Kart racing is everywhere, and most kart titles are "me-too" titles all on the tails of Mario Kart. Sure some are innovative in ways, sure some are good, but many fall under the dull umbrella. But they're still made because they sell, just slap on the latest Nickelodeon license and you've got something that will sell but shouldn't. How do you stand out from the crowded arena of kart racing? You make SkyDrift. Oh, sure, several years ago, Freaky Flyers came out with a cartoon style, crazy weaponry, and tight gameplay, but it felt slow-slow-slow. Racing, especially in planes, should feel fast, and SkyDrift does it.
First things first. The graphics. SkyDrift is a downloadable game, and it rivals some retail titles in graphic quality. It's a sight to behold. The water effects are alive with motion and reflection, and will splash up on your HUD if you get too close. The lava zones and your engine's turbo give off heat waves which blur the vision in the immediate areas. The atmosphere of the racetracks are great. Sure we've raced through mountains, over oceans, through caves, around destroyed wrecks and through power stations, most recently in Hydro Thunder Hurricane, there's just something fresh about the environments when you can fly through them. The draw distance is decent, and there is no noticeable slowdown, not even with online multiplayer. Something that caught me by surprise, although it probably shouldn't have, was while flying through a hydroelectric dam, a bridge started to collapse on top of my plane. I was so engrossed looking around at everything in-game that I almost smashed my plane into the bridge wreckage. There is quite a bit of detail that you might not notice the first or fifth time you play. But it's there.
Gameplay is tight. I've never flown a plane, I don't know how they work, I know this game's planes in real-life might not be able to fly the way they do, but it just feels right. I've seen those nutty small plane races at 2:00 am on ESPN or SportsNet, thinking those people must be on crack to race planes the way they do, with quick turns, high speeds, no real margin for error. With SkyDrift, now I can fly like that, and do more ridiculously impossible things with my plane, fly through ridiculously impossible flight paths, and use weapons! The planes seemingly turn on a dime, with both mushroom sticks controlling direction and flight: the left mushroom is the usual up-down-left-right; the right mushroom will position your plane to allow it to squeeze through small vertical crevices or to spin to avoid incoming weapons or falling obstacles. When you get your plane flying completely sideways, they call this the "knife edge". It's easy to learn how to use it, but it can be challenging to learn when to use it.
Power-Ups you will pick up range from cannons to missiles to plane repair. Picking up multiples of one item will increase the power of your weapons, or will repair your plane to its maximum strength. Toggling weapons is easily done through the Y button, but remember, you can only carry two of any power-up, so you may have to pick and choose your power ups depending on if you want to battle close-quarters, from a distance, or if you are desperately in need of repairs. If, for some reason, you want more boost than you have, you can hit the B button to convert your power-ups into more turbos. Other than that, turbo boosting is filled through completing stunts and defeating opponents.
Above: The "knife edge"
The in-game music is passable and inoffensive, while the sound effects are pretty good. I enjoy hearing my weapons going off and my opponents blowing up, it's always satisfying to watch opponents crash and burn. The announcer is a little goofy, like Ridge Racer on the PSX goofy. He says the normal stuff like "You are in the lead" and "You have won", but he also says some interesting things like "You are the first" when you've taken the lead in a race. Lost in translation? Yes, but I know what he means. It's not "You must be one genius of a driver, you gotta teach me!", but it's definitely odd. The other thing it takes from the Ridge Racer series is extending life of the game by racing the tracks backwards. Eh, I can deal with that.
Below: Flying through the weapons, turbos blasting
There is a decent selection of planes, multiplied by several skins to unlock as you go through the game while unlocking in-game achievements called "badges" (not to be confused with the achievements which add to your gamerscore.) Destroying opponents, hugging the ground, coming in first, winning online races will all unlock badges and unlock more planes, skins, and modes. The modes in the game are what you'd expect: Power Races have you battling to come in first; Speed Races are no-weapons races where you fly through rings to keep your boosting up and defeat opponents the old-fashioned way- by being the fastest, safest flyer; Survivor Races where you have to stay in the top position to avoid being last at the final countdowns, this eliminates one racer at a time until there is a winner.
SkyDrift is definitely a winner on the XBLA, and is a $15 title with some high production value and great gameplay. As far as downloadable titles go, the price may hamper sales a bit, and that would be unfortunate. You deserve to give the creators of SkyDrift a chance. Trust me.
Above: Realistic environments? Hell no. Do you want to race the environments? Yes, please!
Extreme Fighters DLC, available now: