Flight1 Ultimate Terrain X - USA, Canada And Europe
By Andrew Herd (6 July 2008)
Many moons ago, back in October 2004, we took a look at a Flight1 product called USA Roads, which was an FS2004 addon. What USA Roads did was considered fairly revolutionary at the time - it replaced Flight Simulator's weedy road system with a realistic set, which meant that you ended up with roughly ten times more roads than you got in the default installation of FS2004, all of which went where they were supposed to go. USA Roads was almost completely configurable and you could opt to display only the major roads, or every road in the database, just as you wanted and it was such a popular product that less than a year later, Flight1 released another series of addons called 'Ultimate Terrain', which not only brought every major and many minor roads into Flight Simulator, but also corrected the rivers, streams and many of the lakes to their real positions. As if that wasn't enough, Ultimate Terrain enhanced the railroads, improved the landclass in the larger cities and added in new scenery tiles for parks, golf courses and cemetaries. At the time I had my doubts about how much of a draw golf course and cemetary land tiles were going to be, but it was a great product, not least because if you had any of the MegaSceneries installed, all the roads and rivers now matched up more or less perfectly at the edges. Flight1 deservedly sold a lot of copies.
Then FSX came along and on the face of it, the need for addons like Ultimate Terrain evaporated, because the roads, rivers and lakes had all been considerably upgraded - for the first time, it was possible to navigate around the world in a default Flight Simulator installation using a sectional and following the road network. But many roads were still missing and although the FSX does represent a serious improvement on anything that had gone before, it only takes a bit of flying around to make you realise that the Ultimate Terrain series still has its place. Or does it? You are going to have to read on...
At the time the review was written, Flight1 had released three different packages in the Ultimate Terrain X series: UTX USA, UTX Canada and UTX Europe. Given that the products are identical beyond the areas they cover, we decided to cover all three in a single review - so everything that follows applies to any of the packages, except where a particular one is specifically identified. The manuals hint at a Ultimate Terrain X Alaska product to follow and given that the data exists, it is possible that a far eastern package might be on the cards, although that is complete guesswork on my part.
The addons are supplied in DVD-style boxes, that contain a single DVD (note that the media is a DVD, not a CD-ROM), a short manual and a flyer advertising other Flight1 products. Installation is straight-forward and involves no more than sticking the DVD in the drive, choosing an installation language, agreeing to the license and watching the bar - which takes quite a long while to reach the end of the line. When the files have transferred and decompressed, you are confronted with the setup tool, of which more in a moment. The system requirements quoted on the box are remarkably honest: a 2.8 Ghz processor, a 128 Mb video card, a gig of RAM, 5 Gb of hard disk space, FSX and Windows XP or Vista. The only place I would take issue with the spec is over the amount of RAM - you really want a 512 Mb video card and a couple of gigs of RAM, especially if you are running Vista. I did the review on a 2.66 Ghz Core2Duo with 4 GB of RAM, a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX, Windows Vista SP1 and FSX SP2. Incidentally, I have now had the chance to run FSX on an eight-core system and the news is that at the same clock speed it doesn't run very much faster than it does on a dual-core machine, which is more or less what you would expect.
When the installation is done, you will find a new icon on the desktop, linking to the setup tool and a new Flight1 Ultimate Terrain program group, containing links to a couple of pdf manuals, the setup tool and an uninstall routine. The first manual is, at 39 pages, a slightly expanded version of the printed configuration manual; the other, at 23 pages, covers the advanced features and it was only when I began idly flicking through this, that I realised we were not in Kansas anymore. I'm not sure why, but I had kind of assumed that Flight1 would just have 'rolled over' Ultimate Terrain from FS2004 to FSX, by making it compatible without enhancing it particularly. Wrong. Ultimate Terrain X doesn't represent quite as much of a jump from the FS2004 version as that did over USA Roads, but it takes several strides in that direction, most of them lying within the setup tool. If you recall the original Ultimate Terrain, the setup utility was a single step dialog that offered a good way to customize the installation, but the new setup tool increases the options by an order of magnitude, at the same time giving a useful indication of the impact your choices are likely to have on frame rates, as well as a screenshot showing what the changes will look like.
Ultimate Terrain X USA and Europe use data sourced from the Tele Atlas Multinet database, which provides GPS-quality mapping and routing data covering most of the world. The USA product covers the entire continental US, plus Hawaii, but excluding Alaska, which will be released as a separate product; while the European addon covers Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. The Canadian product is based on the DTMI Spatial database and covers all of continental Canada.
The setup tool has been completely rewritten and now boasts a cascading menu system which allows you to alter road surfaces, railroad tracks, water bodies, streams and small rivers, night lighting, land and waterclasses and other terrain features, running to a total of something like forty options, a dozen of them relating to roads alone. As if that isn't enough, the top menu line of the applet allows you do some scarily powerful stuff, including altering the FSX terrain performance settings without running FSX; change road and water texture colors globally; modifying the way Ultimate Terrain X features flatten FSX terrain; and even changing Ultimate Terrain X texture mapping features. I am delighted to say that cemetaries and golf courses are still in (although you can disable them if you want) and you also get custom highway interchanges, glacier ice textures, city park polygons, railyards, tunnel entrances and parking lots around sports stadiums. Clearly, the developers have not sat on their hands since the last release, so for example, Ultimate Terrain X adds nearly a hundred new entries into terrain.cfg, another change being that by the time you have finished reading the last page of the Advanced Features manual, you will realise that the Greek gods had marginally less power than the setup tool gives you. I shall not discuss this in any more depth, but suffice it to say that you have the power to change the appearance of almost every terrain feature, right down to the width of the ocean breakers. Oh yes.
As you can see from the screenshots, Ultimate Terrain X has the potential to change the FSX landscape quite a bit, although the effects are more marked in some areas than others. In general, you get about 50% more roads and depending on which options you have set, the UTX roads look quite different to the default system. The screenshots show FSX with the default Ultimate Terrain X options enabled, one of which is 'urban road encasements' which provides wide green verges on either side of major urban roads - an explanatory note tells us are 'almost always' present in reality, though I guess it depends where in the USA, Canada or Europe you go. A similar option is available for rural roads, the major benefit of enabling encasements being that you don't end up with the classic landclassing gotcha of roads running across the tops of urban textures to such a noticeable extent (they will still do it, but the buildings will be further back). Ultimate Terrain X also has an option to create a couple of different types of bridges: the flat 2D ones that Flight Simulator has had since roads first appeared; and rather classy 3D 'extrusion bridges, which are fine things, but do impose a small performance hit. Ultimate Terrain X also brings the option to increase the level of moving traffic on highways and to introduce it on major roads, so once you have it installed, you can fiddle about with the options until the ground you are flying over looks just the way you want it.
I have set the screenshots up so that each pair shows the default FSX installation on the left and how the same terrain looks with UTX installed in the right hand shot. One of the first things to strike my eye, at any rate, is that one of the reasons why Aces (who developed FSX for Microsoft) didn't put in more roads than they did is that the result of doing so is potentially quite messy, especially if you add in minor streams as well. The top pair of shots, which are of the area around Calais/Dunkerque show this quite well - the extra roads and waterways that UTX adds into the sim are just enough to make the way vector scenery cuts across the default tiles without regard to the buildings or fields that appear on them noticeable, assuming you are looking for that kind of thing. In practice, when you are making cross-country flights, this isn't a problem, because there are plenty of other things going on and the extra roads are a seriously good aid to navigation. One of the interesting things about that pair of shots is that the canal is correctly shown as a straight line below and right of the Cessna by UTX, whereas in the default scenery the waterway wiggles all over the place. Another UTX feature - a roundabout - is shown a little ahead of the nose of the plane and this sort of enhancement does a great deal to make the landscape seem more real.
The center pair of shots shows the Lear flying over Smithers, in British Columbia. There isn't a lot to enhance at Smithers, you might think, but just compare the two larger pictures. Even the thumbnails show some serious changes: the lake to the right of the airport in the default FSX installation has vanished with Ultimate Terrain X Canada installed and the Kispiox, which is a moderately large river full of some of the largest steelhead in creation has appeared to its left. Not only that, but we have grown a few more roads and the area of arable land textures at bottom left is history. Even out in the boonies, UTX causes changes.
The final pair of shots in the bottom row show Des Moines, Idaho, again, default scenery on the left, UTX USA on the right. The changes in this pair are quite subtle - if you look to the left of the 737's nose, some ponds vanish with UTX installed and there are some detail changes to the landclassing, which has altered the appearance of the city where it borders on the airport to the right of the plane. Although it isn't as well shown as I would like, you can also see one of the famous urban road encasements running away from the left hand wingtip of the Boeing.
One option which is not enabled by default is the ability to show minor urban roads with Ultimate Terrain X installed. I did try this and exactly the same thing happened as did with the FS2004 version of Ultimate Terrain; urban area textures were messily overlaid by UTX streets, which might well be in the right places, but conflict badly with the default terrain tiles. Given that backstreets aren't exactly vital for navigation in Flight Simulator and that they spoil what would otherwise be a considerably enhancement of the FS world, I turned 'em back off again as fast as decency allowed. With them enabled, I guess I could find the road we live on in FSX, but I am not sure I really have the need to do that.
The ability to modify FSX's internal scenery settings without actually having to start Flight Simulator is quite a bonus, particularly because Ultimate Terrain X has a screen which brings all the important stuff together in one place, along with such exotica as the fibre frame rate time fraction and the texture bandwidth multiplyer - and explanations for what these do and what kind of settings might work with them. Down the bottom of this screen are a couple of bars showing you the predicted cumulative frame rate hit of all the settings, based on actual data culled by the developers from working systems, so if you have the urge to see what the best balance of detail against performance is, Ultimate Terrain X can help.
Verdict? A great product, in what amounts to its third incarnation - I liked Ultimate Terrain a great deal, I like Ultimate Terrain X even better. There isn't anything to rival it out there and not only does UTX have the potential to hugely increase the realism of the FSX landscape, it packs a powerful toolkit into the bargain.