Review: Full Terrain Experience Australia SP3 On DVD By Orbx
By Kevin Glover (26 April 2010)
Australia has never been a focus for scenery developers with one exception, and what a large exception it is; since the days of FS2004, John Venema and his team have been involved in creating scenery for the area. Although I am largely unfamiliar with their FS2004 releases, I have had the pleasure of associating with this beautiful continent for nearly two years when I reviewed their AU Blue and Gold releases when they went public. Now I have on my plate an entire continent to review and in that continent lies gorgeous coastlines to the east, hills and lakes in the south, vast deserts in the central and western areas, and to the north lie equally vast, lush tropical wetlands.
The product in this review is a compilation of five separate sceneries: AU Blue, Gold, Red, and Green, as well as the airport YSCH Coffs Harbour Airport, which was released as a separate product. These are all delivered in a DVD case which not only protects the DVD nicely, but is rather attractive (naturally, as it's trying to sell itself). Additionally there is a small insert which details installation procedures. Installation via DVD is quite simple; pop the DVD in and let it take you from there.
Once everything is installed you'll find a good 12 GB of Australia loaded onto your hard drive. A new folder call Orbx will appear in the start menu and inside of this is a program called FTX Central.
FTX Central is something of an updated version of FTX Mode, which was included with the original releases of some of their sceneries. However, as they added on more and more products a somewhat more advanced program was necessitated. Upon opening FTX Central you'll find a large main screen split between a section containing the FSX and Orbx logos, a depiction of Australia, and a sidebar containing various documents and control panels for sceneries. First and foremost is the section with the two logos as this houses the main function of FTX Central. By clicking on either the FSX or Orbx logo and then hitting 'Apply', you can easily alternate between the default Australia scenery and FTX.
The manuals included are all nicely done in a .PDF with plenty of lovely images and graphics. The most relevant is the user guide which details FTX Central, the scenery, recommended settings, tweaks and tips, and will just about give you all of the background information you might desire.
One of the more interesting features is the FTX Lights Tweaker. This is a program which will alter the appearance of lights in Australia at night. Included are six different 'halo' effects and nine sizes for each one. These are intended to replicate the various colors of lighting from different types of bulbs, as well as how our eyes distort light into various patterns of spikes and whatnot. Additionally, each style of lighting includes a description and recommended size. This has never been something I've been utterly fascinated with, but it certainly merits some tinkering to determine what works well for you.
Australia is largely split into eight regions: the states of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia, and the two major territories Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. FTX divided the continent into four packages as described above. AU Blue roughly covers the areas of Tasmania, New South Wales, the southern portions of South and West Australia, and Victoria. AU Gold, the smallest area, mainly covers southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. AU Red covers the northern portions of Southern Australia and Western Australia and the interior of the continent with portions of Queensland and Northern Territory. AU Green covers the northernmost tips of the continent with parts of Northen Territory, Western Australia, and Queensland. As you can see, there is considerable overlap of political areas as covered by this scenery, and it's probably smartest to think of the regions as geographical entities.
The titles of each product are fairly descriptive and you can naturally assume that AU Red is largely the Outback, AU Blue is the temperate southern region, AU Green is the lush tropical northern region, and AU Gold largely focuses on the Gold Coast.
What Is FTX?
Full Terrain Experience refers to Orbx's method of making scenery. As you may or may not know, default FSX uses something called a landclass system. This is essentially where you have tiles of different sorts of terrain: farmland, city suburbs, desert, etc., and you tell the computer where to place these tiles in the simulator to correspond to whatever sort of terrain is there in real life. It does seem something of a shame, however, to compare FTX to default FSX because Orbx truly takes it to a new level. Not only is the quality of the imagery inestimably higher, but Orbx also took the time to individually place the tiles throughout most of Australia by hand. This makes for a much more diverse flying experience, and although you might not be able to find the location of an exact building, you can at least have realistic depictions of the locations of towns and whatnot.
YSCH Coffs Harbor
This is certainly a rather nice addition to this DVD, but it is somewhat dwarfed in regards to the whole continent. However, as an individual scenery, it's quite nice. The smallish airport is modeled in great detail with cars in the parking lot, fences, buildings, etc.
Additionally, the nearby township is also modeled in detail and becomes another little scenery of its own. This is all in 22 cm/pixel detail and looks crisp and clean. The waterfront is also modeled and there is a detailed marina.
On the whole, this won't get a lot of attention from me as the actual continental scenery is certainly the focus of this review. I appreciate that they put it in, and it's certainly a nice bonus and a bit of a center of attention for the whole scenery.
Reviewing a scenery of this size comes with considerable difficulties. On one hand, there is always that thought that no one really wants to read a review the length of a college thesis. Alternately, I have to do justice to the product and all of the features and inclusions therein. This particular package is especially challenging because, in addition to the vast area and diversity, there are also four fairly distinct seasons. So, I'll do my best to trim the excess while still giving a comprehensive review.
First of all, it is important to note that there are two important packages which should be mentioned for their contribution to this scenery. Primarily, the Holgermesh, which is included on the DVD, greatly increases the terrain resolution throughout the entire scenery and literally takes dips and makes them into valleys, and takes bumps and makes them into mountains. An exaggeration, of course, but you get my point.
Additionally, the talented people at AussieX.org (OzX) are responsible for a huge number of scenery improvements available in their various download packages. They are probably the most up-and-coming freeware group in our hobby and they have graced simulation with a number of superb freeware aircraft (a wonderful Tiger Moth is their latest offering) and some truly beautiful sceneries which I do hope to review now that I am finishing up Australia. I highly recommend visiting their web site and perhaps making a donation to ensure their continuing flow of talent.
In a scenery as huge as this you expect to see a large variety in both housing and vegetation, and for the most part this wish is rewarded. There is certainly a goodly amount of repeated trees and shrubs, with less variety than I think the real continent deserves. However, I cannot be sure about this because plants are particularly difficult to distinguish in the simulator. A sense of scale is largely a nonentity because the size of autogen throughout the whole simulator is very skewed. Additionally, it's distinctly unrewarding to try to compare the real article to a simulated 2D figure.
However, for the most part, I feel like Orbx did a reasonably good job in capturing the foliage of Australia. There is a good variety of plants, from tall, slender trees which line country roads in the east, to the small, sickly shrubs clinging to life as they scour the Outback soil for nutrients. The quality and variety of the autogen is debatable, but on the whole I feel the most important aspect is that you don't see any of the FSX default plants. There is even a little checkbox in FTX Central which will allow you to select between default and FTX autogen.
Buildings are, on the whole, a completely different matter. There is a much greater variety than with plants, I feel, or perhaps it is just that the originality of a simulated house is more easy to distinguish. In any case, there are everything from large ranch buildings and garages to city-dwelling bungalows with bright red and green tiled roofs. The quality of these objects is, on the whole, quite impressive. Naturally in a scenery of this size there will be repeated buildings, but it is both realistic and aesthetically attractive to look down over a city and see the even rows of roofs.
Largely without exception, these objects are four-sided. However, clever artistry on the part of the developers allows some of the buildings to take on the appearances of having porches, gables, and other 3D features.
The placement of buildings and trees is absolutely essential in every scenery, and no matter how high-definition a building is, it will be absolutely ruined if poorly positioned on the scenery. I am pleased to say that Orbx seems to agree with me on this front because, if nothing else, this entire continent stands as a vast lesson on the proper placement of autogen. Streetlights line highways and suburban neighborhoods, while houses are placed properly and do not float above the ground or stray onto their neighbor's yard.
As the manual for this scenery is discussing settings, it mentions that Orbx doesn't recommend using scenery shadows because these are unpredictable and besides, the objects in FTX have their own shadows on the terrain. This is perhaps the most impressive feature of this package in terms of sheer labor required and the result thereof. Nearly every tree is placed on the corresponding 'dark spot' upon the ground which represents where a tree would stand in real life. As in real life, rows of graceful trees line the roads and provide shade to hot travelers. At first glance, it may appear that these are actually placed on the road. However, after a closer inspection, it is apparent that it is only the foliage of the trees which appears to overlap the road. The actual trunks are placed precisely upon the verge.
Mind you, in a scenery of this size some mistakes are most certainly going to occur. In the hills east of Wagga Wagga, for instance, there are occasionally isolated buildings or camping trailers. Sometimes these will have trees sprouting through them. Similar instances can occur in cities with the odd house over into the street, perhaps, or something similar, but on the whole the standard is remarkably high. This is, I must admit, somewhat less spectacular than if this had been photoscenery of the whole continent; since these are 'tiles' of texture, unless I'm mistaken, Orbx can simply do the tiles and put them down wherever they may go, complete and ready with trees. If this had been a photoscenery and every tree and building had been placed with such exacting precision, I would have hailed it as a miracle.
I spent most of my time in this scenery flying with summer weather because that is the current season as I am writing this. This graces the land with flowing green hills and lush valleys, but it's important to note that Orbx went a long way with this scenery. In addition to summer, there's always spring, which takes the colors of summer that I'm so familiar with and seems to make them explode with new life. Autumn, of course, will lead to a slight lightening in the greens and a darkening in some fields and heralds the arrival of the cold, dry winters. Winter by itself is largely dependent on area. Some of the coastal regions will still retain some green, but for the most part the land is transformed into a world of muted browns.
Hard winter is not seen normally, so it is necessary to select 'Winter' as the season, and then select 'Winter Wonderland' in the weather menu. This will yield Orbx's hard winter textures, but fortunately they did not include this in the Outback as it would look very silly indeed. On the whole the textures are just as crisp and clear, but, of course, white. I commend them for their work with the diversity of the seasons, and lament the length of this review which makes it impractical for me to give more in depth descriptions.
Bits And Bobs
Through my long experience with their sceneries, I know that Orbx is good with eye candy and knows that we sim pilots like to see some variety. We are rewarded with several fascinating scenes. For instance, it's not uncommon to fly over a cattle or sheep station and observe that there are some tiny white blots upon the hill. If you have your scenery sliders up far enough, you can fly in closer and actually observe some blocky sheep, placed right where the sheep were when the image of the landscape was taken. These stations are also home to some less common scenery items such as semis or the like.
Even more unusual, there are occasionally hot air balloons scattered around, often near large cities. Strange to see, but beautifully so.
The AU Blue Region
As the first region pack, the flight simulation world was largely introduced to Australia through the areas covered by AU Blue. Shortly after the release of this product some two years ago, the screen shot forums of many FS web sites were flooded with views from Hobart and the beautiful island of Tasmania. This lovely little gem is home to some very nice diverse terrain, and you can fly from small coastal deltas to hilly rural areas in just minutes.
Australia is a very dry climate and few regions will ever receive snow. However, on this island of Tasmania lies a town called Launceston. Interestingly, OzX made a very nice little scenery of this airport which adds greatly to the town. The hills near this city can receive snow at times, so if you're looking for a place with snow in Australia and don't want to force unrealistic weather, this is a good place to go.
Going onto the mainland of Australia, you'll find a rather interesting landmark near Warnambool. If you have the OzX Australia package installed, which I recommend immensely, you'll find that there are some fascinating stone structures jutting out of the ocean. These are called The Twelve Apostles and I spent a fun afternoon zigzagging in and around these odd formations.
The AU Blue region is home to some rather large cities. Primarily, the vast metropolis of Sidney can be found on the coast. However, the somewhat less-known city of Canberra is also located slightly inland of the coast south of Sydney. This city is the capital of Australia and both Sydney and Canberra give me an opportunity to point out one of the flaws in FTX Australia.
Because this scenery utilizes landclasses, a somewhat generic image of a town is displayed upon the terrain. This is all well and good for the less distinguished cities, but in Sydney, where there are large landmark skyscrapers, it looks very odd indeed when these structures are placed upon the landclass and have little correlation with the actual appearance on the ground, although the geographical locations are fairly true to real life.
When I reviewed this package upon its release I mentioned this to the company and they informed me that they would be creating a new product line called CityScapes to remedy this. Apparently this has never come to fruition, perhaps because of the releases of complex city sceneries from various other companies.
I must admit that I was scarcely bothered by this as I spend most of my time flying in rural GA settings. There is a strange contradiction in Australia in that the vast majority of the land is uninhabited and much of it unimproved and unchanged since the Aborginees began to walk the land. Correspondingly, the majority of the population of Australia lives in cities. So, I find it interesting that there is all of that vast land available and nobody takes it. I suppose this is largely due to the inhospitable nature of the land itself, but I still find it mildly intriguing.
The AU Gold Region
AU Gold was the second area released by Orbx and it many ways it is similar to AU Blue. Some of the major cities include Brisbane, Gold Coast City (with thirty-five miles of coastline), and Toowoomba. As this product largely highlights Australia's Gold Coast, most of the points of interest are located along the eastern shore. At the northernmost tip of the scenery at the shore, if you were to head out to sea from there you'd probably have a nice look at the Great Barrier Reef. However, the majority of this is located off the coast of the AU Green region.
To the west of Brisbane lie the D'Aguilar Range of mountains, including Mt. Nebo and Mt. Glorious. I find this particular area especially scenic, and another short flight from range will lead you to Lake Wivenhoe. To the north of this lake lies another body of water, which is particularly contorted. This is an interesting place to observe some of Orbx's placement of shorelines. In the original release of this region this lake was fairly jagged and didn't seem to have received much attention. However, we are now in service pack three, and I can tell it's been upgraded and the edges are now much smoother and natural. Kudos for going back and fixing the small stuff.
This lake is also the site of a rather interesting trick of Orbx's where the water seems to be placed directly on the terrain. I'll discuss it more later, but in this instance it gives the impression that the water has overflown its banks and is encroaching on the broad, flat, and lush floodplane that surrounds it. It is a particularly beautiful area to my eye, and it really reminds me of some of the Nevada fields in the spring.
Undoubtably the largest region pack and arguably the most diverse, AU Red stretches from the center of this great continent all the way to the western borders. This region manages to encompass everything from the terrain of the famous Australian Outback, to portions of the greenery seen in the other three regions, to vast tracts of bland farmland in the western portion, and is, on the whole, a striking area. When I was flying this region, I was awestruck by the vast proportions of this epic continent and startled that the desert could stretch so far. It was a fitting reminder of how epic the natural world is. I was in one of my favorite jet packages and I generally enjoy a feeling of zipping over the scenery with ease, but the sheer enormity and desolation of the land made my lonely fighter seem suddenly insignificant.
Ayer's Rock is something that will eventually come up in most discussion of the Australian Outback and this review will be no different. Surrounded by the desert and the sparse trees therein, this vast monolith of rock rears from the desert with as much majesty as a whale leaping from the sea, propelled forward by its vast tail. Ayer's Rock itself is quite a sight; streaks of black and brown cut the rock face and there is considerable detail throughout the surface. Mind you, don't get too close sight-seeing as the structure is not 'solid'. In ironic contrast to real life, Ayer's is constructed like an FSX building and you'll fly right through the walls. It would be nice for this to be an actual terrain structure that could be landed upon, but I understand and empathize with Orbx's choice because this path would lead to blurred vertical surfaces and, on the whole, I rather fancy the physical appearance would suffer greatly.
Ayer's Rock is easily accessible from the airport of the same name which is located within sight. The airport itself is unremarkable and unimproved by Orbx or OzX, although I was interested to notice some default buildings which I hadn't seen before and have only rarely seen since. In any case, it's slightly more interesting than the average default FSX field, but I do wish they would have done something with it.
This area is an interesting opportunity to view some of the interesting features which rib the face of the Outback. Throughout the desert regions I was intrigued to notice that strange runnels of reddish-brown earth jut from the surface of the land and chase each other into the horizon, forming weird patterns and impressions upon the land. I was fascinated by these but could not find any more information on their source. They look for all the world like inverted riverbeds in some dire, vast river delta which has turned to desert over millennia.
Far to the west of this harsh land lies a climate made considerably more temperate due to its proximity to the Indian Ocean. Although nearly all of the other packages are scattered with farms and stations, the regions around such towns as Kalgoorlie are home to vast, flat tracts of land which remind me of the farms in the Midwest United States. Although it may have been due to the atmosphere created by the weather I had in the sim, I cannot dispel an impression of gloominess from the regions. Seemingly grayish farmland stretches far into the horizon and was a fascinating contrast to the farmland in the rest of the scenery, which was often accommodating hills, but always green and bright. Undoutably this is just my impression and I hope I haven't offended inhabitants of the region with my description, but I don't think anyone would argue if I were to say that there are more charming areas in Australia.
The last region package released by Orbx is AU Green and, for various reasons, is one of my favorite. I spent a good amount of time on the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland and was particularly charmed by the area around Wepa. As I flew I was fascinated by Orbx's use of water masks. Generally, these features, which are simply textures applied over water which retain the features of 2X water in FSX but give more detail to the surface, are used in tropical settings. However, the use of this technique in the bogs of this region has elevated my opinion of the capabilities of this feature to create realism, and I will say without any trace of doubt in my head that Orbx's use of water throughout the entire scenery is, without a doubt, unequalled in all of the considerable scenery I have reviewed from many talented developers in my career.
These bogs are an ideal place to expound my opinion; from what I can tell, Orbx simply placed water directly over the scenery, leading to the abrupt transitions from marsh to bog to water which occur naturally and without distinct shorelines. If you live by a meadow, stream, or river and observe it throughout the course of a year, you will notice that as time passes and the weather changes the water will overflow its banks, smudging the once-clear shoreline. This is the impression that I get from the use of water in many regions of Australia, not just here. Don't get me wrong, though, there are still plenty of more conventional rivers and lakes in the sceneries.
One of the advantages of this technique is that it allows the developers to place autogen in the water. This effect works particularly well in this region as it allows reeds and other such water-dwelling plants to appear in their natural environment. In this sense, this technique is somewhat of a groundbreaking happening because, to the best of my knowledge, there has never been autogen intentionally placed in water in the simulator. I could be wrong, but I am excluding unintentional flaws from my reasoning.
There is one issue which I abolutely must address, and it's ironic that it involves water because I have been so impressed with Orbx's use of it. Everyone knows of the Great Barrier Reef, and this is located off of the coast of the Cape York Peninsula, which makes up a big chunk of AU Green. Orbx created these out of blue-green blobs which are, oddly, enough, 'hard' surfaces that you can land upon. This is, first of all, rather strange. However, the biggest issue is that these simply don't look good. I would have liked to see some more water masks rather than these plaque-like growths.
Fascinatingly enough, there are some water mask-type reefs off of the coast of Rockhampton. However, rather oddly it seems that these are the exception as I couldn't find any similar ones. Perhaps Orbx was experimenting, and left these ends loose.
Although this peninsula is my favorite area in this region, there are also some truly beautiful deltas up in the northern region of this great continent. Particularly, Derby is located at the mouth of a river flowing from near Halls Creek. Although a more conventional use of water than what I've described above, there is still the simple magnificence of seeing a region that is gorgeous in real life where the developers have managed to capture some of that beauty.
Because this scenery is so large, the performance will indeed vary widely. I would say that, for the most part, FTX Australia is probably on par with default FSX for performance. Mind you, I am thinking object for object. Many of the cities and much of the country has a much higher profusion of autogen than the corresponding default FSX area, and as such performance will be worse. Additionally, some of the custom OzX sceneries are absolutely brutal on frame rates, so although I didn't cover them to any depth in this review, please keep that in mind.
I don't have anything particularly profound to say on this matter. It is a vast scenery, and much care was taken over it, but all of the good stuff in it cannot drown out the fact that it is a high-priced scenery. Use your own discretion to decide how to spend your money.
Orbx Australia = .005 Cents/square mile
Megascenery Earth Arizona = 0.115 Cents/Square mile
VFR Generation X England and Wales = 0.129 Cents/Square mile
VFR Generation X Scottish Western Isles = 2.736 Cents/Square mile
Switzerland Professional X = 0.815 Cents/Square mile
I have used many adjectives to describe this scenery - vast, beautiful, magnificent all come to mind, but there are many more than I could use. For instance, I would say that the people who developed this scenery are very talented and fortunate, and it is only a culmination of many passionate people that could possibly recreate Australia in such glory. The price is high, and the reward equally so, but there is a happy freedom knowing that you can hop in an airplane and possess a scenery so extensive that you will almost never see the end of it.
VFR Reviews Gold Award
VFR Reviews is pleased to announce that this product has won the VFR Reviews Gold Award. For more information, please visit www.VFRreviews.com.
Documentation - 10/10 points
Cost/area covered - 18/20 points
Color correction and photographic quality - 29/30 points
Mesh quality (if not applicable, then five points are given, but if applicable extra points may be earned) - 8/5 points
Performance- 14/15 points
Realism-enhancing features (sounds, etc.) - 7/10
Lack of anomalies - 8/10 points
Total = 94/100
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