If you’re going to do any serious flight simming on the Macintosh, you really only have one choice, and that’s X-Plane. The flight simulator is so sophisticated that it gives you the tools to create your own airplane and scenery, too.
X-Plane () ships with 29 different aircraft models — everything from your run-of-the-mill civilian prop-driven model to massive jumbo jets that ferry passengers from one side of the world to the other. There are tons more available online, as well.
I last looked at X-Plane in 2003, when the 6.5 version was the current release. Laminar Research, the developer behind this simulation (distributed in stores by GraphSim Entertainment), never sits still. X-Plane is in constant development: In fact, the current version is already ahead of what shipped on the DVD, but I’m keeping to what’s on the disc — v 8.00 — for consistency’s sake. If you want to stay current, you’ll need to have access to a broadband connection, because updates routinely measure in the hundreds of megabytes (a CD update is available for a nominal additional fee).
The biggest change in X-Plane since the last major release is the incorporation of “Generation 8” scenery, which yields much higher levels of detail in metropolitan areas. So if you imagine yourself as the captain of a 747-400 making a transcontinental flight from New York to Paris, you’ll see more accurate coastlines and more realistic skylines — in New York, anyway. The new “Generation 8” scenery is only available for maps of the United States. It puts a heavy toll on hardware, however, doubling already not insubstantial basic system requirements (Just to start with, X-Plane needs a 1GHz or faster G4, 512MB RAM, 10GB hard disk space, DVD drive and OpenGL graphics with at least 16MB VRAM.)
Generation 7 scenery, used anywhere there isn’t a dense urban population, is still pretty nice on its own. Gone are the quilted patchwork of different terrains and jagged contours, replaced by more natural-looking scenery. Mountains and valleys look as they should for the most part.
Realistic simulation is a cornerstone of the X-Plane design philosophy, so you can also plot out weather patterns and even download weather real-time from the Internet, simulate system failures to test out your piloting skills under adverse conditions and much more. X-Plane maps out the locations of 18,000 airports, and you can even take off and land from aircraft carriers at sea, if you wish.
If flying into orbit is your game, X-Plane can help you here, too: You can simulate Low Earth Orbit (LEO) flights and view special terrain designed for the task. And you can even take your flying to the surface of the planet Mars, thanks to terrain information provided by the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter.
X-Plane simulates the sounds of engine and other mechanical noise (like the muffled thump of landing gear being stowed after take off, for example), which helps to round out the realism. X-Plane also simulates Air Traffic Control (ATC) radio chatter. Occasionally you might need to ask ATC ground personnel for assistance — in this case, X-Plane will respond using Apple’s Text-to-Speech technology, which is a bit jarring and weird after hearing “real” recorded radio chatter.
X-Plane’s ability to customize every aspect of its operation is a hallmark of the simulator — from where you’re at to what you’re flying, weather conditions and time and date, instrument or equipment failures and much, much more. But getting to understand and appreciate the complexities of the X-Plane interface is quite daunting. The developer does a fantastic job of making the game run on the Mac, but don’t count on Aqua-style interface embellishments or a high degree of “lickability.” It takes some getting used to.
X-Plane of course supports joysticks and yokes, and I’d definitely recommend picking one up. Though it’s possible to fly with the mouse and the keyboard alone, it’s a bit like trying to draw illustrations with a brick. The game responds much better to fine adjustments made using game controllers than it does to the gross movements of a mouse or trackpad. Also, make sure your Mac has a DVD drive, because this game doesn’t ship on CD.
The bottom line: X-Plane may have a daunting interface, but it’s still the best Mac flight sim that money can buy, especially considering its developer’s constant efforts to support and improve the software.