By Andrew Herd (23 July 2005)
ot on the heels of their impressive MegaCity San Francisco, PC Aviator have released a similar package covering Denver. Fans of the series will already be reaching for their credit cards, but for those of you who have yet to buy one of these excellent sceneries, a brief introduction might be in order. The MegaScenery/MegaCity packages offer replacement photographic textures for Microsoft Flight Simulator which lock into the exact position that they would occupy in real life - the result being that you fly over what looks like a real landscape in FS2004, rather than the endlessly repeating default texture tiles. Any 3D objects that appear within the area covered by the packages are relocated so that they match up to the photographic texture tiles - you also get new mesh, winter and night textures. What you do not get are any new 3D objects, such as airport buildings, and there is only a single set of textures to serve for spring, summer and fall, rather than the three sets that Microsoft provides; but although this upsets some non-flying simmers, it seldom concerns real pilots because the landscape looks much the same in these three seasons anyway.
The package is supplied on a single CD-ROM in a DVD-style box. Apart from the CD, the contents are limited to a two page installation guide printed on a single glossy sheet of paper. Closing the CD drive door was enough to trigger the automatic installation routine, which ate a gig of hard disk space and took long enough that I managed to make a cup of coffee. When I got back to the PC, a dialog was waiting - this one asks for permission to optimise Flight Simulator so that the package will run at its best. Having trusted PC Aviator's judgement on this point in the past, I just clicked OK and FS2004 was ready for use in another five minutes or so.
According to the box, you get 3600 square miles of photographic scenery, based on one foot per pixel aerial photos. This is a fair chunk of territory if you are flying at GA altitudes, but slightly less than most big iron simmers are likely to want, especially given that Denver International is close to the edge of the area covered by the package, necessitating a fairly tight turn a minute or so after takeoff from some of the runways if you are not to have to endure (spit) looking at the default tiles. Do note that FS2004 cannot display textures at a greater resolution than 4.75 meters per pixel, so you don't actually get one foot per pixel textures on screen - it would be great if that did happen, but as it is, the textures are as crisp as I have ever seen.
I have gone for a slightly different format to our earlier MegaScenery reviews and have left out screenshots showing how the default scenery looks - if you want to remind yourself, be my guest and fire up a copy of FS2004 and take a look before reading this review. With the MegaCity installed you are going to have to look at some joins between PC Aviator's tiles and either the default set or whatever ground textures you happen to have installed. The screenshots above show a departure to the northwest from Denver International, followed by a left hand turn, which I have intentionally delayed to allow a shot of a 'join'. In the screenshot at top right, you can see the MegaCity textures on the right, with the join running diagonally up the shot from bottom left to top right. I do not think there is any way around this apart from PC Aviator releasing a 'Colorado' package that covers a much bigger area, and even then, that just delays the moment when you fly onto the default textures. But now you have looked at the shots, I am sure I don't have to tell you that even a small area of the MegaCity textures would be worth having, let alone nearly 4000 square miles of 'em.
Having reviewed a couple of PC Aviator packages using GA planes, I decided to see how they looked from an airliner and since a copy of Lago's MadDog had come in for review, I fired it up and took it for a spin (if first impressions are anything to go by, this is an excellent package, by the way). As you can see, the textures look as good from ten thousand feet as they do from 3000, so the package should be fine for heavy metal fans. The only drawback to flying above normal GA altitudes is that you can usually see an edge of the scenery; one way of reducing the risk of this happening being to cut the visibility down some, but since the scenery measures around 60 miles on an edge, you would have to pull the sliders right back to gain any advantage from this.
Being a texture-only package, frame rates aren't affected at all, but if you fly any faster than GA speeds you are likely to experience ground texture blurring at times. This is down to the way Flight Simulator works and is right at the top of my wish list of things that need to be fixed in the next version, because if it didn't happen, the only reason not to buy every single PC Aviator package out there would be the limits of my hard disk space. Flying at speeds of over 250 knots makes blurring much more likely to occur and the higher you go, the more likely FS2004 is to totally lose it - when this happens, the textures stay blurred for minutes at a time. You can minimise the problem by not making too many changes of course, flying at under 5000 feet above ground level and restricting your speed to around a hundred knots, but this isn't a practical way of doing things in an MD80! As it was, I only had one attack of prolonged blurring and that was after doing a one eighty to fly east. Is the risk of blurring sufficient to destroy the enjoyment of the scenery? Nope. Even if it happened more often, I would still buy it, because the effect is so magical.
Okay... there are some mountainous areas included, although these lie on the edges of the scenery and aren't as extensive as they are in say the Northern California MegaScenery - but then again, the Denver MegaCity package covers only 10% of the area of NoCal. In the screenshot above left, you can see the mountains, with a disagreement between seasons at top right of the shot, where Microsoft says there should be snow and PC Aviator say not. However, when Winter comes, the MegaCity gets the most realistic covering of snow I have seen outside, outside... er... outside another MegaScenery package, and the whole place looks pretty cool. I have left the main screenshot at 1600 x 1200, so be careful clicking on the thumbnail if you have a slow connection, but it gives a good idea just how good these textures look. While I think about it, the lakes all have their outlines corrected and although I did not test them, if the other Mega packages are anything to go by, the water is all landable, so floatplane fantatics can start cranking up now.
The screenshot above right shows the new night textures installed with the package, which are way better than the default set. For some reason Microsoft toned down the night lighting in FS2004 so far that it barely exists, whereas if you click on the right hand frame above, you will see that the MegaCity provides for some fun approaches for night flyers. I did some practicing on the ILS at night and I can tell you that the package really does enhance the experience - it feels much more like reality, with the notable exception that runways are far easier to pick out at night in FS2004 than they are in real life. The large image 'behind' the thumbnail is also 1600 x 1200, but it shows the incredible detail that the PC Aviator night textures go down to.
The low-down on Denver is that it is definitely worth buying, whatever kind of simming you enjoy. Flying over photographic textures really does take Flight Simulator a stage nearer to reality - arm yourself with the relevant terminal area chart or the Denver sectionals and you should be able to enjoy many hours of happy flying. See you out there.Andrew Herd