It's hard to imagine anything more genuinely exhilarating than unpowered flight. Whether it's achieved with a hang glider, a paraglider, or a glider, the sensation of soaring freely through the ether in short-lived defiance of the unyielding laws of gravity must be at once both serene and thrilling. Hangsim attempts to deliver this ephemeral euphoria to PC game fans by giving you the chance to control a variety of unpowered or lightly powered aircraft, but in the end it only proves that some real-life experiences just don't make for very good simulations.
Hangsim features seven types of aircraft: three hang gliders (one of which is powered), two paragliders, a glider, and an ultralight airplane. The various locations where you fly are based on real-life locations in France and California and are divided roughly into three categories: coastlines, cities and suburbs, and mountainous terrain. At a decent altitude, the digitized terrain looks quite impressive, particularly the snowcapped mountains of the Alpines and the deep valleys of the Puys region in France. Things tend to get a bit blurry as you near terra firma, but overall the visual effects are quite convincing. However, the same can't be said of Hangsim's damage modeling - your character can trot along the surface of the water, and you can see the tail of the ultralight literally dig into the ground as you struggle to get the lightly powered airplane off the ground.
The manual goes into great depth explaining how the physics of wind and temperatures work to create thermals, or updrafts, and what you should do to take advantage of them. It's pretty laborious reading for all but the most obsessed gliding fan, but you'd best try to take it all in if you hope to stay airborne for any respectable length of time in the game's four events: free flight, challenge, competition, and "just for fun." Free flight is self-explanatory - you can use it as a learning tool to help you grasp the basics of gliding and enjoy the scenery in the aircraft of your choice. Thankfully for beginners, Wilco Publishing has added options to simplify hang-glider control and to toggle such rudimentary instruments, like an altimeter, tachometer, vertical-speed indicator, and airspeed indicator.
On the other hand, the challenge and competition modes go straight to the heart of free flight. Challenge flights give a specific goal, such as staying aloft long enough to fly over an expanse of water or reach a specified landing point; the competitions pit you against computer opponents in an attempt to hit a series of waypoints and reach the landing zone before they do. You'll likely find the challenge flights the most fulfilling; even with lots of practice and patience, you'll still be hard-pressed to give the computer pilots a run for their money.
In the just-for-fun flights, your hang glider or ultralight is equipped with rocket launchers, and you're given the task of clearing the skies of other free-flight enthusiasts who are "intruding" into your favorite flying areas. Unfortunately, this attempt to make the serene and cerebral sport of free flight more exciting goes nowhere fast. The computer-controlled pilots are allegedly armed with rockets too, but not once did I ever see any pilots fire on me - not that they needed to, since their evasive skills in such slow-moving craft are amazingly impressive. What's even more troubling is the entire premise of the event: What's the motivation for having to gun down ultralights that aren't even bothering you in the slightest? There is none.
Hangsim also has several technical problems, which jump out at you immediately: There are constant disk accesses in the middle of flights that bog down the gameplay, there's no instant-replay feature that lets you revel in a particularly impressive maneuver, and the game even has several instances (as in the expert-level just-for-fun missions) in which your flight begins with your glider either broken or in an unrecoverable stall. But even without these problems, the fact remains that pretty terrain and accurate physics just aren't enough to make virtual gliding exciting. What makes the game more of a letdown is that you could easily imagine all sorts of ways the designers could have added some real thrills to the simulation. Instead of firing rockets at innocuous ultralights, I'd much rather tackle situations like hostage rescues (check out the 1976 flick Sky Riders), espionage missions, search-and-rescue operations, and criminal pursuits - anything to bring at least a small sense of urgency to the proceedings.
But what we wound up with instead is a game that's likely to be fully appreciated and enjoyed only by people who actually take part in some type of gliding or ultralight flight. Hangsim does a great job of preaching to the gliding choir, but its sedate pace is unlikely to bring any new members into the fold.