Well, you sure can with the ATC Suite from indie developer FeelThere. Comprising three modules – a Tower Controller (Tower! 2011), a TRACON Controller (Tracon! 2012), and an Air Traffic Control Center Controller (ATCC 201x) simulation, the ATC Suite looks like its gearing up to be one powerful package that is targeted at serious gaming enthusiasts or aspiring Air Traffic Controllers.
As of this writing, only the first two modules have been released, with everyone eagerly awaiting the arrival of the ATCC module. This review focuses entirely on the Tower! 2011 module.
What you get
Before we begin, you will be glad to know there is no need to pass any FAA tests to try your hands at being a tower controller. There is however just one little catch – you have to flip through an 88 page PDF manual since there are no tutorials in the game. Luckily the game play principles are not too overly complicated and cover the first two-thirds of the manual. The remaining 30+ pages are actually dedicated to creating user content.
Game play in Tower! 2011 mostly involves selecting aircraft and issuing commands to them; you have several ways of accomplishing this – by speech, selecting with a mouse and issuing keyboard commands, or selecting with a mouse and issuing commands through hotkeys. Your ultimate goal is to guide all aircraft for safe landing at and takeoff from your starting airport.
The game comes with three airports available for play – the Cyril E. King Airport (in St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands), the Miami International Airport, and the Los Angeles International Airport. The manual advises that you start off your training at the Cyril E. King Airport, a small-sized aerodrome with a single runway. You can adjust arrival and departure density before embarking on a play session, as well as tweak your starting time and the weather. There are only two options for the weather category – clear and cloudy; with the latter setting, a pall of clouds will blanket your aerodrome, which does complicate matters quite a bit.
You must pick at least one tower before you can commence your game session; you can always pick all runway towers but your stress levels will rise exponentially. When the main game has finished loading, you are presented with a top-down 2D view of the aerodrome. Depending on the starting time, you may either have a day view or (a really gorgeous) night view of the aerodrome. You can pan around the airport with your mouse and zooming is allowed if you want to see the aircraft close up on the runway, taxiway, or terminals.
There are four additional windows that float above the Airport View – they are: Strip screen, DBRITE Air Radar screen, ADIRS Ground Radar screen, and Command screen. Each window can be minimized to a size of a small bar if you wish to see more of the Airport View.
Like the pieces of paper used to track aircraft in air traffic control, the Strip Screen represents your “to do” list. This list is divided into arrival and departures, and if you are starting out we recommend you set either your Arrival or Departure Density to the minimum. The two Radar screens show the air situation and ground situation pictures for your airport; you will need to constantly refer to them to maintain your situational awareness.
The Command Screen is your main interface to the game. To issue an instruction, you must first select an aircraft from the Radar or Strip screens. Next, you either speak commands into a microphone or type them out as commands. If you dread typing, you can also use hotkey combos to execute commands.
The most surprising feature in Tower! 2011 is that is allows you to speak and command aircraft like a real-life Tower Controller. To get this to work, you must install Microsoft Speech SDK before play. This is a lengthy process that includes a lengthy training session to ensure your computer learns your English speech patterns. To illustrate, here are three commands: “XX CLEARED TO LAND”, “REPORT POSITION”, and “TAXI TO RUNWAY XX”. Wherever there is an XX, you are expected to call out an aircraft via an assigned callsign and ICAO phonic pronunciation codes. Therefore instead of identifying an aircraft FRT1612 as “eff-arr-tee sixteen hundred and twelve”, you would call out “FIELD AIR One Six One Two”.
If you think being a pilot is stressful, wait till you see what you have to contend with in Tower! 2011 as a air traffic controller. The game rewards you only 10 points each for a safe take-off and landing, and from 500 to 3000 points for each subsequent accident free hours. It however penalizes you from 100 to 500 points for transgressions like separation error (that is, a proximity alert raised for when two aircraft are too close to each other), and a whopping 1000 point penalty for a collision between two aircraft.
Besides the main game, you will also find two editors provided with Tower! 2011. The Aircraft Editor allows you to edit your own aircraft – adjust the sprite used, position aircraft lighting, and change aircraft characteristics. The more challenging and fulfilling editor however is the Airfield Editor. With this, you can create your very own airfield in your home town using Google Map as a handy resource. Don’t forget to add roads for simulated vehicular traffic – they look really cool to look at in the Airport View!
You may think that the content for Tower! 2011 (which consists of only three airports) is quite paltry, but trust us when we say that it will take you quite some time to master each of them. Alternatively, you can head over to FeelThere.com and purchase more aerodromes. Currently, the following add-ons are available: Las Vegas International Airport, JFK New York International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, Boston Logan International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and the Philadelphia International Airport – now, that’s a lot of air traffic controlling to do.
The other option is to consider getting the multiplayer edition of Tower! 2011 and to play cooperatively with a friend. The host gets to be the Tower Controller, while the client takes on the role of the Ground Controller. You might also be interested in the Real Air Traffic add-on which replaces all fantasy airlines and callsigns with their real-life counterparts.
There is no better to way to end a review than to concur with what the developers have said in their manual: If you give yourself the opportunity, this simulation will become one of the most anxiety inducing, hair raising and perspiration inspiring “games” that you have ever enjoyed!
Tower! 2011 has shown us that air traffic controlling can be a real challenging task for the uninitiated. It is definitely a good niche simulation that will require time and effort on your part, but for some unexplainable reason – it can get quite addicting as you start getting the hang of directing traffic in the air and on the ground. Best yet though, Tower! 2011 is but one-third of an entire suite that covers the entire spectrum of air traffic control.
If you are intrigued by the game or (better still) an Air Traffic Controller, why not log in and drop us your comments about the game.