As part of the 'simming on the go' series of reviews, CombatAce looks at Laminar Research's X-Plane for Android.
Normally, we would not review X-Plane because it is a civilian flight simulation...and after all, we are CombatAce. However, X-Plane for Android has some limited air combat options. In addition, it is a well regarded flight simulator, using 'blade theory' for flight dynamics and even includes multiplayer. So we decided it was worth a look. How does it fly? Let's jump in...
As you can see at the top, this is the screen that greets you when you start X-Plane. Nice reference to the full PC version right there in the screen...more or less free advertising! And speaking of which, normally X-Plane on ALL platforms is a payware program, but due to some sort of patent issue, the Android version is free!
Looking at the Google Play store screen for X-Plane, you would think it has a remarkably small footprint. What isn't specified is that after you install and start it, it has to download more content before it would run. This only has to occur once, but makes it unclear how much space the program actually takes up. The current version requires at least Android version 2.2 to run.
Included in the basic free level are several aircraft and terrains. Terrains are a decent variety, ranging from southern California to Austria to Hawaii, etc. Aircraft are mostly light general aviation, business jet...and a JA37 Viggen hidden in the back! Additional aircraft and/or terrains are available for $0.99 each. The terrains are more famous areas, but additional aircraft are a really wide variety from the A380, F-22, Huey Cobras, to more exotic types like the XB-70 and X-15.
Unfortunately, the first obstacle to getting some air combat goodness rears its head. Only certain aircraft have air combat capability...namely, fighter types like the Mig-21, F-14 etc. No bombers or helos have combat ability in this program. In addition, none of the air combat capable aircraft are free...the Viggen isn't armed. Since I wanted to shoot stuff, I ended up purchasing teh sexplane (F-14) and the B-1B to see if we could drop bombs (nope).
X-Plane, being based off the PC version, means you have the power to tweak just about everything in the flight scenario, as is typical for this kind of program. The following thumbnails show all the different option screens , click on the appropriate link for a more detailed view.
Time Of Day
Weight and Balance
Most screens are pretty self explanatory, there is even an accelerometer calibration screen, to get detailed readings on what the phone/tablet is sensing.
The flight typically starts with a HUD view:
Basic pitch and roll controls are through the accelerometer. The secondary controls are on screen, including things like sweep and flaps. Note that except for the rudder, the other secondary controls have a 'lag' associated with them...ie you use the control to 'set' the flaps, then a dimmer marker which actually shows the position of the flight control moves to match what you set. Nice touch of realism to those controls.
To bring up additional views or the options, merely touch anywhere on the screen not associated with a control. Several transparent tiles will pop up temporarily, and disappear after about 5 seconds. Touch any of them while they are visible to change or activate the desired option (see the flight dynamics screenshot for more detail on what this looks like).
Included views (besides the default HUD view):
Cockpit view. Cockpit views tend to vary from aircraft to aircraft, but they are all similar in that there is no view outside, betraying X-Plane's civilian based roots. A better description would be Instrument View.
Flyby, fixed location, and external views all look roughly similar, just different in how they interact with the camera. One glaring omission is lack of any flight data in these views.
X-Plane also has a replay function, where you can look back and replay the action from different viewpoints. You cannot alter the outcome, and there are some glitches, usually related to visual damage still showing even if you rewind before the point where the damage occurred.
The way aircraft feel in X-Plane are the highlight of this program. Aircraft are affected by weight, speed, Gs, etc. in a very believable fashion. This is not surprising, based on Laminar Research stating that 85 percent of the flight dynamics code in the PC version is incorporated into the Android version. The aircraft just seem to feel right compared to most other flight programs on Android. There are some exceptions...the F-14 for instance seems to gain speed far too quickly when the wings are swept back.
X-Plane has a nice option to actually 'see' what it is calculating in real time on the flying surfaces. You can see the vectors for lift, drag, and thrust all change as you fly the aircraft around. Quite fascinating from an air enthusiast point of view. Minor nit...the B-1B does not appear to be calculating lift from the body...whereas the real thing generates over half its lift from the fuselage when the wings are back. Flight controls appear to move correctly...makes sense based on how X-Plane works.
Weather, turbulence, wind are all modeled. Aircraft and terrain collision are also modeled. Overstress, surprisingly, does not seem to be modeled. The terrains 'wrap'....you simply appear at the far side of the map when you hit the edge.
Lights are on all the time and no atmospheric effects (vortex, Mach 'cones', etc) are modeled.
Damage effects are limited to big flames when destroyed. No airframe destruction is modeled...when hitting the ground, you simply bounce along until running out of momentum (while flaming of course).
Depending on the aircraft and terrain, you can launch and recover on aircraft carriers. The launch feels a bit simplistic, but the recovery makes up for it. The combination of the flight dynamics, sense of speed and grading system urges you to try to nail it down, giving you a challenge you'll keep coming back to.
How we lookin?
Part of the enjoyment of flight simulation is viewing the aircraft we enjoy flying. Sadly, X-Plane models are uneven in quality. The civilian models aren't bad...planes like the Avanti are quite nice. But the same can't be said for at least the military models I played with. Some screenshots:
The last screenshot is my B-1B model that I created in 1995 for Microsoft Flight Simulator 5.1. It is kind of sad to see a model created almost 15 years later that actually looks worse than mine. Stretched and mirrored textures, inaccurate or excessively blocky contours characterize the 3 military models I played with. I'm not looking for the PC version in visual fidelity...but something at least to the quality of the ThirdWire Android offering would be nice. It mainly just adds to the feeling that the air combat was just 'tacked on' in X-Plane.
Lets shoot some stuff down!
If you're looking for variety in your air combat, you won't find it here. You and your opponent's armament consists of guns and Sidewinder missiles. That's it. For single player, there is no choice of opponent or armament. You can choose where to duel though. As mentioned before, only certain aircraft are even armed and only certain terrains allow for air combat.
Based on the screenshots, you would think there are things missing. And you would be right. Other than the 'box' around your opponent, there are no visual or auditory cues to let you know you have a lock. No gun reticle, funnel or line. There is a cue at the edge of the screen to show the direction of your opponent when he is off screen.
No ECM or expendables are available. You do get an audio warning tone if your opponent has a missile in the air. Basically, most of the time, your shooting consists of either launching a missile and praying, or filling the windscreen with the target before gunning him. Missiles themselves seem to be all aspect (having been face shot a few times to verify this).
Based on what I could tell, any modern western fighter you buy will have the MiG-21 as its opponent...mainly because that seems to be the only eastern block aircraft available for X-Plane.
The AI opponent is a little uneven. I did notice that he would sometimes use a vertical loop verses a horizontal turn to maneuver. But there never seemed to be much blending of the two to turn at an oblique angle. It doesn't help that the AI cheats...I found him on the ground sometimes, fully intact but making like a tank...which makes trying to get 'in plane' difficult. But I can verify that a strafing kill works...
There is possibly a redeeming characteristic of air combat in X-Plane we haven't talked about yet...multiplayer. X-Plane supports multiplayer over wifi. Within multiplayer, collision and air combat effects are modeled (with sometimes hilarious results).
Both devices have to be on the same wifi network. Connecting to each other is pretty easy...just wait until you see each other on the Multiplayer screen and then select.
Minor issues include each player can have totally different simulation situations (ie different locations, weather, time of day, etc). Which means if you pick different terrains, you won't ever see each other. Or the playing field itself could be very uneven.
The largest issue with multiplayer is because it is wifi only, you have to be in the same local wifi network. Which means you're hanging out together already. In which case, why not play something more optimized for multiplayer (like a console). In addition, both of you must have purchased aircraft that are air combat capable. PCs and consoles do multiplayer much better in that you can game over the internet...something you can't do here.
X-Plane is a good mobile flight simulator...but it isn't so good at air combat. Highs include fairly realistic flight model handling, especially for the civilian aircraft, and a wide range of adjustments available for the simulation 'world'. Lows include very uneven external model appearances, and sometimes dodgy combat AI. Multiplayer can be fun in specific circumstances.
I would recommend trying X-Plane for Android for basic flight simulation, but have a hard time justifying spending money for the available air combat.
Reviewed on a HP Touchpad running Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
Who here has a smartphone? Or a tablet device? Or more and more frequently, one of both? Chances are, especially as a member of this forum, where most discussion is about games based on a computer, you have at least one of what are commonly called "Mobile" devices.
More importantly, how many of you use these devices for something other than work? The majority of you do unless the device is company owned (even then that may not stop some of you).
Mobile smart devices have become an increasingly integral part of our daily lives.
And the numbers suggest they are becoming as important or more so than your computer. In fact, in 2011, half of the computing devices sold were mobile.
Even more interesting is the amount of revenue mobile gaming (defined as gaming on a non-dedicated mobile device like a smartphone or tablet) earns, over 8 billion dollars in 2011.
2011 also saw mobile gaming earn more revenue than Sony and Nintendo (PSP and DS) combined.
Does this mean PC gaming is dead, of course not.
But it does mean that mobile gaming represents a significant market to be tapped into. And some traditional PC flying simulation developers have decided to expand their Intellectual Properties (IPs) into this new market.
There is precedent for this move. Major gaming IPs such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, or HAWX, already have a presence in PC, Console, Handheld, and Mobile space. Games that were once limited to PC/consoles can now look and play very well on mobile devices. Initially, they were dedicated gaming devices such as the Playstation Portable, but now smartphones can rock out with games like GTA III or Max Payne, not to mention other IPs.
Traditional PC flight simulations have tended to stay within their market (ie there is no Microsoft Flight Simulator console version or a DCS for the Nintendo DS). Usually due to the restrictions mobile devices put onto simulations, they haven't been very practical (lack of screen, keyboard inputs, computing power, etc). This has started to change, due to the increasing power mobile devices have.
Which brings us to today. ThirdWire (TW), makers of the Strike Fighters (SF) series of combat flight simulations, has come out with its first mobile gaming application (or app) called...you guessed it, Strike Fighters Android (or SFA).
Right out of the gate, you are not going to get a desktop simulation experience on a mobile device...period. Those expecting such are in for a major disappointment no matter what you play. But, once you get over that restriction, your experience can be surprisingly enjoyable if the app works well. How did TW do on its freshman app? Read on!
As a mobile app, the requirements are pretty short...in this case, this is only compatible with Android OS Version 2.3.3 (Gingerbread) or newer. The assumption of course is that any device running 2.3.3 or higher has the power to run SFA relatively well. It also requires 42MB of storage, which can be high compared to a lot of apps, but low compared to games like HAWX. The main reason for the size of the program is that all the content is in the program...there is nothing else to download, merely unlocked.
The price is perfect for everyone...free! SFA is based on the Freeimum business model. Basically, you get the game for free, with a basic aircraft (the F-100A). You earn additional aircraft by either playing the game and advancing, or buying individual aircraft at $0.99 each. The game is ad supported, but purchase just one aircraft and all the ads are removed. More on the 'earning' process later.
After the splash screen, this is what greets you:
This is the main screen which most other navigation originates from. From top to bottom and left to right:
1. Yellow box - Level number
2. Green bar - Current points / Points until next level
3. Yellow key - Number of 'keys' available to unlock aircraft
4. Upper center box - Press to 'recalibrate' accelerometer
5. Gear - Settings screen
6. Campaign box - Campaign and current year progress (year disappears once campaign is complete)
7. Arrow keys - Used to cycle through available aircraft
8. Lower left circle - View specifications of current aircraft
9. Lower right circle -
Plane symbol = Go fly
Dollar Symbol = Purchase aircraft
Key symbol = Unlock aircraft
Lock symbol = Aircraft locked, no purchase or unlock key available (usually this is due to lack of internet connection).
Most settings here are self explanatory, with the globe symbol being a link to the ThirdWire website.
Again, pretty self explanatory.
Before we go fly, lets expand on how you get new aircraft and progress in the campaign.
In the early game, keys are earned through level upgrades via points (100 points per downed aircraft) and by shooting down 5 bandits in a particular aircraft (does not have to be in the same game session). Every 5 shootdowns results in you advancing in the 'campaign' by one year. Note that as you continue to accumulate points, every level upgrade requires more points to get to the next level. Once you complete the campaign, the only two ways you can get additional aircraft is either purchasing them or earning points...the 5 shootdown accomplishment doesn't earn anything after ending the campaign. Also, even if you have keys available to unlock aircraft, the game will not let you unlock aircraft newer than the current campaign year. The only way to 'skip ahead' is to purchase aircraft. And those purchased aircraft do not unlock any other aircraft early (if you're in 1968 and you buy a F-16, you still can't unlock any other newer aircraft with keys).
As you continue to advance in points, bandits' skills increase and they become more numerous. Their equipment gets better too. You can go back to play earlier aircraft (they are locked into a specific year) and you will encounter bandits appropriate to that year. Their skills and number do remain at the higher levels.
Available player aircraft get better as you advance in years, with more and better missiles, increased performance, RWR and decoys (expendables). One thing that is not so obvious is time to play also increases...you can start out at 1:30 minutes per session and be up to 4:00 minutes by the end...time is dependant on particular version of aircraft, not just general year and basic model.
Here's what it can look like once you'd played a few dozen times:
ZOMG! F-16 in USAF colors!
Enough about getting all the planes...how does it play?
The fastest way to describe it is if you have played any of SF series in Instant Action with most of the 'helpers' on, and in 'Chase View', you'll feel right at home.
Your typical screen:
The consequences of 'spray and pray'...
Look familiar? As folks who play the SF series of PC games know, TW tends to recycle a lot of stuff. SFA is no different, from the aircraft models and textures, to the terrain, effects, and even voices for 'Red Crown' and your (non-existent) wingman.
The terrain and weather both randomize...it looks like the IsraelME terrain, sometimes with different, green textures from VietnamSEA.
Bandits are shown with red boxes around them, with red triangles around enemy missiles. You'll see small red circles leading when enemies are close...basically they are 'aim dots' if you have a gun. When enemies are off screen, red arrowheads replace the red square, and a solid red triangle replaces the red triangle outline (when RWR is available) for missiles. The red arrowheads 'flash' when you are being shot at by an off screen bandit.
The radar is omnidirectional, showing bandits in green, and if you have RWR, your missiles will show in yellow and enemy missiles will show in red. One thing to note is the scale is not uniform...the closer ring has a higher resolution. In other words, the inner ring is about 2 units, but the middle ring is about 5 and the outer is about 10.
ZOMG! Teh Sexplane!
Time to play is in the upper left, along with the pause button. Incidently, when paused, this is the only time you can change views and focused aircraft using the accelerometer and arrow keys on either side of the screen. When you are unpaused, it will revert right back to Chase View on your aircraft. No other views are available.
I'm the guy in front...
Upper middle is the recalibration button.
Throttle controls, airspeed readout, gun and missile sights, altitude readout (including radar altitude when low) and weapons status/firing buttons are in the middle row of the screen...left to right to lower right corner. The throttle is sort of a blip type device....the aircraft defaults to near corner speed, and the throttle arrows are used to speed up (using AB if available) or slow down (using speed brake if available). However, once you release either, the aircraft will attempt to fly back toward corner speed on its own. The weapon status indicators are the firing buttons...just press them to fire.
The lower left indicator is your RWR/decoy status indicator/deployment button (if you have decoys). Deployment works the same way as weapons.
The accelerometer in your device is for roll and pitch control...there is no on screen joystick control available.
Aircraft tend to be accurate appearing, flight controls moving correctly, and effects like smoke trails, afterburner, and gun smoke looking just like the PC version. Plus, missiles appear to be mounted properly, and will disappear as they are used, on friendly and enemy aircraft. Sounds as already noted come directly from the PC version, including radio calls.
Enemy aircraft are like balloons, usually destroyed (with no debris other than an explosion sprite) with a single missile or gun hit. Your aircraft can usually take a few gun hits or 2 missile hits before being destroyed. There is no degradation of capability or visual damage when getting hit other than a 'pop up' red bar showing total damage.
No takeoffs or landings are included...you always start right in the action. The flight model is obviously more toward arcade as in stalls are not modeled (you merely mush down when you get slow with very little nose track). Aircraft appear to have built in G limits in that you can't over-G in either direction, which means your turn radius gets large and your nose track slows down as you get too fast. Notably, induced drag appears to be modeled...so techniques like unloading while accelerating appear to help verses just pitch and power modeling. Aircraft definitely have different FMs for each one...the MiG-17 is a hoot as a gunfighter.
Collision between aircraft do not seem to be modeled, but ground impact is...both you and bandits are vulnerable to cumulus granite.
Bandits start out as slow turning 'ducks' but get increasingly higher aspect and more aggressive as you advance...tending to come at you waves of 2 to 4 aircraft, up to a maximum of about 10 bandits on screen at a time. They seem to employ missiles properly.
Missiles are limited to reflect real world loadouts. Guns are unlimited, with a twist - when you run out, you get auto reloaded...but it can take up to 15 seconds. That doesn't sound like a lot of time...but when you total gameplay time at most is only 4 minutes...it can be an eternity! Especially since you run out just as you get into optimal firing position (see first gameplay screenshot for an example of how NOT to use your ammo).
Decoys are also limited...use wisely. They appear to be 100 percent effective when used. Missiles can also be defeated by maneuver...usually attempting to force a missile overshoot is the best way. Sadly, you won't be that effective against later missiles.
Missile tactics are probably the most interesting part of the game. Infrared (IR) missiles have a round circle that shows up in your HUD...semi active radar homing (SARH) missiles use a diamond cursor. The cursors are auto targeting and will tend to home in on the closet in parameter target in front of you. To simulate the early IR missiles that were not all aspect, they won't try to track a target if the aspect angle isn't met. Both types of missiles have max and min ranges...outside those parameters, the seekers won't track either. Finally, SARH missiles work like the real thing...if you turn away from your target, the missile will break lock, unlike IR missiles which are fire and forget.
BlueJay 4, do you have the target...?
After all that, there are still more considerations. Once a missile cursor is tracking a bandit, a percentage counter starts winding up, giving you a probability of a hit if the missile was fired at that instant. Once it reaches 99 percent, it and the cursor start flashing. For IR missiles, 99 percent also means the lock 'tone' increases in volume. Most of your shots are guaranteed at this point. The problem is that early missiles have relatively slow cursors that are easy to pull off the target, resulting in the counter resetting. The counter itself is slow in the early missiles. It forces you to be smooth while tracking a bandit...assuming he's agreeable and assuming his friends don't take advantage of the 'rope a dope'. The game also penalizes the launch if you are pulling too hard or if the full up lock is transitory (say if the bandit breaks hard into you just after you fire). Considering some of the aircraft have no guns and not a whole lot of missiles (CF-104), it means every shot needs to count. Later aircraft have all aspect missiles, faster moving cursors and faster countdowns. But all your opponents have the same improvements...and they outnumber you. I have not been able to tell if bandits have expendables.
RWR indications are as noted before but aircraft without RWR will still get a 'Missile Launch!' call and will get the red triangle outline on the missile if it is visible. Aircraft RWR will get the familiar 'lock on' and 'missile launch' tones from the PC version.
Later aircraft have ECM listed, but I have not seen if that makes a difference in gameplay.
Once you are done with your flight, this is the debrief screen.
Guess which aircraft I was in...
Again, very familiar looking. This is also where you will get notified if you have earned new aircraft/progressed in the campaign, etc.
The game uses the Unity 3d engine, and my experience was very stable, no glitches, crashes or force close occurred with all the playing I did. It was smooth, only bogging down sometimes when the number of enemies exceeded 12. This has been fixed in a recent update.
Is this game worth getting? Value wise, considering it is free, it is hard to say it isn't worth at least trying. Buying aircraft is a different question. All aircraft can eventually be earned, so you don't have to spend a dime...just a lot of time doing the same kind of mission over and over.
Is this a reasonable simulation? The answer is no...it is more an arcade game, though the missile employment shows some good simulation like aspects. Two excellent examples of flight simulation for mobile are F-Sim Space Shuttle (a shuttle approach and landing sim) and X-Plane. Both are much closer to actual simulators...and X-Plane has multiplayer! But no combat.
Is this a good air combat game? The answer is yes, but with caveats. In some ways, it can be considered more like an 'air Quake' because it's basically you against everyone else, and the type of mission remains the same, with no takeoffs, landings, air to ground missions or cockpit view. But, the variety of aircraft is second to none, with many aircraft you can't find anywhere else on any platform except the PC versions of SF.
ZOMG! Commie planes!
A great example of the features I would like to see in a future mobile version of SFA is Air Navy Fighters for mobile. It has cockpit views, multi cameras, realistic takeoffs and landings, and a terrain/mission creator. The amount of flyables is small (F-18, F-14, and C-2), there are no air to air missions, and the air to ground weapons seem a bit too magic.
In conclusion, for a freshmen attempt to get into the mobile space, SFA is solid offering. Blending arcade action with variety of aircraft that no one else offers, reasonable price to unlock aircraft, and a gaming mechanic that makes you want to earn 'just one more unlock!', you will find SFA a way to have some SF goodness anywhere you have your Android phone.
Now if can just get enough points to unlock that guns only Mystere...
Reviewed on a HP Touchpad running Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich).