FS2002 Preview Part 1
By Andrew Herd (16 October 2001)
can't clearly recall version one of Flight Simulator - my memory is that it was an Apple II product, and I think I must have tinkered with it awhile. What I do know for sure is that I did buy a copy of the first PC version and fooled about with that when I was supposed to be doing other things like furthering my research career. So many years have passed since that things have gotten hazy, but I remember that once you had flown under the wireframe bridge, you had pretty much had the experience, and the delights of flying a plane with the keyboard were an acquired taste.
That was many, many versions ago. FS2002 is nominally the eighth release, and after being underwhelmed by FS2000, I promise that you will be delighted with the new version. In fact, I reckon it is unquestionably the best flight simulator I have ever seen, aside of the ones the military use. What its release will mean for other sims remains to be seen, but my own opinion is that FS2002 marks the moment when Flight Simulator well and truly comes of age. It also marks a point when Flight Simulator reinvents itself as a VFR simulator, although the big iron enthusiasts won't be disappointed. This is the first of three articles looking at the features of 2002, and the potential it has to change the future of flight simulation. I am going to reserve any criticism - and there isn't much - for when I review the release version.
For this first preview, we are going to take a flight together from Charlotte Amalie Harbor to Culebra so we can go fishing. I've just brought the Caravan down from Miami, and get in pretty late in the evening, so we have a few beers, sort out our gear, make our plans for the next day and say goodnight.
In the morning, the forecast looks good, so we decide to fire up FS2002, load up the Caravan, move it to the correct location and get us some weather. If you don't mind, you can get on with pre-flighting the sim while I tie those Bimini hitches you never quite managed to master. If we catch any wahoo I do not want them breaking off on the first run like last time!
The graphics are quite different on the flight creation screen and some new aircraft have appeared, but generally you should feel pretty much at home if you are an experienced FS2000 user. But there are some subtle differences - all of them for the better. The interface is much more ergonomic and it is far, far easier to select an aircraft, choose the correct time of day and season, set up weather, and place the plane where you want it. You can even do all your flight planning before you load the plane, which is a major advance, and you can even create a flight, save it and exit the sim without loading a plane, but the biggest difference is that you can now choose to place the aircraft on other locations than a runway. At Charlotte, you have a a choice of four start positions - E, W, N and S - being a harbor, they are all in the sea, but at conventional airports you can choose from jet and light aircraft stands. We'll choose 'east', load some real weather and get ready to go - and yeah, I did remember to bring the reels this time. Man, I ask you, am I never going to be allowed to forget that?
The general layout of the weather screen brings no surprises, this part of FS2002 being evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. The map view window in the center appears to be slightly bigger than it was in 2000, which is good, but it still feels cramped on a 19 inch monitor, and navigating around it using those oh-so-familiar keys is just as cranky as it ever was. Weather loads on the same principle as before from the Jeppesen database, and you can set up your own using the sliders should you so wish.
So, we got the gear, we got the plane, let's go fishing. The only possible complaint I have is that you stuck the bird so far out from the shore, FS2002 lacking anything like a rowboat API, but now we have managed to get ourselves and the gear into the inflatable, we had better talk about the plane.
Every recent version of Flight Simulator has brought a new class of plane with it: with FS2000 it was turboprops - 2002 builds on that by bringing an amphibian, although the Cessna Caravan is also available in a wheeled version. The amphibian has the distinction of being the largest single-engined floatplane currently in production, and if you weren't rowing so hard, you would be able to see it bobbing up and down on the water.
Did I say 'bobbing'? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did. It might be a tricky thing to capture in a screen shot, but when you look at it in spot plane view, the Caravan does actually bob gently up and down in time with the beautifully textured waves gently lapping on the shore (really). This is the first sign that there is something quite different about FS2002 - you can land anywhere you want in the sea and once you are landed, you bob, and the waves lap. Now if I was going to really nit-pick, I would have to say that things bob and lap regardless of whether there is a flat calm or a hurricane blowing, so it would appear that bobbing and lapping are fitted as standard, though I have to concede that the rate of drift does go up a little with wind strength. But nonetheless, after years getting used to the weird concept of 'landable water' in previous incarnations of Flight Simulator, here at very long last, we have a version where you can land on any damp patch big enough to get down on and which fully supports floatplanes. So load the gear in and quit complaining. Sure I have a bad back. But how many Cessna Caravans do you have? Yeah, right. No, I don't know what that ship is doing over there. How should I know its name? Look, there are ships all over in this simulator, it isn't as if I know them all personally or something. Gimme a break.
After we get the gear stowed, we'll take a look at the plane. FS2000 had the misfortune to be born at the dawn of the graphics revolution, and always seemed to limp along because of it. By comparison, its successor can use up to 1600 x 1024 in 32 bit color; and there is full 3D support, with up to eight lighting sources; and bi and tri-linear filtering; so the visual potential is enormous.
While the new visual models are a cut above the FS2000 default planes, they aren't exactly earth shattering (texture-wise they fall slightly behind existing leading edge add-ons), although the enhanced lighting environment of FS2002 makes them look really special at times, as you can see from the sunset-lit shot that opened this piece. But though the liveries may not knock your eye out, if you look closely enough at the aircraft with bare metal or polished textures, you will see something else new - reflections of the scenery or even of night lighting. Very cool indeed.
By now you will have realised that the new release marks the dawn of a new era in aircraft modelling and while the majority of FS2000 aircraft should work in the new version without major surgery, 2002 looks to be the last version of FS that will use the .mdl file format - which means that FS2000 aircraft will not work in FS2004. So it appears that the new release may well mark the end of the road for traditional aircraft design tools, and the rise of a new generation of sophisticated CAD tools like Discreet's gmax. gmax is available in a variety of flavors, starting with a freeware version, though commercial developers will need the payware gmax dev.
The moment I open the taps on the Caravan, hit Shift-w to drop the water rudders and begin to cruise across the bay to get into position for our take-off run, you will understand how much of a leap forward 2002 is, because we have spray and a wake and smoke off the engine and all kinds of stuff that was never there before. As you look back, you can see the buildings on the shore, and the trees covering the hill behind us, and while they might be lowly cruciforms, unlike Gerrish Gray's wonderful macro trees, they are good cruciforms, which at long last truly look like trees, even if some of them look a little too far south for their own good. The era of the flat 'billboard' trees that used to grace our airports is well and truly over - finito. Coupling the sophisticated sprite code, gorgeous bitmap rendering and routines for displaying complex and repeated objects that make up the 'Autogen' engine, FS2002 not only looks good, but offers serious opportunities for third party enhancements. I have no doubt that 'tree pack' add-ons are going to be extremely popular as are big VFR sceneries along the lines of Netherlands 2000, because at long last Autogen makes it possible to realise VFR detail without killing frame rates stone dead, but the flip side is that many existing airport sceneries are going to need to be a certain amount of reprogramming to stand up in this new environment.
Anyway, it is getting late. We retract the rudders and go through the usual floatplane thing of starting our run with the stick pulled right back before letting it move slowly forward, discovering in the process that the Caravan in 2002 doesn't model water takeoffs that well - try as I might I can't get the plane to aquaplane "on the step" the way the real thing does, but on the other hand, it doesn't porpoise either, so every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps some clever programming team will get around these problems - if they do (and something can be done about the unrealistically slow drift rates) then I could get seriously interested in simulated float plane flying. The cool way of cutting take off distance is to lift one float off first, cutting the drag, but it is also a good way of sticking in a wingtip, so I am gonna pass this time.
We unstick and climb smoothly into the air, marvelling at the way the anti-aliasing built into the sim has left us with an almost smooth upper edge to our panel, and admiring the clouds, because they look like clouds. Sadly, FS2002 looks like the end of the road for the much loved FSClouds, because after six years of effort Microsoft have finally got it right and built a cloud set that really does cut the mustard. Not only that, but in any kind of a wind, the clouds drift relative to the plane and to the ground, which is a show stopper. If a new version of FSClouds manages to improve on the default set, I will be seriously impressed.
Better yet, when you turn to look at the clouds out of a side window in the 2D view, you don't have to go downstairs and make a coffee while the view loads, the way you did in the previous version. The 2D views load almost instantly, which brings me on to the greatest virtue of this sim - it is so smoooooooooooth. No, smooth is the wrong word for it. It runs like a stockinged leg on satin sheets. If your machine can run FS2000, it will run this, but much, much, much better. Sure, you may not be able to max out absolutely all the sliders, and a good deal depends on what the capablilities of your video card, but Microsoft have really listened to what users wanted and the code is optimised for display on systems that you and I can get our heads around. Word says that clarification of the inner secrets of the aircraft model APIs will ensure that third party developers get to play on a level field with Microsoft, so that add-on planes run at high frame rates. Unless I am very wrong, or piracy gets even more out of hand than it already is and kills the add-on scene, FS2002 will be a rich environment for third party aircraft and we should see some really superb floatplanes, even given some of the limitations apparent with the Caravan.
It isn't a long flight to Culebra, so we barely have time to climb to 3000 before we have the island in view - thanks to the new virtual cockpit. I was not, I have to admit, a fan of the old virtual cockpit. Time and again, I would be turning base leg and I would catch sight of an instrument that was frozen in completely the wrong orientation and animal instinct would take over, leading to some exciting arrivals. FS2000 virtual cockpits barely deserved the name, because they were just bitmaps with windows in them through which you could view the virtual world. But in 2002, all the virtual instruments work and if you have a hat control, you can at long last fly a left hand circuit while you keep an eye on your airspeed, which for me, suddenly makes the whole concept worthwhile.
The interior views may not be up there with the best commercial developers can offer and the concept clearly has some way to go, but I have seen enough to realise that there is a whole new world of 3D panels to discover, adding yet another layer to this already complex simulation. The downside is that although all the instruments work in the virtual panel, you have to go back to 2D (cockpit view) mode to adjust them, and we will have to wait until at least FS2004 before we can admire the pedals and adjust the HSI at the same time, unless some of the FS hardware suppliers can come up with a smart way around the problem. The default virtual panels are probably best treated as a technology demonstration and given the amount of talent lurking out there, I have little doubt that some stunning 3D design will grace our screens before the next couple of years are out.
If the cockpit has changed out of recognition, so has the world outside. Yeah, I heard you ask what the little yellow circle is in the VP screen shot. Is anything to do with FS2002? Nope, I put it there. That, my friend, is the airstrip. No, I am not joking, all those friendly glowing white boxes which we used to know and love so well are gone. From now on, you have to find your destination the hard way, which means straining your eyes to find airstrips the way real pilots do.
A backward step? Listen, I have been known to get lost ten miles away from international airports, let alone island strips like this one. In real life, even the biggest airports have a chameleon-like ability to merge with their surroundings, so successfully at times that it seems incredible that anyone ever manages to find them. All FS2002 is doing is taking a step nearer to the truth and it introduces a whole new dimension of enjoyment in the process. I will tackle the scenery in greater detail in a later article, but all I want to say for now is that the visual environment is so good, I am convinced that it will introduce a new interest in VFR sceneries - and if one of the bigger outfits doesn't start work right now on a Caribbean scenery, then they are passing up a huge opportunity. With the limitations of the previous version removed, 2002 is going to be a bush pilot's heaven, with trees stretching to the far horizon, strips that you have to fly over twice before you are sure you have seen them and gorgeous islands with golden beaches that positively beckon you to land on them.
So we'll do an orbit of the strip (ignoring the lighter sea tiles which is a bug which will be fixed in the release) and we decide that it would be more fun to land on the sea. Incidentally, while the runway is the right length, the base of the peninsula on which it sits is much wider in real life, so that the end of 13 isn't almost dangling in the sea the way it is in FS2002, but if Microsoft ever manage to get the topography of every single Caribbean island completely right I will be very impressed.
We do a low pass just to make sure there are no rocks to spoil our fun, and then we take a lazy loop out into the ocean before we turn in and throttle back and let the old lady settle oh-so-gradually into the salt, holding the stick back in the final moments until we feel those big floats just kiss the surface and then there is spray all over and suddenly we ain't flying any more.
Time is getting on, the moon is rising, and I'll let you taxi her up to the shore. While you won't find any transition ramps in 2002 (I have no doubt that every lake scenery is going to have them before next year is out) getting back
You put up the tent. I gotta do the after landing checks on this beer.Andrew Herd
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Read the third article in this series.
Read the fourth article in this series.