Although racing games have always been hugely popular, the genre has yet to leave a lasting mark on the Xbox Live Arcade. It seems like the only racers gracing Microsoft's download service are arcade ports (OutRun, Sega Rally) and advertisements masquerading racing games (Yaris, Crash Course). Just as I was about to give up on the XBLA, along comes SkyDrift and proves that you can make a digitally distributed racing game on the Xbox 360.
SkyDrift successfully marries elements from Mario Kart and Ace Combat, making for a fast-paced flying game with plenty of power-ups to lob at your opponents. You race through a bunch of incredibly detailed tracks in hopes of coming in first and getting the best times. Don't let the jets fool you; this is a traditional racing game through and through.
The truth is, this is hardly the first racing game to incorporate jets. Years ago Nintendo brought us Diddy Kong Racing, a Nintendo 64 cart that pitted airplanes against go-karts and hovercrafts. Digital Reality borrows heavily from Diddy Kong Racing's formula, creating an easily accessible arcade-style racer with top-notch graphics, online play and just enough content to keep you coming back for more.
The game's single-player campaign is split into seven different levels, each with four to six events to complete. There are three types of races in all, none of which will come as a surprise. There's a standard power race (where you race through two or three laps in order to come in first), a speed race (where you fly through hoops to gain speed) and survivor mode (where a timer counts down and eliminates whoever is in last place until nobody is left). You've seen all of these modes in countless other games, though rarely are you able to barrel roll your way through a tight gap next to an erupting volcano.
Just because you're piloting a fast-moving airplane, that doesn't mean that you can go anywhere and do anything. Each level has a defined course; complete with invisible walls that to ensure you stay on the track. Thankfully it's always easy to know where you're headed. A lot of the levels will have you racing between canyons, through tunnels and around other landscape that narrows the track. On the other hand, there are a few times in each race where the level will open up and give you room to maneuver. There are also hidden paths that will give you an upper hand on the competition.
Piloting the airplane is a breeze. Instead of getting to complicated, Digital Reality has kept SkyDrift as simple as possible. You hold the right trigger to go, push the "A" button for turbo and brake with the left trigger. If you've driven a car in a racing game, you'll feel right at home in an airplane. Instead of using an emergency brake, players will use the right analog stick to help bank to the left and right. Don't be intimidated by the different vehicle, I had no problem mastering the plane's unique handling in the very first race.
In most game modes there will be power-ups and weapons lining the course. Picking up these various items is the only way to attack your enemies, though players can choose to ditch the item for a small speed boost. The items are fairly standard for a kart racer, including missiles, electric blasts, shields, mines and so on so forth. Players have the ability to double up on each weapon, as well as hold two different items at the same time. Learning how to properly use these power-ups will mean the difference between coming in first and last.
The race locations are unbelievable, offering everything from snowy mountains to tropical islands to that erupting volcano I talked about earlier. In the Dam stage you'll have to fly around man-made buildings, while in other stages the only thing you have to worry about is nature. Sometimes the level will fight back, such as a building falling or a bridge collapsing above you. These changes to the level are fairly subdued, so don't expect anything along the lines of Split/Second.
Unfortunately there aren't nearly enough stages to keep SkyDrift from becoming repetitive. As far as I could tell there are only six different race tracks, all of which are introduced in the first few levels of the campaign. By the time the credits roll you'll have played every level multiple times, both forwards and backwards. Another two or three stages would have gone a long way to keep this game fresh from beginning to end.
On top of the standard single-player campaign mode, players can take SkyDrift online and play with up to eight people. At least, in theory you can. Sadly I have had very little luck finding players online. The few matches I have snuck into have been lag-free and just as competitive as I had imagined. But much like the campaign mode, I can see myself losing interest with only a few levels to courses through at any given time.
As a fifteen dollar game, it's hard to complain about the amount of content in SkyDrift. I spent the better part of five hours going through the campaign, and I'm not even close to getting first on every track. The online will extend the life, especially if you have friends to go up against. With its great presentation and action-packed level designs, SkyDrift is easily one of the best racing games for the Xbox Live Arcade.
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