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Review: Air traffic control games for the iPhone

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Air Traffic Controller 4.0

    Macworld Rating
  • Generic Company Place Holder iATC

    Macworld Rating

Many years ago, one of my favorite Mac diversions was a game by Wesson International called Tracon II. Tracon was an air traffic control simulation for the Mac, and when I say many years ago, I really mean many years ago—the game was around in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (It’s so old, that this French site was really all I could find that showed the game.)

The basic objective of Tracon II was to guide airplanes to and from airports, and across a sector of airspace under your control. To do that, you had to issue commands to the aircraft to take off, land, change speed and/or altitude, and turn to various compass headings to line up for approaches.

Fast forward 20 years or so, and now that same game experience is available on the iPhone/iPod touch, sort of, in the form of two games, iATC and ATC 4.0. While neither exactly recreates the Tracon II experience, both have proven fun to play, albeit for totally different reasons.

Near miss: Let two planes get too close in iATC, and the program will let you know (click for larger view).
Of the two programs, iATC is the one that comes closest to what I recall of the Tracon II gameplay. The basic display is a radar scope, with an airport located in the lower left section of the scope. When an aircraft enters your sector, it appears as a small triangular marker with a data tag showing its ID, speed, heading, and altitude. Every airplane entering your scope needs to be routed to land at the airport; there isn’t any through traffic (nor are there any takeoffs from the airport). You route planes by tapping buttons to change their altitude, heading, and speed.

Once you have a plane at the proper altitude (500 feet), speed (150 knots or slower), and heading (within +/- 10 degrees of the runway heading), you tap a large command button and issue a landing clearance for one of the airport’s six runways. Weather isn’t a factor in iATC; there’s no wind, no rain, and no clouds. There also aren’t any rules regarding landing—any aircraft can land on any of the runways. You do, however, have to worry about collisions between aircraft at the same altitude, and the occasional emergency aircraft—I had a couple arrive with low fuel alerts, meaning they had to land now.

iATC also models some degree of reality in a plane’s behavior. When you command a turn, the plane takes some time to complete the turn, so you have to plan ahead. Similarly, climbs and descents and speed changes take time, so you really have to think about where you want the plane to be soon, as opposed to where it’s at right now.

In the program’s preferences, you can set the game’s speed (from ‘slow’ to ‘are you nuts?’), the maximum number of planes on the scope at once (up to 15), whether or not to detect collisions, how often you’ll see emergencies, and enable and disable training mode. In training mode, the radar scope displays compass headings around the outside, and the runways have heading numbers on them as well. Turn off training mode, and you’ll find the game much more challenging—all heading changes must be visualized with the aid of the onscreen compass. (I preferred playing in training mode; the gameplay itself is otherwise identical in both modes.)

The main issue I had with iATC was just the repetitiveness of the program. Every airplane needs to land at the same airport (no through flights from one point to another), there’s no variable weather, and the occasional emergency is the only thing that adds a degree of uncertainty to the program. Scoring, too, is quite basic—land a plane, gain a point. Crash a plane, or let one escape without landing, and you lose a point. I think the consequences of crashing a plane should be a bit more than just losing a single point!

Your score will just continue to accumulate as you land planes, but if you grow tired of the game, there’s no apparent way to quit (or even pause)—the only way out is to press the Home button on your phone. When you relaunch the program, you can choose to continue your game, or start a new one. Overall, it felt like scoring and gameplay “fun factors” took a back seat to getting the radar display just right. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—the game is quite fun to play—but more attention to playability would improve the play experience even more.

Clouds are just one of the challenges you'll face in ATC 4.0 (click for larger view).
ATC 4.0 takes a completely different approach to simulating air traffic control. Instead of looking at a radar scope, you look at a top-down cartoon-like map of the local geography. The graphics are nicely done, and they’re not just static—you can see clouds move, vehicles moving on the ground, and at night, the glow from streetlights and cars on the roads.

There are four points on the screen marked with letters, one on each edge of the screen; these are possible end points (in addition to an airport) for aircraft under your control. Depending on which level you’re playing, you may or may not also see an airport on the screen.

That’s right, levels. ATC 4.0 has two gameplay modes, one that requires you to clear (handle) a given number of aircraft to advance to the next level, and the other simply based on surviving for as long as possible without losing a plane. In level-play mode, there are 49 levels to progress through, and new challenges await on each level. Sometimes the challenges involve the weather (windy, cloudy), the planes (faster planes, emergencies), the time of day (day or night), or the objectives themselves (route all planes to or from a certain point). I’ve found the levels to be quite fun, and challenging, but not overly so—of course, I say that only having completed about 1/3rd of the available levels.

ATC 4.0 dispels with any thought of reality—airplanes make turns instantly (including course reversals), and there’s no way to control a plane’s altitude or speed. (Aircraft will move at different rates, but you can’t control that rate.) Landing simply requires lining the aircraft up with the runway; the rest is automatic (unless the wind is howling, but that’s for you to discover.)

At first, I thought this was a negative…but the impact on gameplay is actually terrific. Because all aircraft are at the same altitude, you really have to plan ahead to keep them out of each other’s way, but you can make quick corrections because planes turn instantly.

If you fail to keep the planes apart, though, you’ll see a mid-air collision, complete with explosion and sound effects. If you cause a mid-air, or route a plane incorrectly, you lose—you’ll need to repeat that level until you handle the required number of aircraft without any mistakes.

Routing aircraft is done by tapping your iPhone’s screen. First tap a plane to select it, then tap up to three points on the screen where you’d like it to fly. The plane will immediately fly to the first point you tapped, then turn on a dime and head for the second, then the third. You can see any plane’s planned route by tapping it; you’ll see a line connecting any established waypoints.

This system works quite well, except when two aircraft are close together. At such times—which are already stressful—it can be a bit tricky to select the right plane, given the size of your finger and the limits of the iPhone’s touch resolution.

Unlike iATC, the aircraft in ATC 4.0 not only land, but also take off from the various airports. In addition, a lot of traffic just transits your airspace, heading from one edge of the screen to the other. At the lower levels, when it’s daylight, the weather is good, and the wind is calm, handling all these planes is quite simple. But at night, in a snowstorm, with the wind howling, things can get quite exciting. As the levels progress, more of these variables are combined together, leading to quite the challenge.

In Survival Mode, the game is simpler, sort of—just route as many aircraft as possible, without making a single mistake. Lose a plane or cause a mid-air, and the game is over. Every aircraft you route properly earns you some amount of money. The longer you play, the harder the game gets—more planes appear at once, and the airspace is soon a very busy place. Eventually, you will lose a plane…and when that happens, the game ends.

At the end of the game, you can record your high score locally, and submit it to an Internet-based high score list. You can also view daily, weekly, and all-time high scores from the Internet. Sad to say, but my best efforts fell fall short of making even the daily list.

In short order, ATC 4.0 has become one of my favorite iPhone games. It’s far from an ATC simulator—get iATC if that’s where your interests lie—but as a game, ATC 4.0 is a blast to play. The game features nicely-done graphics and sound effects, an easy-to-use user interface, and challenging scenarios that keep me coming back to try to clear a given level “just one more time.”

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Air Traffic Controller 4.0

    Macworld Rating
  • Generic Company Place Holder iATC

    Macworld Rating
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