The eight DVDs’ worth of scenery files have been installed, the joystick has been configured, and the cat has been fed. The moment has come.
Excitedly, I type the name of my local aerodrome into X-Plane 10’s search box and press ‘GO TO THIS AIRPORT’. A minute or two passes, then one of the dullest splash screens I’ve ever seen dissolves to reveal...
Lifting the camera high above the high wing of a handsome US Army Stinson L-5, I see hills draped with field textures stretching to a distant horizon. What I don’t see is a single 3D tree or building. I check the scenery settings. As I thought: ‘airport detail’ is notched at ‘totally insane’, ‘number of objects’ at ‘tons’. In vanilla FSX this bucolic Hampshire strip looked like it was situated in a wooded corner of Tuscany. X-Plane makes it look like it’s in the middle of a deserted Hebridean isle. I think I prefer the Tuscany version.
Then again, in FSX I don’t remember the hill fort on the southern edge of the airfield looking quite so hilly, or the downland ridge to the east looking nearly so pronounced. Perhaps those hours of scenery installation were worth it after all. Let’s see what the land looks like from the air.
As the Stinson bumps along the undulating turf and hauls itself into a breezy summer sky, I spot something I’ve never seen in any iteration of Flight Simulator – the little B-road that runs along the northern perimeter of the field. I begin to follow the tarmac squiggle. An hour later I land back where I started with a quite different opinion of the sim’s scenic strength.
While Laminar Research’s new autogen scenery system leaves large tracts of the globe balder than a baboon’s bum, makes central London look like suburban Los Angeles, and occasionally puts bridges and electricity pylons where bridges and electricity pylons have no business to be, its utilisation of detailed highway data and fine elevation mesh means low-level ‘VFR’ navigation is actually a far more practical prospect than it is in an unaugmented install of FSX. You won’t see your house in X-Plane 10 – you might not even see your village or suburb – but there’s a very good chance you will see your road, avenue, close, or lane.
That Austin Meyer and chums haven’t found the time to add hangars and towers to every tin-pot airfield isn’t a great surprise. What is a little disappointing is that the sim’s representation of major airports and capitals is still far below the FSX benchmark. Weary passengers stepping out of their Jumbos at JFK, Heathrow, or Charles de Gaulle will find tracts of bare concrete where terminals should be. I know I can pop along to x-plane.org and download decent user-made solutions, but the new autogen code really should have been savvy enough to slap down some generic structures as a stopgap.
Oh well, at least the invisible control towers have invisible air traffic controllers inside them at long last. After the scenery and graphics progress, this edition’s most substantive improvements are its AI traffic and interactive ATC. In the past, X-Planing offline was a dashed lonely business. The closest you came to interaction was accidentally mincing a migrating goose with your prop or turbofan. In X-Plane 10 you can wave at passing planes (though there are never more than a handful of these aloft at any one time) and exchange pleasantries with several different types of tin pusher.
I say ‘exchange pleasantries’... The text-based ATC menu only lets you file IFR flight-plans and request clearances. It’s a more realistic treatment than Microsoft’s (you must manually tune radios at each stage of a journey which means consulting maps and fiddling with small dials). It’s also a little less reliable. Controllers will occasionally lapse into sulky silences or infuriating repetition. At times you’ll be told to taxi in circles or trundle through waiting aircraft.