Monday, January 09, 2012

X-Plane 10 Review

X-Plane 10, developed and published by Laminar Research.
The Good: Impressive clouds and terrain with accurate roads and fully 3-D buildings, authentic implementation of air traffic control, improved flight model features for plane designers, human-voiced AI planes
The Not So Good: No new planes, some AI plane issues, expensive, erratic performance, steep learning curve for newcomers
What say you? A better version in a solid flight simulation series, but a very hard sell for casual users of previous versions.
For owners of X-Plane 9: 5/8
For newcomers to the series: 7/8

It’s been 3 ½ years since X-Plane 9 was released, which still stands as my preferred flight simulator. Why, you ask? First, it uses actual physics to determine how the planes perform (instead of pre-set values in a text file), allowing actual aeronautical engineers to test fly their designs before actually building them. This also allows for a wide range of aircraft to be developed by the community using the game’s design tools, behaving as it should in the sky. As with most things, improvements can also be made, so now it’s time for X-Plane 10 to taxi to the runway. Earmarked at a pricey $80, the newest version promises better scenery, more frightening weather, improved air traffic control, an improved flight model, and the ability to use multi-core processors. Grab your joysticks and let’s see if the new version has enough to offer.

As in most flight simulation sequels, the majority of improvements in X-Plane 10 are visual. Most apparent is the use of full 3-D scenery, not just the ugly-looking occasional building seen in X-Plane 9, that follows the roads as they snake through the landscape. The result is very plausible cities: it's really neat to fly over fully 3-D houses in residential areas, and generated skyscrapers in more urban locales. X-Plane 10 also includes real roads, culled from the Open Street Map Project, that look a whole lot better than those previously offered in the simulation. Included are overpasses at expressway intersections, bridges, and traffic that careen down the highways and byways. It looks pretty great, although it seems similar surface textures are used, which look good from a distance but lose some of their crispness up close. In addition, airports still lack terminals (even when on the maximum settings), which reduces some of the immersion (except for Seattle, the location of the demo, of course). Also improved are the clouds, which are now made up of individual puffs of smoke to create some fantastic looking visuals. All of these impressive visuals come at a price, however, as I found performance to be all over the place. While the game doesn’t run as fast as I would have liked (it never does), the disparity between rural locations and urban environments in terms of frame rates is quite high; you need a pretty monstrous machine to crank X-Plane 10 at the highest settings. And I don't know what “asynchronous loading” is, but it sure takes a long time to finish. The sound design is mostly the same, except for the ATC and AI plane voices, which are actual humans this time around. Sure, there are only about two different voices used, but it sounds a lot better than the stock text-to-voice computer.

So, what else is new? Ironically, one area of X-Plane 10 that seems to be untouched is the actual planes themselves: I did not find one new airplane model that was not present in X-Plane 9. While the game still offers an eclectic, well-rounded selection of thirty planes, they are the same thirty planes as before, lacking even subtle improvements to the instrument panels or textures. Even though the scenery got marked improvements, the interiors and exteriors of the planes in the game sadly remain the same. I guess the developer is now relying on the community to design content to expand the game. Speaking of, I had about a 75% success rate importing planes from X-Plane 9 using the included Plane Maker. And speaking of, the editing software do have some improvements for aspiring airplane designers: features describing the weight balance, landing gear angles, and other flight statistics are now included to produce more accurate models.

And speaking of (the flight model), X-Plane 10 has a lot of technical stuff that casual users won’t even notice, but plane designers will like as it will result in more authentic creations. What types of things, you say? Noticeable wing deflection, improved jet engines, an enhanced hydraulic system, and more detailed electrical systems, among others. So that’s nice.

The other major feature of X-Plane 10 is much improved air traffic control. Instead of using computerized voices and offering only occasional clearance and landing instructions, the system has undergone a complete overhaul. Now, you have to dial to the correct frequency (which you can look up by clicking on an airport on the local map), file your flight plan, and request clearance. Then, ground control will give you directions to the active runway (complete with arrows superimposed onto the ground) and hand you off to the tower when you approach the runway. The tower will then had you off to center, and they will give you vectors when landing at the airport of your choice. Sure, this is all stuff that was present in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series eight years ago, but it’s a welcome addition here. The ATC is not without its problems: some of the gates and ramps used on the ground are bugged (showing programming code instead of calling them by name), occasionally the runways switch and the clearance controller forgets to approve your flight plan, and the air traffic controller is very impatient if you don’t descend immediately when instructed. Still, overall the system works.

The addition of AI planes with their own flight plans makes interacting with air traffic control even better, since you will routinely have to wait for other planes to land and take off. It goes a long way towards making X-Plane 10 more authentic, even with only a handful of other planes in the air. The AI planes undergo the same physics calculations as your plane does, handled on different processors. I don’t know if that’s really necessary, but it does mean that they will be subject to the same windy conditions you are when appropriate. The AI planes can be bad at holding altitude or staying on course, and they will be subject to constant reminders from the air traffic controllers, spamming the radio frequencies and becoming annoying to listen to rather quickly.

X-Plane 10 has two big features: improved scenery and air traffic control with AI planes. The use of 3-D buildings, accurate roads, and detailed clouds offers a definite visual improvement over X-Plane 9. Despite that, the planes remain untouched, and hopefully new designs using the improved editing tools will be uploaded shortly by the extensive community. Performance can always be better and more consistent; most flight simulators significantly push hardware, and X-Plane 10 is no exception. The enhanced air traffic control makes for a more genuine experience, requiring you to manually dial in to the correct frequencies. The addition of AI planes also makes for a more interesting game, as you must wait for and fly past computer-controlled aircraft. There are some issues with the AI planes (constantly being corrected by the air traffic controller, for one), but these are minor and should hopefully be eliminated in future patches. Is X-Plane 10 a better product? Certainly. Is it $80 better? Not for most users. While dedicated virtual pilots can justify investing $80 into a new version every three and a half years, the improvements are really not that significant for casual users. X-Plane 10 isn’t the most novice-friendly flight simulation, lacking explicit tutorials and in-game flight planning instructions, but it is the most flexible. While new scenery and ATC alone might not validate an $80 investment, the product as a whole is still my preferred choice for virtual piloting due to its flight model and overall feature set.