Microsoft Flight Simulator X - The Official Guide
By Andrew Herd (22 October 2006)
ot on the heels of the release of FSX comes a book which tells us how to use it, a volume which looks as if it could come in very handy, given the conspicuous lack of the thick, ring bound manual that a sim as complicated as the new version of Flight Simulator would have in an ideal world, where profits didn't have to be made and none of us had to work to pay for our leisure. Nels and I were discussing this very thing the other day and both of us went dewy-eyed with yearning for those lost-lost times, could be as far back as ten years ago, when the bulk of any software package was documentation explaining how it worked. In the early days, even Word and Excel came with fat, gray ring binders that weighed a couple of pounds each, which was great, apart from the fact that you near enough had to chain them down, given that folk were very inclined to borrow them on loans which lasted until the next version came out and they came around to borrow the manual for that too.
I am fairly sure that back in the early days, when everything was in sepia, Flight Simulator had a manual too, except someone had borrowed it, which is probably why I can't remember much about it (a dim memory of a ring-bound one comes to mind and that is all), but at that time no self-respecting developer would have dared to sell you a packet of floppies on the undertanding that you were going to part with serious money for it - it being taken for granted that for a product to have any value, it had to have a humungous manual. Since then so much progress has been made that printed manuals more than a few pages long have become as rare as hens' teeth, although it is interesting to note that some of the boxes are as big as ever, perhaps because the publishers concerned feel a little guilty about selling us a disc all on its lonesome.
By an unfortunate twist of fate, the decline of the printed manual coincided with the rise of the complex application, a situation that peaked, in Flight Simulator's case, with FS2002, which had 95% of the complexity of FSX, but no obvious way in for beginners, who were sentenced to fight their way through a help system written by someone who knew the software inside out and made few concessions to folk who had no idea what flaps did. Sales of FS2002 weren't as good as expected and consumer research indicated - unsurprisingly - that the lack of initial hand-holding was a significant barrier to new users' enjoyment and their subsequent loyalty to the sim. Flight Simulator had become impenetrable to the uninitiated and the bottom line was that it was costing sales.
So when FS2004 came along, we were introduced to the Learning Center. This is a major feature of the sim and one which I am ashamed to say rarely gets much air time, largely because most of us have been around FS for so long that we take it for granted people know how to use it - but therein lies the problem - how does someone who has never flown a plane, has never used a simulator and maybe isn't totally confident with a computer either, learn how to master something as complex as FSX, without some way of breaking down their learning schedule into bite sized, logically arranged chunks?
The Learning Center is the place Microsoft would have us start and there is no denying that it contains almost all the information a beginner needs to get aloft, the problem being that Microsoft haven't yet hit on a foolproof way of guiding users through it. Things have moved on a long way from FS2002 and a new install of FSX puts the 'Getting Started' screen pretty much in your face, with three choices ranging from 'I'm New', through 'I'm Back' to 'I'm a Real Pilot'. Hitting any of these icons takes you straight into a video tour of the relevant aspects of the sim, making them a good starting place for anyone who considers him or herself a non-expert. But while the videos are a superb technology demonstration, they still leave the beginner with the awesome task of finding out everything about everything - what FSX could really do with is a 'I know nothing about anything, please put me in a simple airplane and show me how to use it, bit by bit' tutorial. Parts of this approach are there in the first few tutorials, but there is a distinct lack of a 'pull back when the houses get bigger and push forward when they get smaller' lesson stream; although FSX is to be congratulated on the speed with with it is making progress in the right direction and I am looking forward to seeing the Learning Center in FSXi, or whatever it ends up calling itself (-:
A traditional approach to learning FSX would have you finishing the tutorials, before taking the next step of attempting some of the missions, but many users find these throw up as many questions as they answer and wander back to the Learning Center, following which, in some cases, they give up, faced with the maze of choices found in there, having concluded that Flight Simulator is too complex for normal folk to understand. This, as we know is untrue, but there is so much information about flight and Flight Simulator to absorb that I find it easy to understand why some find it too daunting - what the Learning Center really needs is a 'beginner' mode that only shows users what they need to know at each stage, giving them a defined path to follow; rather than treating the new class to a few lessons, before throwing the doors wide open and yelling 'Look how much there is out there!'
Which is where the need for books like Prima's 'Microsoft Flight Simulator X - The Official Guide' comes in. What this colorful softback does is to set down on paper some of the basic stuff that can be found in the Learning Center, the bulk of the text being taken up with descriptions of what the tutorials and missions are all about. There is no index and the Guide has no pretensions to being a reference book, but the large format and legions of screenshots should prove a godsend to anyone suffering from cold feet after installing FSX. Sure, it is true that there is little in the Official Guide that can't be found in the Learning Center, but that under-rates the comfort that sitting down in front of a printed manual like this one (in some senses the Guide is the manual that FSX would have had, had it been published twenty years ago) brings to folk who have never seen anything as complicated as Flight Simulator has become.
The Official Guide is very much a primer on FSX and its pages don't contain anything of interest to readers who have more than a passing acquaintance with previous versions of the sim, not least because the author doesn't venture far outside the confines of what can be read in the Learning Center; he just organises it in a way that makes it more accessible to someone who has bought a copy of FSX and has got the sinking feeling that goes with having spent $70 on something they will never be able to understand. Instead of trying to remember what the briefing said about how to fly each mission, owners of the Prima Official Guide can open it to the correct page and fly with the confidence of being able to read the advice given there, the inclusion of a reference card for FSX's numerous key-stroke assignments being a particularly useful feature. But don't forget that you can also print out stuff from the Learning Center if you want.
My strong feeling that this book is only for beginners stems from the fact that while the Official Guide provides a good structure for newcomers to FSX, it offers little advice that can't be found in the Learning Center if you know where to look. To give an example, the excellent CH Products range is featured early on, but without any depth of advice about what the different controls can be made to do, or how they might be set up using the complicated hardware settings dialog. Equally, the pages devoted to explaining the display settings dialogs in FSX don't cast much light about how to get the best frame rates out of the sim, and the format precludes the author going into much depth about avioinics like the G1000 glass cockpit (for example, after stating that this has 'hundred of cool features', he goes on to advise that the best way to find out about it is by trial and error and a visit to the Learning Center, which doesn't have much to say about the subject either). There is little that someone who has mastered landing the FS jets would need to know, but for someone who has never seen a copy of Flight Simulator before, the Prima Official Guide could prove to a useful to getting started.
The one place where the Guide breaks free from its task of reorganising the core information in the Learning Center into a more readable format is right at the end of the book, where there are some custom scenarios that you can set up yourself, which readers who have completely all the FSX tutorials and missions will be ready for - some of these offer real challenges, particularly the one which recreates a fuel emergency in an A330 - your mission being to glide a streamlined brick 120 km to the Azores.
Good luck.Andrew Herd