The Geeks wrap up our week of Flight Simulator gadgets by examining the all new Flight Simulator X Deluxe Edition. As the newest installment of the longest running PC gaming franchise (yes, 25 years now!) Flight Simulator X has a lot to prove to a die hard community of flight enthusiasts, while at the same time, attempt to breathe new life into the franchise. Is Microsoft’s new version worth the upgrade? Read on!
In the Flight Simulation market, there really are only two big competitors â€“ X-Plane and MS Flight Simulator. Competition is a good thing, it pushes technology, keeps prices down, and gives consumers choices. In regards to flight simulators, the battle between X-Plane and MS Flight Simulator has caused both products to mature at an incredible pace and take advantage of the newest in PC graphics and processing power. In fact, it can be argued that Flight Simulators are some of the most computationally intensive games on the market as they try to make a vibrant, believable, living world with realistic flight dynamics, aircraft subsystems, weather, terrain, air traffic control, realistic AI aircraft, and more.
The Flight Simulator market is also one of the toughest to sell to because the learning curves tend to be very steep. As such, it’s very hard to attract new buyers (much more so than the latest greatest First Person Shooter or Real Time Strategy or Sports game like Madden.) If the developers dumb things down too much to allow entry by more laymen players, the old vets of the franchise cry foul and lament for more realistic (read complex) systems. As such, the developers are constantly walking a tight rope, performing a balancing act between providing a fun experience for all, but a platform for highly realistic simulation for those who demand it.
One of the strengths of the Microsoft Flight Simulator series over the years has been the enormous growth of 3rd party Payware and Freeware/Shareware add-ons available for it, and Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight has been one of the most successful in this regard, with an astounding library of add-ons, customizations, additional aircraft, improved weather, terrain, highly detailed cities and airports, and enhancement tools. The unfortunate reality though is that while FS 2004:ACoF is decent out of the box, serious simmers will spend many times the cost of the product in purchasing add-ons to improve the base system. With Flight Simulator X, the ACES Development team at Microsoft has recognized this reality and made it a point with this new version to achieve three main goals:
- 1. Provide a product that improves upon the capabilities found in 2004 in almost every way. The ability to handle higher detail terrain, more auto-generated (AutoGen) buildings and trees, better weather, higher resolution textures, and better water. In nearly all of these regards, what is shipped in the FSX package is substantially better than what is found in 2004, and either approaches or exceeds the capabilities found in many 3rd party add-ons for 2004.
- 2. Build a vibrant, living world. This includes moving automobile traffic along roads that change in volume according to realistic rush hour patterns, ships on the water that move along realistic shipping lines, and animals moving along migratory patterns. Additionally, MS has modeled the world as a sphere (old versions considered it a tube, making over-the-poles flights impossible) and up to an altitude of 1 million feet (yes, spaceflight is now possible!)
- 3. Provide the community with an open, documented, standardized API and tools to allow easier access to the main game engine for developers of all levels.
All of these additional capabilities found in FSX make for a much more visually appealing experience out of the box versus 2004. For instance, and amount of autogen found in FSX at the lowest setting level is the same that 2004 had at it’s highest level! This makes for much more compelling visuals when flying at low altitudes. The default terrain mesh (the part that controls ground elevation) is more than 2x more detailed than what comes with 2004. Shader Model 2.0 is used throughout the simulator to take advantage of newer graphics cards and add interesting effects such as sunlight reflecting off water, and partial reflections on cockpit windows. Visually, compared to 2004’s base configuration, FSX is absolutely stunning!
All of this additional visual quality and capability does not come without a cost however. The ACES team made a conscious decision early in their development cycle that based on the long shelf life of Flight Simulator products (typically 3-4 years per version) they would design FSX to be playable on modern hardware, but not at full feature levels. In fact, the machine that can play FSX with all features set to maximum currently doesn’t exist (and probably won’t for at least another year!) That’s not to say that you can not play FSX right now today, but the geeks must warn you that a machine that plays 2004 even with a lot of add-ons today will have a hard time with FSX out of the box without setting a number of the features at lower levels. Another important point is that while Dual Core processors have become the rage over the last 18 months, the ACES team hadn’t planned for this in their initial designs, and instead had expected single core performance to continue along Moore’s Law as it had in the previous 3 years. As a result, while FSX is somewhat multi-threaded and will take advantage of a 2nd core for some limited tasks (such as texture decompression) a dual core processor will not get you a huge performance boost. There has been a lot of discussion (ok, we’ll be honest, a lot of complaining) about the performance problems with FSX on the various Flight Simulator forums on the web, and the ACES developers have stated that they’re looking into ways to address these issues. Hopefully sometime in the next 3 months we’ll see some patches come out that will make for a much faster and smoother FSX.
We have to admit though, there’s a LOT to like in FSX. We did our testing on an Athlon64 X2 4800+ (AM2 socket), with 4GB RAM and a pair of XFX 7900GT video cards (non-SLI as FSX doesn’t support SLI in order to gain multi-monitor capability.) With that set up, we have been able to place the settings at mid-range settings and achieve a respectable frame rate in most cases. The biggest killer to FSX performance currently is weather (volumetric clouds), autogen buildings and trees, AI aircraft traffic, and car+boat traffic, as well as water detail. Like previous versions of Flight Simulator, the product attempts to find a batch of settings that will run decently on your PC, but inevitably, everyone has different tastes (for instance low-level General Aviation pilots like lots of autogen, where as Airliner fliers will tend to turn it off) and so you should be prepared for a lot of tweaking of your settings. Also, there are a number of hand-done tweaks that have been documented by the community that can be performed to the configuration files that can help in some circumstances. In the end, we have to admit that FSX is no different in this regard than the older versions â€“ be prepared for some experimentation if you want to get the most out of the system.
FSX comes in two versions: Standard and Deluxe. The code for both is identical, but the Deluxe version adds several more aircraft, a number of additional high-detail airports, a set of Missions to play, a fantastic multiplayer capability with the ability to share a cockpit online with a friend, or to play as Air Traffic Control online, the Garmin 1000 glass cockpit system on several aircraft, and finally the SimConnect SDK for building add-ons to the simulator. If you’re new to Flight Simulator or flying in general, the Standard version is perfectly fine for learning and enjoying. Long time simmers will want the additional features found in Deluxe though.
As mentioned above, the Deluxe version adds in a multiplayer capability that is quite well done. While not on the order of several add-on systems (such as VATSIM), the multiplayer capabilities in FSX are none-the-less enjoyable. The geeks got in touch with a friend residing in NJ who is a certified GA pilot and arranged to meet up online in FSX for a little fun. We easily set up a session and fired up a Cesna 172 with a shared cockpit configuration. The Geeks took the Pilot seat while our friend took the co-Pilot seat. In this arrangement, both players have full control over the aircraft’s systems, but only the controlling pilot can work the flight control surfaces. This means that you can have 1 person responsible for working the radios, the navigation systems, etc. while the other is busy flying the plane. The multiplayer mode also includes built in voice communications which allowed us to talk back and forth to coordinate our actions. Our pilot friend gave us an impromptu flight lesson as we flew around downtown Atlanta, GA. After a nice landing at one of the local airfields, we switched seats and our friend took us for a spin. Next we tried out the tower mode. We re-started the online session, now at our friend’s home field in northern NJ. Jumping into the control tower, we had a nice view out over the field, as well as a radar display with track data, radio frequencies and all the fixings. We directed our friend to taxi onto a runway, gave him clearance for takeoff and handed him off after he left our airspace. This brings up some of the lamentations the geeks have with the multiplayer mode. First, there’s no AI aircraft or AI Air Traffic Control while in this mode it’s either all human or nothing at all. That’s not too bad if you’re in a session with a large number of other people online all flying around a common area, but since each online session is modeling their own instance of the world, if you stray too far, it can get a bit empty up there! The geeks would have liked to have seen either the addition of AI in the online mode, and/or a way to link a set of sessions together with handoffs from one session to another as the player reaches some boundary, thus allowing each session to only model a part of the world. Maybe this is something that can be built using the SimConnect API or something that could be built into Flight Sim 11.
The SimConnect API is both a blessing and a curse in many ways. While it represents the first time that MS has opened the sim up for 3rd parties to build tools with a standard, official API, this new API also differs in many ways from the way that companies had built tools for the older versions. This change, along with a number of changes to the way that numerous portions of the simulator work means that the vast majority of 3rd party add-ons for 2004 will not work with FSX. In some cases the developers need only make a small patch to get their package to work with FSX, in some cases it will require a full re-write, and in still others the new features in FSX mean that the add-on is redundant. While this can be painful for 2004 owners who might have a huge stable of aircraft and high resolution scenery that they purchased for 2004, the geeks have no doubt that FSX will see as many (if not more) aircraft and add-ons for FSX than 2004 had due to the more open development environment. In fact, in the less than two months since FSX was released, the community is already starting to see a number of both freeware and commercial packages for FSX.
The mission system adds a new ‘game’ aspect to FSX. One of the complaints of the geeks (and many other players of older iterations of the series) is that unless you’re a real pilot who wants to bush up on his skills, or somebody who really gets serious about simming, Flight Simulator can get downright boring after a while. More than once we’ve heard people ask “What’s fun about it?” ACES has answered this issue with the mission system. Now, players have goals to achieve in their flying. One mission asks the pilot to fly a helicopter to a burning oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico to rescue workers trapped on different areas of the rig. Another mission challenges the pilot to be part of a barnstorming air show and land a Piper J on top of a moving school bus. Some missions are meant to teach basic aviation skills. Others, such as the Red Bull time trial challenge even veteran pilots to fly to the limits. FSX Deluxe Edition comes with a large number of these missions, and we’re already starting to see additional ones added by the community. If you’re looking to just have fun and don’t want to learn all the details of what a SID and a STAR is or want to memorize the approach speed of a 747 with 20 degrees of flaps when fully loaded, mission flying is for you!
|In the end the geeks have to admit that we have a love/hate relationship with FSX in it’s current form. We love all the new features that make it a stellar upgrade versus 2004 out of the box, but the performance issues that currently plague FSX makes it tough to recommend to those with either older machines or who have a huge investment already in 2004. If you have the hardware to throw at FSX though, and don’t want to spend a lot of money on add-ons to make FS2004 look like FSX, then we have to say, pull the trigger on FSX! It’s a wonderful simulator, and if history is any indicator, FSX will grow and expand and get better in ways that we can’t even image right now. (And if you think we’re kidding about that, look around on the web for screen shots of what FS98 or FS2000 looked like!) There’s a lot of additional little things in FSX that we haven’t even touched on in this review (realistic stars and moon, better weather, more AI traffic, moving airport vehicles and jetways… the list goes on and on.) FSX has a lot of growth built into it, and if ACES can fix the inherent performance problems, we feel that FSX easily will be worthy of the Flight Simulator name (and that 5th star.)
The Geeks give Flight Simulator X: Deluxe Edition a 4 out of 5 stars. Just make sure you have a high end system to play it!