Meta-Review: X-Plane: Apollo, Carrier, and Airliner | webOS Nation

Meta-Review: X-Plane: Apollo, Carrier, and Airliner 21

by Jonathan I Ezor#IM Thu, 18 Feb 2010 9:13 pm EST

Since Laminar Research’s launch of X-Plane 9 as one of the earliest official webOS 3D games during CES 2010, it has steadily pushed out versions of its other X-Plane games (already on iPhone) for the Palm Pre. As of February 15, the rest of the list includes X-Plane Glider; X-Plane Carrier; Apollo (lunar landing); Space Shuttle (a NASA space shuttle simulation); X-Plane Airliner; and the three latest: X-Plane Extreme, X-Plane Racing and X-Plane Helicopter (all listed here).

While I was able to review X-Plane 9 when it came out, it seems a bit much to review each of the X-Plane titles separately, since there is a fair amount of crossover. Instead, we're going to take a look at one each of the three basic types of X-Plane apps: the pure simulator (X-Plane 9, Glider, Extreme, Airliner, and Helicopter), the competition (Carrier and Racing), and the spacecraft simulation (Apollo and Space Shuttle). While the specific experience (aircraft, controls, etc) may vary somewhat, the overall approach will be similar within each of these categories.

X-Plane Airliner: Like X-Plane 9, this is a straightforward flight simulator, allowing the user to choose an aircraft, a location, and a set of climate conditions and just fly. In contrast to X-Plane 9, though, X-Plane Airliner offers a set of much larger and faster commercial aircraft, from the 707 through the brand-new Airbus A380 to the barely-in-testing Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It also expands significantly on X-Plane 9’s geographical and airport options, adding the New York region, Chicago and Miami to West Coast (US) choices.

The controls in X-Plane Airliner are also more sophisticated than those for the smaller aircraft in X-Plane 9, allowing for trim control and instrument as well as visual flying. As with the real thing, the airliners in the simulator respond more slowly to user input than the small propeller and jets in the earlier program, requiring more careful planning in terms of direction and altitude changes; it’s a lot more difficult to flip a 747 around to make a tight landing than a Piper Malibu. Unfortunately, while the geography of the different regions is present, the buildings and other landmarks aren’t; there are no man-made landmarks to use as guideposts, nor is there much in the way of scenery to enjoy (or virtual bridges to fly under, pity).

Additional Note: X-Plane Extreme deserves a special mention in this category because, while its controls and environment are similar to those of Airliner and the other pure simulators, some of its ultra-high-performance aircraft (from the SR-71 Blackbird to the F-22 Raptor to the X-15 rocketplane launched from a bomber) are much more difficult to fly successfully, given their speed and sensitivity to control inputs.

X-Plane Carrier: In one sense, this is the most limited of the apps: 4 aircraft (the F4U Corsair and A6M Zero propeller-driven fighters, and the F-4 Phantom and MiG 21 Fishbed jets), two scenarios (practice or combat), and two locations (San Francisco for practice, and Hawaii for combat). On the other hand, Carrier offers a taste of two of the most challenging tasks in airplane flight: combat dogfighting, and carrier operations (especially landing).

This is not a full-fledged combat simulator, however; the dogfighting missions are fairly short and limited, as are the weapons, and the controls are much simpler than those in a joystick-driven sim (essentially the same throttle, flaps and accelerometer steering as the standard X-Plane flight simulators, with the addition of weapons choice and firing buttons and a hook for carrier landing). Rather than radar, players must locate enemy aircraft via small block icons and a targeting reticle that swing around the screen, and fire at the enemy before it manages to hit them. As for carrier landing, an on-screen direction finder helps locate the carrier, but the only landing instructions come from text messages that appear on the screen. Of all the X-Plane apps, this is probably the most adrenaline-inducing one.

X-Plane Apollo: It’s a bit sobering to consider that Apollo simulates the lunar landing and return on a 600 MHz, 8GB smartphone, especially as the original Apollo 11 mission depended on a 1 MHz, 2KB (yes, that’s two kilobytes) computer. The other challenge in simulating an Apollo mission is the timeframe: it took Apollo 11 3 days to reach the moon, 2 ½ hours for the Lunar Module to land once it undocked from the Command Module, and 3 ½ hours for it to launch from the moon and re-dock with the Command Module.

Laminar has wisely started the simulation at the initial undocking before landing (skipping that rather lengthy 3-day flight), and further sped up the action by auto-animating certain elements (the undocking and launch from the moon, which required little input) and advancing others (the descent to the lunar surface, which is broken into two shorter segments). On the other hand, Laminar did not make the simulation too easy; unlike the linear control of an airplane in atmosphere, the Lunar Module must be controlled along 3 axes (roll, pitch, yaw), and fuel is very limited.

Only the lack of an atmosphere prevents the frequent crashes from being the “fiery death” of the earthbound X-Plane programs, but the user is still informed how fatal the mistake would have been, whether that’s running out of fuel before landing or crashing too hard into the Command Module when redocking. Even the fun Lunar Rover (part of later missions, not Apollo 11) can be crashed into the Lunar Module, leading to the sobering “That was a crash. You would be dead out here.” More-than-occasional fatal errors notwithstanding, the faithful recreation of lunar flight, coupled with the Lunar Rover and the great NASA photos on launch, make Apollo a fun choice for spaceflight devotees.

With the latest releases, Laminar has ported almost all of its mobile applications to webOS, lacking only the X-Planner flight planning program. Each category, and for that matter each application, has its own unique elements. While the collection as a whole is somewhat pricey, careful selection by users can yield a great choice of air and space flight simulations for every level of player.


Accurate flight dynamics


Some simulations are non-interactive animations