By Kevin Glover (20 April 2010)
PrefaceREX, or Real Environment Xtreme is the most complex product I have ever reviewed. Leading up to its release in December of last year, the product's site was frequently crashing due to the large amount of simmers who were refreshing their browsers every few seconds waiting for the release. REX generated more enthusiasm than any product I have ever seen, and in some places it generated a lot of enmity, too. I'm happy to be writing this review nearly a year after the release of the product (although REX 2.0 was only released a few months ago) because there are many resources to draw from; besides, the passion which this product evoked in some people has dimmed a bit with time, which is good. Candidness is difficult to achieve when fanatics are opposed to it.
Usually, it's only books that have a preface or a foreword or anything like that. However, this review is going to be long, and perhaps a little tedious (though I hope not). For most people there is no use in reading the entire thing, so I'd like to explain how this review is organized.
The first half serves as a guide to the product; all of the information here can be found in the user manual, but in the interest of a complete review, I have summarized most of it, which I hope will help those who want a quicker guide to getting started. The second half is more of a review. A look at the interface, textures, and what-have-you with the critical edge the first half lacked, as I wanted to keep it as short as possible. So, if you're considering the product, read the second half. If you've recently purchased the product, read the first half. If you've already had it for awhile, then chances are you're wasting your time reading this, but I'm flattered all the same.
First ImpressionsUpon purchasing this product you will receive three emails, usually on the same day. These emails provide your basic receipts, notice of charges, and finally your registration information. Keep this email handy, then head on over to your store account. Once logged in, find your purchase of REX from the list at the top and click on it. On this webpage, three links should appear: the first is a link to the actual downloads of REX. REX is in four parts, each about 600MB. The update to 2.0 should be included if you have purchased this product prior to the release of REX 2.0, but if not, then go ahead and download the update as well. There is also a download tool for those who have slow connections or experience difficulty downloading.
Once everything is on your computer, the installation process begins. It's been ages since I installed REX, but as I recall the installer is all quite self-explanatory, if a bit slow. When it prompts you, copy and paste the installation information which you received via email, and the installer should go without fuss. If any issues are experienced, feel free to inquire at the REX forum.
Once installed, double-click the desktop icon to bring up the product. It will immediately direct you to the Configuration Manager tab of REX 2.0. There are several things you need to do before getting to use the product; first, it is necessary to find your FSX.CFG. The locations of this file are given directly on the Configuration Manager page, but if you have trouble finding them, here are the exact default installation locations:
Windows XP - C:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Microsoft\FSX
Windows Vista and Windows 7 - C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\FSX
Next you need to find where the actual FSX folder is. By default, the installation path is -
Windows 32 Bit - C:\Program Files\Microsoft Games\Microsoft Flight Simulator X
Windows 64 Bit - C:\Program Files (x86)\Microsoft Games\Microsoft Flight Simulator X
Lastly, you need to create a backup of your original FSX textures, just in case. To do this, simply click 'Create' under 'Step 3 - Backup file'. You can restore default textures at any time with this.
The rest of the options on this page are purely for your own preference. I fly with all of them checked, even though I don't have access to internet on my machine, but nonetheless, it does no harm to have Vatsim weather enabled. The sliders on the far right of the window control the Low Level Visibility and Wx Engine update range. These control exactly what they say, and I recommend leaving the sliders as they are until you're familiar with the product and know what you want. When finished with all of these steps, click 'Save'.
The program now directs you to the 'Options' page. Here you find everything you'd ever want to do with REX 2.0, and it's also time to make some more choices. If you're like me, you might just leave everything checked at first and go for a flight to see what's what. However, if you'd like to play with these settings from the start, here's what to keep in mind:
If you have any decent computer at all, you might as well leave the boxes all checked. My computer was good about a year ago and is decent now, and I fly with the best REX textures available. For me, I did not experience a significant performance decrease when I went from stock textures to the REX HD textures, but your computer may not be like this. One thing to have checked, if nothing else, is 'DXT5 Optimized Clouds' under the 'Cloud Themes' heading. This is the best texture format for REX, so I recommend you use it.
Main MenuAfter all that setup, we're not finally getting into the meat of the product. The Main Menu is displayed every time REX 2.0 is loaded and features the following: nine tabs along the top and three main buttons across the center. From here you can access nearly all of REX 2.0's features. Let's look at the three large buttons first. They are all clearly labeled and give a good impression of what they do.
'I just want to fly' - Just as it says, this button will cause REX to load a flight plan and weather. REX can also install textures to suit the flight if you'd like. You have no idea what you'll be doing in your flight, but you can change anything you'd like in the FSX menu before actually starting your flight. Usually you'll have to change the aircraft to suit the flight plan as well, since REX cannot change the aircraft from what's in your default flight. I just clicked the 'I just want to fly' button on my own computer, selected 'Cancel' when asked to install new textures, and it brought me up in a Piper Cub at Seattle with moderate clouds and a stiff wind. This can be a bit fickle, though; if you have a flight plan loaded as your default flight, FSX will default to your saved location in the flight plan despite having REX load a new location into the menu. Also, I've found that after a flight loaded in this manner, REX 2.0 will not load a new flight or weather when this button is pushed. Also, it's not completely automated; if you select 'OK' when it asks you if you want to install textures, then you'll have to pick your own airports.
'I like to create' - From here you can access all of what makes REX great - the textures. I won't detail every window and how to select the textures. It's all very intuitive, and besides, the REX manual does that for me already. The textures available cover: Sky and Cloud theme, Inland, Ocean, and Tropical water textures, Wave Animations, Runways/Taxiways, Airport Environment, Sun/lighting textures, and finally Effects/Sounds. This last one is not functional at the moment. I assume the REX team will enable this in a later update.
When selecting Sky themes, you will find that there are a wide variety of choices for dawn, day, and dusk skies. These vary from subtle to extreme, but are all realistic to some geographic region. Cloud themes are comprised of 3D clouds and Cirrus Clouds. You can select any combination of the extensive array of seventy-nine cloud themes with a total of 1,232 cloud types.
The Tropical Water textures available from REX 2.0 are varied and beautiful. There are fifteen different reef textures ranging from fantastic coral formations in shallow water to intricate near-surface rocky areas. You can also change the hue of the textures via the sliders, as in the regular water textures.
Wave Animations are rather interesting simply because they are all so different. The best is widely acknowledged to be the 'Sparkling' theme, and I fly with this quite a bit. However, there are more tame animations such as 'Number 1' or 'Frosted'. Have fun playing around with these for various weather situations. In most cases, you can't go wrong.
REX also features a number of Runway and Taxiway textures. These come in varied states of use and wear, and there are different variations for concrete and asphalt textures. In total, there are seventy-eight different airport environment textures.
Lastly, there are a number of sun and lighting effects. From here you can select which sun textures, flare, Lightning, Landing Lights, Aircraft Strobes, and Runway Lights you'd like to appear in the simulator. As always, these vary widely, and require some experimentation before you find one that really suits you.
'I want to follow a flight plan' - This option is a combination of all of the sections below. You can load your own weather or have REX do it for you, but you will also have to plan your flight. REX will then load weather along your flight plan.
Flight PlannerAlthough it seems to me that REX is, at its heart, rooted in textures, it also includes a flight planner to complement its suite of 'other-than-texture' features (the developers are probably cringing at me calling them that).
Now, the flight planner isn't terribly involved to set up. As it says on the program window, you will need to select an aircraft, departure, arrival, and alternate airports, cruising altitude and speed, and what flight type (VFR, IFR, etc). Once you submit your flight plan, a dialog box will come up with three selections of weather: Real-Time, REX Random Theme, and Archived weather. Unfortunately, I cannot pass any judgement on the first option because I don't have internet on my FS rig. However, this functions much like FSX's real-world weather, but with the enhancements of REX and its weather engine.
The second option is what I use the most. Selecting this option will take you to a screen which will ask what season and severity of weather you'd like and which airport you'll be flying at. This will then generate weather along your planned route. It will also allow you to have REX load textures which it deems appropriate to the theme by clicking the 'WX Textures' button. REX 2.0 will also bring up a map of your flight plan with the weather fronts displayed upon the terrain. From here, selecting the 'Flight Plan' button will allow you to create the actual flight plan.
Since I can't say much about this subject, I apologize immensely for not being able to review this section due to the lack of an internet connection on my FS rig. Believe me, I've tried to get one, but the computer absolutely refuses to recognize the connection. Anyway, if you would like more information on this subject, I recommend you download the REX manual from their forums and reference pages 40 through 54.
WASysAgain, I cannot use this feature because of the internet connection. Please reference pages 62-64 for more information.
Once you've picked your weather and flight plan, you can select the 'Fly Now' tab. This will minimize REX and start the WASys and FSX. Once in FSX you will still need to select your aircraft, location of flight and/or flight plan.
I highly recommend a visit to the REX forums. There, you can find unbiased information from regular REX users about these few things which I can't comment on. It's really worth a stop.
IntroductionAs I stated above, the intent of this section is to inform about the quality of the content within REX. Naturally, I will be as unbiased and candid as possible, but do not expect profiles of every theme and thoughts about which specific cloud themes go well with which sky. I have flown with this product just short of a year and I still do not feel that my brain is sufficiently wrapped around it. Even now I get surprises, especially with random weather. Additionally, we must accept that each theme in this product is not equal. Some are quite stunning, and some are quite drab, just as clouds are in real life. In some ways, this is the ideal product to make, because clouds really do have such variety that you can hardly go wrong with them. Enjoy.
Cloud ThemesWhen I purchased REX, it was primarily for the clouds. To me, it had been marketed primarily as a cloud program, but now I accept that there is much more to it than that. However, because of my initial impressions, I was most interested in the clouds and therefore most critical of them. Take this with a grain of salt, as opinions will vary.
Below I discuss the quality of the clouds, but here are a few facts to keep in mind first. For one thing, there are a total of fifty-seven 3D clouds and twenty-two Cirrus clouds. This allows for many thousands of combinations, but certain themes work better with others. It is wise to select themes which both correspond to the sort of weather you're expecting, otherwise some very unusual combinations occur. However, nature herself gives us some of these days just for kicks anyway, so I very much doubt that it's possible to go really wrong.
I did note that some of the more spectacular cloud themes can have certain disadvantages. When flying with stormy weather in some of the more dramatic themes intended for such weather, certain clouds can stand out very much. This is fine, of course, but when you fly past a striking thunderhead and then pass the exact same thing a moment later, you realize that all is not well. Most themes have enough fairly low-key clouds as to not merit 'repeats', though, and I have only experienced really obvious repeated clouds about twice. The worst it got was about four of the same huge cloud in the same screen shot.
On the whole, REX's clouds are quite good. I say this in a relative sense; compared to FSX, they are utterly superb. This review focuses on how REX matches up to the simulated world, so bare that in mind; however, I hope you will allow me a few thoughts before we get back to a more grounded discussion of the clouds. In relation to real clouds, the included themes are somewhat lackluster. This is, perhaps, not an unfair comparison; I've seen aircraft that, in screen shots, can hardly be differentiated from the real thing. Some sceneries are getting there too. However, clouds have not, for whatever reason, been a focus of flight simulator development, and therefore they are not really up to the level of innovation we're seeing in aircraft and scenery design today. Some people will be upset with this comparison, but please; have some more salt.
Part of this is because FSX's handling of clouds is, at its most basic levels, utterly nonsensical. The only way to do them that we have seen is to put a 2D image of a cloud into a simulator and have it constantly rotate to face your aircraft. Want an example? Load up with a lot of clouds and slew through them; you'll see what I'm talking about.
Now, because this product has very little to be compared to as far as cloud textures go, I'm quite happy with it. However, I want to make it clear that if you expect something as good as real life, prepare yourself for severe disappointment. The very nature of how FSX handles clouds is quite ridiculous, so I give the REX team kudos for doing the best they can with such a system.
Anyway, back to discussion of the actual product; yes, the clouds are very good indeed. I reviewed this product with all of the cloud textures enabled in the Options tab. However, the highest resolution I selected (4096) is not to be seen in every theme. For one thing, only those themes which say 'HD Enabled' after them have high definition textures. High definition isn't even necessarily 4096; technically, anything above 1024 is high definition, so there are also HD textures at a resolution of 2048. So, by the numbers alone, we can safely say that REX's textures are a massive improvement on default, and the 4098 textures outclass most other payware add-ons alone.
It needs to be noted, though, that Cirrus clouds only have resolutions of 512 and 1024. This is primarily because you are, for the most part, very far away from these clouds. On the whole they look very good, but sometimes it's possible to discern the repeating pattern when the amount of high-altitude clouds is particularly dense.
However, simply because the resolution of the textures is high says nothing about how 'good' the clouds are. I'm worried this is going to become a terribly abstract review; what is good? Some people are easily impressed by the towering pillars of storm clouds, but others will simply appreciate the immaculately sharp edges and wisps on a cumulus in high wind. Nonetheless, it's important to note how essential to REX's success is the fact that each theme includes textures for various weather. If you select a theme intended for thunderstorms, then what will clouds look like when you select foggy weather? Actually, pretty good. Although each set has what one might call a 'comfort zone', they are flexible enough to accommodate drastic changes of weather outside of their intended application.
Interestingly enough, even though these images are mostly taken from real photographs of clouds, the REX team seemed keen to enhance some of the textures; set twenty-nine's preview image shows a basic cloud, and then set thirty shows the same cloud with another layer over it. Quite interesting. Still, when actually flying with the two sets I noticed nothing extraordinary. I just hope they didn't fiddle with too many of the other sets that I'm not aware of.
Although some sets look better in certain weather than others, there is still no reason to call these textures bad. I spent some time in New England awhile ago and got quite depressed by the layers of bland rain clouds. Doubtlessly it's not like that all the time, but nonetheless I was quite happy to return to my wide Nevada skies and puffy white monoliths. This experience led me to think about the themes in REX; although I don't like the bland ones included with the product, they certainly are realistic to areas that get lots of rain.
So, after all of that uncertainty and waffle, what is my overall opinion of the cloud textures? On the whole, you get a lot of quality textures. I will let you go from there on whether or not you like them, because they are pictures of real clouds and therefore one can hardly complain about them; to do so would be to say that nature created an imperfect cloud, and all things in nature are, in their own way, more or less perfect.
Sky ThemesOne thing that REX really does well is provide variety. The developers included nearly eighty textures which span dawn, daylight, and dusk. These textures seem to be intended to cover a wide span of the globe. This is especially evident in the descriptions of the dawn and dusk themes. For instance, you will find themes replicating the 'painted desert' of Arizona, or the vibrant hues of a Newfoundland sunset, or even the dust of the Australian desert. I, personally, found some which very closely match the skies seen in my own geographical region, and this bodes well for the general user to be able to find something which suits his or her area, too.
Daytime themes are certainly the most profuse, and there is a creative and descriptive name for every set. They range from the very dramatic to the very realistic, but all have their own individual merits and drawbacks. I spent a terrible few hours flying around Wagga Wagga, Australia with some horrible bland theme which REX had randomly loaded for me; I suppose there has been a sky seen like this, but I certainly didn't like it.
For the most part, though, they are more thoughtful than that. There are several schemes intended for clear tropical skies, as well as multiple gray ones for city flyers. One of my favourite screen shot themes is intended for high flyers and features a deep blue palette. The one which best matched my area was quite light, fading to a deep blue near the top, and very bright, almost washed-out colour near the horizon.
One the whole, the sky textures are many and varied and definitely are integral to this product. Sometimes they sky itself is magnificent enough to drown out the clouds, and occasions like these always leave me with a smile.
Water TexturesREX features the ability to create completely unique textures for inland, inland brown, ocean, and tropical water. Each are worked in much the same way; the window will have two panes showing an image of the water texture and four sliders to the right. These sliders are Plankton, Brightness, Contrast, and Saturation. These work much as described, but the plankton one can be a bit confusing. This slider will control the amount of bacteria present in the water textures. More bacteria means greener water, and less means a deep blue. Generally, ocean water will have a certain amount of plankton, but rivers often have very little. Judge where you are flying and what sort of environmental factors would be present and play with the sliders accordingly. A big thanks to Mr. Paul Wheeler of Flight Sim Water Configurator and PW Sceneries (fswaterconfigurator.com) for explaining these to me.
There is no strict way of getting the best results. After a year of fiddling, I still haven't gotten a theme that I've really loved, but there's a certain fun in that, too. Try to avoid extremes, though; for instance, if you have the contrast slider all the way to the right, the simulator will boot up with water which, when viewed from straight above, is the base color and then has 'cracks' of pure white. Lots of contrast? Hardly, but one time I did this it looked a bit like foamy water in a storm.
On the whole, I think REX preserves a decent balance of ease-of-use and ability to customize the water textures. Only four sliders mean the learning curve is fairly light, but you can't get anything terribly dramatic. Additionally, when you ask REX to 'Load Wx Textures' it will only load the default theme which came with REX. So, I recommend loading a theme that you like, then disabling water textures in the 'Options' tab; this will save time loading textures, or allow you to use another program to load water textures.
Tropical WaterBesides the clouds, this is one of the things which struck me most about REX. There are fifteen tropical water textures which include beautiful scenes of underwater coral, rock formations, and the like. These vary from a dramatic representation of the Great Barrier reef to subtle patterns of near-surface rock formations. These can all be altered much like the other water themes to blend in with the general color of the surrounding ocean, or to create a unique set of textures specific to one area of the world. Keep in mind, though, that the basic textures aren't changed; more or less, it's just the color scheme that's played around with.
Wave AnimationsAgain, REX features many varied wave animations. These are all suited to different conditions, but one cannot deny that some are better than others. Certain themes just seem a bit blockier in the simulator, and others just look silly. Most of the time this is a result of having picked something that doesn't fit for your area, such as a very active pattern for when you're flying around small mountain lakes, so take into account the title, description, and where you're going to fly when picking a theme.
I personally found it easy to get bogged down with one or two favourite themes that I used a lot. However, the level of variety is impressive, so play around a bit. It's really worth the time, because I've discovered some wonderful themes when I took a chance. On the whole, however, the increased number of choices is the biggest advantage REX has over FSX. The default water theme was OK, but not suited to every situation. REX's great selection solves this problem, so take advantage of it.
Airport EnvironmentThere are a total of seventy-eight textures which cover the tarmac and runways at airports. These textures only replace the default ones, so your add-on airports are not affected. REX includes textures for concrete and asphalt runways and taxiways and some of these are very worn, while others are brand new and look just like a fresh highway. The ones that are worn and cracked often feature the same map of cracks, just with different textures placed over them. These are a vast improvement on default. The resolution is considerably higher and the level of detail blows FSX out of the water. Many of these rival the best airport textures that I've seen in scenery add-ons, so it's neat to be able to have those at every single default FSX airport.
You may note that the patter of cracks is repeated on some sets; this is similar to a bump map on an aircraft, where other textures are just placed over the bumps, leaving them intact.
Additionally, there are two airport parking textures. One is fairly clean, the other shows lots of oil spills and grime.
Sun/LightingREX features sun, lightning, aircraft strobe, landing lights, runway lighting, and light flare enhancements. These all feature a variety of textures which are all quite realistic. For instance, REX includes xeon, golden, and white landing lights in several intensities. Aircraft strobes also are enhanced with four options, but sometimes this can create funny issues with certain add-on aircraft where, for instance, landing lights are replaced with the strobe or runway lighting textures. These are rather unusual, but are related more to individual aircraft than REX. I haven't looked into it, but I think this should be a fairly easy fix in the Aircraft.CFG.
Also included are three different variations of lightning. REX's product page says that these are supposed to create an array of 'lightning situations', but I cannot say that, other than the different color and shape of the themes, there is much difference to how the lightning is portrayed in the simulator. To me, it is still just flashes of texture which vary in intensity and severity with the weather.
Thoughts On General REX UseOn the whole, REX is very user-friendly and easy to get the hang of, despite the enormous number of options. It's apparent from the beginning that the developers put a lot of thought into how the user interacts with their product, and I can happily say that it paid off. Usually we will all get set into little grooves of how we use the product; for instance, I hardly ever clicked the 'I just want to fly' button. However, some users might enjoy that freedom. It's to REX's benefit that the program is versatile enough to allow the user to do as little or as much as he or she wants.
The REX interface is very attractively designed, but I feel it can be a little bloated. When loading new windows or scrolling through themes, my moderately powered computer often experiences a brief freezing of REX. I suspect many other users have this, but for the most part it's not enough of a bother to complain about.
One rather inconvenient aspect is that, presently, REX does not support loading of individual textures; that is, you have to load everything at once, you can't do clouds or water or what not individually. Admittedly, you can change what to load in the Options tab, but then you have to change that again later on and, on the whole, it's more bother than it's worth.
The biggest factor causing long load times is water. When I have enabled loading water textures, it frequently took over ten minutes for my computer to load everything. Disabled, I'd say it took half the time.
I still must apologize for not being able to cover the WASys or real-world weather in greater detail, but I can say with a good deal of confidence that, based on what I've read in the forums and in general, both of these features are very handy and don't suffer from any major bugs. Having the WASys is fun, as I know from owning Captain Sim's weather radar, but only if you feel like dodging thunderstorms. Most of the time I plow through so that I can get some good lightning shots, which is easier said than done.
More Thoughts On The Weather EngineI can't utilize this part of the product to its potential because of the internet connection, but I think I can make some general statements based off of my own use. On the whole, I think it's a great addition. It adds so many more layers of clouds, precipitation, wind, and just about every environmental factor. This is applicable to every situation whether you're using Vatsim or real world weather. It just handles weather situations better than FSX and it makes for a much more realistic experience. Additionally, when you use the default FSX weather, it's incredible how silly the clouds look. You don't realize, but for the most part FSX weather is just a cloud here and there with little else, depending on the installed weather. REX adds so much more, it's really quite incredible. The multiple layers of weather, and how they are handled over time, is quite integral to the success of the weather engine.
Also, one handy feature is that you don't need to start REX to have the weather engine (or WASys) load. You can simply enable the weather engine every time FSX is started in the Configuration Manager.
PerformanceREX features an extremely customizable load of textures and options which allow the user to create the best experience for just about any computer. On my own rig, I flew with the top options for textures and such to make for best looks, but not frame rates; fortunately, there is hardly any impact on performance. Naturally, frames get worse with bad weather and you may fly with more of it now that things actually look decently, but still, I did not notice any change from default worth writing about.
UpdatesREX. Not only REX, but REX 2.0. This product has already proven itself beyond argument to be the pinnacle of environment add-ons, but whether or not it will go down in flight simulation history as one of the immortals depends on if the developers keep updating it. The 2.0 appended to the product name shows that the team is willing to continue developing this product even when they won't make more money off of it, and I dearly hope they continue. We'll just see.
Final WordRex, in Latin, means king. I will happily call myself one of the subjects in REX's benevolent reign and if I were to meet you, my reader, I would look you in the eyes and tell you this is indubitably the best $40.00 you can spend on your hobby. I can think of no more fit comparison to describe this product. It is vast in its complexity and sublime in its versatility. The simulator will never be the same again.
VFR Reviews is pleased to announce that REX 2.0 has earned the distinction of being the first product ever to be awarded the VFR Reviews' Blue Award. We chose this colour scheme for our top reward as an allusion to the sky; everything that flies does so in the sky, and the sky is blue. It is fitting that REX, as the product which has single-handedly done more for the flight simulator's environment than any before it, be the first to be recognized with this commendation.
Reviewed On:Intel Q6600 at 2.4 GHz
Windows Vista Home Edition 64 bit
MSI P35 Neo II
ATI 4850 512MB
2GB Corsair Dominator
Microsoft Flight Simulator X, Acceleration
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