The summer is over and one might immediately assume that there aren’t any new or interesting arcade games to grace the digital storefronts, especially not now when we are only a couple of weeks away from hard-hitting retail releases like Gears of War 3 and the like. It turns out that there’s still some incentive left for players to pony up the points and hit the Xbox Live Marketplace thanks to Skydrift; a thrilling, gorgeous and wholly entertaining multiplayer centric experience, in which players take it to the skies in all manner of aircrafts and duke it out Mario kart style, with powerups and highly competitive races. If you got 1200 Microsoft Points ($15) and even a passing interest in some archaic and chaotic multiplayer action, then Skydrift should have you covered.
Like so many games, Skydrift offers a single-player campaign and an online multiplayer offering – the former option acts a lot like a training mode with AI controlled opponents filling in for the human opposition that you’re fighting against online. Irrespective of mode, however, Skydrift is intense; you pick an aircraft and race in one six maps that run the gamut from lush jungles, to densely packed factory environments and beach resorts and you then scramble to collect weapons and blow up your opponents – all while you try to fly straight, dodge incoming obstacles and reach the finish line in one piece. Skydrift deftly blends the feel and mechanics of flight simulators with the competitive edge of Mario Kart and Blur, with powerups and levels that are designed as race tracks.
There’s also a ton of strategy wrapped around the game’s mechanics – there are five powerups: shield grants you immunity from attacks for a short period of time, missiles allow you to lock on-to enemy aircrafts and blast away, machine guns lets you shred your enemies to smithereens, EMP’s allow to emit burst of energy that slows down enemies and you can also repair your ship and deploy mines for a nice surprise. These powerups are strewn about the tracks you race on, and you’re allowed to carry two of them at once and cycle between them at any given time. You can also upgrade a powerup by obtaining it twice; improving its efficiency and deadliness. Lastly, you can also opt to convert your powerups into boost energy, so if you need a short burst of speed then it’s a viable option. Using your powerups at the right intervals and deciding if you want to use them, upgrade them or convert them into energy creates a lot of depth that leads to both an addictive and invigorating experience and tripping up your enemies –both online and off—is immensely satisfying.
Flying and steering your aircraft is also surprisingly deep; you can accelerate and slow down at your leisure and tilting the right analog-stick causes you to fly in a knife edge position, letting you clear tight crevices or shake off incoming attacks. The controls feel intuitive and gratifying, although navigating through narrow areas like tunnels can be frustrating since flying through them often requires a rather awkward input (I had to control my aircraft using both analog-sticks, one for steering and one for tilting along with having to hold down the left trigger to fly at a slow pace) which usually results in a cheap death. Thankfully, you respawn quickly and are always granted a few slithers of boost energy which you can use up by holding down the A button and you can refill your boost by performing stunts or gunning down opponents. One minor gripe I do have with the track designs in Skydrift is the poor visual indication that the flashing arrows give you, which guides you along the track and decides where you’re allowed to fly or not. While you can usually deviate from the main path and find a shortcut, you’re often limited in strange and obtuse ways; sometimes it’s okay to fly over a rock spire, whereas other tracks will send you crashing to your death for doing so.
The campaign sports three different event types: Power Race has you trying to finish first while fending off enemies, Speed Race removes powerups and instead has you flying through rings to pick up speed and finish first and lastly, Survivor periodically kills every player who’s in the last position until only one remains. All of these modes are quite fun and the AI is smart and formidable. As you play through the campaign, you’ll unlock more planes, skins, badges and medals used as bragging rights. You can also hop online and compete with 7 other players using the same tracks and modes from the single-player. The game really does come alive online and the human element makes it much more satisfying to finish an event in first place. There weren’t a whole lot players playing as of this review, but all of the matches were completely lag-free and the matchmaking system seems functional.
Skydrift is one of the best looking Xbox Live Arcade games to date; a bold statement indeed but as soon as you pick up your controller and start flying, you are likely to agree wholeheartedly. There’s just so much style and flair crafted into the experience and you’ll be impressed throughout by the small details that pop up as you play. During the HeatWave map, lava spurs up from beneath, while the Avalanche map has you flying through a narrow ice cavern where taking sharp turns is crucial in order to survive and several bright lit maps bask in the game’s impressive lighting engine. Boosting at high speed causes the screen to go blurry and the landscape to zoom by really fast which is absolutely exhilarating and the game maintains a rock solid frame rate and the loading times are very short, making it game that’s equally gorgeous and technically proficient. There are a few presentation issues, though; the music is repetitive and the announcer’s voice can get a little grating when he always needs to yell “You’re in first place now!” as soon as you take the lead.
The game’s single-player campaign only took me a couple of hours to finish and there aren’t nearly enough maps and modes for the multiplayer to sustain my interest for very long. What you are getting is still an addicting experience that hearkens back to the days where multiplayer games weren’t about crazy levelling meta-games or killstreaks. You’re not getting an awful a lot of content for the price you’re paying, but the gameplay makes it a worthwhile experience nonetheless.
Skydrift brings gorgeous visuals, addicting multiplayer competition and interesting mechanics to the Xbox Live marketplace, which feels a little too saturated by art-games at this point. It doesn’t want you think, interpret or behold any artistry that so many arcade games opt for. It’s just trying to entertain you and offer a terrific mash up of games and genres, and save for some controller and direction inconsistencies, a repetitious soundtrack and rather sparse content, Skydrift provides just that.