FS-eXcel For FS2004
By Andrew Herd (12 July 2008)
Well over a year after the release of FSX, many simmers have voted with their credit cards and opted to stay with FS2004, in a case of better-the-devil-you-know. There are plenty of reasons for this: FSX runs best on Windows Vista; to get the best out of it needs a processor that hasn't been built yet; and two service packs after the launch it can't be described as exactly stable. Multi-core processors ease the pain, but only slightly, and then mainly in the areas of ground texture handling and Autogen. At the end of the day, faster clock speeds are going to be needed to run FSX smoothly and given that (if you don't overclock 'em) chips are only just nudging over 3.0 Ghz right now, it looks like we have a long wait ahead of us. I have a sneaking suspicion that by the time the fabs are knocking out 4.0 Ghz multi-cores, FS11 will have come along to take advantage of them and FSX will look like the awkward child it is. The killer is that even if you do have a PC that will run FSX, if you buy a copy, you will have to replace or upgrade almost every single addon you own, and if that is more than a few, FSX doesn't offer a compelling reason to do that.
Soooo, if you have decided against FSX, what to do with FS2004? The answer, as many simmers have realised, is to customise it out of existence, by adding new planes, new airports, photoscenery and new texture sets - if you take care, it is possible to make the 'old version' of Flight Simulator look at least as good as the new version. Better, even, since there are some great enhancements available and you don't have to buy futures in computers to be able to run it. One of these is FS-eXcel, developed by FS-eXceleration software, new kids on the block, as far as I am aware.
FS-eXcel is only available for FS2004 and provides what the developers describe as a 'total visual make-over' for the sim. In English, this means that the addon includes replacement textures for the sky, new 3D clouds, new fog and haze effects, new runway textures, replacement aircraft landing lights and runway lighting effects, different Autogen trees (and more of them), improved environmental mapping, and new water and wave textures.
The package is a 16 Mb download from the Pilot Shop and installing it involves no more than unzipping the file and running the executable - in most cases setup should automatically find the FS2004 folder and after you have confirmed this, overwrite all the sky, cloud, water and runway textures in it. If you want to go back to the default textures, the solution is to run FS-eXcel again and select the 'restore defaults' option, which does what it says on the tin; just remember that if you have installed any other custom environmental texture sets, FS-eXcel won't have backed those up and you could end up with some interesting results.
Given that it only replaces sky, cloud, water and runway textures, the developers state that FS-eXcel is compatible with addons that replace landclass textures, like Ground Environment and Ultimate Terrain, but not with packages like Flight Environment, or Flight Enhancer. The one other time packages like FS-eXcel can run into problems is with addons where other third party developers have taken pains to create textures which look at their best using the default FS2004 environmental lighting effects, but these things are, by definition, subjective, and one simmer's meat is another's poison.
As, I guess, are replacement environmental texture sets, so let's take a look at the product. I did the review on a 2.66 Ghz Core2Duo with 4 Gb of RAM, a 768 Mb GeForce 8800GTX video card, Window Vista SP1 and FS2004.
When the installation was complete, I checked out the Start Menu, only to find that nothing had changed. The addon doesn't create its own program group and the three page pdf manual is included in the zip. Unlike Flight Environment and Flight Enhancer, you don't get an applet to let you fool around or fine-tune your new textures and once the FS-eXcel installation is done, the only option you have is to uninstall it.
As far as I could tell, the impact on frame rates is pretty minimal, unless you count having more Autogen trees. You are going to have to take the developer's word for it that there are more trees, because I did not actually get around to counting them, but if there are more of 'em, the increase is reasonably subtle and I didn't notice any impact on the general usability of FS2004.
The screenshots tell their own story - I debated showing 'before' and 'after' shots so that it was possible to compare the default textures with FS-eXcel's, but in practice, getting identical shots (other than the replacement textures) isn't possible, because every time you reload a saved flight, FS2004 draws the clouds in different places and it is almost impossible to compare like with like. So what I have done is to take six representative shots of flights with FS-eXcel installed, so that you can make your own comparisons; if you can't remember what the default FS2004 clouds look like, you haven't been using the sim for long enough to get bored with them and you can stop reading this review now (-:
Where FS-eXcel really scores, to my mind at least, is with its haze and the sky textures, which are a considerable improvement on their default counterparts. These things are very subjective, though. The water textures are different, but nothing radical and much the same can be said of the runway textures, which feature added cracks - they change things, but don't have much of a wow factor, not that runway textures ought to have a wow factor. Thinking about this, if anyone sends me an addon to review where the runway textures do make me go wow, I will hang up my keyboard and go and find a life...
The clouds are the main feature of FS-eXcel and they are something of a mixed bag, depending on whether your taste runs to 'hard' cumulus or not and I like the default cirrus set better. The screenshots show quite a lot of hard edged cumulus, not because I intentionally went out looking for it, but because that is what you tend to see, especially if you set up custom weather with relatively scattered cloud cover. The 'heavier' weather themes tend to put you right into the middle of cloud layers and I could find little fault with the FS-eXcel set flying like that, but I have to say that I like softer-edged clouds better, mainly because those are the kind I see when I fly around in real planes. However, there are places in the world where clouds are different and unstable air breeds hard-edged clouds like there is no tomorrow, so who am I to judge? Just take a look at the shots and make up your own mind - one thing you can't deny is that some of the cumulus effects are definitely arty.
FS-eXcel is remarkably cheap ($14.99 at the time of writing) and so its main rival is Flight Enhancer, which is five bucks extra. That five dollars gets you numerous different cloud, water and sky sets, along with an applet that lets you mix and match them to your heart's content. For a few dollars more, you can have the award-winning Flight Environment, which is the most sophisticated environment texture addon around and offers so many texture combinations - along with a neat control panel - that you would have to fly thousands of sessions before you saw the same combination twice. Flight Environment has had three updates already and there is little that could be done to improve it, especially given the fact that it includes a 'randomizer' that can be used to put cloud, water and sky texture sets together with minimal user intervention, as well as a 'favorites' selector that allows you to save specific combinations for future use. Against this kind of competition, FS-eXcel looks a bit limp, given that you have no choice but to accept what it gives you, given that there isn't any choice of textures beyond using the FS-eXcel set, or the default set.
Verdict? At $14.99, FS-eXcel is the cheapest replacement environmental texture set on the block for FS2004. Install it and you get to fly around skies and over water that looks very different to the standard set offered in the sim, but if you don't like textures on offer, there isn't any way to change them beyond unistalling the addon, or rolling up your sleeves and mixing and matching them with the default set, which would take a great deal of time and effort. I like the FS-eXcel haze effect very much, am neutral about the water and have mixed feeling about the hard-edges to many of the clouds, but your tastes may be different and if you like the screenshots, at the price there really isn't any better alternative.