Preview: FS2004 - A Century Of Flight
By Andrew Herd (24 June 2003)
A year of speculation is over and Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight has gone gold. It isn't on the streets yet and it definitely will be a little while before boxes hit the shelves - the US release date is the end of July, Europe should see it around mid-August and the rest of the world shortly after that - but we are in sight of the release and so FlightSim.Com is pleased to bring you the first of a series of reviews of this, the ninth version of Flight Simulator.
Flight Simulator is a unique product, not only because it attracts such a loyal following, but also because it has such a long history; I challenge you to think of another program, other than a programming language, that has been under continuous development for the same length of time. From simple beginnings, each new version of Flight Simulator has added extra features until it has become one of the most complex pieces of software in existence; while this pleases the old hands, it baffles beginners, who are faced with the daunting task of learning not only the principles of flight, but the conventions of Flight Simulator before they can take to the virtual skies. FS2004 acknowledges its coming of age by reorganising its creaking help system into a new 'Learning Center', but it also introduces many subtle improvements that add up to make it a very impressive product indeed.
FS2004 is a little special because not only does it mark the 20th anniversary of Microsoft's development of the program, it is being released in the 100th year of powered flight. In recognition of this double anniversary, the team have gone out of their way to provide a flavor of how aviation has developed and so nine historical aircraft make their debut. Modern GA and big iron fantatics need not worry, because the old favorites are still there, less the Cessna 182RG and the Sopwith Camel, but by way of compensation, a completely new Robinson R22 helicopter has been added and the Lear visual model rebuilt - and there is a lot more besides.
The key enhancements are:
- a new dynamic weather system that transforms flying conditions in the sim
- improved interactive air traffic control (ATC), with more artificial intelligence (AI) traffic
- interactive 3D virtual cockpits (VCs)
- improved scenery at airports, enhanced auto-gen and improved lighting and sky effects
- a complete rewrite of the GPS system with two new units
- improved map view with terrain display and color
- better 3D graphics support, particularly in multiple windows and across multiple monitors (and the gamma now appears to be fixed)
- the Learning Center, which provides answers to virtually any question about flight and Flight Simulator
- improved lessons, with the introduction of ground school topics
- a kiosk mode for unattended demos
- 1903 Wright Flyer
- Curtiss JN-4D "Jenny"
- Vickers F.B.27A Vimy
- Ryan NYP "Spirit of St. Louis"
- Ford 4-AT-E Tri-Motor
- Model 5B Vega from Lockheed
- Douglas DC-3
- deHavilland DH-88 "Comet"
- Piper J-3C-65 "Cub"
The forums will be full or arguments about what should or should not have gone into this list, but a major consideration for Microsoft was that it had to be possible for members of the team to fly either an original or a replica in order to make the most realistic sims possible and this placed significant limitations on their freedom of choice. Personally, I think that they have done an exceptional job on the historic planes and I hope that they will inspire a slew of equally good addons. Old timers have always turned on my lights because they were so much more interesting to fly, and while I think the Cub and the Jenny are the stars of the show, I am sure everyone will have their own favorite. Perhaps the best news of all is that the vintage planes aren't served up cold, but that the Learning Center presents the story behind each one, representative flights and a full Pilots Operating Handbook (POH) so that they can be enjoyed to the full - there are even a few pieces of period scenery to go with them. The flight models are all about as realistic as you can hope to find, although the historic planes are noticeably better (or worse, depending on your point of view) than their modern counterparts. The Wright Flyer, in particular, is a nightmare to fly, but the graphics are so good that you won't mind crashing it - just don't fly it out of ground effect or try anything adventurous, like pulling more than three degrees of bank. The 2D and 3D panels on the historic aircraft are stunningly atmospheric; so good, in fact, that it makes you realise just how desperately their counterparts on the modern planes need to be updated - but I am told that there wasn't time to get them all done, which is a real shame.
Readers will be delighted to hear that there is only one version of FS2004 - the confusing 'standard' and 'pro' versions have been dropped in favor of a single DVD-cased release - though you won't be so pleased to know that this means that there isn't any room for any printed manuals, which bit the dust with FS2000. But the good news is that you don't require a supercomputer to run the game, the hardware requirements quoted by Microsoft being:
- 450 MHz Pentium or better, with 1.8 Gb hard disk space, 8 Mb 3D card or better
- Windows 2000/XP with at least 128 MB Ram - or Windows 98/Me with at least 64 MB Ram
- DirectX 9 or later (included with FS2004)
- Sound card, joystick and mouse
If this spec sounds too good to be true, it is. You can run FS2004 on a 450 MHz Pentium, but it would be a waste of money, because you would have to disable most of the enhancements that make the new version worth buying. On the other hand, if your present system can run FS2002, FS2004 will run on it as well, if not better, as long as you stear clear of the most graphically intensive options. If pressed, my absolute rock bottom spec would be a 700 MHz Pentium; but if you want to fly with real weather and 3D clouds, you are looking at a 1.5 Ghz machine; and if you are thinking of maxing out more than a few of the sliders, or using the GPS a great deal, then a 2.0 Ghz system would be better. As far as I can tell, there isn't any need for a cutting edge graphics card and a 32 Mb GeForce 3 would probably be fine, as long as you don't use overly detailed AI planes. The one thing that is still guaranteed to kill rates stone dead is flying into a complex airport in a multi-panel addon plane in scattered cloud; all but the fastest systems will run out of resources in those circumstances, just the way they always have done.
The hardware requirements of new version of FS always cause a certain amount of unhappiness among users and I doubt this one will be any different. At one end, there are going to be users who can't afford to upgrade and feel cheated at being unable to see what all the shouting is about; at the other extreme will be folk who have bought machines for the sole purpose of running FS and who won't be able to understand why the sim doesn't let their $500 graphics card show off what it can do. Caught in the middle are the developers, who have my sympathy, damned as they are whichever way they turn. As it happens, Microsoft have put a great deal of thought into weighing up the exact level of system to pitch the sim at, there being no point developing code which is so processor hungry that only a few users can run it - the bottom line is sales and if Flight Simulator doesn't pay its way, the project will be dropped, twenty years development or no. So the team has, in recent years at least, always aimed FS at mid-range systems, though it isn't an easy choice to define what that might be nowadays, given the wide range of processors out there. Simmers with long memories will recall that it wasn't always so, given that new versions often seemed to have been coded for machines that didn't exist outside Intel's development labs.
The same kind of reasoning lies behind the way features are introduced into the sim. I am aware that some people are saying, 'There is nothing new in it, why waste your money?' and at first hearing, this sort of statement doesn't sound too unreasonable. However, the flip side of the coin is that we are dealing with a huge code base that has not only been progressively upgraded to run on several different versions of Windows (not to mention DOS), but at the same time has been enhanced to the stage where, for the first time, I believe it can serve as a genuine introduction to real flight. Sure, this behind the scenes stuff may not be sexy, but we wouldn't be able to run FS at all without it. So while there are plenty of enhancements in ACOF which don't individually smack you in the eye, take 'em all together and they add up to a much more realistic experience and I think that most people will come to appreciate the 'depth' of this version, even if it doesn't bowl them over at first sight. Take the weather system, for example: this has been completely rewritten - the clouds are no longer simple graphics painted on the sky, but have realistic behaviors in tune with the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Check out the new GPS, which leaves the old unit eating dust; or the working instruments in the virtual cockpits; or the runway signs that appear everywhere you go; or the learning center; or the new planes... if none of this is worth upgrading for, I don't know what is.
In this piece I am going to do no more than a quick walk through the major features of FS, the aim being to give you the best possible idea of what the sim is about, before looking at each area in more detail. Given that the US appears to have gotten the UK's climate by accident this year, where better to start than with the new weather system? This has not so much been rewritten as reinvented and it is extremely impressive - in fact, it is so good that it highlights a major omission of FS2004, which is that it doesn't have a virtual forecaster. Set up a flight in Alaska in FS2002, download some real weather and I guarantee that however bad it might be at your start airport, you will run into clear blue skies before you get more than a few miles - the only alternative being to use the same weather everywhere, which is hardly as real as it gets. Connect to the 'net with FS2004 and the real weather system updates every 15 minutes, so that you will find conditions gradually changing around you - sometimes it gets worse, sometimes it gets better, just like real life. Will the cloud ceiling stay high enough to let you fly down between those mountains? Or will the mist close in, leaving you flying down a narrowing box canyon with no way out? Forget to reset the barometric pressure, fly towards a low pressure area and you are likely to find yourself decorating the top of a mountain - just like in real life.
The clouds not only look better, they grow and dissipate like the real thing and approaching frontal systems look every bit as daunting as they do out the cockpit of a real plane - will you take them on, or will you do the sensible thing and divert? With FS2004, it is your call and the sim gives plenty of opportunity to learn respect for the weather, not to mention the turbulence certain types of cloud can create, even if the cu-nims can't actually tear your plane apart and spit the bits out forty miles away. and if you don't have cheap on-line access, FS2004 offers plenty of alternatives, ranging from 'weather themes' which recreate classic weather situations; through user-specified conditions, with the major benefit that you are much less likely to experience the abrupt transitions that spoiled FS2002 flights. Rain and snow not only fill the entire screen in spot plane view, but are denser and more believable than they were in the past, with improved graphics and much more variation in the effects - and at long last there is believable haze, the curse of high pressure Spring days, when everything looks great from the ground, but you can't see more than a mile or two in the air and pilots sit around the club house bitching about how much better the weather used to be.
With so many new possibilities for IFR (instrument) flight, it is fortunate for simmers that FS2004 has enhanced ATC, because once you are in instrument conditions, you are going to have to rely on those guys to get you down safe and sound. But they won't just be thinking about you any more, because depending on how you have the game set up, your controller may be worrying about AI traffic. This is where the fully working 3-D cockpits come into their own, because when you are flying VFR (visually) at uncontrolled fields, you are going to need eyes in the back of your head. In FS2002, VCs were limited to allowing a 3D view with working gauges, but now you can use the mouse to operate the panel without ever having to leave virtual cockpit view while you are trying to keep the needles centered on that ILS. If you get down in one piece, you won't be left wondering where you are at, because of those new taxiway and runway signs.
Although there are still a limited number of ATC and pilot voices and interactions are still strictly via the keyboard, most of the numerous objections to the FS2002 system have been resolved, though ATC seemed a little unstable in the pre-release version sent to our office. The ATC still isn't up to Radar Contact standards and there are no regional variations, so everything is in American and a lot of the syntax will sound strange to European ears, but on the whole I can forgive this, because the system is much better than it was in 2002. The first thing you will notice is that multiple runways may be in use at major airports, which can create some interesting situations on approach if your attention wanders - and at long last you can request a runway change as you make your descent. It is also possible to request to fly a procedure - though do bear in mind that the vast majority of approaches are flown using radar vectors in real life. In instrument (IFR) conditions, ATC is smart enough to deny take off and landing request by VFR aircraft and if you get lost in the clouds, your friendly controller can help you out by giving you a bearing to the airport - plus, you can request a pop-up IFR clearance in should it really go pear shaped on you. And should you reach your minimums and not be visual, you can ask for a destination change after executing a missed approach, which is made a whole lot easier using the enhanced ATC menuing system. If the weather deteriorates, spare a thought for the AI traffic, as you will hear them switching to IFR clearances mid-flight; and when you have made it to the gate, you can wish them luck as you watch them pushing back before taxiing.
One thing that hasn't changed much is the scenery, though Prince Edward Island has risen back above the waves. The Autogen has been upgraded, so that it not only looks better, but is more variable and there is some new stuff like ILS arrays and VOR installations to be seen, as well as a barn full of chickens and sundry aerials and whatever, but the mesh is much as it was and Microsoft still haven't found a way of making the rivers go exactly where the rest of the landscape thinks they should. There is also a new object called an 'autobridge' which appears wherever vector road data crosses water polygons, but don't go to your local field expecting everything to look the way it does in real life, although the detailed airports are better than ever and seem to run a little faster.
While the panels on the modern planes look much the way they did in FS2002 (or FS2000, come to think of it) there is an important new development - the old GPS is gone. FS2002 introduced a strange craze for Garmin GPS simulations which ACOF is going to stoke even further, because it introduces not one, but two new GPS gauges: a panel mounted GPS 500 and a handheld colour GPS 295. The big news about these instruments is that not only do they show where your plane is in relation to airports and navaids, they also show airspace boundaries - as does the FS2004 map view. This is a major enhancement which brings Flight Simulator much closer to the real world where busting airspace can mean serious trouble - which is half the reason why air traffic control exists in the first place. From a simmers point of view, airspace boundaries mean that controllers' importance is no longer limited to departure and arrival, but that en-route flight gains the added interest of weaving around (or requesting permission to transit) controlled airspace encountered along the way. Inevitably, what you get is a subset of the real functions - for example "AUX" pages, or the "satellite status" pages from the real 530 are missing in the sim, but what you get is still pretty inclusive.
Microsoft's description of the GPS interface as being 'easy to use' is an interesting one, given that they have faithfully duplicated the Garmin interface, in all its arcane glory. As a one-time Garmin user, I used to think all GPS were designed to drive the user nuts, until we installed a Skymap IIIc in our own plane and found it so intuitive that we didn't even realise the manual had been lost until three weeks later. But advanced simmers are gonna love FS2004's new babies, though powerful as they are, most of us are going to have to make repeated visits to the learning center to get our heads around how they work and the downside of the units is that they eat frames thanks to all those spiffy color graphics. This is perhaps one of the best examples of how FS2004 makes you pay for what you get - yes, the new GPS system is fabulous, but owners of minimum spec systems are likely to have trouble using it and I found my 1.7 MHz Pentium staggered at times when I ran the GPS 500 with clouds at their most detailed setting. As ever, most people are going to have to make compromises if they value stutter-free simming and having such goodies dangled tantalisingly out of reach is going to cause a deal of heartache as folk discover what they can and cannot do with this new version.
What the Garmins give you, in addition to colour topographic and airspace displays, is nearest airport, direct-to, flight planner, facilities information and procedure screens - every single instrument approach worldwide is said to be included - as well as airspace proximity warnings which will drive you crazy, or give you gray hairs, or both. I used a GPS III for several years and you should see how grizzled I am. Many pilots buy the real units because not only do they provide visuals for instrument approach procedures, but will fly them if slaved to an appropriate autopilot. Complex though the units are, if you are new to this kind of thing there is an introductory video featuring Jon and Martha King which is typical of the enhanced html content built into the Learning Center, which also includes all the aircraft POHs, ground-schoolwork, preflight briefings, and a ton of other help. Having watched a few of them I can understand why Jon didn't take up a career in acting.
If the Learning Center doesn't sell Flight Simulator to a new generation of users, I have no idea what will, because it lets you read about a famous airplane or flight, and then, when you are done, a single click is enough to put you in the cockpit, ready to fly. I have flown one or two of the historic flights and while I keep trying to convince myself that I only did it because of the review, the write ups make good reading and I did get a buzz out of completing them - not to mention developing a great deal of respect for the pilots that flew them in the first place.
Other things experienced users will notice are the new 'electronic kneeboard', which holds everything from the briefing (for the historic flights), to checklists, the navlog and reference data for the plane. There is also a pop-up pilot advisor, which reminds you about stuff you need to do, like reset the altimeter, or take the chicken out of the oven. These things are part of a determined effort by Microsoft to make Flight Simulator more accessible to new users - in the past many people just gave up on the sim because there was too much to learn.
While I think of it, support for third party addons is reasonably good in this version and - by and large - anything that worked in FS2002 should work in FS2004, provided it follows the conventions laid down in the SDKs. In plain English, this means that some of the more complex sims will crash or fail to load, because the developers have strayed outside the guidelines in an attempt to add value to their packages. The only way of knowing if your favorite will work will be to try it, or scan the forums for news, but the usual glut of patches should follow some time after the release.
So there it is, FS2004, take a bow. I guess we could all make a list of features we would like it to have had, but in the final analysis, my wish list doesn't have anything important left on it any more, just stuff it would be nice to see. I haven't asked Albert his views on the subject yet, but I reckon he would be reasonably impressed, and as I suggested right at the beginning, in this version, Flight Simulator has come of age. Though now I think about it, it would have been nice to have had sloping runways, and different braking action in the wet, and drifting snow, and shimmering air behind the jet engines...Andrew Herd
Visit our FS2004 message forum.
Visit the official Microsoft web site.
FS2004 screen shots.
Dell Dimension 8300
By Nels Anderson
Here's the Dell 8300 system both inside and out.
The flights for this article were made on a Dell Dimension 8300. This system currently holds the sweet spot in top end price-performance for a flight simulation screamer. It has all the power and performance features we have always wanted for realistic flight simulation (at a price we can easily afford). What's even more important, the Dimension 8300 is widely available around the world, unlike the Dell Dimension XPS which is only available in the United States at this time. Although we have extensively tested FS2004 on other systems and include such data to help readers make purchasing decisions, the Dimension 8300 allows the reviewing team to run A Century of Flight at the highest possible settings in order to demonstrate every feature.
Dell engineers combined the very best in high performance with economical design to bring us the power of advanced technology at a very affordable cost. They built a multimedia machine that answers nearly every item on a flightsimmer's wish list with:
- Extreme performance using an ultra-fast 3 GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor with Hyper-Threading Technology, 800 MHz front side bus and the Intel(r) 875P chipset.
- Blazing fast 8X AGP port (with full 8X bandwidth) and DirectX 9 graphics support.
- Dual channel DDR 400 MHz SDRAM memory for extreme performance with memory-intensive applications such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002, FS2004: A Century of Flight and Combat Flight Simulator 3.
- The awesome 128MB ATI Radeon 9800 Pro video card.
- The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 card for premium sound and extreme
high-definition audio performance that rivals high-end home stereo
and home theater systems.
The Dell 8300 system installed and in use running FS2004 at FlightSim.Com world HQ. For a better view of the image on the screen, go here.
- Built-in 10/100 Ethernet port for instant network connections and broadband peripherals.
- 250W power supply.
- Quiet chassis with excellent cooling and heat dissipation.
- Plenty of room for expansion with:
- 2 - internal 3.5" bays
- 2 - external 5.25" bays
- 2 - external 3.5" bays
- 4 - PCI, 1 -AGP slot
- 8 - USB 2.0 ports,
- 17" Dell UltraSharp Flat Panel Display set to 1280x1024 resolution and 32-bit color depth with all the graphics and effects sliders in FS2002 and FS2004: A Century of Flight set to their maximum positions.