PC Aviator Southern California MegaScenery X
By Andrew Herd (20 January 2008)
here is addon scenery and then there is PC Aviator MegaScenery. It isn't often that I know I am going to be looking at something really, really good before I get as far as opening the box, but I haven't come across a duff MegaScenery product yet and Southern California MegaScenery X is no exception. If you are into MegaSceneries, read no further, because you are wasting valuable time that could be spent purchasing this superb product - you already know what you are going to see and I don't think you need me to tell you any more.
The product comes in the usual thick DVD-style box, with a colorful cover, which, unlike Microsoft's otherwise excellent Acceleration, actually depicts scenes that you will be able to see when you have the addon installed, rather than fanciful artist's impressions. Newcomers to the MegaScenery series will find this hard to believe, because the artwork shows scenes that look photographically real, which indeed is what you will see once the installation is done, because Southern California MegaScenery X transforms FSX's rather dull southern California into something that can truthfully be said to be as real as it gets inside of a simulator.
How does the Southern California MegaScenery X do this? What you get are aerial photographic textures covering an area which is nominally 135 nautical miles on a side, stretching all the way up from the Mexican border, through the entire LA basin and out as far as Palm Springs and Big Bear City. PC Aviator quote the area covered as being around 18,000 square miles, which is short of the 19,600 you might be expecting because of the irregular shape of the phototextured area. If you would like to see exactly what is covered, follow this link. The longest straight line flight you can make without running off the edge of the tiles is 190 nm.
Ahah! I hear you say, but I have the FS2004 Southern California MegaScenery, why can't PC Aviator give me an upgrade for that? The answer is that they have and there is an update file on their website that will make the FS2004 phototextures work in FSX. But there is a compelling reason to buy the new version, which is that Southern California MegaScenery X has a maximum display resolution of just over one meter per pixel, which beats the hell out of the 5 meters per pixel the FS2004 version offers. If you are used to the problems of running photographic texture packages in FS2004, which include attacks of the 'blurries' (when the ground textures dissolve into a featureless green/brown mush), then your eyebrows are probably climbing off the top of your head at the idea of increasing the resolution by a factor of 5, but the truth is that it seems to be possible to get away with it most of the time in FSX. Ground texture tile handling has definitely been improved in the new version of the sim, perhaps as a result of the new curved Earth model, which is some kind of compensation for all the things that have been disimproved in FSX, not least its general unreliability.
I can hear a background murmur?
The quick explanation is that the FSX world is built from a terrain mesh, over which a grid of ground texture tiles are laid to form a believable-looking landscape. There is a huge variety of tiles available from which FSX chooses on the basis of data known as 'landclass' which tells it which kind of tile to put where. If the database says that a particular ground coordinate should be a city, in goes a city tile, and if it says that the area is steppe, in goes a steppe tile. Because the grid relies on geographical coordinates, it is possible to substitute tiles based on satellite or aerial photographs for the default landclass tiles, so that instead of flying over a generic landscape, you can fly over one which looks real. The effect has to be seen to be believed, but I was a convert to photosceneries roughly ten seconds after I saw the first PC Aviator MegaScenery, which was several versions of Flight Simulator ago - but until FSX came along, the problem with photosceneries (apart from regular attacks of the blurries) was that the resolution was only adequate if you flew at 2,500 feet or above. Most of the time, this wasn't a problem, because that is the height at which most GA flights are made, but the instant you descended to land, the ground broke up into a horrible, pixellated mess which spoiled the whole effect. The other problem was that most of the sceneries were based on satellite photography and for some reason no-one ever seemed to be able to color-correct it so that it looked totally convincing in Flight Simulator, but that is another story.
Hokay. So your money gets you a solid DVD case, that lands on the mat with a thump. The contents are heavy enough that if you got into a tight spot, the box could be used as a defensive weapon, which is a far cry from most packages I see these days, which follow the rule that users are only satisfied if they buy an enormous box full of fresh air. As I remarked earlier, apart from the montage on the front cover, which isn't that far from the truth, the artwork really does show you stuff you are going to see with the product installed. Inside you get a couple of DVDs... no, hold on, there's another... gee... there's one under that, too... make that four DVDs. Epic. Following MegaScenery tradition you also get a VFR terminal area chart and a thick manual, which follows up 17 pages of advice on how to make the best of the scenery with a thick wadge of approach charts. Disk includes more sectionals and 84 SIDs and STARs, so if you set out to fly every one of them, you won't need to buy any more addons for quite a while.
PC Aviator quotes the minimum system requirements as:
- Microsoft Flight Simulator X
- 1 GHz Pentium, Celeron or Athlon CPU
- Windows, XP or Vista
- 256 Mb RAM
- 3D Video Card with 64 Mb RAM
- DVD drive for installation
- 16 Gb Free Disk Space
While their recommended system requirements are:
- Microsoft Flight Simulator X
- 2 GHz Pentium, Celeron or Athlon CPU
- Windows XP, Vista
- 1024 Mb RAM
- 3D Video Card with 128 Mb RAM
- DVD drive for installation
- 16 Gb Free Disk Space
...and the manual goes on to say that to get the best performance out of FSX requires a 'top-of-the-line system' which exceeds even the recommended spec above.
Do we not know this, Microsoft... I did the review using a a 2.66 Core2Duo with 4 Gb of RAM and a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX, running FSX Acceleration under Vista.
Installation takes a long while, as you might imagine, with nearly sixteen gigs of data having to be transferred from here to there, but when the disk swapping is done, you are presented with a library update dialog, followed by another which tweaks FSX to work at its best with the MegaScenery. Having allowed this to do its stuff in the past, all I can say is that I have never been aware of it affecting the performance of any other FS addons, but one of the crucial things that it does is to check if you have FSX SP1 installed, because if you don't, you are liable to run into problems.
The manual may not have many pages of advice, but all of it is good and the developers recommend flying with vis set to a maximum of 50 miles and add that the lowest height at which the photoscenery will look at its best is a thousand feet, which is absolutely correct. The developer also suggests turning off Autogen, which will spoil the look by spraying random trees and buildings all over your lovely new photographic tiles; and to shut down every other app you possibly can before you run FSX. If you are a seasoned FSX user like myself, at this point you will also get out your lucky rabbit's foot and invoke the spirits of departed ancestors before launching the sim, but that is for another article. I can feel an op-ed coming on here... When you start FSX for the first time after the addon has been installed, be prepared for it to take a while rebuilding the scenery library.
One other thing. Southern California MegaScenery X only has a single season and night textures.
What! Where did the other three go? I can hear the screaming.
Er, well, yeah, you have a point there, but four seasons would mean a 64 gig installation and even in these days of terabyte disks, it wouldn't take many of those before FSX took over the planet, not that it isn't doing a fine job of it right now without the help of full-season photosceneries. When I was a boy, you know, in nineteen hundred and mumble mumble, you could run Flight Simulator on a Tandy TRS-80 in 16k of memory and still have enough RAM left over to load a program you had spent three weeks typing in from a magazine. Seems a long time ago [it was, get on with it, you old fart]. Anyway, I guess the one thing one can say with total confidence about southern California is that the landscape doesn't change that much with the seasons, at least as seen from the air, so one season is what you get. But what a season! The results are, as you can see, quite stunning.
I flew the scenery four different ways: first, with a big iron departure from KLAX; second with a chopper flight along the highway; third with a GA flight that didn't make it into the screenshots; and fourth with a scream around the mountains in the F/A-18. I restricted the vis to 50 miles or less (real weather took it down to 20 at times) and in no case did the addon make any impact on the frame rates, which is what I would expect. The only time I had any real trouble with blurring was when I flew the F/A-18 flat out on the deck, at which point FSX simply gave up on the idea of loading textures. I tried the scenery with FSX Acceleration's DX10 preview enabled (also available in FSX SP2), which didn't make any difference at all, so I can confirm that SoCalX is DX10 compatible, even if half the addon aircraft I tried ran into skinning problems.
Despite the recommendation in the manual to turn Autogen off, the SoCalX install leaves it turned up fairly high and after flying around with things left like that for a while I gave up and turned the Autogen off, which improved the look of the scenery tremendously and boosted frame rates, as it always does. There are a few bugs in the scenery, mostly relating to runways at peripheral airports, some of which end up being partially submerged by the phototextures, so that you can see bits of Microsoft runway interleaved among the phototextured runway, with neither side scoring a convincing win. The result looks messy but could be solved fairly easy by creating a flattening file, if your favorite airport happens to be affected. Whiteman is a good example. Flaws in the mesh result in places where the highways would be kind of difficult to drive, but this is the kind of thing only reviewers are bothered about. Otherwise, as you can see from the screenshots, SoCalX makes LA look exactly as it does in real life.
In times past, MegaSceneries have had a slight cyan cast, but I am pleased to say that this is not evident in SoCalX, nor has it been in any of the aerial photo based sceneries PC Aviator have released to date; the color cast on the satellite sceneries may well be something to do with atmospheric filtering. Once you are flying at 1500 feet above ground level, the textures look uncannily real - above a thousand feet they aren't bad and below that they progressively break up, but given that few flights take place at less than a thousand feet AGL, this is hardly a problem and you shouldn't be admiring the scenery during take offs and departures!
The only problem with the scenery and it is common to all photosceneries with the exception of the Alaska Cinematic packages for FS2004, is that unless you go around in circles, you will end up flying off an edge. As the bottom screenshot on the right demonstrates, if you look beyond the mountains toward the horizon, at that point, the illusion of reality ends with a sharp and obvious join between the phototextures and the default textures. There is little one can do except be philosophical about this (or turn around and fly back the way you came), but I do not think it would have been beyond the wit of man for the developers to develop a set of blend tiles to go around the edges to smooth the join. OK, people who don't have the default textures installed wouldn't lose the join, but if it could be done in Alaska Cinematic, I feel sure it could be done for the MegaSceneries, although I grant that there is a lot more edge to address. But as a Photoshop user with many, many years experience, I don't see it as a particularly challenging task, given that the only additional work involved would be to fix the landclassing around the photoscenery so that one knew which of the default tiles were going to load where. And of course, it would have to be done once for each season, but the result would be so great I would have to invent a new class of Armchair Aviator Award. This one gets a gold, but then MegaSceneries always do - this is the best set of FS addons around, period.