X-Plane has long been a labor of love for its developer, Austin Meyer. Originally sold as a commercial product to companies testing aircraft designs (and with an attendant $200 price tag), X-Plane is now available at a regular game price as a boxed retail product. However, the move to more mainstream distribution hasn't changed X-Plane's focus one bit, so fans of the game can rest easy: It's still the most advanced flight simulation available.
X-Plane is essentially a rigorous flight simulator that uses an engineering process called "blade element analysis" to simulate everything from helicopters and small civilian two-seaters to jet spy planes and the space shuttle. In X-Plane, the focus is on flight simulation above all else. X-Plane is not strictly a civilian sim, although it's definitely not a combat sim, as there is no combat in it whatsoever. But combat aircraft are available, and the overall range of planes in X-Plane is the most diverse of any sim you can buy: Cessnas, Lear Jets, airliners, the AV-8 Harrier, and even the X-15, which holds both the altitude and speed records for a winged aircraft. If it flies, you can either find it in X-Plane, or you can build it with the Plane Maker and Part Maker utilities included in the game. These are comprehensive tools for designing and building your own aircraft, which you can then fly. It's a complete and powerful package, although one that's not trivial to use.
The flight models are quite realistic, as you'd probably expect, and they drive home just how difficult some of these aircraft are to fly. If you've flown the F-105 Thunderchief or F-4 Phantom in Jane's USAF, a spin in the X-Plane versions should illustrate just how differently they fly compared to those in the Jane's version. While X-Plane's manual acknowledges that even X-Plane's flight model can't account for everything, it's still very apparent just how meticulously researched and developed the product is.
The graphics in X-Plane are scalable to adjust for CPU and video card capabilities, but even at the highest resolution and detail settings, X-Plane isn't going to compete with more established flight sims in terms of looks. It's by no means ugly, but both the terrain textures and aircraft models do look a bit dated. X-Plane also renders its 3D using OpenGL, meaning that video cards based on the Nvidia TNT/GeForce chipsets will be best suited for running the game at high frame rates. This also means that owners of video cards made by Matrox should exercise caution, since Matrox's OpenGL drivers have always been problematic, and a test system we tried with a Matrox G400 card and the latest drivers was unable to get an acceptable frame rate even with a CPU far in excess of the minimum requirement. Of further note, X-Plane's simple sounds are nothing to get excited about, although that's not a significant shortcoming.
Because the emphasis in X-Plane is on flight simulation, some parts of the game seem incomplete. Thus, while the flight models are outstanding, the frills that you'd generally get with other commercial civilian sims are missing. One of the great pleasures in games like Flight Unlimited and the Microsoft Flight Simulator series is the ability to see familiar landmarks and terrain reproduced in detail, making your virtual flying experience seem that much more real. In X-Plane, obstacles are simply generic. However, in keeping with its do-it-yourself ethic, X-Plane includes a fully featured utility called World Maker, which lets you create your own structures and textures for them. So if you wanted to create the Transamerica Pyramid for X-Plane, you could try. Just don't expect to find it already in the game.
At heart, X-Plane is a very flexible physics lesson. For instance, there is a feature that lets you fly your planes on Mars. Of course, in the almost nonexistent atmosphere of Mars, aircraft designed for Earth are useless. Fortunately, X-Plane comes with a couple of concept craft designed for Martian excursions. And, as mentioned above, you can also fly the space shuttle. Austin Meyer is constantly improving the game, and though we reviewed version 5.52, version 5.54 is already available, and it includes new features such as a multiplayer mode. Fortunately, once you purchase the game, subsequent upgrades are available for free from the game's Web site at http://www.x-plane.com/.
X-Plane is really part simulation and part engineering tool. The Plane Maker and Part Maker utilities are extremely powerful and are an integral part of the product, but it's likely that only a small segment of flight sim enthusiasts will want to spend much time with them. Those wanting to fly civilian aircraft with authentic cockpit replicas (the X-Plane versions are generic) in a well-developed virtual world are better served by other available civilian flight simulations. However, if your interest lies in seeing actual physical differences between aircraft, getting a sense of the different flight characteristics of a wide range of planes, and really seeing what a realistic flight model is, then X-Plane is unquestionably the best simulation available for you. Furthermore, if you're inclined to tinker with new plane designs, and maybe see yourself as a budding aeronautical engineer, then you should definitely own a copy.