Air-traffic control is not a 'glamour' job, just necessary and highly taxing. Controllers are not only responsible for the safety of billions of dollars of aircraft, but the lives of thousands, every single working day.
Tower FRA is a simulation, neatly segmented into four chunks, of air-traffic control in Germany. You take on the role of a controller in charge of either the Radar, Departure, Arrival or Tower Duties. It's essential that each job be carried out correctly and quickly, if the planes are to make it in one piece.
It's a screen!
Your tools are a radar screen, a flight list and tracking computer. As planes approach they must be identified and guided via mouse commands. The duties vary depending on which part of the sim you're in.
The difficulty level and airport stress the same skills throughout; knowing what to do next, knowing how to do it and doing it in time. The job appears easy on 'Holiday' level (where you begin) but gets tough when you take on bigger airports, with more runways, traffic and emergencies.
Tower FRA is a sim and it accurately reflects the job. It's rarely exciting, but it's always demanding. Each level is timed and the more experienced your controller becomes (successes are saved to disk) the longer each portion of the sim lasts. The palms get sweaty as the clock ticks through the last few seconds of a section, especially if you've made no mistakes.
Functional not sexy
The screen design for a tower game cannot be sexy. Functional yes, but multi-layer scrolling parallax no! You sit in front of a large circular radar. The screen's larger than the monitor display and to see its extremities you roll the cursor to the edge, which causes the rest to flick into view. The visual display is composed purely of numbers and lines, which again isn't pretty, just accurate.
Acting out another job may not sound the sort of challenge you want to take on after a hard day doing one for real. With little scope for flashy effects to fire the imagination Tower FRA sounds terminally flawed in the interest stakes. However, it is curiously compulsive once the procedural hurdles have been overcome and you begin to climb the air control kudos level.
To be really effective though, the limited range of mechanical effects allowed by the nature of the simulation have to be spot on. Here, Tower FRA hits an unsettling effects air pocket. The speech which acknowledges each command is fragmented and grates on the ear. It's obvious what has been said, but the pilots have all taken the Robby the Robot elocution course; probably by post!
Flight 723 has been delayed...
Tower FRA's other main flaw, lies in the manual. Few of us know the intricacies of air control and the desire to find out is one of the major reasons to play. The manual though, is patchy and doesn't tell you what to do in each role clearly enough.
All the information is there, it's just damned hard to find quickly. Which is exactly what you need when an air disaster is imminent. The walk through intro, for example, happily burbles command jargon that is only explained much later in the manual. This isn't exactly what your fist time air-traffic controller needs and could be avoided with an comprehensive glossary (all found in one place) or at least an index.
Once the first few suspensions from duty - the penalty for messing up a mission - have been endured Tower FRA grows into a strong low-level control sim; that is complex enough to challenge but friendly enough to use. The voices still jar, but they can be tolerated. It's satisfying to have coped, even excelled, at the task especially after struggling with the manual.