There are hardcore simulations, and then there’s Liftoff: Drone Racing. Beyond Microsoft Flight Simulator, we’d struggle to name a game that’s as emphatically nerdy, or as determined to capture the experience of the real thing. The Xbox pad is even set out similarly to a drone controller – you’re getting a near one-to-one experience here, and Liftoff leans into that hard.
Liftoff: Drone Racing makes for a near-impossible game to review. None of us at TheXboxHub are drone enthusiasts, let alone drone racers, so we can’t give you a lowdown of whether Liftoff Drone Racing emulates the rush of the hobby. Undoubtedly there’s a review of this game in a drone-racing magazine (go on, they must exist), and we’d recommend that you look there if you want a professional take.
What we can do is view the game from the perspective of a racing fan, or someone who’s got a curiosity about drones. To give you context, this reviewer has had a few goes with a mate’s drone – nothing more than flying it vertically and desperately trying not to break the thing (therefore ruining a friendship). We’re no more than drone noobs, so keep that in mind.
Onto the game. Before you can do anything in Liftoff: Drone Racing, you have to be inducted through the tutorials. LuGus Studios knows that their game is idiosyncratic, so they hold your hand a fair amount. These are friendly flyabouts in a garden with Joshua, a lovely chap who is endlessly patient with you and admits, at one point, that he’s surprised you’ve turned up for the next day’s teaching. It’s refreshing for a game to be upfront about its own difficulty and fiddliness, and it probably made the tutorials less painful. Bless you, Joshua, for being okay with all the drones of yours I trashed.
You’re taught two control sets. The first is semi-automated, and is – for want of a better word – arcadey. You can hit things and bounce off, and the drone hovers without any input. For anyone with experience with flight sims, it might feel familiar, but – we can’t underline this enough – it’s still hella difficult. Drones, it seems, suffer from huge momentum and drift, and you’re left careening around areas with the slightest input. None of the controls are instinctive, and require a rewiring to do even the most basic maneuvers, while the courses require a reasonable amount of precision. You’ll be racing at sedate speeds just to keep control. It’s at least comforting that your opponents do the same, as drone-racing doesn’t seem to be a thrillseeker’s sport. F1 players who are looking to spice up their racers are in for a surprise.
The second control-set is ACRO mode – short for acrobatic – and it makes everything manual. The pitch, yaw and lift are all achieved via the two analog sticks, and you’re no longer given the safety net of your drone hovering in one place. It’s also first-person, using the FPV goggles.
I have waking nightmares thinking about this control scheme: I’m pretty sure Dante wandered through a circle of hell and heard the buzzing and crashing of drones.
The first-person perspective in ACRO means you have near-zero context of where you are and where you’re facing. Heaven forbid that you lose sight of the horizon, as you’ll likely be tumbling into a deathspin and you can kiss your tutorial progress (let alone race progress) goodbye. Being POV, it also gives rise to nausea. If you’ve ever felt sickness when playing VR, then you should avoid this like the plague.
A drone controlled by ACRO is such a counter-intuitive beast. To brake, you need to lift the front of your drone and build up air resistance, like doing a wheelie on a bike, and then hope that – when you return to your original pitch – you’re both stationary and level with the ground. As it turns out, drones can’t strafe or turn – you need to pitch and then yaw (my terminology may be off-point here), which effectively means dipping your drone towards the ground and then correcting it. When in POV, this means panicking as you face the ground, and hoping you’re in the right direction when you resurface.
Learning to control a drone via ACRO will take you literal hours. I’ll be honest, if it wasn’t for this review I would have pressed the Home button and opted for a bout of DIRT 5. Liftoff: Drone Racing is undeniably realistic, and you’ll feel certain that you’re conforming to both physics and drone engineering, but it isn’t even the remotest bit entertaining.
Controlling a drone is just one step: you then have to race the damn things. Against other people. And win. We stumbled through the tutorials and emerged into a career mode that, fair play to it, does some cracking things with chronology. You’re working through the history of drones and drone-racing, and we can imagine the drone crowd whistling and whooping at the care that has gone into it. We were too busy wailing to fully appreciate it, but there’s real imagination here, when it could easily have been vanilla.
You also have the opportunity to earn cosmetics for your drone and outfit it on a workbench. This is well-presented and probably means more to enthusiasts, as the benefits are negligible when your biggest concern is the most basic racing line.
Liftoff: Drone Racing could have taken more steps to soften the difficulty curve. Races loop into narrow attics or tight tunnels, and the collision detection, mixed with the fatal punishment if you clip a tree/window/flag, means that you’re chucking control pads around the room. One mistake and you may as well give up… and you will be making plenty of mistakes. It wouldn’t have taken much to embrace the racer crowd a little more, pushing the arcade mode even further into arcade territory. It would have served as a gateway, when the door is effectively shut.
Multiplayer is available, but it might be moot as the skill curve is so steep. Enthusiasts have a headstart, and getting friends to overcome the hours of onboarding is a big ask. It’s good that it’s there, and updates plus DLC are incoming, so there’s plenty of support.
Liftoff: Drone Racing was never going to have the production values of a Codemasters racer, but I’d love to sit here and say it was serviceable. Ground textures and environment are pretty darn awful, while the soundtrack is repetitive and veering close to muzak. The drones themselves are decent, and the UI has a nice spraypaint-y feel to it, which is a positive, but – bemusingly – the load-times are regular and reasonably long, making the navigation of that UI a pain. If you want to move from your workbench to a race, you’ll thud into loading screen after loading screen.
As we warned at the start, Liftoff: Drone Racing is almost impossible to review and score. A drone-head will have a completely different experience with the game, finding everything intuitive. The campaign is lovingly wrought, and there’s the opportunity to get your hands on expensive hardware without the outlay or the possibility of drilling it into a tree. But to anyone else (including us, unfortunately), this is an imbalanced relationship, and you have to put too much in to get very little out.
Liftoff: Drone Racing on Xbox is a Gordian knot of a game. Mastering even the simplest manoeuvres takes time, and that’s before you’ve mastered the improbably difficult racing. Master the racing, and you’re left with a slow, precise racer in an ugly environment. For the casual, it’s simply not worth it, and we can only suggest that you steer to DIRT 5 or Hotshot Racing instead.