For the past two decades, developers have been looking for a way to emulate the success of Mario Kart, but with planes in place of go-karts. Skydrift is the latest entry into the genre and actually manages to acquit itself rather well for the first couple of hours. Unfortunately, these planes begin to sputter and run out of gas, free-falling back to earth in a blaze of glory.
The heart of Skydrift is the Power Race mode, where eight pilots take to the skies in a mad dash to the finish. Things are hectic enough with so many racers jockeying for position in cramped quarters, but the intensity is cranked even higher thanks to the inclusion of a number of weapons. Machine guns, missiles, mines and more are all ripe for the taking, and the AI isn't shy about shoving an explosive up your tailpipe in order to gain a temporary edge. It's this constant action that keeps Skydrift exciting, as you never feel quite comfortable even when you manage to fight your way to the front of the pack. Unlike Mario Kart, though, opposing racers don't feel cheap, and if you manage to fly with finesse and skillfully utilize your boost and power-ups, it is possible to build up a healthy cushion and then coast home. There is no blue shell equivalent here; good work is actually rewarded for once.
You'll likely need the extra breathing space because not only are foes out to make your life miserable, but the courses themselves also seem to ooze with environmental malice. Players will jackknife through canyons, dive to within feet of a volcano's river of lava and throw their plane into organ-crushing climbs in an attempt to clear the lip of a glacier. The vistas are truly impressive and offer a significant amount of challenge.
The downside to all this is the fact that there are only six courses, so it won't be long until you've seen it all. Mirrored versions of the tracks spice things up a bit, but a feeling of "been there, done that" starts to creep in around the halfway point of the campaign. After a while, it is difficult to go back and do the same thing over and over again.
Skydrift tries to stave off boredom by offering a cavalcade of unlockable planes and skins. There are eight different aircraft to choose from, and their attributes vary enough that this is one of those rare games where you may use a particular plane for a specific track or race mode and then switch to something else for another situation rather than simply choosing the "best" vehicle and sticking with it from start to finish. This manages to be one of a dwindling number of titles where unlocking new content actually means something.
Another thing that helps break up the monotony is the inclusion of two other game modes, but they're the same thing you've done before, just in the sky. Survival mode will feel familiar to fans of games like Burnout and Need for Speed, as it sets everyone out on the course and then begins eliminating the last-place competitors one by one at preset intervals. It can be thrilling to overtake a foe at the absolute last second to stave off elimination, but once you get ahead of the pack, the entire experience boils down to little more than not crashing into walls as you wait for the countdown to expire. It's not exactly a pulse-pounding experience.
Speed Race is possibly the most exciting mode, but it also seems to be the most underutilized. Under this setup, all racers are stripped of power-ups, and the only way to get ahead is by flying through a series of speed-boosting rings. What emerges is a great example of risk-reward racing, as you'll have to make split-second decisions regarding whether you want to make a run at some hard-to-get rings, as well as wonder if you'll still be able to squeeze through the upcoming hairpin turn even if you're traveling at top speed.
More than anything else, what will likely determine the fate of Skydrift is its online multiplayer, and on that front, things look a bit bleak. While the game offers up all its modes and tracks for online play, finding other humans to compete with can be tricky. Getting a full match seems to be nearly impossible, and running through a race with only one or two other competitors just doesn't feel right. It would be great if a healthy, engaged community sprung up around the game and kept playing it for months to come, but that's a tall order for a downloadable title, especially heading into the densely packed holiday season. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this game will have any real legs to it.
Skydrift serves as a sort of cautionary tale of the rigors of the game industry. Here is a good game that is well made with nice presentation, but it doesn't try very hard to stand out. Thus, we are left with a somewhat forgettable title that a handful of gamers may pick up someday during an Xbox Live Deal of the Week or PSN sale who will then think, "Oh, this is kind of fun. I wonder why I missed out on it the first time!" This is nice to look at, but a lack of content prevents it from holding your attention for long. In that respect, Skydrift sort of serves as a distraction game to hold you over until the next major release shows up.
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