Thursday, June 08, 2006

ATC Simulator 2 Review

ATC Simulator 2, developed and published by aerostudios.
The Good: Realistic procedures and graphics, over 150 airports, support for voice commands
The Not So Good: Steep learning curve, no interactive tutorial
What say you? The most authentic air traffic control simulation available to the general public: 7/8

Supposedly, one of the most difficult jobs is that of air traffic controller. Responsibility for ensuring that large hunks of flying metal don’t run into each other or the ground and safely travel to their destination is an arduous task. The stress endured and skill required by these people would make for a great computer game, wouldn’t it? That’s where ATC Simulator 2 comes in, the sequel to the original ATC Simulator, which I reviewed back when it was first released. ATC Simulator 2 strives to be the most genuine simulation of ATC operations. Is it?

ATC Simulator 2 uses the same equipment available to real air traffic controllers: the ARTS-IIIa and the newer STARS system (with pretty colors!). Although they are not the most exciting graphics in the world, they are realistic, and that’s what the aim is. If you don’t find staring at little blips on a radar screen exciting, then you don’t have much of an imagination. Take that, non-imaginative people! The sound consists of text-to-speech computer voices; it doesn’t have the flow of, say, Microsoft Flight Simulator, but it still gets the job done. I wish the computer voices did speak more quickly, especially when the action gets intense, but that’s more of an issue with Microsoft’s technology than with ATC Simulator 2. Some people might say that 3-D representations of the aircraft and airports would add more to the game (like in Dangerous Waters), but the graphics and sound are good enough as they stand.

Your goal in ATC Simulator 2 is to safely guide incoming and outgoing aircraft around your particular airport. Every major (and almost every minor) U.S. airport is featured in the game. If your favorite local airport isn’t included, the Professional edition of ATC Simulator 2 includes a TRACON editor. The level of difficulty is dependent on the number of flights you wish to control in a given hour, from 20 (easy) to over 200 (no thanks). For any scenario, you can choose to control the approach, departure, or both. You can also disable the minor airports located in your vicinity to make life easier and less confusing. The game features aircraft patterns derived from real FAA logs, and owners can incorporate almost-live aircraft with Flight Explorer. Wind conditions can be randomized (this determines the runways that will be opened, as airplanes like to land and take off into the wind) or set to specific values. The game also tracks your career, assigning scores at the end of a scenario and then recommending a pay increase or demotion. Recording your scenario is also available, so that you can show your friends how l33t you are. Of course, you can say how l33t you are by utilizing the game’s multiplayer capabilities in conjunction with Microsoft Flight Simulator. ATC Simulator 2 also has full support for voice recognition, which is really, really neat. The accuracy of the voice recognition is based fully on Microsoft’s engine, and I’ve found that, after installing the Sound Development Kit and training my profile, the game picks up around 95% of everything I say. During the heat of battle, it’s almost easier to input the commands using the keyboard and mouse, but voice recognition is a feature that adds loads of realism to the game. Computer pilots responding to your commands is something that is unmatched in other computer simulations.

ATC Simulator 2 could really use an interactive, on-screen tutorial. There is a tutorial in the game’s PDF manual, but it’s 55 pages long. Most games don’t have an entire manual that’s 55 pages long! Once you get some practice under your belt, though, the game becomes pretty straightforward. For arriving flights, you first take a handoff from center by clicking (the game calls this “slewing” to confuse you) on the aircraft marker. You’ll need to guide the aircraft to their specific runway by issuing heading directions and altitudes. Planes need to be approximately 2,500 to 3,000 feet above ground level before you can hand them off to the tower. Once they are close enough to the runway, you can issue a visual or instrument approach (depending on whether the runway has ILS) and then hand off the aircraft to the tower. Simple enough. For departing flights, you just need to issue them their exiting altitude, make sure they don’t get too close to landing aircraft, and then hand them off to center. It sounds easy, but the difficulty arises from having a lot of aircraft coming from all directions at different speeds and different altitudes all heading for the same airport. The game truly takes some skill and multitasking ability to keep track of all the aircraft indicated on the screen at once. Keeping everyone lined up and spaced apart is the key to successfully guiding all of the aircraft to their destinations.

Simply put, ATC Simulator 2 is the most realistic air traffic control simulation on the market. A lot of the other competing titles are just cartoonish representations of aircraft and airports, but ATC Simulator 2 sticks to the realism angle. You get a feel for what real ATC operators have to deal with on a daily basis and why they get paid the big bucks (anyone who controls at the largest airports is certifiably nuts). This is all we want in a simulation: accuracy. Add to this voice recognition, multiplayer with Flight Simulator, a TRACON editor, and live aircraft, and you have the most complete simulation most people could ever want to have. Because of the learning curve, only those people who are interested in air traffic control will stick to it long enough to be entertained, but if you’re not interested in air traffic control, why are you playing the game anyway? Go back to elves and dragons, Poindexter! For those true fans of air traffic control, ATC Simulator 2 delivers the realism fanatics crave.