of Speed with the weapons of Power, with the added pressure of not getting left behind. More modes would have been welcome (and are one the way in upcoming DLC), but at least all the modes are fun to play, especially with the game’s competent AI.
One of the more commonly reported flaws with the Mario Kart franchise is the rubber-banding AI. Get too far behind, and sure; you can get a super power-up that will drop you in fourth place. Get in first, however, and you’re bound to be hit by lightning or a blue shell just before the finish and end up in third. It’s often a safer strategy to hide in second until the very end. I encountered no such problems with SkyDrift’s AI. If I fell too far behind, I could boost my way back to a ranking, but I probably wasn’t going to get first. I could live with that. If I got in front however, I was also able to maintain my lead for the rest of the race with a clever ose of my powers.
SkyDrift has several small things that make its powers more fun. For one thing, you can have two different power ups at once. In first place? You will probably want to pick up a shield, and maybe a mine or shockwave. Coming up last? Go for the missiles and cannons. Or, just pick up anything and convert it to boost. This is a neat feature that supplements the boost you get from dealing damage or flying dangerously. Furthermore, your boost is more effective depending on your position in the race. Last place racers will receive a much stronger boost than winners, equalizing the playing field. Picking up two of the same type of power up doubles its strength, adding another layer of strategy. Do I want to use my missiles now and do some damage (possibly killing him), or wait to get some more and really blow them out of the sky? The choice is yours in SkyDrift.
In one race, an AI plane and I had pulled ahead of the pack and were nearing the finish line. We flew neck and neck over lava, and I was pulling ahead when I sneezed and crashed. I cursed my sinuses as he pulled away. I picked up a missile and had locked on when he veered to the right, around the corner and away from my weapon. I was going to get second place. Then I noticed a shortcut to the left, a narrow passage curving through a mountain. I turned sideways, converted my now useless weapon into boost and emerged in front of him by half a foot to win the race. There’s no point in shouting ‘Who’s Your Daddy?!’ to an artificial opponent, but it felt good just the same.
Thrilling scenarios like this are available online with the eight-player multiplayer, which is even more fun than the single player. The modes, levels, weapons and planes are all the same, but humans offer a dynamism AI cannot match. Not too many people are online at the moment, but that’s because the game has only been out for a week. The great thing about SkyDrift is that it will get better the more people that play it. So if you like combat racing, be an early adopter and give it a try.
Great vertical take on kart-racing with comfortable controls and well designed mechanics
Not enough players at the moment to fill out online matches, more modes packed in at the outset would be preferred, sound is competent if uninspired