First things first: ATC stands for “Air Traffic Control.” This is a game dedicated to the unsung heroes in those control towers… you know, the folks that keep thousands of planes in the air at once, all over the world, and enable the miracle of modern air travel. ATC 4.0 is an unusual action-puzzler that keeps you scanning the skies and juggling planes at all times. It’s not a relaxing experience in any way, but it can definitely be a fun one.
Conceptually, ATC 4.0 might be closest to games like Diner Dash and Daycare Nightmare, insofar as you have to monitor several processes at once and step in to make adjustments. The main differences are that ATC’s completely spatial, and there’s obviously a lot more at stake wrangling jetliners!
You get a bird’s-eye view of the area surrounding an airport, which is outfitted with four or more “goal zones”–small green areas at each of the four cardinal directions (marked A through D), as well as one or more airstrips in the center of the screen (labeled L1, L2, and so on). Planes fly out of these zones marked with a goal, and your job is to redirect them to the appropriate area. If two planes crash into one another, or if one of them flies off-screen without reaching its goal, you lose.
Sound easy? Not when you’ve got a half-dozen birds or more in the air. You can set up to three waypoints for each plane, so it’s possible to buy time by putting planes into a holding pattern if you need to deal with an emergency. Nevertheless, the urgency of near-collisions and aimless planes is always there. It gets particularly stressful when the game throws snowstorms, night shifts, high winds, and other crisis situations at you.
We found that ATC 4.0 mostly generated the good kind of stress, keeping us glued to our iPhone. This wasn’t always the case, though. For instance, the controls for setting waypoints could be more intuitive; you touch around to set up to three of them, but you have to touch them again to remove them. That can suck when you have two seconds to avoid a collision and you need to reroute a plane immediately. We were also bugged by situations where a plane would appear to fly into the green zone (and apparent safety), only to be blown off-course by high winds and lost–while still in the green zone. These problems aren’t dealbreakers, but we’d like to see them fixed in an update.
ATC 4.0′s graphics are small, but highly detailed. You can even see tiny cars driving around on the freeways below, and the planes have blinking safety lights at nighttime. The sound effects are pretty obnoxious, and there’s no music, so we were very happy to have iPod access.
$2.99 seems like a fairly high price these days, but ATC 4.0′s is worth the buy, especially if you’ve been sifting through the anarchy of the App Store to find something genuinely different.