X-Plane 12 early access review

Laminar Research have unleashed the latest version of X-Plane into the public spotlight. Sporting new features, enhancements from the previous version, and a relatively substantial overhaul of some of the core features, X-Plane 12 brings a lot to the table. But is it everything that we hoped for? That might depend on what features are most important. Let’s dig into the latest X-Plane and put down some first impressions.

Early access

Every single word of this early access review is written with the understanding that X-Plane 12 is in an early access state. A lot can change during the early access period and I have confidence that we’ll see a lot of the rough edges smoothed out. Visual glitches, crashes, bugs, and general improvements are all likely to see tweaks and improvements.

I’ve seen some suggest that we can’t adequately critique X-Plane 12 at this stage because its in early access. I fundamentally disagree. This first public release is out and that means that we should and will evaluate it for what it is right at this point.

Critiquing features now also doesn’t mean that things won’t change in the future. None of the features shipping at this point with X-Plane 12 are necessarily final, if there is such a thing in flight sims, and so a future review when the title emerges from early access will undoubtedly happen and it will focus on what’s happened between now and that point.

What has changed between 11 and 12?

The biggest changes to X-Plane start with a relatively substantial under the hood makeover of the core technologies. That process started with X-Plane 11 and the 11.50 release which introduced Vulkan for graphics rendering. That update was transformative and also a necessary stepping stone to what came next and with 12 we’re beginning to really see the payoff.

X-Plane 12 takes it deeper with revised rendering for lights, the environment, shadows, the sky and clouds. The clouds make the jump from very primitive billboard style visual effects to a now common, industry standard, volumetric ray marched effect. X-Plane has finally offloaded a lot of things that were being done on the CPU and moved them over to the GPU which should improve performance while letting the team do more with just about everything.

There’s a whole new tree rendering system and a new season rendering system. Its not just winter white, summer green, but there’s a whole range of experiences in between which is nice to see. We also have plenty of new weather effects like raindrops on the windshields – which we kind of had before but that didn’t work under Vulkan in 11.50.

There’s also a whole new weather system which pulls in METAR and overall weather system data to render something more realistic to the world. No more jumping between weather states like we had with X-Plane 11. It can’t be understated how much more sophisticated this system is over the last one with its live weather modeling interacting with X-Plane’s already great flight modeling.

In many ways, X-Plane 12 is playing a game of catch-up with the other sims, while in other ways its attempting to keep its lead in the realm of flight modeling and physics.

Impressive aircraft

As is typical of X-Plane, the series brings with it several aircraft from the previous iterations of X-Plane and combines them together with several new ones. There is a reasonably good mix of options here including the Airbus A330 in the airliner category, the Cessna Citation X in the business jet class, Cirrus SR22, Vans RV-10 and Lancair Evolution give us some interesting GA aircraft, and the R-22 is the new helicopter for the series. X-Plane 12 also comes with an F-14 as a military aircraft. I intend to look at both the F-14 and the F-4 separately at some point.

These aircraft set a high bar for default aircraft in most cases as they more or less come fully featured with great sound sets, relatively high-quality systems, and consistently good models and textures. None of them have advanced features like persistent wear modeling, an EFB or other extras but as far as default aircraft go they are really good.

The A330 is worth talking about because by-and-large the way this seems like a decent default airliner. The modeling of systems and the flight model seems to have impressed some real world Airbus pilots although it obviously has some simplifications as its not quite a full fidelity model.

It currently lacks an Airbus MCDU and instead currently has a Boeing style FMC (no doubt pulled from the 737-800). Laminar have announced that they are planning to introduce the appropriate MCDU during the early access period so that’s good. Although airliners are not my focus, I suspect for many average airliner flyers that the new A330 might be satisfying enough to enjoy for quite a while. There’s also the prospect that this default aircraft will get the Zibo treatment where a community group enhance its systems to near “study level.”

As for me, I love the SR22 and the Super Cub for different reasons. The SR22 is a great touring aircraft like the Super Cub is a very fun bushplane.

Need we talk flight model?

It’s not an understatement to suggest that Laminar is still at the top of their game when it comes to flight modeling and physics. Their much touted “blade element theory” which takes slices of the aircraft and models all of the physical attributes interacting with it has been a highly successful system and X-Plane 12 further tweaks it – for the better!

This has the benefit of offering the best physics yet while making older aircraft from X-Plane 11 and 10 requiring substantial updates to work properly. But the result is a very fluid feel to all of the airplanes. That feel translates well to ground handling as well which is excellent. Icy and water covered runways now have both visual and physical impacts which is great to see (and feel).

Although its blasphemous to suggest to some, I do think that X-Plane 12 faces stiffer headwinds here than the series has previously. Other sims like DCS World, IL-2 Great Battles and Microsoft Flight Simulator have all continued to up their game. We’ve never been so lucky to have so many accurate representations of airplanes to fly on our home PCs.

Bottom line? X-Plane aircraft taxi, takeoff, fly and land and feel very real while they are doing it. X-Plane was always good at this and its still exceptionally good at it.

Improved graphics

X-Plane 12 comes with some good and some bad points with its visual update.

First, the lighting upgrade offers a substantial improvement in the overall look of the sim. The physics-based calculations on the sky is alone a massive improvement. There’s also a scientific approach to the way that they have modeled lights by taking physical light properties and simulating those in the sim instead of using internal properties. The result is physics-based lighting and it looks really good!

As physics based as this all is, there are undoubtedly some abstractions at play and there’s always room for improvement. Lighting is definitely better but sometimes it feels like its just not bright enough. Even a bright sunny day can look a little dull and it still sometimes feels a little washed out and under saturated for my taste. Nonetheless, this is a much better looking sim because of its lighting work and the light from buildings and aircraft is looking superb.

Shadows, while improved, remain a weak spot for the series unfortunately. There are still jagged edges visible at times which remains an annoyance. Fortunately, shadows cast by clouds are much better than before.

The clouds are a marked improvement over what was there before but then almost any update would have been an improvement. X-Plane 11’s billboard style bitmap clouds are consigned to the history bin and new volumetric ray marched cloud system together with a much improved weather system have replaced it. The results are a much better experience with towering clouds and small puffy clouds alike with no harsh updates that result in a totally different sky. Some users, myself included, are seeing blurry clouds despite having the setting on ultra so there’s obviously some work to do there.

There also appears to be quite the performance hit. In some weather conditions, clouds can cut my frame rate by half. These performance hits appear to be the exception rather than norm as X-Plane 12 on my admittedly high end system appears to run better than X-Plane 12 before it.

Trees, as previously mentioned, are vastly better than anything previous as are the seasonal variations. Runway textures are also dramatically better. There are now visual effects for wet and dry conditions which look pretty good most of the time and are both visual and physics-based meaning that a icy runway visually is also an icy runway for the physics system. Rain and rain drops are good looking too and are now baked into the system rather than needing a third party plugin (Librain) to work.

Let’s talk terrain

I’ve so far avoided the elephant in the room and that’s what X-Plane 12’s terrain rendering can do. It is unfortunately not much different from X-Plane 11 at the present time.

The improvements are focused on the trees and autogen which are higher detail and far better than before. Airport models including vehicles, ground textures, and more are also very good and many airports both small and large look really good. There are also improvements with the water rendering being vastly better than before. 3D waves, attached to the physics model no less, and the transition between water and land is better too. The lighting system helps out too highlighting the terrain in a generally better way than we’ve seen in the past from default X-Plane.

Unfortunately there’s a lot that has not changed. Hard edges of the land when it meets the water, the seemingly low-quality digital elevation data, and sometimes jagged appearance of the roads remain a let down. Land textures are essentially the same as before as well offering blurry and often very uninspired visuals. I’ve also noticed textures stay very blurry at a distance despite cranking the settings to the maximum – presumably this is the Vulkan API dialing back the imagery to maintain VRAM.

Although I had no illusions about Laminar Research being able to secure the kind of ortho driven world that MSFS is able to do, I had hoped to see them leverage not only better autogen but also vastly better textures and better road and terrain data to improve the look.

The sim may continue to rely on third party efforts such as Orbx and their excellent TrueEarth series to provide the kind of scenery that many of us love to see and I’m waiting anxiously for official support to come there. Generating your own ortho is of course an option but I have to admit that having effortless good to excellent scenery worldwide has me spoiled.

Its unclear what Laminar plan to do for the future in this space. Scenery was among X-Plane 11’s weakest elements and in 2022 it appears well behind the times. There are hints that they may be using procedural systems to provide better textures and scenery and we see hints of this in the grass textures surrounding airports. Also in an oddly specific implementation, the visuals for golf courses also appear to use some sort of procedural system to boost their look.

Expand those procedurally generated elements to other areas and we could see X-Plane 12 do something very unique with its scenery. I hope to see this area improve but I don’t know what the plan is.

Sounds

I mentioned earlier that X-Plane 12’s aircraft had great sounds and this is absolutely the case. Every aircraft appears to have a brilliantly matched soundset that matches what’s going on in and out of the cockpit.

Default aircraft also borrow a little something from Aerobask, one of my favourite aircraft makers, in that they have wind effects for propellers when you move the camera around the outside of the airplane. It’s not a surprise ass they share the same audio engineer and I’m glad to see Laminar take sound seriously for this update. It’s a major improvement.

There are also subtle environmental sounds out in the world which is a massive improvement to the fidelity of the sim. It makes the sometimes slightly sterile and generic world of X-Plane come a little more alive and that’s a good thing. More of these would help.

UI, ATC and multiplayer

For the moment, there’s nothing new in the flight planning area. The GUI is a clean implementation of the already good system that we saw with X-Plane 11 but there’s nothing else new here at the moment. I feel quite spoiled by the accessibility of the Microsoft Flight Simulator planner that makes setting up simple VFR and IFR flights easy. There’s no world map that you can go explore either. It’s very much based around the idea that you already know the airport that you want and will spawn at. It’s serviceable, functional, and fine… but it doesn’t move the needle.

Laminar did tout some major improvements to their ATC. I’m not knowledgeable enough to fully verify how accurate the procedures are but I am very pleased to see the interface getting an overhaul. Its now much easier to interact with the ATC and tune radio frequencies. The GUI even gives you a recommendation on which channel you should be on. I appreciate this element of accessibility to experts and newbies alike.

There have been comments from Laminar that we might yet see a built-in flight planning system which I really hope we do see. At the moment, there isn’t a built in system to create or modify flight plans outside of the systems in the cockpit. I would appreciate one as I’ve been spoiled by the simple yet useful system offered in its competitor.

Multiplayer remains essentially non-existent. There are third party ways to make it work such as VATSIM but it doesn’t have the kind of plug and play experience that we get with Microsoft Flight Simulator. There’s also no default world traffic system so the default X-Plane experience is kind of void of other activity. Sure you can add AI airplanes like in 11 but those incur a performance hit.

Laminar does have a working massively multiplayer experience in their mobile version but haven’t yet offered it on the full version of their sim. I hope to see that come to 12 eventually.

Final thoughts

I have mixed feelings about X-Plane 12 in its current early access state. It’s clearly an improvement in a whole host of ways but it also falls short of my expectations in others.

X-Plane 12 makes some steps forward with better flight models, far better sounds for its default aircraft, sounds for the environment, better autogen, better graphical effects for runways and weather, and a vastly improved ATC GUI. The default aircraft are also really good. They don’t match some of the high end offerings from third party developers but they are solid experiences that no longer feel lacking. When you boil it down, X-Plane 12 continues to be strong in the places that X-Plane 11 was already strong and then it adds some to that.

At the moment, X-Plane 12 hasn’t made any moves forward in the areas of multiplayer, built-in flight planning, or the overall scenery. Scenery is the area where I feel like this sim hasn’t moved the needle nearly enough. I didn’t expect them to be able to match Microsoft but I also had hopes that they would improve over the X-Plane 11 level as well.

X-Plane 12 fulfills the promise of being a better X-Plane but for the moment it makes very few moves to expand beyond that. This is a careful evolution of the X-Plane series but it leaves me wanting a bit more.

Is the early access buy-in worth it at this stage? If you’re a die-hard X-Plane fan and you love the default airplanes that were already on offer, X-Plane 12 takes the previous experience and makes it so much better. If you want to load up all of your plugins and favourite third party airplanes, you may want to wait until more of that becomes officially supported. As critical as I am of the current state of 12, I remain very optimistic that it will move forward and get better.

Screenshots

12 Comments Add yours

  1. CanadaOne says:

    (I read most of that.)

    I think in the end it’s an Apple vs. Windows thing. People who are stuck on Apple will stay with Apple and so on. I would think only the hard core of hard core civvy flightsimmers would get both X-Plane 12 and MSFS.

    Even if for some strange reason I felt I needed/wanted X-Plane 12, I can’t imagine ever spending a dollar on an add-on. Between DCS and MSFS, I have no flightsim dollars left.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      Yes, you’re absolutely right. This is Windows vs Apple, Coke vs Pepsi. We have some different flavours and people can choose which one they like better.

      There are quite a few sims out there to spend dollars on too. You have to spend wisely!

      Like

  2. kris says:

    I’m a magenta sim pilot doing solid takeoffs and driving my Fenix A320 90% on autopilot in a monkey style, clicking buttons, rotating knobs and ending my A->B flight with a firm landing. So I don’t care about claimed superiority of XP flight model over other flight sims during stalls and other strange flight states. I loved to fly XP11 but new visual standard of MSFS forced me not to look back and IMO XP12 is still the past that I don’t want to be part of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      That’s very fair kris! My airliner flying is still in its infancy but I too have been a magenta sim pilot whenever I have taken an airliner up.

      It’s great that both sims are offering good experiences in this area and everyone has to find the sim that does it for them. I am intending to do some more MSFS airliner flying soon!

      Like

  3. Urgent Siesta says:

    Well said and agreed across the board!

    It’s somewhat of a loaded statement, but let’s think about what we’d be saying about v12 if MSFS hadn’t come along. We’d all be singing it’s praises, etc.

    But…MSFS is a thing – and it’s now the 800lb Gorilla of flight sim.

    I’m digging XP v12. All the sim improvements plus the Default Beech Baron with SimCoders REP is one of the best GA flight sim experiences I’ve ever had. And the Default F-14 Tomcat is among the very best high-performance military aircraft in any sim outside DCS World – at any price, let alone free.

    Here’s the real existential threats though:

    1. the value prop of a relatively static XP feature/content set over the next 5 years is simply no match for the major World Update content packages coming every other month in MSFS (not even to mention the amazing content set coming in 40th Anniv edition).

    2. MSFS is already good enough that there’s simply no reason to choose XP for airliner flights. Fenix, PMDG, et al combined with MSFS world sim is something XP just can’t match.

    3. MSFS’ CFD flight model, though limited to just a couple addons at the moment, is actually quite good. And actually mostly gets rid of the “on rails” feeling of many/most MSFS addons. Once it becomes the De Facto flight model, it’s going to kick the legs out from under XP’s claim to fame (at least for most consumers).

    I’m happy I gave Laminar Research another $60 for v12. Money well spent and definitely a worthwhile upgrade over v11, even for a Beta/Early Access product. And I’m sure I’ll keep flying XP for a good while.

    But when v13 comes along in 5 years, will I still feel the same way?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      Completely agree. MSFS changes the conversation completely and while X-Plane retains an edge in some spaces that lead is narrowing relatively quickly.

      I’m still very happy to have bought into it as well. I’m excited to see some of my old add-ons and some new add-ons come to this sim but it will be probably taking a back seat to my MSFS experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Franz says:

    Its worth watching Austin in this video. think you have to manage your expectations. ground textures will improve but not in 12.0 release. if they get weather and clouds right its huge.

    https://forums.x-plane.org/index.php?/forums/topic/273889-developer-spotlight-austin-meyer-the-creator-of-x-plane/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      Thanks Franz! I saw the interview had come out but hadn’t had a chance to watch.

      New terrain textures would be great!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jer Stryker says:

    Before MSFS I would have paid 60 bucks just for those clouds.

    I think it’s worth noting that many 3rd party add-ons to improve sky, clouds, and trees for XP11 would typically total up to more than the entire price of XP12, and not do nearly as good of a job. It’s an interesting perspective, but I don’t think that’s the sort of thing that marketing would put on the box!

    For scenery I can keep using ortho because I’m only flying airliners on XP at this point (MSFS is just too much better for low and slow). However I foresee using XP less and less and MSFS more and more in the future. I still have quite a few high fidelity airliners in XP that don’t exist in any way in MSFS (727, 737-200, 747-200 to name a few) and once they are all compatible with XP12 I intend to make the switch, but if any airliner is available on either platform in equal detail, I’ll choose the MSFS version.

    My opinion as a professional pilot is that no PC based flight sim’s flight model can accurately portray the real feeling, so sights and sounds are just as important for realism. I’ve never felt closer to real flying than the first time I took the MSFS Cessna 152 around the traffic pattern at my local airport.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      Thanks for weighing in! I agree completely and adding your real world experience to this really helps sell the idea to me that the visual should not be overlooked when we talk about achieving the feeling of flying.

      Like

  6. Malte says:

    What most people don’t know is that XP 12 clouds look only good FROM THE GROUND. At cruise FL, a horrible flickering in the distant clouds is there during the whole flight. Also, clouds at dusk have horrible clipping problems. I have bought XP 12 and it has potential, but the clouds are definitely horrible at this time. Also, the actual depiction of the clouds looks awful in many situations (glaciers, pop corn like structures).
    I was never a big fan of MSFS but I have to admit, with PMDG and Fenix AND the weather AND the scenery, it is getting hard for XP. Although I love the flight phyiscs.
    I hope that LR will fix the clouds, if not I am off to MSFS.

    Like

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      I’ve observed the same and you can see some of the troublesome imagery and odd looking shapes in some of my screenshots (with the Citation X in particular).

      I’m glad to see the technology is here but the implementation is still rough around the edges. I hope we’ll see some big updates here.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s