• Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002

    Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002

    By Andrew Herd (3 December 2001)

    FS2002 has been one of the most eagerly awaited products of all time, a release made especially poignant by the awful events of September 11th 2001. But it is finally on the shelves and more important, my press copy has dropped through the door. So does it fulfil my expectations from previewing the beta? Read on and find out.

    Continuing the trend started with FS2000, FS2002 comes in two flavors: Standard and Professional. The difference is 20 bucks, a couple of planes, some goodies and a flight instructor interface. So the first question I shall deal with is the inevitable: why bother getting the Pro version? After all, a twenty would pay for an add-on plane like the FSD Commander and still leave some change. Well, I guess the answer is that that is exactly what people said about FS2000 and then a whole leash of freeware planes came out that needed bits of the Pro version to run and then the forums were bouncing with complaints from people who wished they had been told this sort of thing might happen earlier. Well I'm telling you earlier - get the Pro version! Even if you have to save up specially to do it, it is worth the expense. Apart from anything else, the Baron has one of the best panels in FS2002 and the amphibious Caravan can be used to do some great tricks, so I think you owe it to yourself.

    Whichever version you decide on, you will get two new planes, the Boeing 747-400 and the Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP, both of which come in a variety of liveries. For some unknown reason you lose Concorde, although I hear it can be imported into FS2002 if you own FS2000 and know what you are doing. You also get much more detailed mesh scenery, 9 detailed airports, 10 hi-res aerial scenery areas, 17 new buildings and effects for Las Vegas, better visual models, better lighting, better weather, landscapes covered in 3D trees and houses, interactive ATC, 225 new or updated buildings - each of which has two levels of detail, over new 2000 terrain textures, as well as much smoother running, and it appears that in the Pro version at least, you don't need to have the CD in the drive to boot.

    So even Standard offers huge improvements over FS2000. But you have to buy the Pro version to get the Raytheon/Beech King Air, Raytheon Baron and the Cessna Grand Caravan - Pro also comes with a clutch of IFR Panels; the gMax 3D modelling tool, which allows you to create your own aircraft, buildings, and terrain; an applet called FSEdit which allows you to hack .air files; and what Microsoft refers to rather grandly as "flight instructor station capability". While gMax isn't for the faint hearted and the flight instructor stuff won't turn on everyone's lights, the other goodies in the Pro package make it well worth the money.

    Presentation And Documentation

    FS2002 comes in a box. A big box, with 3 lonely CDs in it; a rebate coupon if you are upgrading from a previous version of Flight Simulator; and a small folded brochure which tells you how to install the CDs. If you are very lucky you may also get an ad for the Sidewinder joystick. The rest of the box is filled with genuine Seattle air, which Microsoft are giving away for free. Some distribution has occurred in DVD style cases and my opinion is that it would have been good if Microsoft had taken the lead and standardised on this method of packaging, because there sure are going to be some disappointed kids at Christmas, expecting that big box to be full of goodies. I should know, I was one of them.

    The manual for FS2000 was slim - the manuals for FS2002 appear to be non-existent, unless you browse around your hard disk and happen on the seven pdf files which lurk in \FS2002\help. If you are new to FS2002, I would definitely recommend reading them. Even if you are an experienced user, it is worth skimming the manuals, because within them are many explanations of why things work the way they do in the new version of FS and there are some helpful hints and tips in there.

    System Requirements

    First, the good news. Microsoft's minimum spec is:

    Multimedia PC with Pentium II 300 MHz equivalent or higher processor with 8MB 3D video hardware acceleration or better.
    Memory 64 MB
    Approximately 650 MB of available hard disk space; additional 100 MB for swap file.
    Quad Speed or better CD-ROM drive
    Super VGA monitor supporting 800x600 resolutions in 16 bit color.
    DirectX 8.0a API or later
    DirectX8.0a or later compatible 8 MB video card
    DirectX8.0a API compatible sound card with speakers or headphones
    Microsoft Windows 98, Windows Millennium Edition, Windows 2000, or Windows XP operating system (Does not support Windows NT).
    Joystick or flight yoke.
    Microsoft Mouse or compatible pointing device.
    Sound card with speakers or headphones required for audio.

    The bad news is that while FS2002 will run on a 300 MHz Pentium with an 8 Mb 3D card, it is also true that some people enjoy being beaten senseless with rubber truncheons. This is not a value judgement on the merits of such things, but reflects instead the hard fact that using a program as capable as FS2002 on a minimum spec machine hardly counts as what I would call pleasure. Sure, it goes, and before you ask, I have heard of someone running it at 6 fps on a 233 MHz machine, but to do that means switching off most of the options which make FS2002 look special and pulling every slider all the way back. My personal opinion is that running FS2002 in this state is a waste of money that could better be saved towards a faster processor - and while we are at it, if I had to make the choice, I would always go for a faster processor before I purchased a better video card or extra RAM if money was tight. Flight Simulator has always been processor bound and although this version does make increased demands on video hardware, raw processor speed is essential for handling the complex physics involved in running the sim.

    My own minimum spec is an 400 MHz Pentium with 128 Mb of RAM and a 16 Mb video card, rather faster than Microsoft recommend. If you are buying a new system to run FS2002, the safest option would be to get an nVidia card, because the drivers are written by magicians and are updated so frequently I keep losing track of whether I have the newest ones or not.

    At the time of writing, FS2002 had problems with some ATI cards and if you have such a card, make sure you get the latest set of drivers and uncheck 'table fog' in the 3D menu of the ATI card setup where this is present - if you need a new driver try here. I make no guarantees about how well FS2002 will run on machines with processors in the 300 - 350 MHz range, beyond the observation that if you want to try it, go ahead, you may be happy with the results, you may not. If you are really desperate to give it a go, be my guest, but you have been warned. I should also say at this point that there have been reports of problems with some AMD chipsets and with Voodoo cards, though there is a potential fix for this listed in the FlightSim.Com how-to on hardware settings and frame rates for FS2002.

    Installation

    Even I find it hard to make this bit sound interesting. It is not quick. Have a coffee, or whatever. Talk to your family - it may be the last time in a long while for them.

    The first time I loaded FS2002, I thought 'wow!' and the second time I thought 'I wonder where the brightness control is?' My overall impression is that the new version of the sim is a little on the dark side; I do a fair amount of image editing and I know that I have the gamma set right on my system. On the whole the lighting is moody and of the same quality that you get with an overcast under-lit by the setting sun, quite unlike the bright screens of FS2000, or the glare pilots experience in the real world, but although it is something you get used to fairly quickly, I don't like it and a method of adjusting the brightness would hugely improve the sim.

    Creating A Flight

    The first thing you will want to do with FS2002 is load a plane and fly it in order to celebrate the beginning of another two years of fun. Remember how long it used to take FS2000 to load the plane onto a runway? Well, I bet you a dollar you will wish the new version was that quick - it seems to spend an interminable time loading up the scenery, textures, AI planes and such - and it has a terrible habit of doing this whole routine every time you change the time of day or up the simulation rate too much. On the other hand, FS2002 boots straight into the 'create a flight' screen and if you hit the 'fly now' tab you will go to Meigs, which is looking better than ever in this version. At least one of the betas had sailboats moving around in the bay, which seem to be lacking in the release version, but even without this eye-candy, you will be impressed. The scenery is better, the textures are better and while the Cessna panels are much the same, if you swap out to swap plane view the visual models have been greatly improved, assuming you have the video settings turned up high enough.

    The basics of the 'create a flight' screen are unchanged from FS2000 and you can use it to select a plane, move it to an airport, choose or download weather, and alter the time and season. New additions are the ability to create a flight plan and save it, and the choice of floatplane 'runways' in addition to land based ones.

    FS2000 users will be familiar with the weather dialog, which has had a facelift, but without any fundamental change, other than the fact that the Jeppesen real weather system now imports upper winds. While the real weather system is fine if you don't fly too far from your chosen reporting point, it has its problems, not least the fact that the weather doesn't update once it has been set. The new clouds are terrific and drift not only relative to the ground but relative to the aircraft in any kind of a wind, which is very impressive the first time you see it. One complaint I have about the weather is that the transitions are too abrupt - one moment you are flying under dark scudding clouds, the next, the sky is cerulean blue - something which definitely needs to be dealt with in FS2004.

    It might be worth pointing out here that if you are used to changing the time using the panel clock - forget it and use the menus, unless you really enjoy watching the scenery reloading screen. Why the clock doesn't work as well as it did in FS2000, I have no idea, but if you click it too often you can crash the sim, so stay away from it!

    Scenery

    There is no question that the FS2002 mesh is much better than that of its predecessor and the first thing that most users will notice about the new version is the quality of the scenery (providing they don't have a Rage card). When I first loaded the sim, I flew around for hours, trying to pick out places I knew, and it is probably true to say that you could use a vanilla installation of FS2002 to fly VFR in most places I can think of. But it isn't perfect. While the digital elevation model (DEM) data Microsoft have used is much better for the US than the rest of the world, even in the US there are some areas where the mesh shows missing elevation data. As usual, the DEM doesn't capture gently rolling ground at all well and outside the US even medium sized ranges of hills are often missing. There are a few real howlers, not least the fact that the entire province of Prince Edward Island is under water, but I have no doubt that a freeware developer will sort this before the official fix comes out because mesh can be added to FS2002 relatively easily. The London Millennium Dome in London is also in the wrong place, although it is also on Microsoft's fix list and there are a few places with sloping lake features and small areas of sea that run uphill, though these aren't frequent. As compensation, when you come to a detailed scenery area, like Las Vegas, San Francisco, New York or wherever, the detail is mind-blowingly good - I recommend a flight into Honolulu, for example and Las Vegas by night is outstanding.

    After seeing the new scenery, three things occur to me. The first is that third party airports are going to have to expand their horizons if they want to compete with the detailed cities in the default installation. Looking at what Microsoft have done, commercial products are going to have a dismal sales record if they don't come complete with at least some surrounding city area and VFR landmarks, in the style of FS2000 products like Sergay Carr's St. Petersburg, PTSIM's Portugal 2000, or Toni Agramont's freeware Balearics.

    Simmers who are used to flying to default airports like Seattle, San Francisco or LA in FS2002 are not going to be happy with add-ons which confine themselves to the area within the airport fence - they are going to want much more detailed VFR surroundings and it will be interesting to see how suppliers respond to this. My second observation is that after seeing Bob Shubinski freeware high resolution mesh for the Reno area, there is plenty of room for improving on the default mesh and companies like FSGenesis are already producing products which do this.

    My third observation on scenery is that add-on designers are going to have to be very careful about frame rates, even within FS2002. The key to the low impact of the detailed Microsoft airports seems to be as much in the miserly handling of textures as much as anything else. Carefully written add-ons should have little effect, but I have already seen a bush scenery that brought a 1.7 Ghz Pentium to its knees, so developers will need to be very careful not wipe out the performance gains that FS2002 offers.

    Microsoft's new mesh exposes a minor problem, which is that the vector data used to map the roads and rivers doesn't mate perfectly with the DEM data, with the result that rivers sometimes don't run exactly along the bottoms of the valleys. Occasionally you see streams doing some really epic trips up hillsides, but what you won't see is the flying rivers and lakes that FS2000 add-on mesh users came to know so well (it was fun to fly under them, I shall miss them in a funny kind of a way). According to the development team, the "wandering stream" problem can't be fixed without hand-tuning the data - and that would be prohibitively expensive, so we are going to have to live with it for the time being. It does offer a big opportunity for VFR scenery designers, however, and I can't wait to see the Netherlands 2002.

    The highlight of the new scenery is, without a doubt, Autogen. Without going too deeply into the technicalities, the Autogen engine puts houses and trees into landscapes that were bare in FS2000 and it absolutely transforms Flight Simulator. The density of the Autogen scenery is dependent on the characteristics of the tiles on which it sits, but it can also be altered by using the sliders in the FS2002 menus.

    Although Autogen isn't terrific at simulating densely treed areas like rain forest, it definitely makes landscapes much more lifelike for VFR. Equally, it does have its drawbacks, not least the fact that at the highest settings there can actually be too many buildings in some areas! In addition, Autogen scenery can press in so close to the ends of some grass fields that they end up requiring full flap approaches. In general the whole idea of building an airfield is to provide somewhere safe to land, rather than entertaining pilots with exciting approaches, so it would be good to see an option which provided clearways at the ends of the runways.

    You will either love or hate the new textures and I am sure that we will see alternatives on offer shortly. On the whole I don't think they are as good as some of the freeware textures that have been released in the past, but on the other hand they are 100% better than anything a default install of FS2000 had to offer. Cities at night aren't terribly obvious, appearing as blurry smudges with golden spangles and the roads could do with some work too. Some users report problems with loading of blurred textures, though this is not common and may to be due to a peculiar feature of the program. The "Aircraft Texture Size" slider in the display settings affects scenery textures as well and scenery blurring can sometimes be solved by setting the slider to"Massive". But as you can see from the screen shots, FS2002 represents a huge advance on its predecessor and some of the continental US cities are so good that I could spend hours flying around them without getting bored. Take a look at the photoreal textures in the Lear screen shot below and you will get an idea of what I am talking about.

    While we are on the subject of scenery, we might as well discuss the graphics engine. FS2002 can display up to 1600 x 1024 in 32 bit colour, with full 3D support, up to eight lighting sources, and bi and tri-linear filtering. With a good video card (I would recommend a GeForce 2 Mx at the minimum), the effects can be spectacular, with subtle light reflections on aircraft surfaces, some wonderful sunset effects, proper volumetric clouds and fancy shadowing. For those of you who missed it in FS2000, aircraft landing lights now shine on the ground, so you can see where you are going in the dark.

    All this eye-candy does not come without a few glitches and FS2002 users will have to learn to live with a few oddities caused by the new mesh - for example, "elevated airports" like Grand Canyon Bar Ten, which stands on its own personal mesa in FS2002, making the approach far more interesting than it is in real life. This problem is once again caused by mismatches between the DEM and Jeppesen data - on the whole the two go together extremely well, but every now and then you come across a funny. Given that there are more than 20,000 airports in FS2000, we can't expect them all to be right - and I guess that keen amateurs will issue fixes for for their favourite airports as time goes by, so keep watching the file lists.

    Planes

    Most of the planes you get in the Standard Version hail from FS2000 and with the exception of the virtual cockpits, the panels haven't been upgraded very much, so don't hold your breath. There is, however, a choice of liveries, you can open the doors if you are keen, and as a bonus, the Lear is flyable at long last, with none of the horrible twitchiness that it exhibited in the FS2000. I am also pleased to say that all the visual models have been updated a great deal and if your system can support the biggest textures, they are worth using, because the level of fine detail is amazing. If you want to see how much has changed, take a close-up look at the Bell in spot plane view and admire the reflections in the cockpit glass. Some of the planes even sport bare metal textures and given the sophistication of the new lighting system in FS2002, we are going to see a lot more because the repaint shops will find them hard to resist.

    On the downside, FS2002 suffers from the same fault that FS2000 and every other PC flight simulator has in common - the default planes are too easy to fly. In real life you cannot get into even a Cessna 172 and fly it around a circuit just like that and it would be good to see an option to make the flight dynamics a little tougher than they are at present, even in "realistic" mode. I guess this slightly arcade-style handling makes the sim easy for beginners to use, but it would be good to see more realistic air files as an option for more experienced pilots, though no doubt the add-on market will supply alternatives before too long. While we are on the subject of flight models - watch the trim! I cannot work out whether it is a bug or a "feature" but on many setups the planes seem to load with the trim wound well away from neutral; in extreme cases it can actually make it impossible to take off or to control the plane afterwards.

    The two new planes are the Boeing 747-400 and the Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP. The 747 is a natural choice and it amazes me that it has taken it so long to make it into Flight Simulator, but now at long last, everyone can fly one. Much the same can be said about the 172, which is a popular club plane and will no doubt get repainted about forty two zillion times before FS2004 arrives. The 172 panel is nothing special, bearing a strong family resemblance to the other default Cessna panels. I am slightly disappointed that the look of these workhorse panels hasn't been upgraded in this version, but so much else has changed that I guess it isn't such a big deal. The 747, on the other hand, has an extremely nice panel, as long as you don't spend too much time in virtual cockpit view - this plane wins my prize for worst virtual cockpit in FS2002 and the way it flies on autopilot is hardly something to be proud of.

    In FS2002 Pro, you get the Cessna Grand Caravan and the Raytheon Baron in addition to the planes in the standard version. The Caravan is available in a wheeled and an amphibious version - while the panel is OK, is no great shakes visually and the 2D outside views are dire. The detailing of the planes is so-so, but the amphibian is great fun to fly, because if you take care it can actually be taxied down a beach into the water and then flown off, as long as you to take care to raise the wheels before you go. The problem with the Caravan is the flight model. While the amphibian can be made to go through the displacement/plough/plane phases characteristic of float plane takeoffs, you push the stick right forward to plane it, which clearly isn't realistic. I would expect third-party flight models to appear for this plane shortly, because this behavior can be fixed without too much trouble.

    My other criticism of the amphibian is that it won't drift realistically in the wind, making docking slightly less interesting than it might be and denying any opportunity to "sail" the plane, the way the pros do. It is also a bit lively on the elevators, but who cares, because one of the real fun things in FS2002 is that you can land the amphibian on any piece of blue water you can see, whether it be a lake, river or the sea. This opens up huge new areas for exploration and explains my gut feeling that FS2002 will trigger a bush pilot revolution in flight simulation.

    The Baron, by the way, has the best 2D panel in FS2002. I don't know who designed it, but if I was Microsoft, I would get this part of the team to redo all the other panels for FS2004, assuming that the 2D panels make it that far.

    The reason I am hinting that 2D panels may disappear is because of the debut of the new virtual cockpit, seen in the screen shot below. FS2000 aircraft had virtual cockpits (VCs), but they were static bitmaps which served the narrow purpose of providing a backdrop while you panned your field of vision around. In FS2002 that has all changed and the virtual cockpits - where present, the Lear doesn't have one - now have working instruments. This is a huge step forward and many people are very excited about the possibilities that it offers; for example it is now possible to do an approach using the VC and to monitor the airspeed in many planes. The VCs have been massively extended and you can near enough inspect the entire interior of the plane if you alter your point of view and use a hat control. One downside is that it isn't possible to adjust any of the instruments using the mouse in VC mode, unless you have a hardware panel. My other criticism of the VCs is that the graphics are blurry and in addition it is difficult to set the point of view so that you can simultaneously see all the instruments you need to and fly the plane, but this is partly the fault of the aspect ratios of the monitors we use.

    One of the other improvements in the VC is that the ability to assign the Point of View (POV) has been much extended. The full set of commands now is:

    Move eyepoint up - shift-enter
    Move eyepoint down - shift-backspace
    Move eyepoint right - ctrl-shift-enter

    Move eyepoint left - ctrl-shift-backspace
    Move eyepoint forward - ctrl-backspace
    Move eyepoint back - ctrl-enter
    Reset eyepoint - space

    While this is very good news, it does provide a trap for the unwary on approach, because it is possible to spend so much time adjusting your VC view to get it just right that you end up doing a controlled flight into terrain. Don't forget that pressing the spacebar orientates the VC view straight forward for approaches - so remember to hit the bar when you flare. On the plus side, if you shift the POV so that the panel is moved to the right relative to the center of the screen, you can now get a VC view which allows you to see the runway/water surface as you flatten out ready for flare in the light planes. While this isn't quite the same view that a real pilot gets, it is near enough for simulation purposes and anyone who is having trouble with landings might like to try it. I have assigned the right-left/up-down POV key sets to my CH Pro joystick using \controls\assignments, which makes it easy to slide the panel sideways on short finals.

    The POV can now be moved forward and backwards as well as up and down, but Microsoft have yet again failed to address the fact that it is fundamentally wrong in the 2D view. If you sit on an international airport runway in a real Cessna 172, you feel real small, I can assure you, even without a 757 looming up behind you. Allowing for the fact that much of this effect is due to peripheral vision, applying a zoom factor of 0.8 to the forward view gives a much more realistic perspective and I can't quite understand why Microsoft haven't either made this the default, or made it possible to save a particular zoom setting at shutdown, or insist on having any zoom other than the default permanently displayed top right on screen.

    Moving outside the cockpit, again for reasons which are unclear to me, Microsoft have gone and altered the mechanics of the spot plane view. I can't see why they didn't just stick with the FS2000 method, but in FS2002 everything is geared towards you using a hat control. If you have such a thing you can pan all around the plane to your heart's content - if you haven't, you are stuck with eight fixed same-level FS98-like views, tagged to the numeric keypad, and this quite rightly infuriates many users, who can't see what was wrong with the FS2000 system, although in FS2002 the sudden shifts in viewpoint can be minimised using the "gradual transitions" option. Another big change is that it is no longer possible to fly the plane using the mouse, which is bad news for disabled folk who can't use joysticks.

    The instant video playback feature is a huge improvement on anything available in FS2000 and I have spend many narcissistic moments watching myself executing difficult approaches thanks to this ace piece of programming (I just love the bang when you crash). The one thing that would really put the icing on the cake would be an option to pack the instant playback into a "video" that could be emailed to stun and amaze your friends. I don't see that this would be so difficult to do, assuming that the recipient had a copy of the same version of Flight Simulator. Presumably the sim uses coordinate data to reconstruct the flight. Flight data swapped like this could be very useful for VA flight training, but the best thing about the instant video is that you can swap from cockpit to spot plane view at will and I used it to take many of the screen shots here. Nice one, Microsoft.

    The autopilot has also been "improved," to the consternation of many simmers. While in many ways this makes it behave more like modern passenger jet autopilots, it is very different to the FS2000 autopilot and this has caught a lot of people out who have become used to engaging alt hold and then hand flying the directional axis, but there is a work around:

    1) Open aircraft.cfg file for the each airplane whose autopilot you want to alter

    2) Add the following lines to the [Autopilot] section

    [Autopilot]
    use_no_default_pitch = 1 // 0 = Default to current pitch mode, 1 = No default pitch mode.
    use_no_default_bank = 1 // 0 = Default to Wing Leveler mode, 1 = No default bank mode.

    Setting this switch knocks out Flight Director command for that axis, so for example, setting use_no_default_bank to 1, but use_no_default_pitch to 0 would leave the autopilot in command of the elevators, but not the ailerons, allowing you to alter the heading by banking the aircraft.

    The other problem with the autopilot is that capture of the ILS is nowhere near as good as it was in FS2000 and capturing the localiser can be extremely tricky, especially in the jets.

    Interactive ATC

    The ATC system in FS2002 deserves some kind of award. Over the years I have reviewed a number of ATC add-on products and none have had either the simplicity or the intuitive nature of the interface Microsoft have designed. In my judgement, even a beginner, with no experience of ATC whatsoever, should be able to navigate his or her way through the menus and the "auto-tune" feature means that you don't even have to worry about the radios.

    As you can see in the 747 panel screen shot, ATC choices are shown in a translucent overlay on-screen. When you select a choice that involves communication, you hear your pilot talk and the controller reply, backed up by text scrolling in the ATC window. Depending on what choices you have made in the ATC setup (options\settings\ATC), you will also hear other aircraft talking to your controller, sometimes to the extent that it can be quite tough to get a word in edgeways. On the whole the ATC is reasonably realistic, but it has its limitations - you are stuck with the flight level you filed in your flight plan and neither can you ask for an alternative runway - so we can look forward to it being improved by third party add-ons. My favorite feature is "progessive taxi" which you can request after pushback; a pink line appears and all you have to do is follow it to get to your runway. Sure, it isn't the way things work in real life, but when you bear in mind that some international airports will turn taxiway lights on and off to guide you, it isn't totally unrealistic, either.

    Flight Analysis And Failure Modes

    Both versions of FS2002 offer the opportunity to experience failed instruments and mechanical systems, which will be useful to many student pilots simulating emergencies, and fun for simmers who just want to try something different. In addition there is a flight analysis system, which can be used to show deviations from a flight plan and in the Pro version an "instructor" can monitor your progress - and perform limited skills tests - via an internet link. I haven't had time to test this section of FS2002 yet, but I can see that it is likely to be popular with the VAs.

    Adventures

    One of the biggest changes in FS2002 is the least obvious. The adventure programming language (APL) is on it's way out of favor and is only minimally supported in the new version of the sim. This will be of immediate interest to many Virtual Airlines, some of which use adventures extensively. All is not lost, however, because a new adventure interpreter called "ABL" was used to write all of the FS2002 lessons - ABL should be documented in one of the SDK releases sometime between now and the end of 2001.

    AI Aircraft

    The FS2002 engine is capable of putting out some outstanding graphics and I am sure that many people have already wondered if it is possible to dump the boring old AI planes and replace them with more eye-catching liveries. The anwer is yes, it can be done, but there is a catch. Even in its default state, FS2002 puts a mind-blowing number of polygons on screen - far more than even CFS2 - and part of the reason why the frame rates are so good is that Microsoft have put some serious thought into texture management. Autogen for example, uses only two 512 by 512 compressed textures for everything you see on screen and the aircraft texture size is limited to a single 1024 by 1024 compressed texture, a decision which has already led to criticism of the default planes; but there is a reason for it. Although some users have 64 Mb video cards and 128 Mb cards will appear before long, many people don't even have 32 Mb graphics and run their systems on 16Mb cards or less. FS98 was quick in 8 Mb, but with all the sliders maxed, but a complex FS2002 airport environment with AI aircraft flying can happily use 64 Mb and more to show the terrain, virtual cockpits, scenery objects and aircraft. This has implications for how detailed AI planes can be without killing frame rates.

    In addition to photorealistic airports, the quest for ultimate realism in FS2000 has led to the development of some extraordinarily detailed visual models, using in some cases as many as 30 different 1024 x 1024 textures. One of the most highly praised visual models uses nearly 14 Mb of compressed textures to paint the plane at dusk and 7 Mb by day. While planes like this are fabulous if you have a system that can handle them, I get numerous emails from people complaining that once loaded, add-on planes won't "skin" properly - the reason is that their CPUs and graphics cards are still thinking about how to get all those textures up on screen at once.

    Now imagine the situation with a dozen detailed AI aircraft like my favorite add-on Feel Real Virgin 747 up there, as well as a detailed Boeing in spot plane view. In day time you could be looking at 80-90 Mb of texture memory just to display the planes, never mind the terrain, buildings, clouds, panels and all the other stuff we can't get along without - not a recipe for good frame rates. Since frame rate problems were the curse of FS2000, developers are going to have to learn to make some compromises along the way if we don't want to see a repeat of the problems associated with the packages like Airport 2000 Volume 3 release - a fantastic add-on which unfortunately would only run at its best on the very highest spec machines, leaving many buyers disappointed at their inability to run it properly.

    Essential Utilities

    I often get asked which are my favorite utilities and I guess this is as good an opportunity to say it as I will get in a while. My personal opinion is that Pete Dowson's freeware FSUIPC ought to be installed on every machine running Flight Simulator. FSUIPC is the Swiss Army knife of FS utilities and it does everything from boost framerates to fix joystick chatter. If any add-on ever deserved the crown of "most useful utility" this would be it, and if it was payware, I would be first in the queue to pay my money. Not only is FSUIPC useful for optimising Flight Simulator, it is essential for running many other utilities, such as FSMeteo.

    If you enjoy flying with real weather in Flight Simulator, then you should consider buying a copy of FSMeteo and the weather display gauge that has been developed to go with it. FS_Meteo uses an Internet TCP/IP protocol connection together with information from the flight simulator to download weather data for your plane's current location, including: temperature, precipitation, barometric pressure, visibility, wind speed, wind direction, and wind gust data extending from the surface to high altitudes. The benefit of this is that if you undertake a long flight, the weather will change with time, an option you do not have in a default installation of FS2002. I have used this excellent little utility for several years and have been consistently impressed with it - and users who can't read the METARs which are used to generate weather by FSMeteo will be delighted to hear that there is now an option to decode the local weather report. If you use FSMeteo with FS2002, you should be aware that it takes some time to download upper wind data, so be patient when it starts. The other problem is that a slight technical hiccup means that running FSMeteo will cause ATIS report IDs to be updated far too often in FS2002, but this is a minor issue that presumably will get fixed in a patch.

    The new FSMeteo Weather Display allows you to display the weather conditions your plane's current position and at a selected destination throughout a flight via a user installable gauge. Anyone who enjoys flying big jets will immediately understand the attractions of knowing what the weather is like at the destination, and I can see the weather display becoming extremely popular.

    FSNavigator is my final choice. The screen shot shows it running in FS2000, but at the time of writing it runs perfectly well in FS2002, as long as you ignore various warning messages on loading. A fix is on the way that will allow it to be fully compatible.

    FSNavigator is a fantastic piece of payware and every Flight Simulator user should at least take a look at it. The package runs as a module and provides a navigational map with a sophisticated flight planner. Newbies will love FSNav, because if you get lost, all you have to do is hit the F9 key and FSNav will pop up, showing you where all the nearest airports are. Put the mouse pointer over an airport and FSNav will tell you how far away it is and what course you have to fly to get there. But this is only scratching the surface of the utility. In addition, it offers a flight management system, automatic flying of flight planned routes and holds, a world-wide search & find function for airports and navaids and an additional autopilot. You also get a world-wide current airway and intersection database, a graphical SID/STAR editor, automatic routing by airways and a Flight Simulator compatible multiplayer client for Internet and intranet which will display all the airplanes involved. The best news of all is that the first twenty session of use are for free, so there is plenty of time to decide if you like it before you have to buy.

    This might be a good time to put in a plea for developers. Microsoft's single-mindedness means that they can be a tough company to love and while the new version is fantastic, it suffers from a fatal flaw that has dogged Flight Simulator over the years. While it is abundantly clear that the FS2002 team are personally inclined to go out of their way to help third-party developers, somewhere between the programmers and the upper echelons of Microsoft's management, something has gone horribly wrong, as it always does. A large part of the reason why Flight Simulator is such a great package is that there are so many add-ons for it - this is why I and many others have never put much time into rival products. If you buy FS you buy with it an enormous pool of third party programming experience; look at Quito in the screen shot below - there is a fabulous FS2000 scenery for it, just imagine what it will look like in FS2002! But, and this is a vast, corpulent, bloated but, every time a new version of Flight Simulator is released, Microsoft implement new routines and variables and don't tell the developers about them.

    Wait for the SDK! is an answer that experienced programmers have become inured to. But when the Software Development Kits come out, unless FS2002 is completely untypical, they come late and poorly documented, leaving developers struggling trying to find out how vital pieces of Flight Simulator work and, in the end, delivering worse products than they might to end users like you and I. If it isn't an actual Microsoft policy to do this, it seems to reflect what appears to be a philosophy in the company that FS2002 add-on development shouldn't be made too easy. Not only is this short-sighted, but it has actually driven developers away from Flight Simulator in desperation.

    Microsoft cannot rely on churning developers like this and FS2002 offers a great opportunity to break with the tradition and set off in a new partnership. Designers are getting tired of the endless cycle of having to develop solutions to problems that wouldn't exist if Microsoft went the extra mile and made the code that little bit more accessible. If the same thing happens with 2004, I can see that users will really begin to lose out, as some of the more experienced third party programmers give up and try their hand at something else more rewarding, like the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem.

    Summary

    By now some of you will be wondering if I am talking about the same sim that I previewed a little while back. After all, the previews were full of gee-whizz stuff and I said very little about any bugs or problems. The answer is that I was looking at the beta then - there are many changes in the shrinkwrap and it didn't seem fair to to draw firm conclusions from the trial code. But I still like FS2002 very much. No, it isn't perfect, I doubt any piece of software ever will be. Yes, it does have problems with some chipsets and video cards and I hope that fixes will emerge for all of them, whether it be working drivers from manufacturers, or workarounds for FS2002. Yes, there is a downside to the new version of the sim - the spot plane view, the lack provision for flying with a mouse, the dark gamma setting, the clock issue and a few other things; but it is a huge improvement on FS2000. I guess the ultimate test is that I don't fly the old versions of Flight Simulator anymore - not even the large number of add-on airports and planes I have for that version of the sim can tempt me back.

    This review is my thanks to the developers at Microsoft and the beta team for FS2002. I guess most users will never get the opportunity to email you, but judging from the users who write me, you have made tens of thousands of simmers very happy by releasing this new version. On their behalf, please accept my congratulations on a fine job.

    Andrew Herd
    andrew@flightsim.com

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