It’s not often you see the kart racing concept taken to the skies – it’s kind of perplexing to wonder why not. Wouldn’t the opportunity to fly around against opponents instead of being stuck on the ground give you more room to escape an incoming attack, or find an open route that otherwise would be hiding behind some bushes somewhere? The last game we remember attempting to pull off such a thing was MySims Skyheroes, though its aim at the kiddie market left a lot of adults leaving it in the hands of their children.
Now there’s Skydrift, Digital Reality’s take on the air racing genre. It allows you to choose from a variety of aerial craft, from big bulky gliders to more suitably built speed machines, and then take to a number of circuit races, adjusting difficulty to whatever you feel fits you and gunning for a first place lead. As expected, Skydrift comes packed with a number of power-ups to attempt to give you an advantage, including machine guns, missiles, a shockwave device to temporarily stun those around you, an energy recovery kit, and, as expected, a shield. Also, don’t think you won’t need a shield, because the enemy will pound you every chance they get.
It’s not rocket science. Most of this stuff we saw years ago in Nintendo’s Diddy Kong Racing – at least in its plane-flying sequences – but this is an arcade-style racer clearly inspired by some of Midway’s driving fare, most particularly Hydro Thunder. You’ll notice this in the game’s stage design, and although only six are available (with mirror options), they offer plenty of diversity. One has you racing through rocky canyons and mountain terrain, while another dares you to race around parts of a city, avoiding obstacles as you try to gain the upper hand on your opponents. Clearly, if Midway was considering investing in an aerial racer it’d be something along the lines of Skydrift.
In terms of gameplay, Skydrift manages to entertain. Being able to hold two weapons at once is an ideal addition, mainly because you can keep a shield in hand – just in case homing missiles try to bring you down – while keeping a secondary weapon at bay that you can switch to. Turning is handled quite well, with the option to angle your vehicle for even tighter turns – a huge plus considering how some of these mountains are carved out. The AI tends to cheat a little bit; it shoots weapons like crazy, trying to stay competitive if you’re out in front, and is sometimes hard to catch up front, even if you’ve got a tank full of boost. Thankfully, it’s not completely merciless, and you can always hop on to PlayStation Network and challenge friends for some online jaunts.
One more thing – it’s cool to have the option of converting a power-up into a boost. It’s a great trade-off, especially if you’re trying to get to the finish line and only have something along the lines of a mine or a shield. Don’t be surprised if you end up using this feature often.
Though the music leaves a little something to be desired (it’s mostly rock-type stuff you hear in any given “extreme” commercial), Skydrift does have a smooth looking package. The tracks have the kind of inspired design to really suck you in, and you’ll be studying course details just to get the best route to the finish line. The jets themselves are nicely modeled, and some of the effects, such as waterfalls, are fun to watch. What’s more, the whole thing moves at a very smooth frame rate, so you won’t have to worry about slowdown or lag getting in the way.
On top of a great campaign mode, Skydrift also offers other race types. These include a great Power Race option (for those who want to get right into battle), a cool Speed Race competition, and a Survivor mode, where last place racers get eliminated until there’s only one pilot standing. It's nothing trailblazingly original, but there are options, at least.
Though Skydrift isn’t likely to become one of the next big racing classics due to its coverage in “been there, done that” territory, it does its job so well that it deserves an addition to your library. The action runs tight and smooth, the controls are excellent, and the competition is fierce. Grab your pilot’s license and fly these unfriendly skies.