If you have been involved with flight simulation for any length of time, you have undoubtedly heard of X-Plane 10. During the Microsoft meltdown over Flight, many people (including myself) swore they would turn to X-Plane and declared it the future of flight simulation – a savior, if you will. For those who wanted to have the realism, functionality and the scenery availability of Microsoft FSX, but not stay with a disloyal brand, this seemed to be the answer. Secretly, however, I wondered was this as good as it looks on YouTube?
My journey began with the free demo. At first I was annoyed. It’s a bit of a large file and by default saves to your desktop. After installing, X-Plane didn’t seem to want to recognize my controls, and when it did, I found it was hard to control the aircraft. And there was a weird UI that just didn’t seem to fit a flight simulator. I remember thinking it was more like the PC version of a prostate exam. I must have downloaded, tried and deleted that demo a dozen times. I was just so frustrated that I couldn’t see how other people played this game so effectively, and it irritated me to no end. I finally left it alone for a few months, deciding that I was wrong, that X-Plane was just too hard to operate, was unstable and just dumb. How dare this game bruise my precious ego! But, being the stubborn person I am, I just couldn’t let it go, no matter how hard I tried.
A couple of months ago I decided to look into X-Plane 10 again. This time I didn’t download the demo, at least not right away. I instead turned to reviews, articles, simulation websites and even YouTube videos. All of them talked about how wonderful it was and sang praise to all things X-Plane; but I sort of expected that from people posting videos with names like, “X-PLANE 10 MAXED OUT”, “X-Plane 10 vs FSX”, or the obligatory “X-Plane 10 INSANE landing!” (you all know what I’m talking about) The only channel that showed any real promise was RedPiper1. There I found many well produced videos about X-Plane and add-on’s that I had no idea existed.
The video that got me the most, however, was an interview with X-Plane creator, Austin Meyer, while he was in Feldberg, Germany. Even though he was demonstrating X-Plane, Meyer spoke with such conviction and passion for his product that I couldn’t help but be inspired. I am no stranger to salesmen attempting to get me to purchase a product that they were trained to sell, but this was different. This man wrote the code, knows the program backwards and forwards and was not speaking from a trained sales pitch. He projected a confidence and pride that only comes from knowing you are the best. It’s the same look I see whenever I speak with people in the Special Forces community. Humble pride, backed by supreme confidence in one’s abilities.
Installation was pretty really pretty smooth. I put in disc 1, followed the prompts, chose how many scenery tiles I wanted, and let it install. Yes, I said scenery tiles. X-Plane 10 scenery is broken down into square areas so you only install the scenery you want. Anything that you don’t install will just be water with a floating runway. I selected all of the US, Canada, the UK and parts of the Middle East where I regularly fly. Just be warned, if you install every tile, you’re looking at a multi-hour, 75GB ding on your hard drive.
Now that I had installed the program and scenery, I needed to get my controls set up. I run all Saitek equipment now, so I figured it would just read the drivers and be ok. Surprisingly, it did and then asked me to move the controllers through all of the axis and it was done. The process was that simple to have all of the movement controls squared away. Buttons and the second throttle quadrant (throttle 3&4, Flaps) not so much. I had to get into the menu and fix it, which meant going back to the UI I didn’t like and manually selecting each function for each button in various menus. In retrospect, I suppose it’s no different than what you would do with FSX and I was just being a whiner.
When you start X-Plane, it brings you to a screen where you select your airplane, weather, time and date, and the airport that you want to start. Except the only option is to start on the runway- which is absurd. Once you are in game, you can mouse over the top part of your screen, go into the menu, select the location and the gate or ramp area of your choice. Why can’t I just select the gate from the get go is beyond me. (Perhaps this could be the topic of a hotfix or update? One phrase from the above referenced video was that he wanted to create a “plausible” world. This means that you will never fly over a flattened scenery image. Everything is always 3D, like it is in real life. He also mentioned a program that placed every road, major intersection, and the 3D images would give a good representation of what that area was actually like. I was excited to get in and see how well they had done.
There are several default planes to chose from ranging from a glider to an F-4, to a 747 to the space shuttle and even a “sci-fi” airplane. Where Microsoft gives you multiple liveries of a few airplanes, X-Plane gives you a bunch of planes with one livery. I honestly prefer it this way because when you’re flying, you’re not looking at the outside of your airplane. You wouldn’t really care what the outside looks like in a real plane – you care about what you’re dealing with inside. With the exception of video and screen shots, shouldn’t it be the same way in a simulator?
There are four times of day, by default. Day, Sunset, Twilight, and Night. There is also a box where you can select “Always track real date and time” if you so choose. Aside from the available “Use real weather” box, there are eight pre-made weather configurations. Clear, Overcast, Cirrus, Low-vis, Scattered, Foggy, Broken, and Stormy. When configuring my first flight in a new simulator, I tend to go with what I know. I selected Day, KCDC, the default C-172 and because it’s my nickname, the “Stormy” weather setting. Low visibility, raining, lightning, and turbulent – perfect!
Once I got into the flight, I switched my view to the 3D virtual cockpit. I looked around using the right mouse button and tested flight controls. Everything seemed to function properly. Switching to chase view, I repeated my test and found that the flight control surfaces moved as they should. I moved on to the next phase of my pre-flight check – checking the graphics. Now, like any other graphics-based title, the texture quality is entirely dependent on your individual computer system. Obviously, the better your machine, the better the simulated world is going to look. That said, X-Plane 10 is rather hungry for resources. I don’t know that it’s as bad as FSX, but the quality of the individual scenery items and aircraft are of a higher basic quality. If you look at my technical specs at the bottom of this article, you’ll see that my machine is neither the best of the best nor a slouch. I turned the settings up just as high as I could get them without my experience turning into a slide show.
Looking at the default C172 before me, I feel supremely confident saying that this definitely beats the pants off of the default C172 in FSX. The way the light reflected off surfaces, the rivets, the shape, the texture, and the overall feel of that gorgeous airplane was far more realistic than I had anticipated. In fact, the only exterior textures in a game based version of the C172 I have seen that are better are the new A2A C172 for FSX. Even the interior was pretty well done, especially for a default airplane. It’s certainly nothing to sneeze at. The airport, on the other hand, was entirely absent. Zero buildings, just runways, taxiways, grass, windsock, and that’s about it. This is pretty much true for every airport I visited. I eventually downloaded some scenery for KSLC (which is fantastic, by the way) just because I didn’t want to feel like I was taxiing around a pasture. Unfortunately, that trend continued everywhere I went. Suffice it to say, I am very disappointed with the lack of airport infrastructure.
Now, there’s only so long you can sit and stare at an airplane, so it was time to get flying. I was able to fully use my real-world checklist preparations. Taxiing was exactly like I had remembered it from my days with N577SP, the 2000 Cessna 172 SP I used in flight school. The run up surprised me a little because the plane actually buffeted under the stress of the engine and brakes being pushed to their max. The sound coming out of my speakers was the very familiar “lawn mower on steroids” that I had gotten accustomed to with the Lycoming IO-360. I was a happy guy, but still guarded myself because of my experience with the demo. I lined up on the runway, preformed my pre-takeoff checklist and advanced the throttles.
Just like I expected, P-factor showed itself right away and pulled my plane to the side, causing me to compensate with my pedals. I kept her lined up and once I reached 65 knots indicated, I applied ever so gentle back pressure to the yoke and she lifted into the sky. I spent about half an hour in the pattern, just getting accustomed to the plane. It was wonderful to be back in a GA airplane after spending so much time in simulated jets. Adding to the flight was how much it handled like the real deal. The flight ended with me taxiing back to the south ramp area where I had parked so many times in the real world and a distinct feeling that I was going to like this simulator.
Subsequent flights in various default airplanes revealed why I mostly dislike default aircraft. I don’t have the time to go over them all, but let me just say that the functionality and visual quality of the planes varied significantly. Some looked and functioned great, others were terrible. However, the flight dynamics were always spot on, no less a confirmation of what Austin Meyer had been saying in that YouTube interview. It’s also important to reiterate that these were the default airplanes. I have yet to hear a flight simulator pilot say “Hey, did you check out that default plane? It’s SO AWESOME!” Just like everything else we are used to, default is not exactly synonymous with “awesome”. I will say, however, that most of them meet or beat the FSX defaults.
Just like FSX, there are user made, free to download aircraft, textures, scenery and utilities, which vary in quality and functionaliy ranging from outstanding to ‘so bad it makes FS2000 look advanced’. There are also commercially developed add-on’s, though far fewer than the highly developed Microsoft product. Companies like Carenado and Aerosoft are names that some of you might recognize. But then there are products like this Bombardier CRJ-200 that are so good it would meet or beat anything in FSX. The “plausible world” Austin spoke about has me torn and conflicted. The roads in the areas that I know well are pretty much exactly spot on. The buildings, not so much. However, flying over these areas at altitude did indeed give a “plausible” feel to the simulated world below. And, I’m still not happy with the lack of airport scenery, as I previously stated. Still, perhaps he did indeed do what he set out to do. Make things “plausible”.
The X-Plane community is good sized, proud, and active. There are literally thousands of free files waiting for you. This is partly due to the fact that everything you need to develop new planes, scenery, or textures ships as part of the package. Plane Maker and Airfoil maker let you design and create with software as powerful as many 3d design payware programs. You can also import 3D aircraft files from outside programs if you wish, but everything you need to make an aircraft or scenery object comes included. Frankly, This was one heck of a learning curve. I had to humble myself and learn a few things before I could really make an educated statement about it again. It was during that time of reflection, while trying to sort through a technical issue (user error), that I had my light bulb moment. I had approached this review as if X-Plane were another game to be played and beaten, and in reality, it’s not that at all.
FSX was written and designed to be a game from the ground up to have aircraft function within a certain set of parameters. A+B=C. X-Plane 10 was designed and built from the ground up as a training platform using physics. So, instead of A+B=C, it’s F = Gm1m2/r2, g = GM/r2, Gμν = 8πG/c4 Tμν and a = √(GMa0/r). In short, things are going to behave like they would in the real world because the software calculates Force, Mass, Gravitational Constant, and Acceleration on its own. It’s not reliant on an independent file to tell it how an aircraft should behave, per se. It will calculate those forces based on the parameters that are designed into the plane, such as thrust, weight, wings shape, etc. It is entirely possible to have two identical types of aircraft, let’s say a Boeing 767, that look exactly the same, but because one designer moved the CG, it will fly entirely different than the other. Done accurately, the planes will fly identically to the real deal, to the point that X-Plane 10 can be used in FAA certified training devices- and it IS.
Here is the basic concept I’m trying to get across here: Whereas FSX is a game designed for entertainment, X-Plane is a training simulator that’s being adapted for entertainment. Realizing this was a watershed moment for me. Changing my perspective from “game” to “train” completely changed my opinion about how I felt about the software. Though still susceptible to hardware imperfections and poorly designed aircraft files, I realized that I had picked up a lot of bad habits in Microsoft and X-Plane 10 was training them back out. I realized that the UI was designed for use in an instructor station more than some guy sitting in his home office with a joystick. I realized that this really was “as real as it gets” and nobody else even comes close.
The truth is, though, it needs some love to bring it from serious trainer to home based game. Yes, there is a learning curve. Yes, the scenery can look beautiful. Yes, the airplanes can not only look spectacular, but also fly like the real deal and have extraordinary detail and functionality. And, yes, it can be a much better skill building experience than other so-called simulators. But what X-Plane needs is the community that FSX currently enjoys. Eventually, FSX is going to get old and be outdated. X-Plane will still be here, will still be more realistic, and will still be a better experience. It is my contention that if the flight simulator community would just give HALF of the attention to X-Plane that FSX is getting, in a couple of years people will be asking “Microsoft who?”
In the interest of full disclosure, I did have a few issues that I contacted Laminar Research about. For instance, I had a plane that would suddenly pitch up and down until the plane was in full “vomit comit” mode, along with huge yaw movements, simultaneously. Turns out, it was a bad file on an add-on airplane. I also had a problem with disc 2 not wanting to work when I decided to install all of the scenery, resulting in my receiving a replacement, pronto. Both times, the response was handled mind bogglingly quick, professionally, and very much to my satisfaction. To the folks over at Laminar Research, you have my profound and genuine thanks for your unmatched customer service.
Conclusion– Is It Worth Your Money?
The answer, simply, is yes. What I am not going to do is sing the praises of this simulator again. I am, however, going to tell you that in my personal and professional opinion, there is no software on the planet that can touch X-Plane 10 for realism, in regards to a simulator you can have at home. Huge multi-national, multi-billion dollar corporations like Cessna and government agencies such as NASA use X-Plane in their simulators. If that is not a reason to at least download the free demo and give it a try, I don’t know what is. The point I am making here is if you want a game, stay with Microsoft. If you want an actual simulator that will help you become a better aviator or just want a truly authentic flying experience, you need X-Plane 10.