Flight simulators are an extremely hard breed to dissect and critique. Riding the line between real-life flight experiences and virtual recreation, it’s difficult to see them as anything but a learning tool in some respects, leaving very little to be desired in the way of entertainment for all but the zealous pilot types. If you’re a flight-sim nut, don’t let the scores above throw you. Laminar Research’s X-Plane is a highly technical and well-constructed piece of software that offers the depth and esotericism that a flyboy wannabe could ever want – it just can’t reach across to all the rest of us who could care less what the drag co-efficient of our ailerons is, and how it affects actual flight.
It’s not that X-Plane tries to be anything but a true flight simulator. It’s even touted by the developers as an instructive application, and not necessarily an actual game (they refer us to Microsoft’s flight sim products for that sort of contemptuous entertainment). X-Plane also has the distinguished honor of becoming the first consumer-class flight sim to be endorsed by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) as a testing and training ground for commercial and airline transport certification. That’s quite a cred for a piece of software you can pick up for far less than $100.
For all that you’re allowed to peek into the microscopic world of flight technicalities and real-world effects on a projectile body, I found a few inconsistencies that bothered me enough to actually question the accuracy of the engine employed during “gameplay”. X-Plane uses some fancy-schmancy method called “blade element theory” that determines, at a rate of 15 times per second, the actual forces being exerted on the aircraft you’re flying, be they wind, gravity, or atmospheric density. Even rain and ice come into play. Given these practical, and quite detrimental environmental constituents, I was disappointed to find that doing a loop in a suitably-powered aircraft was virtually impossible. I’m sure I was remiss in considering the ballast-shift of tumbling flight attendants and peanut packages in the Boeing 747 I first tried a loop with, but I fully expected a very capable F-4 Phantom to execute the loop with grace and beauty. I tried that so many times, with every attempt ending in a failed stall, I started to really inspect the F-4 for prop engines, or a few dozen elephants in tow. A loop should not have been out of reach.
There are 40 aircraft accessible from the start, with downloadable additions available, and I found the categorical variety to be an exciting plus. The usual odd assortments of prop planes (land and sea) are here, along with the obligatory commercial jetliners. But then there’s the helicopters (hard to master), VTOL jets (vertical take-off and landing, such as the Harrier), and a quirky futuristic anime jet that could easily have come right out of a Macross film.
Because Laminar Research realizes that not all of us want to fly conventional aircraft, a voluminous Plane Maker section is available for the hand-wringing do-it-yourselfer. Everything from fuselage shape and size, to the number of wings and their respective geometries can be created, adjusted, and refined to a molecule’s edge. The biggest problem with both the Plane Maker (and Land Maker) portions of X-Plane is that there’s virtually no help at all in describing both the different sections and the minutia therein, nor is there a clear set of rules laid out to follow in order to create a cohesive aircraft design. Giving this much unchartered creative license to someone like me, who has only a monkey’s notion of what to do with all this god-like constructive power, led to such disasters as my invention of the Banana plane. This pitiful, aptly-named flying fruit never truly got off the ground due to unrealized and quite hidden details. Pity. If you venture into the Maker sections, be prepared to be baffled, even after dusting off your engineering and aerodynamics doctorate certificates; the interfaces and sheer number of creative details are woefully unforgiving.
The biggest breakdowns in the entire application are actually the interfaces in general, and are what truly separates X-Plane from what the rest of us might consider a game, or something that elicits passive entertainment. The different portions of X-Plane (flight, Plane Maker, Land Maker, Airfoil maker, et al) are not tied together as a singular unit, and instead each must be initiated with its own icon. Not a big deal? Try picturing X-Plane as an integrated, informative, and supposedly inspiring experience, except that every time you’d like to switch to another portion of the “game”, you have to quit one, and start another. Within its own separate parts, the flight simulator is the only section that doesn’t require you to sift through myriads of intricacies in setup and triviality. It’s clunky enough that a distinct line is drawn at the point where virtual fun becomes an exercise in learning. Yuck.
How pretty is a flight simulator supposed to be? Well, there’s really not supposed to be a great emphasis on visuals in a flight sim, aside from some barely discernible plane designs, or perhaps a determinate representation of the ground. X-Plane does a fantastic job at planes and clouds, but the environments are about as blah as other flight sims I’ve had the... um, pleasure of experiencing. An interesting technical note is the real-time weather that can be downloaded from a few key sites, allowing you to theoretically fly through a virtual hurricane as it hits and decimates the real Florida peninsula. Weather is impressively emulated, at least in a visual sense, with lightning bursts after entering a thunderhead, and rain sheeting on the runway. They make a note to mention the volumetric clouds, and with good reason; they are quite present in their whispy, dynamic forms.
This is not a game; this is serious flight sim business, here. Hell, Popular Science even did an article on X-Plane. If you have the means, there is apparently a motion simulator you can buy that will work in conjunction with X-Plane, creating the ultimate virtual flight experience. While my scores don’t reflect the intricate consideration and marginal genius required to appreciate that this is quite possibly the most studious and comprehensive virtual flight emulator out there, they do reflect its broad appeal. Which is to say, it probably won’t have much. In a tip of the hat to those that enjoy these types of games, I’m sure X-Plane has what it takes to jiggle your flight stick. But tie the high-brow nature of the cockpit-nerd content with the disconnected, unhelpful interface, and what comes up for the rest of us is a recognizable flight sim that’s very firmly grounded.