Balsa Model Flight Simulator: First Impressions
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
As part of the Steam Game Festival: Summer Edition event going on right now, tons of upcoming games have released demos so that people can check them out. I happened to stumble upon Balsa Model Flight Simulator and decided to see how it played.
So what is Balsa Model Flight Simulator?
From the game's Steam page: "Balsa is a detailed Model Flight Simulator with a powerful editor where you can design, build, fly, and battle with model aircraft. Developed by the creator of Kerbal Space Program, Balsa is a virtual flight experience like no other."
So, think Kerbal Space Program, but instead of building your very own aerospace vehicles, you are building and flying your very own model RC planes.
The workshop is where you go to build your plane. I have not played Kerbal Space Program, but I have played SimplePlanes, and the building mechanics are similar. You have a library of parts organized by categories like fuselages, cockpits, engines, etc. and they’re drag and drop. “Nodes” on the parts automatically align with each other so they can snap on easily, and various options for symmetry and angle snapping are also available at the top of the screen to make your life easier. Positional fine-tuning is also available with the offset and rotate tools. And once everything is finished, you can paint your plane with a variety of solid colors.
There are only a limited amount of parts available in the demo version, but parts like some fuselages and wings are customizable, so you can adjust the parameters for these by right-clicking them. However, the parameters are displayed as percentage values from a scale of 0 to 100 so the amount that you can modify them is pretty limited. Additionally, it makes it difficult to determine or specify certain design parameters, so if you want a specific wing sweep or span, you can only really do it by moving the camera around and checking to see if it looks right with relation to the rest of the plane. This would be problematic if you were recreating a real aircraft since there are no rulers or protractors to check if the dimensions are correct. Personally, I think they should have a system where you can input exact values instead of using percent values. It’s a little hard to see here, but I had to use two wing sections to create what I needed, and lining them up was pretty tedious.
To enable powered flight, you have to select a motor, propeller, and a battery. Placing these items inside the plane is enabled by toggling the internal view switch. Having built a few RC planes in the past, I knew the importance of placing components in the right place so that the center of mass (CoM) was forward of the center of lift so that the plane has positive stability. The workshop actually has three tools that show you the CoM, center of thrust, and pitch stability. Since there is no indicator for center of lift, the CoM tool isn’t all that helpful, but the pitch stability tool is really nice once you understand how to use it. This tool shows up as a curved ruler in front of the plane and shows the restorative forces at different angles of attack, and you can check how these forces change with speed as well. Generally, you want there to be a blue profile on the forward part of the ruler that curves gradually towards the middle. This will give you a stable airplane, and I used this to fine-tune the position of my wings, control surfaces, and internals. This is a great tool, and I hope they add more things like this for the roll and yaw as well.
Overall, it’s a solid builder with some quirks here and there. Sometimes I would have trouble moving parts exactly where I wanted them to go, but the offset and rotate tools solved those issues. There were some occasions where my mouse and buttons stopped working and I couldn’t manipulate anything, but leaving the workshop and coming back solved those. Since the game is in early access, it’s understandable for bugs to exist, and I expect these to be fixed when the game actually releases. Some features that I would love to see added are values for engine power and weight of parts/whole aircraft since there is no way to determine the power to weight ratio at the moment other than flying and seeing how it performs.
Flight Model and Physics
Once you have a plane built, or you just want to test how it flies, you can hit the green “Go!” button. You have to manually turn on the engine, pick up the plane, and throw it by increasing throttle and releasing. However, the default control scheme has you using the A/D buttons as yaw and Q/E buttons for roll, which was counter intuitive for me, so I had to change the bindings in the settings.
While we’re on the topic of controls, the game seems to support most controllers with Xinput. There was an option to bind controls to an Xbox controller, and I tested out my Thrustmaster T.16000 joystick with no problems. I have also been told that other people that have RC transmitters with USB connections used those to control their planes, so that’s pretty neat as well. For controlling the plane, you get the option of a third-person chase view with the option to move the camera around, or a first-person view from the ground with the transmitter in your hands.
The flight model seems to be very much a work in progress. Pitch behavior seems to be fine, but the plane behaves weirdly in the roll and yaw directions in my experience. The planes I created were low-wing monoplanes, so naturally I gave them dihedral so that the plane would roll back to a neutral state automatically. In Balsa however, if I roll 10 degrees, the plane remains glued at 10 degrees until I roll the plane manually. On the other hand, giving any yaw input resulted in the plane shaking side to side and yawing a tiny bit while rolling in that direction. It was almost like the plane had a rubber band tied down its length, and would resist moving in the direction you wanted it to go. The Steam page for the game boasts a “physics-based flight model,” so I really hope they fix these in the final game.
One thing that seems to be working realistically is the damage model. Clipping or crashing into the buildings/the ground will result in the propeller snapping off, control surfaces flying off, etc. Hit things hard enough and your entire fuselage might break apart! Fortunately, you can easily recover the plane and try again, or go back into the workshop to make changes. However, crashing too hard causes some bugs like your wreckage bouncing up and down uncontrollably or going under the map. Again, they are likely working on fixing these bugs and I hope the physics engine is modified so that the plane performs more realistically.
Balsa Model Flight Simulator has a lot of things to work on, but I believe it has great potential. Even as an early access demo with some bugs and graphical issues, there are solid mechanics for building and testing planes, and I can’t wait to see the other features listed on their site such as modding support, a single-player career mode, and online paintball dogfights, just to name a few. I definitely will be keeping an eye on this, and since it will be coming to Steam Early Access sometime this summer, I recommend checking out their demo while you still can during the Steam Game Festival.
Check out their Steam page here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/977920/Balsa_Model_Flight_Simulator/