Review: RC-AirSim: Model Airplane
Replicating the exact behaviour of something in the real world inside a smartphone is never trivial. Or even, necessarily, desirable. Yet this is what RC-AirSim: Model Airplane attempts - and succeeds wildly. The downside, as you might imagine, is that all the frustrations of the real world come over as well. This is part game, part simulation, part tech-demo for the developer's physics and graphics algorithms - yet I love it. Read on for why....
(my first ever 'beginners' RC plane - ah, memories....!)
Picture the scene, down at the park. I've owned numerous radio controlled (RC) aircraft and this is roughly how it goes....
After a night of charging my battery, I insert it into my plane and extend the controller's aerial. I work out the prevailing wind direction and then set the plane on the ground and crank up the propeller speed and the plane charges off into the breeze. Lean back on the elevons and the plane rises gracefully. Time to gain a little height. Now bank left using the ailerons and turn and here's the plane rushing back towards me. Level out and then try a loop. Whoa! That was fun.
Now turn again into the wind and gain a bit more height. Bank back again, this time to the right and... just a bit further... oh that's not right, I need to bank left to correct and.... oh no, that was wrong, the plane's coming back towards me and so right is left and left is right... quick correction in the opposite direction but it's too late and the dive is now too steep and the ground's too close and...
I run over to inspect the fractured styrofoam and plastic. Another write-off.
You see, flying RC is harder than it looks - a lot harder. I've been through five RC planes in all, just a play thing for a summer day when it's not too windy and the park's empty and the sun's shining - which doesn't happen that often. And all five planes ended up in pieces through (mainly) my own incompetence. Clearly, I'm not fit to fly a RC plane.
Happily, I can indulge my occasional RC urges with RC-AirSim: Model Airplane, a mere £2 or so in the Windows Phone Marketplace. It's been out for a while but I thought a little weekend highlighting on AAWP was in order, if only to share my incompetence enjoyment behind the controller.
Essentially, it provides exactly the same experience as with the real thing. Exactly. A single point of view (though at least it auto-pans up, down, left and right, as your eyes would in real life), with ultra-realistic physics and flight model. Even the crunch as your plane crashes into unforgiving ground, less than a minute after take-off, is realistic in terms of sound and with bits falling off.
Critics of the title, approaching RC-AirSim: Model Airplane as a 'game', have pointed out that the realistic viewpoint, wherein the plane gets smaller as it gets further away, makes the title too hard, i.e. it's often tough to see which way 'up' the plane is, but I'd argue that this is exactly one of the problems with real world RC aircraft when trying out aerobatics high up and up to (say) 100 metres away. Other RC sims (e.g. on the iPhone) give a default view from just behind the aircraft, with the 'realistic' viewpoint just an option - things are different here.
The emphasis on realism continues with the audio side of things. Each of the supplied RC planes (listed below) has its own sound, different types of electric motor whine, the perceived volume fades as the aircraft gets further away from you, and there's proper 'Doppler' variations in pitch according to the direction of travel.
Planes offered in RC-AirSim: Model Airplane:
Add it all together and, apart from the lack of breeze on your face and the lack of dogs chasing your plane every time it looks like landing, plus the small screen of your phone, you could be there.
Of course, there's another huge difference from reality. In RC-AirSim: Model Airplane you can trash as many planes as you like as often as you like (and, trust me, you'll get through a couple of dozen in your first session) and it won't cost you a penny extra. Real life RC planes are anything from £50 to £500. And more if you want to get larger or more complicated. They're also fairly fragile. And their batteries don't last long (and perish quickly if not charged often). And you can't fly if it's raining. Or too windy.
In short, real life RC flying is expensive and often problematic. Yes, this 'game' doesn't quite offer as much majestic fun as the real thing and you won't get as much exercise, but it's hard to see how it could have gotten closer to the real thing and it'll save you a truckload of money in the process.
And you can fly in mid-winter when it's zero degrees outside, tipping it down with rain and you're living in the middle of a city.
Collision detection is excellent in this heavily physics-based title. Aside from the ground, there's just a few trees and shed to hit, but the way your plane behaves when it hits either is realistic and shows the attention spent on the maths behind the game.
With all the qualified praise above, I should perhaps balance things with a little gentle criticism:
- There's no simulation of wind as far as I can tell. This is a huge factor in real life flying, though I can understand its omission here - the 'game' is hard enough as it is.
- There's no support for fast app switching in Windows Phone - so you can't pause mid-flight to do something else - you're always back at the main menu and with your chosen aircraft and control selection lost after getting back to the title. Not a huge issue, given the typical length of each flight, but worth noting and worth the developer fixing with a re-compile.
- What you see is what you get. There are no special challenges, no achievements, no online integration. Of course, maybe this sort of title is best kept simple and 'pure', but some will doubtless complain...
- The developer hasn't updated RC-AirSim: Model Airplane for six months - let's hope it hasn't been forgotten! In particular, there will be plenty that needs tweaking for Windows Phone 8, I suspect!
The best way to show off RC-AirSim: Model Airplane is to play it a little in front of your eyes, see the video embedded below. In summary though, you'll either warm to this idea of flawed ultra-realism or you'll wander off to play Cut the Rope. Or perhaps, staying with the aviation theme, Infinite Flight. All good options, but in the mean time, check this out:
You can buy RC-AirSim: Model Airplane here - note that there's a trial version with just one aircraft.
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at