For those who want to know what it feels like to be in the cockpit of a jetliner during a stormy landing with only one functioning engine, there’s really just one choice: X-Plane 8. More learning tool than game, this sophisticated flight simulator lets you customize nearly every aspect of your flight – destination, aircraft model, weather conditions, and even instrument or equipment failures – to give you the most realistic experience possible.
X-Plane ships with 29 aircraft models – everything from run-of-the-mill civilian prop-driven planes to massive jumbo jets that ferry passengers from one side of the world to the other. Tons more are available online. And if you don’t find what you want, you can create your own airplanes and scenery.
Planes are complex machines – a fact that the X-Plane interface reflects. Mastering the controls is daunting. And while the game runs well on the Mac, it doesn’t come with Aqua-style interface embellishments, so it takes some getting used to.
The biggest change in this version of X-Plane is its improved scenery detail, particularly in metropolitan areas. When making a transcontinental flight from New York to Paris, you’ll see more accurate coastlines and realistic skylines – at least while you’re in New York. The new scenery is available only for maps of the United States. But the standard scenery, used everywhere outside dense urban areas, is quite nice. It looks much more natural; you’ll no longer see the quilted patchwork and jagged contours of different terrains.
The new graphics take a heavy toll on hardware, though. Graphsim recommends a 1GHz G4 or faster Mac with at least 256MB of RAM, 8GB of hard-drive space, and an OpenGL graphics card with 64MB of VRAM.
The game lets you plot out weather patterns, download live weather data from the Internet, simulate system failures to test your piloting skills under adverse conditions, and much more. X-Plane maps the locations of 18,000 airports. You can even simulate Low Earth Orbit (LEO) flights. For a break from reality, you can take your aircraft to the surface of Mars and view terrain information provided by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter.
X-Plane simulates engine sounds and other mechanical noise (such as the muffled thump of landing gear as it’s stowed after takeoff) and Air Traffic Control (ATC) radio chatter – all of which rounds out the realism. However, on the occasions when you need to ask ATC ground personnel for assistance, the game responds using Apple’s Text-to-Speech technology, which is a bit jarring after hearing more realistic radio chatter.
I recommend picking up a joystick or a yoke to play. While flying with the mouse and keyboard alone is possible, it’s a bit like trying to draw illustrations with a brick. You’ll also need a DVD drive; the game doesn’t ship on a CD. To stay current with the frequent updates, you’ll need a broadband connection—updates routinely measure in the hundreds of megabytes (you can get CD updates for an additional fee). In fact, the game’s developer has already released an update for version 8.
X-Plane may have a daunting interface, but it’s still the best Mac-based flight simulator money can buy.