I have never ridden a cow backwards, whilst blindfolded, in a storm, but I imagine it would be less cumbersome than the drove-flying controls in ACRO mode of Liftoff: Drone Racing.
Let’s reverse a second. For the uninitiated, Liftoff: Drone Racing is quite obviously a drone racing video game for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, created by the developer of drone simulators for real-life pilot training programs, LuGus Studios. It’s fair to say that the team involved know their propellers from their antennas.
This game takes elements from a simulator, focusses more on competitive racing and is garnished with a lurid paint scheme – the aim being an experience that is accessible to drone rookies but still appealing to pro-level pilots.
As an introduction, there are two flight modes, ‘Assisted’ and the aforementioned ‘ACRO’, short for acrobatic, with a lengthy tutorial to show you the ropes of each. It takes you through setting off, moving forward and cornering. These take place through a series of set obstacle courses, as you try not to crash into a tree.
For me, things did not start off well. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the tutorial isn’t very engaging, as all you get are on-screen subtitles from your ‘mate’ Joshua. A voice-over and an explanation of where you’ve gone wrong are all absent. I did get there in the end, using the left stick to steer, and the right trigger to accelerate.
Next, you move on to the ACRO tutorial and it’s a whole new world. Along with controlling throttle with the left stick, you are now responsible for the pitch, yaw and roll of your drone, mapped across both sticks. It doesn’t help that your drone behaves differently to the video, with controller overlays supposedly showing you how it’s done. If I let go of the left stick, the drone heads for the sky on its own as if filled with helium, but when the demonstrator does this, it stays perfectly level.
Perseverance is key. Only a drone expert would use ACRO outside of the tutorial and free-roam modes in my opinion.
Onwards to the career, and it’s here where you are in frenetic, action-packed, drone races. Right? Er…
I can forgive Liftoff: Drone Racing for being difficult, but it’s harder to forgive the lack of agility. Expecting the sharpness of a Red Bull Air Racer, the steering responses can instead be slower than a Rover 200 around an Asda car park. You do acclimatise to this, sometimes turning earlier than you expect for corners or adjusting your altitude in advance, but it’s hard to find a rhythm.
The tracks are set across a mixture of fields, golf courses, urban environments and farmyards. There are also day and night racings. Mostly it consists of flying through checkpoint ‘gates’ over three laps against a field of rival drones. Unfortunately, your competitors are wildly inconsistent. On occasion, I was struggling at the back of the grid, and then the very next race, way out front.
What I found slightly obtuse was the lack of a career structure. Selecting the mode from the home menu just launches you straight into a race. It’s only after the event, you can find a menu which shows your upcoming races. It’s simply a list of races, one after each other. I know that’s essentially what every racing game is, but this game makes no attempt at styling things out.
You can upgrade your drone, using XP attributed to good results, but again, the way this is portrayed is a little befuddling. I like how there are deep set-up options and camera weights, but I also think there needs to be a layer above this better explaining which parts match which circuits.
By far the worst thing about the game is when you make a mistake. Whether you’re clipping a tree or going head-first into a hay bale, the game completely freaks out. You don’t crash into an object really, you get stuck to it like you’re flying a drone made of Velcro. You can reset your craft, but not always. If you can’t, then your unpiloted aircraft freaks out for 30 seconds and the race is restarted. You crash, the game can’t handle it, reboot.
Alongside career, training and free-roam modes is online multiplayer. There seems to be a large number of options to chose from, but a lack of competitors really stifles the incentive to play. Between a rock and a hard place, a niche title perhaps will never have a large enough audience to draw a vibrant online community. Seemingly the developers are aware of this as you can race against yourself online. Yes, really.
I wanted Liftoff: Drone Racing to be an intriguing curio. The idea is a good one – taking sim-based physics and creating a futuristic racer – and I like that it adds variety to the video game landscape. Sadly, in this current incarnation, it just isn’t fun.