Android Game Shootout: Air Traffic Control Games (lite) (and tips too!)

San Francisco air traffic control routes, from http://www.aviationexplorer.com/live_atc.htm
San Francisco air traffic control routes, from http://www.aviationexplorer.com/live_atc.htm

Introduction

Air Traffic Control games are not new, as they first appeared on the iPhone, one of the first smartphones with a full touchscreen. The game rules are simple... There are certain runways on the map, and multiple types of planes (each of which can only land on certain runways). Usually, they are jets, small planes, and helicopters. Land as many of them as you can without them crashing into each other, by drawing them a route from where they are to runway's landing end. That's it, really. The original on the iPhone is by Firemint. Who has cloned the game since, and what other features have they introduced? We round up five of the current games available on Android OS and see who comes out on top.

REVIEW PLATFORM: Motorola Droid running Android OS 2.1-update1 or Android OS 2.2.

NOTE: Only the free versions were tested here.

Air Control screenshot, all planes except heli (upper right) has been assigned routing to respective landings.
Air Control screenshot, all planes except heli (upper right) has been assigned routing to respective landings.

Air Control

Air Control offers the most responsive planes in the game, and the plane icons are small, but color-coded, so there are plenty of room to circle the planes. However, the game pumps up the difficulty by putting the runways not quite in the center, but usually off to one side. It also introduced a fourth class of plane: a "fast jet" as compared to a normal jet, in addition to the helicopter and the prop plane (Cessna). Fast jet and jet use the same runway, but fast jet is faster, so scheduling them becomes more of a challenge.

The game also has a "cargo mode" (later renamed "puzzle mode") where you have to schedule the planes that matches either plane type, or cargo type, in sequence. With two air fields available in the lite version, it can be quite challenging.

There is a beta version out that has a bit more graphical flair, such as moving clouds (nearly transparent) and slightly better background, but otherwise the game is identical to the regular version.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Title Screen
Title Screen
Sample gameplay, good background, not so good planes
Sample gameplay, good background, not so good planes

Air Traffic (demo)

Air Traffic (demo) is an auto-expiring demo (download new versions to extend expiring date) that essentially offers the same gameplay, but with slightly more polish. The game offers better explanation of difficulties, more realistic background (not quite as nice as Flight Director, but close).

The game did however, add some interesting twists. For example, on some maps, there's a mountain. Obviously, crashing a plane into a mountain is a BAD idea. On really advanced levels, a blimp may fly through your airspace. It is slow, and it is taking up space so you have to guide planes around it!

The actual gameplay is slightly disappointing. Somehow the planes are, again, not quite as responsive as those in Air Control, and they don't do smooth rotation, but rather rotation in chunks, so they don't fly as smoothly. And the path drawing is slightly lagging.

Rating: 7 out of 10

The author seems to be responsive about new features, such as skip levels, fast forward, and so on.

Air Traffic Control (lite), almost same as all the other games, except for "night" level
Air Traffic Control (lite), almost same as all the other games, except for "night" level

Air Traffic Control (lite)

Air Traffic Control Lite is very much like Flying Ace. The whole thing looks very cartoonish.

The jets comes in different sizes, but the planes don't respond quite right. They don't turn smoothly, and the path drawing is slower and less responsive than other similar games. They also look bit bigger than they have to be.

Overall, it is just an average air traffic control game that has no distinguishing features.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10.

Flight Director screenshot, note the two helis (green circles) heading to the helipads, and that runway in the middle of the ocean to the left.
Flight Director screenshot, note the two helis (green circles) heading to the helipads, and that runway in the middle of the ocean to the left.

Flight Director

Flight Director (lite) is the first air traffic control game that is based on Google Earth satellite images, at least they claim so. The runways seem to be at real locations... except some of them are out in the middle of the ocean. The planes are bigger, and based on real planes, apparently all military, though the small planes appear much larger than they should.

In actual game play, this game is a little bit sluggish, not as crisp as Air Control, and since it is bitmap based, it can't color code the contacts, so it color codes the circle around the contacts instead. It works, but since the planes are bigger, the screen is more crowded. This makes it right in between Flying Aces and Air Control in terms of utility.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Flying Aces screenshot, note the "fat" planes, making the screen crowded
Flying Aces screenshot, note the "fat" planes, making the screen crowded

Flying Aces

Flying Aces is first off the block for the Android phones, and was originally a paid app. However, it had since received a Cease and Desist letter from Firemint, the original maker, for cloning their game a bit too close. So the game is now free.

As you can see from the screenshot, the game is a bit comical, but the mechanics are the same. In practice, the planes are not quite as responsive to controls as the other games. They seem to want to do a loop before following your directions. Despite it using the whole screen, there doesn't seem to be enough room for the planes, as the planes are, well... big.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Flight Control (PAID only)

Flight Control is the original air traffic control game from Firemint, and NAMCO, the coin-op giant, is the publisher of the Android version. The game was given away free on Amazon Android App Market the other day, so I snapped up a copy. 

This game started the whole genre: send the different planes to their runways without having them run into each other. With 5 different airports to try your hands at managing, it can be quite challenging. Furthermore, there are a series of "achievements" you can unlock, like "land 200 planes", "land 3 planes at the same time", and so on. 

In the hardest airports (jungle, and snow) special challenges are introduced. In "jungle", you get the occasional "emergency flights", which are just NOT under your control. They will just head straight in to land, You can't control them. All you can do is direct planes away from their path. In Snow, you get 2 sets of runways, and depending on wind direction, one set of runways may be closed (and the other open) complicating your landing queue. Fortunately, a plane can still land on a closed runway... As long as it was already queued there. You simply cannot ADD a plane to the queue if the runway is closed. 

The planes are small but decently animated, The controls are a big lagging. I still say that Air Control is the smoothest. 

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Link to Flight Control on Appbrain  (Cost $2.99)

Conclusion

Air Control is the winner of this bunch, as it has the most responsive planes and smoothest flight path drawing. The lack of graphical flair is not a drawback in this case, as it actually helps the gameplay by keeping out the distractions. With cargo mode, this game can last a while.

A good alternative is Air Traffic. While not flying or guiding as smooth as Air Control, the additional complications, such as mountain, or blimp at higher difficulties are welcome additions, and the better background almost makes up for not-quite-as-good controls.

The rest are too much alike and adds little to the genre.

Some tips on playing these games

Here are some tips to share when playing these games

1) As the real traffic control chart in the title shows, plan out the entry routes to each runway

2) Keep all planes (and helis) from the edge of the map. You don't want someone to "crash" your pattern

3) Try not to cross the approach lanes, unless you are sure they have been "de-conflicted".

4) Segregate the incoming traffic by type ASAP, and route each to the "holding zone" or runway

5) Land each plane as fast as possible, you need the airspace clear for new entries

6) These planes turn very sharply, unlike real planes exploit that... Give them "reverse and land" instructions if necessary (i.e. fly them the opposite way down to the end of runway, then immediately make a 180 turn and land)

7) Be flexible. When a fast-mover comes in you may want to route away the slow-pokes to let the fast-mover land first, then route in the slow ones, unless you think you can squeeze in the slow-poke first.

Enjoy playing games on your Android phone.

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