Those of us that are old enough remember plying the virtual skies way back in the early 80s with Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS). My personal starting point was in 1985 with MSFS 2.0. Sporting wire frame graphics and a handful of colors FS2.0 relied heavily on one’s imagination to supplement the experience. Fast-forward 20 years and here we are, still doing the same thing, but times sure have changed. Flight Simulator 10 (FSX) was recently released to the foaming-mouthed masses after an interesting demo/beta introduction. It was a foregone conclusion that I would purchase it, regardless of any comments I had read about it or my experiences with the demo. I finally managed to track down a copy of FSX Deluxe edition locally, buried on the shelf of a local retailer behind multiple versions of FSX Standard. I felt like the veritable kid in the candy store waiting in the checkout line.
Several months ago Microsoft released a demo of FSX and the community ate it up and spat it out with what I’d gauge as overwhelming disappointment. Or did they? It’s one of those difficult things to judge; the old squeaky wheel cliché. The online community is only a small percentage of overall consumers (as evidenced by Lead Pursuit’s research) but we tend to be both the most advanced users and the most vocal. Overall I wasn’t impressed with the FSX demo and with the news that the full release was coming just a couple months later I was fairly skeptical about the final release results. So when I picked up FSX Deluxe and took it home, I steeled myself for worst.
Of course, I couldn’t even wait until I got home to open the box. I stopped at a fast food joint on the way home in order to fuel myself for my marathon FSX session that I knew would be on tap when I got home. Sitting in the restaurant I peeled open the wrapping and found two DVDs and two pamphlets. The first was titled “Insider Information” and consisted of about 20-some pages of general FSX information describing the features of FSX, some quick-start information, and tips & tricks for getting the most out of your first couple of hours with the software. The second item was a fold-out card that listed some of the generic simulator commands and flying tips. I knew from the weight of the box that the treasures within would be pretty slim, but the lack of a comprehensive key-card was pretty sad.
Prior to starting the install, and for kicks, I ran the Microsoft Game Advisor applet which takes a look at your system, compares it to other users that have participated, and also compares it to the requirements for the game. The minimum requirements for FSX, by the way, are pretty (cough) optimistic: XP SP2, 256MB RAM, 1 GHz processor, 15GB of drive space, DirectX 9.0 w/ 32MB RAM. My Alienware system, while not bleeding edge, was, according to the MS Game Advisor, more than adequate.
I placed the first DVD into my drive and sat back to watch the installation process unfold. The installer looked at my hard drive, determined I had enough space, and I proceeded with the installation. Unfortunately I forgot to take a screenshot of the “MORE OPTIONS” screen and I can’t remember if there was a process to alter the installation process such as installing only certain scenery areas. I don’t think there were options like that, which would be a shame since the full 15GB footprint is pretty massive for people that just want to fly around their local area or a specific region.
I started a stop-watch at the beginning of the installation process and the file copying took 25 minutes. Unfortunately the 25 minutes is pretty boring, with a slow moving slide-show of screenshots. Far better would have been a manual or some utility where you could start reading up on the features and capabilities of the new program. I suppose software companies are reluctant to put anything interactive up during an install process lest you accidentally hit a key or something that corrupts the installation; I can understand the logic but I don’t have to like it. At the completion of the file copy process comes the dreaded and roundly despised Activation Process. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of this Activation Process, but the bits and pieces I’ve heard aren’t encouraging. If I change my hardware or delete my install and want a clean install I definitely don’t want a hassle ahead of me, but only time will tell how the process will evolve.
Whatever the case, I decided to take one for the SimHQ team and I disconnected my internet connection prior to installing FSX so that I would be forced to go through the manual activation via the telephone. I was really expecting a nightmare of holding and problems, but the experience was actually quite simple and efficient. Once the install determined I did not have an internet connection it popped up a phone number for me to call. I dialed and got through to an automated activation process immediately. A computer generated voice prompted me to speak my installation ID after which the voice confirmed I had a legitimate copy and then read back a sequence of letter groups which I entered in the boxes below. Once that was complete, my software was activated. Total time on the phone was 4 minutes and 30 seconds. I was impressed. (Time Warner Cable could take a hint!)
Once the installation process was over I fired up the program and was met with the opening screen. Now, I know what you are thinking: I didn’t defrag, or reboot, or sacrifice a chicken and put the feathers in my hat and turn three circles while chanting “system fast, system fast, frame rate stutters in the past..” When I initially started out on this review process, I wanted to do it on out-of-the-box software, without tweaking it or altering in any way other than what is allowed via the menu interfaces. While I know that the average online user is going to seek out maximum performance by running application killers and tweaking their configuration files to the max, I feel that software developers owe it to us users to make the process of playing games as easy and trouble free as possible. The fact of the matter is, I could write a whole multi-part series on tweaking FSX, but I’d rather concentrate on the gameplay for the moment. I did do basic “no-brainer” stuff like turning off realtime anti-virus scanners and any other background stuff that might have been running in the background.
The first screen you are greeted with is menu that tempts you into clicking one of three possible choices: “I’m New”, “I’m Back”, or “I’m a Real Pilot”. What a dilemma! I’m all three! My ego, of course, made me click on the Captain’s hat. Had there been a fourth button for “Free Porn” I probably would have clicked that. Just the way my mind thinks.
They say that first impressions are everything. If this is true, FSX makes a really poor first impression when you select one of the three opening choices. Basically what you are doing when you make one of those selections is starting the game and getting a short demo of in-game graphics and action. You get a nice speech about FSX, pertinent to the category of discussion you have selected, while an “action cam” sort of shows you scenes of cool stuff happening. Unfortunately, the frame-rates during the “preview” are terrible, some textures fail to load, and generally you start wondering what the guys at Aces (the studio that built FSX) were thinking. What would have been FAR better would have been to make an .avi or .mpg of the action and play each as a movie instead of a real-time, in-game rendered demonstration. The first impression would have been much better.
After exiting from the preview I fired up the default flight and went tooling around Friday Harbor (Friday Harbor?) and just about as quickly exited out because I didn’t want to continue to spoil my “first impression”. The selection of Friday Harbor and the Ultralight Trike is a curious one for the default flight. Not only is it an odd location and airframe, you start out in the air instead of on the ground! Talk about jumping in with both feet. In my opinion, it would have made more sense to have the default aircraft be in a Cessna 172 (recognizable and traditional), and the default airport be a more recognizable piece of pavement (without a short runway and trees blocking the approach and departure ends), and the airplane to be on the ground to allow you some time to take it all in. That’s just how *I* would have done it though; opinions on these things vary.
First let’s take a look at what FSX has to offer in the stable. FSX Deluxe features 20 different types of aircraft and helicopters. Each model has multiple paint jobs, some have different avionics outfits, and the Maule has the option of strapping skis on for winter operations. The list of aircraft is impressive in that it encompasses the very light (AirCreation Trike Ultralight) to the very heavy (Boeing 747) and also includes some very cool models that haven’t been seen before such as the Grumman Goose and Maule. The new interface to select your aircraft is nicely done with options to sort the display of aircraft in various ways. The thumbnails are a nice feature and the ability to expand the list to include all sub-variants of a particular type is smart. Most users will probably initially get their feet wet with the “Free Flight” option that allows you to select an aircraft, location, and environmental factors (time of day and weather). This will all be familiar to users of previous versions of MSFS.
I’ll confess: I just had to know. I went to the SETTINGS menu and maxed everything out. Terrain, aircraft features, weather, dynamic scenery; all of it maxed. It took a couple minutes to load the textures and my frames-per-second (FPS) upon being dumped onto the airport were a staggering 2 to 3 FPS. Unflyable without question, but I just wanted to see what I’d be missing, and it was pretty darn impressive. FSX has pushed the visuals further than ever before. It isn’t difficult to see why FSX can cripple even the most recent hardware. The rendering that must take place in order to draw and texture the massive amount of objects is above and beyond anything we’ve yet seen. In addition to the static scenery FSX has upped the ante on dynamic scenery with moving objects scattered all across the environment. Particularly impressive are the ground vehicles populating the airports and items such as moving jetways and push-back tugs (more on those later). Highways are loaded with moving streams of traffic that follow road “nodes” that appear to be somewhat accurately depicted.
FSX Deluxe includes over 24,000 airports across the globe and features 45 “high-detail” airports that are spectacularly detailed. Users will recognize the trademark features at these high-detail airports and, having visited quite a few of them in real life in my flying career, I was suitably impressed with the attention to detail. Although they don’t approach the extreme level of detail of payware add-on airports that have been made for FS9 by companies like Imagine Simulation, they are quite good and many users might be completely satisfied enough to not add-on 3rd party environments (though the quest for add-ons is a bit of an addiction). The buildings and terminals at the high detail airports are pretty good, but even at the highest detail level the textures are a bit blurry, so I’m sure the 3rd party development world is safe.
In addition to the 45 high-detail airports FSX features 38 high-detail cities. The high-detail cities feature prominent landmarks and structures, as you would expect. The auto-gen scenery fills in the gaps nicely though and they really do look very good, although the computer that makes this level of detail flyable might not be built yet. Night textures are well done, particularly from mid to high elevations. Watching the ribbons of traffic lights moving through the cities is a nice touch. The Las Vegas strip features all the prominent buildings, but as you can see, once you get extremely low the textures break down in their believability. That really shouldn’t be a mark against FSX though because the amount of area they are covering is massive and I’m not sure we should expect miracles for every area we might want to fly in. Additionally, this is a flight simulator, not a bus simulator, so I don’t have any heartburn because extreme low-level textures aren’t perfect.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in shedding a tear when I loaded up the Chicago area scenery and saw the new Mayor Daley Thug City Park. Even though it isn’t Microsoft’s fault, it just doesn’t seem like Flight Simulator without Meigs field. My little form of protest, of course, was to load up the all new Maule M7-260C Super Rocket and make the best out of a bad situation. Grass works just as well as concrete!
After running around looking at FSX with all the detail sliders set to the maximum I had to face reality and drop them back to more medium detail settings to continue with the review and reach acceptable frames-per-second. Performance in FSX has been and will continue to be a hot-button topic among the online community. I’ll start off by saying that I have found performance within FSX that balances outstanding graphics with smooth frame rates. The key to FSX satisfaction is experimentation and patience; there is no other way around it. There are so many different options and settings to adjust and modify that you can spend hours testing different configurations to find the right balance. I’ll leave it to the community hardware and software gurus to lead you in the right direction on that. There is a ton of information out there that will help you maximize your performance using a variety of methods and techniques.
A nice feature of FSX is the ability to adjust your display characteristics and then save the configuration settings to a file so that you can easily swap out configurations that best suit your desires. For instance, if you are going to fly in a particularly scenery dense area such as one of the major cities or high-detailed airports, you might want to set some features a bit lower. If you are going to fly at an outlying regional or rural airport however, you might be able to get away with much higher settings. I also found that if I just wanted to shoot instrument approaches in hard IFR conditions that turning down VFR type graphics boosted my frame rates and my instrument gauge update rates tremendously. The ability to quickly flip-flop to preset configurations is a real bonus.
One interesting observation I made was that “acceptable” frame-rates seem to vary widely across the spectrum of the community. Had you asked me prior to FSX what I thought an acceptable FPS was I’d have guessed somewhere around 30 FPS. Imagine my surprise (after hours and hours of flying FSX and experimenting with settings) when I found that I could fly with what I considered totally acceptable frame-rates down to about 13 FPS. Obviously higher is better, and I regularly saw 20+ outside of metro areas, but my settings and performance with FPS in the teens was fine. I seriously doubt that such low FPS would be acceptable for a combat flight simulator where the maneuvers and action are much faster paced, but for tooling around in FSX I had no problems. All of that said, I realize that the “average” computer out there probably doesn’t have 2 gigs of RAM or a 256 or 512 MB graphics card. Had I bought FSX and been flying it on a mid-range system I think I would have been severely disappointed in the inability to at least match FS9’s level of detail without suffering from poor FPS. I don’t think it is fair to say that FSX is the best thing ever, or the worst piece of crap put on the shelf. I believe that your level of satisfaction will vary according to your hardware, perception, and expectations. FSX, on my machine at least, looks better and flies better than FS9. I don’t know if my experience is the exception to the rule or if the “squeaky wheels” (with legitimate concerns) are simply getting the most attention.
Getting on with it I was happy to see that FSX retained the use of 2D panels. Despite the insistence by the virtual cockpit (VC) police that the VC is the only way to realistically fly a flight simulator, I still find a lot of utility in 2D panels. For one thing, they are just far easier to read, are crisper and brighter, and don’t suffer the performance issues that 3D panels bring. I do, however, find myself spending more and more time in VCs for less complex aircraft because I agree that the realistic viewpoint is far more compelling. I would have liked to have commented on how the VCs performed with my TrackIR2, but disappointingly, NaturalPoint is not supporting anything less than TrackIR3 & 4 for FSX. I guess that is a hint that I need to upgrade. One thing I was sad to see in FSX is that the VC lighting is still sub-standard. In most cases it is almost required that you turn on the interior flood lighting to properly illuminate the 3D cockpit during the daytime. I was impressed however, by the quality of the 3D modeling in the VCs. Overall the shapes and textures are vastly improved over FS9, some of them bordering on payware add-on quality.
Where FSX absolutely hit one out of the ballpark was with their outstanding view system variety. Although I’ve seen some fans of the FS9 add-on Active Camera doing some griping I think the overall consensus is that the view system in FSX is far superior to FS9. As a side-note, I think it is telling that I’m making comparisons between FSX and FS9 with payware add-ons; obviously FSX has risen to a level that begs for those comparisons and if we were just comparing FSX to FS9 it would blow the stock FS9 out of the water in almost all categories. Improvements to the view system include some really fantastic pre-set external camera views, and a bunch of different vantage points from within the cockpit. My personal favorite is the “fly by” view though; I can spend hours watching the airplanes whizzing by the camera.
Though many of the new camera angles are stunning, they occasionally show us that not all is right with the world both inside and outside of our aircraft. Over the many, many hours of testing and prodding FSX I did find some graphics artifacts and things that didn’t work so well. For instance there are times in some of the preset VC views that gaps can appear in the 3D models, giving you a disconcerting look at the terrain zipping by thousands of feet below you. Also there are occasional instances of wheels on both aircraft and ground vehicles sinking below the surface of the ground. Though they are rare instances they are there.
While I don’t hesitate to point out the flaws (which are really very few and far between) I also give more than equal time and attention to those things that FSX does really well. The external 3D models for all of the aircraft are superb. My least favorites are probably the King Air and the Baron. I don’t know if they are remnants of FS9 modeling or if they just weren’t updated as vigorously, but they aren’t nearly as pretty as some of the newer models within the game. The Learjet 45 is a great looking and flying aircraft in FSX and the attention to detail in items such as the thrust reversers and gear retraction animations are top notch.
While I’m thinking about it let me mention that I still hate the lack of fluidity in the FSX replay feature. The replay setup is the same as it was in FS9 and the level of event recreation remains relatively poor. By that I mean that if you watch a replay of something like a landing, the replay appears sort of sterile and robotic, as if the recorded data points are too far spaced to provide a seamless replay. I’ve always felt that X-Plane (ok, I finally said it!) has an infinitely better replay feature that not only retains the fluidity of the recorded flight, but also has great tools and functions that allow you to quickly advance and rewind the action. Take a lesson Microsoft. And don’t think I’m done with X-Plane comparisons; you aren’t getting off the hook that easy FSX. Did I just say X-Plane? Well, apparently FSX took a page out of X-Plane’s book by implementing transparent cockpit panels. Nice job and well implemented (and sorely needed).