It’s Christmas day 2004, I’m slouched over the family budget PC, CRT screen and all. My blurry vision can’t tell if Flight Simulator is installing or has frozen. The computer’s tower revs and whirrs under the strain – barely possessing the required memory and processing power to handle such a beast of a game — stored on two disks if memory serves me right!
Flight Simulator gave me hours of joy. There was something invigorating about a virtual flight in snowy conditions from Heathrow to Keflavík. I’d often sit with a cup of tea – periodically adjusting course, checking fuel or praying autopilot would handle the turbulence so I wouldn’t have to.
The fact that I can now enjoy a similar thrill on my Galaxy Tab 2 thanks to the guys over at Laminar labs is a testament to their hard work on the X Plane 9 series and to modern mobile hardware. Thirteen year old me would nosedive at the sight of this bad boy. And no Joystick required!
Like any simulator the first thing I wanted to do was jump into the hotseat. I was plonked at the end of a runway surrounded by nothing other than tarmac, fields and blue skies. Like most similar desktop simulators, because of the intense physics engine and controls, there isn’t much left to play with in terms of scenery.
The developers have used stock satellite imagery blurred beyond recognition for cities to simulate an environment when you’re in the air. It works okay and unless you’re flying at 1000 feet you won’t realise it. In the airports however – I say airports, I really mean runways with fields – a dull landscape of untextured grass without a single tree or third dimension to be seen, is the in-flight entertainment.
The menu consists of different tabs along the top, each allowing the player to choose certain things such as aircraft, location and flight plan. You can also change the weather by varying degrees, and trust me, the thunderstorms are really cool. I spent half an hour circling an airport in one to get a screenshot of fork lightening. Apparently, contrary to popular belief, I’m just a tad shy of being able to achieve lightening fast screenshots – sorry.
These rigs were meant to fly, and that they do. The throttle slider lives to the left of the screen. When thrown towards the sky, the clear sound effects the game has to offer let us know the engine is revving up. After a few seconds with the brake released and the chocks away, your craft will barrel down the runway. 65 knots is the recommended take-off speed but I prefer to tilt my tablet downwards keeping the plane on the ground until we’re close to 100. When I hear the wind begin to whistle over the wings, I’m up and away.
The default screen is the first person camera located at the nose of the plane. As you can see above, the flaps — which control lift — can be manipulated using the slide to the right of the screen. The rudder is at the bottom of the screen. It’ll turn on its own slightly if you tilt the plan, or violently if you do flips. The intention however, is for it to turn the plane whilst flying to position the aircraft smoothly.
The landing gear, to the bottom right, will light up green when in use. Dont forget to put it down. Or well, yeah.
Another camera, and my second favorite, is of the cockpit dashboard. It only displays instruments, gauges and buttons. From my previous enjoyment of simulators I can tell you that ‘flying blind’ is just as fun as the old fashioned way. It requires your complete attention to airspeed, altitude, course settings and coordinates. You’ve also got to plan ahead knowing when you’ll switch headings, slow down, drop altitude and make an approach – all while essentially blindfolded.
The dashes are mostly interactive. The basic controls on almost all planes are auto-pilot, compass, airspeed and horizon indicator. Each model of plane is slightly different to the last. However, when you fly a historic plane, you should expect to have the bare essentials.
Aircraft and Extras
That brings me to my next point – the aircraft. You get five or six planes to start out with. They’re all propeller and jet aircraft although small in size. But while the game is free, in-app purchases are present. There are dozens of extra aircraft available from Boeing jumbos to modern stealth bombers. Historic military planes make an appearance alongside modern favourites such as the much loved, COD favourite, the C-130.
Scrolling through these extras, I discovered that helicopters also feature in the game. However I defy anyone to actually get one off the ground without an abrupt explosion. I consider myself a slightly above average gyroscopic student and yet every time I tried to achieve lift I’d stumble, roll over and explode. I’m not saying it’s a game fault. I’m saying I have a lot more respect for people crazy enough to pilot a whirlybird.
Aside from aircraft, you can also purchase additional areas and airports.
As a final point, if you decide to try out X Plane 9, go swimming with your plane at least once. Up close, the water actually looks really good with impressive wave physics causing the plane to bob and tilt. It’s a shame that the developers mastered these animations and yet, they couldn’t render a tree.
Overall I enjoyed X Plane 9 and I have no intention to stop playing. The developers have been committed to the flight simulator scene for years and have proven what they can do by scaling down the desktop favorite app to fit on mobiles. The add-ons keep you playing and feed back some funds — around 50cents a pop — to those guys who are passionate about improving the simulator game genre, both on desktop and mobile.
Sure, there are some issues, especially with the poor ground graphics. But the game lets you fly a B-42 with your phone, so those points aren’t valid.