X-Plane has a long history of providing some of the most realistic and detailed flight simulation available on desktop computers, on over a thousand different aircraft–both real and imagined (Drawing from the vast user-community at www.x-plane.org and elsewhere.) . When bringing the simulator to the iPhone, the developers had to scale things down a bit. There are only four aircraft in this version, and the ability to design your own aircraft is absent. While the iPhone’s accelerometer controls are a natural fit for flying aircraft, and the graphics and sound are fantastic, X-Plane 9 doesn’t quite have enough content to merit a full recommendation.
The simulator starts with you in a Cirrus Jet, lined up for takeoff from LOWI field in Innsbruck, Austria. The default view is straight forward, with a superimposed heads-up display, which will be familiar to anyone who has played with a flight simulator. On the right side of the screen is a slider which controls your throttle, on the left a slider for flaps. At the bottom there are two buttons, one for brakes and the other for your landing gear. Tapping elsewhere on the screen brings up a menu of five different icons; these switch views, and give you access to the settings. The most impressive views of your flight are from the outside of the plane, which highlight the great aircraft graphics, but make it a bit tricky to fly. In any of the outside views, you can swipe your finger around the screen to move the camera, and pinch in or out to zoom.
After you swipe the throttle up to full, and start to accelerate down the runway, you’ll see that X-Plane has one of the very best implementations of the “iPhone as controller” setups that we’ve seen so far. You hold the your iPhone or iPod Touch in landscape orientation, just like a pilot holding the yoke of an airplane. Tilting backwards and forwards moves the elevator, and tilting the device left and right moves the ailerons. X-Plane 9 uses something called “blade element theory” to simulate the performance of an aircraft from first principles, rather than the fixed models that most flight simulators use. This endows your aircraft with highly realistic physics and controls.
The graphics in X-Plane are impressive both technically and artistically. The aircraft have a large amount of geometric and textured detail’”while they don’t look quite as real as the desktop incarnation, they are far beyond anything else we’ve seen to date on the iPhone. The only nit to pick about the aircraft graphics are the propellers, which seem to flutter and spasm, where they should be making a transparent disc.
The terrain, however, is not as impressive. The single region provided, modeled on Innsbruck, Austria, is definitely topographically interesting, with lots of peaks and valleys to fly in and around. Unfortunately, these textured environs are a bit plain and repetitive’”if that’s because Innsbruck is bland, we apologize to Austria, but the developer should consider some other locations. One of the greatest attributes of the desktop version of X-Plane is that you can fly anywhere in the world. It’s probably not realistic to expect worldwide travel on your handheld, but a few other environments to fly in would add depth to the experience.
Meanwhile, the simulator’s sound effects shine, especially the sound of the engine, which ramps up as you increase the throttle, and the sound of the wind rushing past the plane as you hurtle towards the ground. It adds a lot to the feeling of flight. The simulator does not have a soundtrack, but we would much rather provide our own’”perhaps “Flight of the Valkyries.” X-Plane is a good iPod audio citizen, turning off its sound when you flip the mute switch.
You might have noticed that we haven’t mentioned any sort of scores, challenges, or competitions yet. X-Plane doesn’t have any of those things, because it’s not really a game, but a simulator. It offers a pure sandbox style of entertainment, where you can experiment and challenge your skills.
To put yourself to the test, you can use the settings menu to change the time of day; wind speed and direction; amount of turbulence; cloud type and coverage; plane type; and even load up your plane with extra cargo. For a challenging takeoff, weight down the little Cessna 172 and crank up the wind. Or work on your night landings in the Cirrus Jet with heavy turbulence. These options provide a lot of replay value which isn’t immediately apparent. Still, the range of aircraft available is severely limited’”the contrast between the smallest and largest, and the fastest and slowest, isn’t that great. We’d really like to see a more diverse fleet of airplanes and more flying locations, as well as more airports in those locations.
X-Plane is not for everyone. Those hankering for competitive play should look elsewhere. However, if you’re interested in flight, or want to see a technically impressive simulator, X-Plane 9 may fit the ball, although we can’t entirely recommend the program until more aircraft and locations are added.