Built from the ground up in the same vein as Hydro Thunder or San Francisco Rush, SkyDrift is an obvious homage to the last generation of great arcade racing titles. Replacing power boats with prop planes, it ticks just enough of the requisite boxes necessary to deliver a solid, if occasionally spectacular, arcade racer.
Out of its digital wrapping, SkyDrift boasts a fairly standard allotment of tracks and planes, though many of the latter require unlocking via campaign progress. Singleplayer is broken up into seven stages, with each comprised of as many as six events. The difficulty of every individual race can easily be toggled from the menu and stage completion generally requires only a subset of the current races be finished. The campaign’s flexibility more or less ensures no player should find themselves stuck, allowing them to sample a bit of everything.
Individual races are separated into three types of events: Power Races, Speed and Survival. As the name implies, Power Race is all about power-ups, such as missiles, machine guns and shockwaves, a fairly ordinary selection of abilities. Survival plays out in the same manner as Power, although instead of a set amount of laps to complete, a timer ticks away, knocking out the last place racer periodically until only one pilot is left airborne. Speed is definitely the most interesting and exhilarating. The tracks are littered with boost rings, which send you hurtling through the environments at speeds that rival the Wipeout series. Power-ups are cast aside, thus making Speed events the most demanding in terms of finding an opportune racing line and flying precisely.
No matter the event type, SkyDrift often comes down to effective boost and power-up management. Borrowing pages from countless racing titles prior, boost can be built up by performing stunts, which generally involve hugging the ground, squeezing through tight passes in the environment, drafting and using ‘knife edge’ – flying your plane perpendicular to the ground. Like the aforementioned Wipeout, power-ups can be converted, although here they are exchanged for boost energy.
The resource management angle adds a welcome layer of strategy to races, but comes into better focus during aircraft selection. As is the norm, planes are broken up by overall speed, armor, acceleration and maneuverability, but the stat type that remains most interesting is boost ability. Unlike a game like San Francisco Rush, SkyDrift makes no claims about which aircraft is best suited for every skill level, but it’s clear the slower, well-armored aircraft were made for experienced players. These planes require constant meter maintenance to stay in the race; if you’re not boosting you’re actively falling further and further behind.
Alone or online, one of SkyDrift’s major problems is actually the lack of rubber-banding. Most races – Speed events excluded – quickly devolve into two or three dog fights between a pair or trio of pilots. These clusters are good at keeping the adrenaline flowing between the parties involved, but are detrimental to the overall integrity of the race. Generally if the first place racer is able to build a good lead there is almost no effective way to catch up, because the war for second place will constantly be hampering everyone’s lap times. Respawn times are also very quick, so even if the leader becomes careless they’d have to suffer repeated screw ups to see their lead actually evaporate.
One way to slowly chip away is the frequent use of SkyDrift’s alternate routes and shortcuts. Track design is by far the best aspect of the entire package, as each of the half-dozen courses boasts its fair share of tight valleys, straight-aways and caverns to traverse. Like San Francisco Rush, almost all of the shortcuts boast some extremely high risk, requiring effective use of the air break and ‘knife edge’ to pass. However, the level design truly flourishes during the Speed events, which force players to take extremely aggressive lines or careen into the side of a cliff.
Generally, developer Digital Reality has done an admirable job of making it clear where the routes are within the airspace, but it’s likely most players will still find themselves bumping into invisible barriers. The experience can be quite jarring, and it’s not uncommon for the barrier nudge to send you to your unfortunate death. And although respawn times are speedy, SkyDrift has a nasty habit of spawning you in inopportune airspace, especially in tight places. It’s not uncommon to respawn and have to quickly ‘knife edge’ because the game didn’t respawn you with a better trajectory.
Despite its smaller concerns, the biggest complaint to lodge at SkyDrift is just how generic the entire package is. Though the stages are fun, they’re broken up into the usual genre tropes: the lava track, the snow track, the jungle track, and so on. Even the announcer – who are always laughably bad in arcade racers – can’t seem to deliver one ounce of the excitement that the over-the-top bravado of San Francisco Rush or Hydro Thunder did. Ultimately, SkyDrift doesn’t necessarily need those qualities to be a good racer, but, without them, it fails to standout like it could.
The final problem with SkyDrift and the one most likely to restrain it from long term play is the lack of options and incentives. While the game boasts an impressive array of in-game awards and an adequate stable of tracks and airplanes, there’s almost no reason to play online, save for one plane and some skins to unlock. Without local splitscreen, the online multiplayer is sorely missing options to make custom race series and some sort of ranking system; after a handful of online matches it all seems sort of pointless.
Hidden beneath its generic veneer, SkyDrift is a genuinely fun arcade racer cut from the late ‘90s mold. What it lacks in personality and options it mostly makes up for in classic track design and strategic power-up and boost usage. With a little more polish and a bit more thought, SkyDrift could have been something great, instead of something good.