At a time when many are struggling to make ends meet, I’m really not sure a £65 (£129 with DLC) radio control aircraft simulator is a sensible subject for a Friday feature. My frugal/niggardly side was quietly hoping Aerofly RC 8 would turn out to be flawed and unlovable – a niche title with limited appeal. The realisation that I’ve grown exceedingly fond of IPACS’ Lilliputian flight sim during this past week, puts me in a real quandary.
I’m standing on the edge of a grass airstrip in Baden-Württemberg, bathed in Spring sunshine. In the greensward at my feet, glossy buttercups gleam and busy insects drone and hum. Overhead, a miniature Tiger Moth, yellow as a buttercup, cavorts like a canary that, after a lifetime spent underground, is finally tasting freedom. I’m guiding this giddy, happy biplane by moving the twin sticks under my thumbs. Each loop, barrel roll, and hammerhead turn is executed at my urging. Every low pass and ground-kissing touch-and-go extends an improvised sky ballet that has, over the past twenty minutes, been slowly but surely steeping me in something very like joy.
When I misjudge a daisy-cutting swoop and the Tiger Moth cartwheels, scattering debris with gay abandon, I glance at the clock on my desk. Crikey – did I say twenty minutes? I’ve actually been standing in this field for the best part of an hour.
Identifying the sources of ARC8’s fierce magnetism is trickier than it first appears. Novelty certainly plays a part. The fly-by cam that is a guilty pleasure in conventional flight sims, is the non-negotiable (in the majority of venues) default view here. MS Flight Simulator and the like might let you buzz a host of famous landmarks, but do they let you buzz yourself or land a handsome aircraft replica close-by and then, with deft throttle, brake and rudder inputs, taxi the machine to your very toecaps for close inspection?
For the same inexplicable reason I rather enjoy reversing motor vehicles, I also find the hand-eye challenges of RC flight stimulating. After decades spent priestholed in virtual cockpits, the control of 1:1 scale sim steeds has become second nature. Not so, RC aircraft – machines that mess with your mind simply by responding logically and consistently to control inputs. Leaning a thumbstick to the left causes an outbound aerodyne to bank to your left, but – naturally – sends an inbound one to your right. If you’ve never had to deal with mind games like these, or have only done so periodically, your first few hours will probably resemble one of those YouTube RC crash compilations.
How important ARC8’s fabulous fixed-perspective photo sceneries are to its allure can, perhaps, be judged by the fact that I rarely use the alternatives – game-style 3D environments like the ones pictured above and here, that permit chase and orbit cams, avatar movement, and time of day manipulation. Thanks to repetitive texturing and primitive tree and structure models, the latter often look dated.
In contrast, the ingenious, photo-draped locales – some of which come with more than one selectable vantage point – can be breathtaking.
Enhanced with appropriate ambients sounds (As, out of the box, the sim is weak in this area, I recommend sourcing your own) the various mountain tops, rural strips, and famous locations are, more often than not, perfect spots for stressing airframes and de-stressing noggins.
And because your rig isn’t busy rendering thousands of individual trees or myriad intricate shadows, low framerates, even on older systems, are never an issue.
The sim would, of course, be a chocolate teapot without credible aerodynamics. If the included aerodynes (64. 224 with add-ons) didn’t soar, stall, side-slip, crab, bounce and disintegrate in a manner reminiscent of the real thing there’d be little incentive to stick around.
The flight models aren’t just plausible, they are staggeringly varied. Beginners will want to seek out powered craft like the Beaver, Cub, Storch, and Pilatus PC-6 first. As you’d expect, these high-wingers are relatively stable and slow. Land them into a stiff breeze (wind direction, strength, and turbulence is, along with thermals, fully configurable) and they can, with a little practice, alight as daintily as doves.
Tally-Ho Corner readers won’t, I suspect, be able to resist the WW2 warbirds – the Spitfire, Corsair, Mustang, P-39, P-40, Flying Fortress, Bf 109 and Fw 190 – for long. Happily, most of these are pretty forgiving too. Something that can’t be said of the majority of choppers, jet fighters, and high-power, low-weight stunt monoplanes.
Able to dart about like coke-addled dragonflies and pull off manoeuvres that no man-carrying aircraft could ever hope to replicate, the sim’s gaudily painted, gnat-noisy aerobatic machines are the closest thing ARC8 has to a ‘high difficulty’ setting. Before taking on the twitchier flyables, I’ll probably make use of the handy in-game editing tools. Changing the mass or size of an entire model or individual component, takes but a few seconds, and can have a dramatic effect on handling characteristics.
While the price tag implies ARC8 is aimed at well-heeled hobbyists looking to fit in some practise when weather conditions or personal circumstances rule out the real thing, there’s not a sign of esotericism or elitism in the UI design or peripheral requirements. The sim supports RC transmitters, but a bog-standard gamepad works perfectly well as a controller. No function, slider, or GUI embellishment is more than a click away, loading times are SR-71-swift, and toggleables like the binocular view and visible flight paths serve as extremely helpful crutches for novices.
Yesterday I was delighted to discover that I didn’t need ARC8-equipped chums to get a taste of flying in company.
Because it’s possible to fly while recordings of earlier flights are playing, if you ever hanker for livelier skies or fancy trying a spot of formation flying, you can act as your own companion/wingman.
Improvements that would edge this irresistible aeronautical toybox a fraction closer to perfection? More ambient audio choices, a ‘robust landing gear’ tickbox for heavyhanded greenhorns, and a failure system akin to X-Plane’s wouldn’t go amiss*. I’d love to see IPACS experiment with a radically different pricing model too.
* Although better than nothing, the present ‘transmitter reliability’ slider is incapable of reproducing the kind of incurable engine failures and landing gear problems that bead the brows of real-world RC aircraft pilots.
The current Steam price – a wallet-hollowing £65 for the generously proportioned base game plus £32 apiece for the sizeable expansion packs – means it’s hard for reviewers like me to recommend ARC8 without looking like Marie Antoinette. More significantly, it may guarantee the sim never flourishes in the way it deserves to.
Breaking down the DLC into smaller, cheaper, themed packages would allow a user keen on, say, gliding and alpine venues, to acquire the additional content that interests them at a reasonable price. And a slimmer, more affordable base game would encourage understandably hesitant fence sitters to invest.
There’s no fundamental reason why the thoroughly bewitching Aerofly RC 8 couldn’t support a third-party freeware and commercial add-on scene as vibrant as Flight Simulator’s. Would I be willing to pay a few quid for a buzzard-sized remotely pilotable replica of a Hawker Hurricane, de Havilland Mosquito, Westland Lysander or Avro Lancaster? You bet I would, but there’s little chance of such temptations appearing unless IPACS grow their customer base by rethinking pricing.