Sunday, December 25, 2011

SkyDrift Review

SkyDrift, developed and published by Digital Reality.
The Good: Challenging track layouts, stunts earn engine boost, slightly stackable weapons, looks nice, good AI pilots, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Insignificant penalty for dying, annoying flight correction for going “off track”, lacks a server browser
What say you? This airborne combat racing game delivers solid action with tricky circuits: 6/8

Now that the world’s major racing series have drawn to a close for this year, it’s time to reflect on the action. Namely, the sheer boredom of watching cars go around and around and around and around and FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY WOULD SOMETHING PLEASE HAPPEN. If only those metal beasts were equipped with some kind of weapon to dispose of their rivals in a quick, overly violent manner. Like a flaming car from a Jason Statham movie, combat racing titles have filled the niche for those looking for more action-oriented track-based mayhem. Extending the hostility into the atmosphere is SkyDrift, where planes are now equipped with rockets and machine guns. Well, I guess they are in real life, but now they are racing while shooting each other. It’s win-win!

I was fairly impressed with the graphics in SkyDrift, especially for a game offered at a low price point. The game is highlighted by the excellent detailed terrain, with easily identifiable race tracks (the lava one, the tanker one, et cetera) and high-resolution textures adorning the cliffs as you speed past. It all looks great on a large PC display, and I was hard-pressed to find an area where corners were cut with the level design. The plane models are nicely detailed as well, although the damage is underwhelming (a trail of smoke followed by an explosion). Some of the weapon effects are well done (the shockwave comes to mind), rounding out a solid graphical presentation. As for the sound design, the effects are appropriate and the bombastic music fits the over-the-top nature of the game. The voice acting shows the game's non-English roots (the narrator exclaims “you are the first!” instead of “you are in first!”), however. Still, SkyDrift far exceeds its $10 price tag in terms of graphics.

The airplane racing of SkyDrift takes place in a seven-stage (plus an informative tutorial) campaign, where you must place in the top three of most events to unlock the next stage. The standard race (“power”) scatters weapon pickups across the track layouts, allowing you to take out enemy planes. “Speed” races involve no weapons, but offer rings you should fly through to drastically increase your speed. Finally, a “survivor” mode eliminates the last place driver every thirty seconds. The difficulty can be adjusted at any time before a race; you don’t need to complete the entire campaign on “hard,” for example. The difficulty seems to gradually increase with each unlocked stage (even on the same level), with the AI drivers crashing less and using their weapons more.

SkyDrift only has six tracks to race on (though each is finely crafted), though I suspect more is on the way in the form of DLC. While you race, things collapse (rockslides, buildings), seemingly at random, that can kill you, so keep an eye out. Despite being a flying game, you can fly outside the track. Going too high will pull your plane back towards the ground, sometimes into an object (like the ground), killing you in the process. The bigger problem is that there is no indication of where the “roof” of each track is, so it's complete guesswork as to whether the next obstacle can be flown over or if the game will throw you into the roof without warning. It’s not all about single player in SkyDrift, as online competition is available. You can choose between starting a quick match (recommended because of the seemingly low player counts) or more customized options. SkyDrift does not have a server browser so you can pick and choose which game to play, though, so you’ll have to resort to fate unless you host a match yourself.

There are eight planes in SkyDrift that vary according to top speed, boost potential, acceleration, maneuvering, and armor. The aircraft are nicely balanced, as each option has drawbacks to counter each advantage. Controls are slightly more advanced than a typical arcade flight game: in addition to the typical 2-D maneuvering (up, down, left, right), you can also use the arrow keys (or the right trigger on a gaming pad) to bank the plane dramatically and cut severe corners. Turning is slower than I had expected, requiring more foresight in navigating the game’s tricky layouts, so a coordinated use of the speed controls and both direction inputs is needed.

Being a combat racing game, there are six weapons that can be picked up on the racetrack. These include a machine gun cannon (which auto-aims slightly if an enemy plane is in your reticule), missiles, mines, and a proximity shockwave. You can also pick up shields and repair kits to lessen enemy attacks. You can only carry two weapons at a time, so you must choose which items are best for the current race situation. You can stack items once to gain extra power (like picking up another machine gun to add more ammunition), which increases the tactical decisions even further. However, there is not a significant enough penalty for being killed: you respawn a fraction of a second later in the exact same spot, making kills a mere annoyance rather than a race-changing event. This, of course, makes it easier for the back of the pack to challenge up front, which leads to more exciting, closer racing. Still, carefully landing a rocket attack should come with more reward.

Engine boost (for increased acceleration and top speed) can be earned through a variety of methods: flying low or near obstacles, drafting behind other plants, passing opponents, killing your rivals, or using items effectively. This gives an advantage to those who are more skilled pilots and allow for the pack to catch up to the leader, without feeling overpowered. Unlike, say, Split/Second, this is not a racing game where you can mash the gas the entire race, as you must content with the track layouts strewn with obstacles and those pesky AI drivers. Speaking of, the AI drivers are quite good, never feeling robotic. They utilize varied paths through each track and make the occasional mistake.

For only $10, SkyDrift is a capable arcade combat flight simulation. The planes are sluggish (by design, I think), requiring pilots to adjust their speed before navigating through the game's tricky layouts, full of obstacles and changes in elevation designed to cause you to crash repeatedly. In addition to the challenging track designs, you'll have to worry about other pilots that will be shooting missiles, bullets, and shockwaves in your general direction. You can only carry two weapons at a time, but a single item can be upgraded, giving you some tactical decisions to make while in the air: which weapons shall I take? Increasing the interest is the use of stunts to provide boost: flying in dangerous locations (close to the ground, near enemy pilots) and blowing people up will let you move more quickly towards the front. The combination of stunt-based boosting and the various weapons give players not in the lead a chance for the front, while not feeling too unfair or imbalanced. The penalty for death is negligible, as you are almost instantly respawned with weapons intact after being destroyed; while this does get you in to the action faster, I'd like there to be some more meaningful consequence for getting blown up. The AI pilots certainly hold their own, flying plausibly, mixing it up, and being the nuisance they should be. The campaign is a bit repetitive, offering races in three modes over the same six tracks, and multiplayer doesn't allow you to browse prospective games, although quick matchmaking is offered. Finally, the graphics are impressive with varied, detailed environments. The added dimension of flight, and a solid overall package, makes SkyDrift an intriguing choice for fans of combat racing games.