The Airbus A321 is the larger brother of the A320 family and is established as a major competitor within the short to medium range category, having sold over 2000 units. The twin-engine narrow-body can typically carry up to 236 passengers over 3200nm. Thanks to the aircraft developer ToLiss, who also released the A319, the Airbus A321 is now available within the world of X-Plane. I have been using the aircraft since its release on the 28th of February of this year. I have tried to put the aircraft through its paces in different scenarios and routes around the world. If you were questioning whether you should purchase the aircraft for your sim, I hope to address some thoughts you might be asking yourself in this review. I have deliberately not commented or compared the A321 to the ToLiss Airbus A319 as I wanted to review the A321 in its own right. I do own the A319 as well as the A321 and I will be happy to answer any questions in the comments regarding either of the two aircraft.
The initial install is very smooth and once you placed the single file into your aircraft folder, the only step left to do is to activate the A321 using your key through the ToLiss Interactive Simulation Control System or ‘ISCS’ menu. You will be required to reload the aircraft before you are able to use it to its full functionality. You will find that the aircraft only ships with two Airbus Industries liveries but even from the release date, there has been a plethora of liveries available for free download from the X-Plane forum. From the aircraft selection page, you have access to both standard and high definition versions. I would say I have quite a modest hardware setup and even pushing my simulator I have seen good performance using the high definition version, but the standard definition would be useful if you find yourself struggling with FPS using the more detailed variant. The only differing factors between these two are the texture resolution with reference to cockpit textures and liveries. The detail in the model or the systems will remain the same regardless of the variant you choose.
If you haven’t flown an Airbus before, a great place to start is the manuals folder that comes with the A321. Here you can find three comprehensive manuals to help you get to grips with flying the aircraft. These include step by step instructions on how to complete your first flight, a simulation manual to tell you everything you need to know to get the aircraft setup in X-Plane the way you want it, and finally, a 56-page in-depth look inside the systems that are included in this Airbus A321. The quality of all these documents is of high detail and addresses a lot of information should you need any help in working the aircraft. Even if you are familiar with Airbuses and their systems, these manuals will almost definitely teach you something new.
Starting externally, the overall modelling has been completed to a good level of detail, however, there are areas that do lack finish. The external modelling is a good rendition of the aircraft with lots of features that really bring quality to the aircraft. The landing gear mechanical system is one of the highlights of the external model for me. On the main landing gear, you can see hydraulic cabling and pipework along with the braking system and sensors. Over on the nose gear, the same level of detail is apparent. Again, all the braking and hydraulic systems are implemented well, and the small piping is modelled to a high standard. Although there are still areas in which the landing gear could be improved, such as the wheel wells and some added detail to the support arms that hold the gear in place, the modelling for the landing gear is the strongest area for the external areas of the aircraft. Another strong area to the exterior modelling is the wing itself. With flaps full and spoilers deployed, the internal hydraulic arms and systems that power these control surfaces are visible and modelled. These aren’t complete to real-world standards but do add an element of detail I didn’t expect and a nice touch to the wing. Other strong points to mention regarding the external model would be that all the sensors, pitot tubes and antennas are modelled as on the real aircraft, the engine pylons that hold the engines to the wings are nicely detailed as is the vertical stabiliser and APU exhaust. Where the modelling really lacks detail is in the engines and the main fuselage. Both CFM and IAE engines have strengths and weaknesses that differ from each other. The CFM engine lacks detail when the reversers are fully engaged, as there seem to be lots of modelling and textures missing inside the engine. The IAE engine variant, on the other hand, has been modelled to a much greater level of detail. The CFM engine looks to be the correct size and shape but the IAE engine looks like the nacelles (the casing around the engine) is too thick and the overall shape is too square compared to real-life imagery.
Moving on to the fuselage of the Airbus A321, the modelling here leaves a lot to be desired. I have noticed that there seem to be a lot of missed areas when it comes to modelling the largest part of the aircraft. From looking head on down the fuselage, it appears jagged and angular. This would probably be down to the amount of ‘polygons’ used in the production. The higher the polygon number, the smoother, more rounded the aircraft shape. This is most evident in the area where the wing meets the fuselage and the cockpit. Typically, there is a trade-off for performance when the number of polygons increases so keeping the count low, helps the A321 sustain frames per second performance. I will revisit the performance later. I have found that there are significant gaps where different areas meet. For example, where the vertical stabiliser meets the fuselage, there is a large gap that runs along the bottom where the two surfaces meet. Other areas where significant gaps appear are along the wing where each of the wing segments meets and around the closed doors and is significantly more noticeable in lower light.
The A321 does include a well-made cabin that features lots of detail in the right areas and less detail in areas it isn’t needed, to keep performance high. This is a nice touch that adds to the realism of the aircraft.
The Flight deck is modelled extremely well across all aspects and this is just what you want as you will probably spend most of your time here. The front panels are well made and have lots of detail even in the standard definition variant. The A321 also has the Avitab built into the EFB tablet on the captain’s side, the ability to show and hide the tablet is in the ISCS for those who do not wish to use the EFB. Overall, the flight deck only gets better the closer you get to some items. The autopilot panel, pedestal, overhead and breaker switch panel is all completed to a very high quality and I really enjoy the immersion that the detail brings with it. My only negative to say regarding the flight deck would be that the armrests are rigid and can’t be moved out of the way. This does get a little frustrating when you want to change radio frequencies from your current view. I have found that binding a radio stack quick view button helps to access the panel quickly.
The flight model feels heavier than the small airbuses as you would expect, and the increased take-off and landing speeds certainly take some getting used to. Because the aircraft is much longer, when flaring over the threshold, the tarmac almost disappears as you float towards the ground which is a little unnerving. I like the way the aircraft handles when hand flying, it makes you want to hold off engaging the autopilot that little bit longer. Even when you do engage autopilot, the aircraft handles smoothly with no unexpected turns or excessive bank angles which allows you to trust the aircraft to handle itself in the most testing of environments including high turbulence where I have noticed wing flexing.
Each of the Airbus’ systems is implemented well and each of the systems is built on an accurate logic to the real-world aircraft. The Airbus is highly automated compared to other manufacturers, but that doesn’t mean that ToLiss gets to take shortcuts on implementing the systems in a simulator. ToLiss is well known for their thought and execution when it comes to aircraft systems and there are no shortcuts on the A321. I prefer to take airliners from a cold and dark situation each time I fly. Powering up the aircraft from the GPU connected allows you to see the detail in each of the systems. The MCDU and ND show messages letting you know that the aircraft is running through systems checks before you get programming. Once this is complete, each of the systems come online and you can get programming your flight. IRS alignment is modelled well and takes varying amounts of time which add to the level of realism. One thing I did notice that does not work yet is the ADIRS panel above the IRS switches on the overhead panel.
Moving down to the Flight Management Guidance System or FMGS, this system works with the Flight Augmentation Computers (FAC), Flight Control Unit (FCU) and the two Multipurpose Control Display Units to make sure your aircraft follows the programmed flight path taking into account environmental variables such as cruise wind speeds and directions. In the ToLiss A321, this system is accurately modelled and has a lot of the features that a real A321 would have such as SIDs and STARs, fuel prediction, stepped climb and descent and the ability to plan holds at any waypoint along a route. The system has everything you need for day to day operations of the airliner.
The ISCS menu almost doubles up as an Electronic Flight Bag. This is where you would select how full you would like the aircraft and how much fuel you would like to take, the system will then work out your take-off speeds although these seem to be rather high compared to other aircraft, zero fuel weight and your Centre of Gravity and even input the values into the FMGS if you ask it to. Within the ISCS menu, you can select your aircraft to be equipped with Additional Centre Tanks, or ACTs, for fuel.
The Airbus CEO A321LR or Conventional Engine Option A321 Long Range was sold to some airlines around the world such as Lufthansa and All Nippon Airways, with one or two additional fuel tanks. Although the Maximum Take-Off Weight would stay the same, the ACTs add up to 5,000 KGs of fuel which could mean up to an extra two hours of additional flying time, opening new routes for the type.
The fuel system on the A321 is easy to manage and the visualisation of the tanks on the MCDU is representative of the real-world aircraft. The fuel flow and usage of the aircraft match typical real figures for the aircraft and are accurate even on the longer flights. Fuel flows from the correct tanks in the correct order, ACTs, central tanks and then main wing tanks. Fuel imbalances are easily rectified and each of the tanks reacts the way they should when opening crossfeed valves including gravity pressure when the fuel pumps fail, more on failures later. One thing I would like to see is a way of deciding differing amounts of fuel to load for each individual tank. At the current stage, you can only decide on a total amount of fuel for your flight.
ToLiss has included the Fly by Wire systems comprehensively. This system controls the flight surfaces based upon the inputs from the pilots. This means that when the pilot tries to operate the aircraft outside the normal parameters, the aircraft will prevent any actions that take it beyond them. For example, if you try to roll the aircraft past 30 degrees of bank, the ailerons will stop, and the aircraft will hold at 30 degrees. If you attempt to stall the aircraft, the elevators will push the nose down before the point of a stall and therefore decrease the angle of attack of the airflow on the wing and prevent the stall. The Fly by Wire computers can be switched off and the aircraft then flies under ‘direct law’, meaning that the pilot’s input is directly influencing the control surfaces and the previous restraints are no longer in place. I really enjoy playing around with the Fly by Wire system and pushing the boundaries of what the system will and won’t let you do, and it really shows the great level of detail ToLiss has gone to when developing the systems. Other systems that have been completed to detail are the air conditioning and air pressure. This system again is implemented well allowing you to change temperatures in different locations of the cabin, altering cabin altitude pressure as well as the ability to start the aircraft engines without the use of the APU via a cross bleed start.
Let me start inside the cockpit when speaking about textures. The closer you get to the panels, the better they look. Throughout the cockpit, the attention to detail is rather astounding. ToLiss has utilised the Physically Based Rendering (PBR) capabilities of X-Plane to its best in the flight deck and it gives the whole environment a quality feel. The cockpit textures have changed since the initial release and the current texturing is much more modern and typical of an aircraft that might roll off the assembly line today compared to the older, light blue colour of the late 1990s. These textures come from a partnership with Tote De Mac, a texture artist who collaborated with ToLiss to create the cockpit textures.
Moving externally to the overall texturing of the aircraft, highlights some nice effects over the wing and fuselage. In specific lighting, you can see the skin of the aircraft isn’t made from one piece of metal but many sheets that are hammered and machined into shape. They also look cold to the touch just like flying at altitude creates. These effects come from building on and utilising the native PBR rendering, capable in X-Plane. The detailing around the wing and vertical stabiliser are also completed to a nice standard that improves the closer you look, again, a nice way of using PBR.
When looking at the IAE V2500, the spinner and the fan blades when the engine is running, appear to be glossy and the detailing seems to be quite poor. When the engine is off and the fan blades are stationary, the glossy effect does seem to get a little better, but I feel that the texture quality could be improved. The CFM engine, on the other hand, is textured to a good standard and looks much better both off and running compared to the V2500.
ToLiss has included a great sound pack for the A321, whether inside or outside the aircraft, it sounds fantastic. Both engine options sound different at all stages of flight all thanks to Turbine Sound Solutions. From every click of a button on the flight deck to the shutting down of the APU, each sound coming from the aircraft is high quality, well-executed and takes the aircraft to another element of quality. TSS has included sound effects such as 3D sound fading, depending on where you are positioned, the volume of sounds you hear will be different. This is most evident when the pressure transfer unit engages during engine ignition and you can hear it in the cabin but not the flight deck. There are two highlights for me when it comes to sound, when you engage reverse thrust on the engines, you immediately hear a pitch change and the volume increase, you also hear the thrust increase as you push the throttles forward. The other occurs when you position yourself behind the engine inside the cabin. The sound is so accurate, if you were to close your eyes, you would think you were on board a real A321.
Internally, the lighting in the flight deck looks amazing. Whether you have the dome light on bright or dim, everything is readable and makes operating the aircraft at night very easy; however the flight deck looks its best when the dome light is off, and the panel lights do their magic. The main panel has four lights that shine downwards from below the flight control unit and illuminates the instruments from above. The panel lighting makes each and every button easily readable and stands out. ToLiss has included cabin lighting that automatically switches on and off depending on the time of day which is a nice feature that adds to the immersion. The taxi and runway turnoff lights illuminate the surrounding surfaces well and allow you to easily taxi the aircraft and are of good strength. When the landing lights are switched to extend and on, the lighting effect moves across the ground with the direction of the beam which is a good effect. I have noticed that some of the beam perforates the wing and is visible between the wing and the fuselage though. The wing lights are subtle and illuminate the wing nicely. They show off the PBR texturing and are not too overpowering during darkness. The Strobe and navigation lights are well placed and change from the fence and sharklet wing options which add to the quality finish of the aircraft.
If like me, you get a bit bored of flying A-B and sometimes like to test yourself under pressure, the ToLiss A321 has a comprehensive list of failure scenarios that you can either set up to trigger at a certain time, speed, altitude or on a more organic, randomised basis. Due to the number of systems that ToLiss has modelled in the aircraft, you can choose from any of these to fail including avionics, hydraulics, pressurisation or engines. I found that the failures taught me exactly what the different systems did to contribute to the safe operation of the A321 as well as improving the way I would deal with different situations. With a lot of the failures that I encountered, the ECAM proceeded to list the steps in order to rectify the fault or to enable me to fly the aircraft safely. As you follow the steps, the ECAM items get checked off making it a lot easier to aviate, navigate and communicate. Having the ECAM messages show up just when you need them again just emphasises the amount of thought, time and effort that has gone into making the A321 an enjoyable aircraft to fly. If you wanted a more real-life experience, within the ISCS menu, there is the option to turn on random failures. This feature will create a failure based on a ‘Mean Time Before Failure’ model. This means that the systems that are likely to fail more frequently such as pumps or batteries, will be at the top of the list to fail. You can select how frequently you would like these failures to happen to ensure you get some straightforward flying between each occurrence.
As I mentioned towards the beginning of this review, I consider my setup to be quite modest, I have an i5 processor, 20GB of RAM and a GTX 1060 graphics card. With my X-Plane settings towards the higher, more demanding end and with custom scenery and airports, the ToLiss A321 is fully optimised and gives me great performance. I have averaged around 35 frames per second throughout most of my flights, of course, this does fluctuate when I am at busier airports or in particularly heavy weather, but the aircraft itself operates well and has little impact on overall performance. When the frame rate does slow, I didn’t notice any differences in the way the aircraft operates, the Fly By Wire still works as expected and the output remains as smooth as the inputs which give me confidence in flying the aircraft when my system does get a little overworked. The only time the aircraft has affected my frame rate is when night flying and all the aircraft lights are on. The largest impact comes when the landing and taxi lights are illuminating the ground, I did see a drop by two or three frames here. In the flight deck, performance is strong and again, the only impact here is night lighting where I saw similar reductions.
Through the ISCS menu, ToLiss has included two ways in which your flying career will be made easier. If you are bored of a long trip or you find that you are short on time, you can skip through to your next waypoint, or if this is a greater distance than 100nm, you can advance in 100mn steps until your next waypoint comes within that distance. I like this feature as sometimes I find that I get called away but still want to land the aircraft instead of pausing mid-flight. I wouldn’t recommend this whilst flying with an online network. The other feature is the ability to save your aircraft situation. You can set your aircraft up to land at your regular airport, save your situation and load from that point in your flight at any time. This is great if you want to perfect your landing skills without having to spend time setting the aircraft up, time and time again. I have found that loading a situation from the ground to cruise, the aircraft can behave a little strange whilst the gear is retracted, and the autopilot engages but it soon sorts itself out. One function I would like to have is the ability to save and load aircraft state as well as situation as this is currently not available. Although the ISCS menu has the ability to be a pop-out menu to use on a separate screen, I would like to see some integration of the settings that the ISCS has, into the aircraft either via the EFB or a secondary FMGS on the pedestal.
Wrapping up this comprehensive review, the biggest question on most people’s minds is, ‘is it worth my hard-earned cash?’ In my opinion, the simple answer is: yes. Although the external model could be improved, it certainly makes up for any shortfalls it may have, on the flight deck. Each system is implemented in such a way that it’s possible to lose yourself within them. Whether you are like me and like to get stuck into the manuals or you just want to get flying, the A321 has something for everyone. ToLiss retails the Airbus A321 at $79 which is a competitive price for the level of detail and attention that has gone into the aircraft. The price point also reflects that you essentially get two engine options, two wing options and the ability to fly the CEO Long Range routes with the Additional Centre Tanks such as KSEA to KMIA which was one of my longest flights with 4.8 tonnes of fuel to spare. From my perspective, this is a versatile aircraft that will get lots of use and I would comment that it is worth the price tag and then some.
- In-depth system modelling
- Strong performance
- Flight deck texturing
- 3D sounds
- Low polygon external modelling
- Large gaps in external modelling
- Lack of detailed engine texturing