Some genres of game transcend computing platforms, persisting from generation to generation. ‘Flight Simulator’ was one of the very first PC games and similar ways to get up in the virtual air have existed on every computing platform, desktop or mobile, ever since. iOS offers a wide range of possible titles (over 100 in all) in the Store – but where should you start? What, after extensive testing, are the top 5 flight simulation games on the platform?
Of course, personal preferences will play a part here, but I’ve selected a top 5 (after trying over 20 candidates) that includes something for all tastes – pure simulations, arcade-ish action and even radio control.
I should also add a practical note that flight simulation games can get relatively expensive. If you get ‘into’ any of the titles below then you will want to buy some more planes and scenarios using the in-app purchases, so expect to end up paying up to £10 or $20 in kitting the game out as you like it. But then we’re talking about immersive games that you’ll spend dozens (if not hundreds) of hours in, so I doubt the extra purchases needed will come as a huge burden to anyone. Having said that, pick your favourite from numbers 1-4 below and stick with it – it’s probably best not to spread your in-app purchases across four different games/systems!
In reverse order then:
5: RC PLANE 2
Perhaps not quite what you were expecting in this list, but the demographics for smartphone enthusiasts and lovers of gadgets, especially radio controlled gadgets, have a lot of overlap. In this case you’re flying – by (virtual) wire, taking off, swooping and attempting to land without too much damage.
RC PLANE 2 can be flown as a traditional radio control simulation, i.e. from one vantage point, but the scenery is too extensive for this to be very practical and in any case, most of the fun here is riding ‘with’ the plane, swooping around cliffs and structures, controlling it all with standard power/aileron/rudder RC joysticks, using your iPhone touchscreen. There’s a choice of ‘3 channel’ or ‘4 channel’ control, for the real RC purists, with the latter coming into its own with some of the more complex models. And, as the screenshot below shows, there’s even modelling of having to ‘calibrate’ each stick, adjusting it so that level is level and centre is centre, and so forth… (in a real plane, imperfections in each model make these necessary.)
In addition to the ‘Flight School’ (training missions and scenarios being something of a common theme when looking at flying games/sims here!), there’s now a multi-player option, pairing you up with a RC enthusiast somewhere else in the world, each armed with a model with basic gun and the theory then is that you go dog-fighting. Alas, whenever I tried this, the auto-match system failed to find me an opponent. But, you know what, I don’t care – RC PLANE 2 is all about the care-free flying experience.
And don’t worry about the in-app purchases – even RC planes are insanely expensive once you get ‘into’ the hobby, so a virtual plane that can be crashed and back up and running in a millisecond works out much, much cheaper!
However, assuming that you’d rather fly as ‘yourself’, by imagining yourself in the cockpit and using your smartphone as the main joystick, then read on for four other top options.
Starting life as a humble F/18 carrier landing simulation, this has grown and grown over the last few years, with a full set of ground and carrier-based missions, involving ground attack, air defence and evasion manoeuvres. The 3D graphics can at times be quite beautiful, in terms of sunsets, moonlight through the clouds, and so on. And overall, just the right mix of realism and arcade action.
The flight control model feels accurate enough without meaning that you’re careering into the ground all the time, so there’s probably some AI stabilisation going on – thankfully. Not that you can’t crash – it’s just that the experience is kept intuitive enough that there’s never that horrible “Oh, darn, I crashed into the ground while trying to set a waypoint on the computer” feeling. External and in-cockpit views are available, the latter with and without cockpit controls, but always with HUD help to find the next thing to destroy.
The built-in missions (and there are a lot of these) are cleverer than they seem at first. So you head off to destroy an oil refinery but the game doesn’t tell you about a Surface to Air missile silo on the way – so you find yourself being scanned and then under attack. If you survive that then you still have to knock out the silo before carrying on, which means you’re then one Air to Ground missile short and have to destroy one of the targets with a cannon.
And even when you’ve managed to survive the mission and destroy all your targets, there’s still the matter of finding of landing. Arguably the trickiest part of the game is trying to land again after a mission, especially on a carrier, which is a horrifically small target in a large sea (as it is in real life!) If I had to make any criticism it would be that you (obviously) have to approach the carrier from exactly the right direction and there’s very little UI help for this (beacons, etc.), meaning that you have to spot the orientation of the tiny triangle in the radar display and then overfly the carrier manually in order to estimate a graceful pattern that will get you back properly lined up with the carrier ‘runway’. And then there’s just height and speed and position, all of which have to be perfect…
It’s also worth noting that fans of the game have submitted their own mission designs (and you can too), all accessible for download and trying out. Between the different planes and scenarios, there are hundreds of hours of gameplay here. All together now, “Flying to the Danger Zone!”….
3: Aerofly 2
Setting something of a template for the following two titles, there’s a familiar mix of free flight and training, though the ‘Flight school’ here has a very gentle learning curve and will be frustratingly slow if you’re a flight sim old hand! Essentially Aerofly 2 contains a large swathe of photographed terrain and detail from a coastal section of the USA, with a variety of airports and landing strips to take off from, land on, and generally muck around in the air in a variety of aircraft.
The status information (HUD) is helpfully packed into a top bar, giving an unobstructed view of whatever’s going on in the air, while controls around the periphery are (going clockwise in the screenshot above) for landing gear, throttle/brake, flaps, emergency (of which more in a moment), views (there are over a dozen, many of which can be panned and zoomed) and auto-pilot, should you feel like letting the plane get on with it in real time while you nip to the bathroom.
The aforementioned emergency button simply adds 700 feet to your altitude for every press. So, if you’re in a bind and find yourself too close to the ground, a couple of taps and you’ve got enough height to be be able to recover. Very handy.
The visuals throughout are top notch, from the photorealistic 3D scenery to the aircraft models themselves, with animated surfaces and even detailed cabins and cockpits.
For example, one of the views on this plane is from the back seat of a 4-seater. So you can, for example, set the plane on auto-pilot and then hop into the back and have a look around, gazing out of the side windows. It’s all here, folks…
The familiar system of some planes for free and then you pay a couple of pounds of dollars per plane after that, works well. Speaking of which, it’s curious that every flying game seems to have the F-18 for free – maybe the US government were free and easy with its specifications and airframe details?
Yet again you get a number of planes (mainly civilian) plus a number of scenery areas for free, with options to pay more for extra planes/models. These seem to be built to order, i.e. you can request something outlandish and there’s a good chance it’ll arrive in the future, complete with decals. The attention to detail in most of the aircraft models is outstanding, as you can see above…
As with Aerofly 2, you’re essentially encouraged to fly what you want, where you want, and in weather and the time of day that you want (though, curiously, there’s no option for rain or thunder). There’s no ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, just the fun of flying and, hopefully, landing at the end of it!
The visuals are, as I say, one of the real highlights in Infinite Flight, with the detail on most of the aircraft being astounding, and all beautifully lit, it seems, whatever time of day you select. For example, select a Spitfire at sunset and…. you’re there, as shown below!
Within an external view (there are lots of these), you can pan around and zoom in or out, in order to get the ‘perfect’ shot, all accompanied by perfect engine noise and atmospheric effects.
Actually flying around is easier said than done, we’re talking an understanding of real world geography and flight times and rules here, helped by map views and visual landing aids. Everything’s kept professional and as realistic as possible, with accurate physics throughout. It’s said that consumer simulations like these, albeit usually on slightly larger screens, are used in the early stages of training for real pilots and I can absolutely believe it.
If you pay extra (again) there’s what is arguably the real jewel in the crown of Infinite Flight, a ‘live’ feature, where a server keeps track of where other players’ aircraft are and lets you see these in real time (and vice versa), interacting (and cooperating) with them to simulate a real aviation ecosystem, with no crashes and smooth operation. It’s sophisticated, requires extensive set-up and moderation and – mainly – that’s why you have to pay to play in this arena. Think Second Life, but for pilots and their planes!
It’s hard not to be impressed by the possibilities of Infinite Flight, though note that loading up a particular aircraft and scenario isn’t quick – if you’re after a quick/casual aviation fix then try Air Navy Fighters above. (Plus you get to blow stuff up!)
1: X-Plane 10
The grand-daddy of mobile flight sims, originally developed for commercial reasons away from smartphones(!) and very mature. The actual flight models are more accurate than in anything else in the tech world, and with real world (and aircraft) graphics to match. Although there’s still a free flight mode, X-Plane 10 puts a series of challenges front and centre, giving you a quick way to get into the air in a meaningful way, whether it’s keeping passengers safe in hazardous weather or running through capped mountains in a F4 Phantom to bomb the enemy.
Although there are only a few dozen challenges (so far), they’re easily enough for up to a hundred hours of gameplay, all told. The usual caveat over in-app-purchases applies though, since you’ll need some of the premium aircraft in order to complete many of the challenges. Not hugely expensive, but worth noting!
Or… you can just pop in the (free) Cessna, set the location, time, weather and everything else, right down to which of your cockpit instruments may or may not fail or even be working at all – as if you needed yet more challenge!
After anything interesting in the air on your flight, there’s a video replay facility, which again can be seen from any angle or degree of zoom – hopefully either helping you work out what you did wrong or (ahem) providing entertainment from your friends as they laugh at your aviation ineptitude.
With working cockpit instruments (unless you’ve set them to fail), an immersive environment, a wide selection of customisable views, X-Plane 10 strikes just the right balance of realism, fun and tension at every turn. In my testing period, this was the title that kept bubbling up to the top of the heap, despite being up against some flight simulation heavyweights.
Although there’s no equivalent to the huge multiplayer scenarios in Infinite Flight, you can get a much faster, less laborious online experience using the ‘match’ functionality in X-Plane 10. Choose location, time, weather, etc. and then invite up to three friends individually or let the Cloud auto-match for you. Once started, you’ll be taking off from the same runway, can fly beside each other, chatting using the built in VoIP client – it’s great fun and the multi-player action and communication doesn’t seem to slow down the simulation at all. Oh yes, and the multiplayer action is free.
Add in a really rather good Flight School (shown above) and X-Plane 10 comes out as a worthy no. 1 here. Highly recommended.