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Review: Flight Control HD for Mac

Firemint's Flight Control has long been one of my favorite iPhone games; it was one of the first apps I bought. When I first heard the game was being ported to the Mac, I wondered how well the game's control scheme would work. Flight Control's gameplay seemed tailor-made for the touchscreens on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, and I wasn't sure the game would translate well to a more traditional point-and-click interface.

Flight Control HD for Mac came out on Steam last week, and since then, I've been putting the game through its paces. Many hundreds of crashed aircraft later, I can say that while the gameplay suffers a bit in translation to a non-touchscreen platform, overall the experience is still worth the US$4.99 asking price. Click "Read More" for the full review.

Graphics

Flight Control's graphics on the iOS platform have always been very simple-looking (in a good way), and that design sensibility has been transferred to the Mac. In fact, some of the levels look virtually identical to those on the iPhone and iPad, just with more detailed graphics. Naturally, with so little going on graphically, any modern Mac should be able to run Flight Control HD, and the game isn't pixelated even at 1920 x 1200 on a 17-inch MacBook Pro.


Flight Control on iPhone


Flight Control HD on Mac


There are subtle graphical touches not present on the iPhone version, like flashing runway lights on some levels, different planes on the second level compared to the iPhone, and so forth.

Levels

Flight Control HD on the Mac includes all the iPhone levels, which look weirdly blown-up on a Mac-sized screen. The effect isn't noticeably jarring on a 13-inch MacBook's screen, but on a 17-inch MacBook Pro screen it starts to get a little ridiculous. By contrast, the included levels from Flight Control HD for iPad look perfectly natural on the Mac, with one caveat: on larger, high-res screens, it can be hard to find those tiny planes. Thankfully, the levels ported from the iPad include an extra (almost Terminator-like) targeting reticle that zeroes in on planes in each others' danger zones.

The Steam-exclusive stunt level is my new favorite level, and one that I hope makes it to other platforms eventually. On this level you have the normal multiple-runway, multiple-aircraft gameplay, but you also have yellow stunt planes that can rack up bonuses by flying through gates. You can accumulate high scores pretty quickly on this level, but getting greedy with the stunt gates will net you a very early crash. The stunt gates add a lot of flavor to the game, and this level makes Flight Control HD for the Mac more than just a straightforward port of the iOS version.


This level is worth $4.99 by itself


Gameplay

The biggest question people have been asking about Flight Control HD for Mac is this: how does a game designed for a touchscreen interface work on the Mac? It works pretty well, actually, but overall it does feel like something's been lost in translation.

Flight Control HD on the Mac is a point-and-click game, with an onscreen mouse pointer substituting for the finger taps you'd use on the iPhone. The game highlights planes on mouseover with a dashed circle. Once highlighted, you have three control schemes at your disposal for guiding a plane to its appropriate runway:

1. Click and drag -- controls terribly, especially on newer "buttonless" glass trackpads
2. Shift + mouse drag -- hold the keyboard's Shift key and use the trackpad/mouse to trace a path
3. Tap to click -- works great on a newer glass trackpad, but it's terrible on older trackpads


Sadly, touching the Mac's screen does nothing except get it dirty
Does this control scheme handle well compared to the simple, intuitive finger gestures on the iOS version of Flight Control? It's hit or miss. The game is still fun, but part of Flight Control's appeal on iOS is the visceral control scheme -- your finger traces the path directly on screen. Playing the same game via a trackpad feels like trying to draw a picture on a piece of paper that's inside a box, with a camera showing you what you're drawing; there's a mental disconnect between what you're doing and what you're seeing, and after playing Flight Control on iOS for almost two years, that difference drove me nuts for the first couple hours of play.

I also found scrolling around on a trackpad, even the larger glass trackpad on a newer MacBook, to be far less responsive and precise than on a touchscreen, and my scores suffered accordingly. It seems Firemint had this in mind when they designed the gameplay, because there are some subtle "training wheels" in place to make the game slightly less difficult than it would be otherwise. On the Mac version, planes slow down slightly after setting off a proximity alarm (something I've never noticed in the iOS version), and the game is far more forgiving of the path you trace to the runway -- there's a point where the game engine seems to say, "Eh, good enough," and considers a flight path valid.

Even with these "training wheels" in place, I still wasn't able to play as well as I do on the iPhone. I've got decent high scores on the iPhone version of Flight Control, but on the Mac, I was lucky to get scores that were a third as high, and that's almost exclusively because of the control scheme. Levels with an aircraft carrier go from highly difficult on the iPhone version to pretty near impossible on the Mac port. I didn't even bother trying to play this game with my Mighty Mouse, because I had a feeling that after a few minutes I'd have ended up throwing the thing against the nearest wall.

Part of Flight Control's appeal on iOS is the ability to pick it up and play it any time, and that's something that also doesn't translate well to the Mac. Launching the Steam version of the game means waiting for Steam to launch, connect, download updates, then launch Flight Control; by the time all that's done, you could be well into playing the same game in iOS.

Verdict

Is Flight Control HD worth $4.99? Sure. It's a fun game, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it priced identically to the iPad version, particularly since it's got the Steam-exclusive stunt level. But the gameplay definitely takes some adjustment if you're used to the touchscreen controls on the iOS versions. If, like me, you find the control scheme is your worst enemy, you might want to stick with the iOS version.

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