By Andrew Herd (9 October 2006)
f you read the first article in this series, you will know that FSX is a big shaggy dog of an app, given to sprawling over 14 Gb of your hard disk, making insane demands on your time and generally behaving in an apparently untameable, but loveable fashion that keeps your interest going and encourages you to overlook the latest outrage it has committed. In this piece, we are going to look at some of the more outrageous aspect of FSX, starting with the elephants.
While we wait for security to quell the riot at the back, yeah, I do appreciate that some of us have gotten into the way of thinking that a program called Flight Simulator ought to well, er... I guess it is hard to put this any other way... to... er... well, gee, this is putting me on the spot, give us a hand Nels, for Pete's sake! OK, I'll just come right out with it, some people, many people, most of us, even, think that if you call a thing Flight Simulator, its business ought to be simulating flight, but FSX has simulated elephants in it, and I am told giraffes also and birds too, although I'll be the first to admit that despite searching long and hard I haven't seen anything but the elephants - but elephants there are, at least three, maybe four, and one of them is a baby and he is lost. That's one of the missions - finding the lost baby elephant.
Yeah (FX: deep breath) you can now buy Flight Simulator and do good. Finding the baby elephant will give many users a lovely warm feeling, I am sure, given that the AI pachyderms do look pretty realistic, although the standard disclaimer about not feeding them applies and if I can take this moment to remind everyone that FSX has been designed to cater to all tastes ranging from the very young to people even more mature than I, and that Microsoft are still marketing it as a game, we will move quickly on. Meanwhile, here are some screenshots of the elephants for those of you who think I am kidding.
Clearly, as the lady said, we are not in Kansas any more and the shots in the row above only hint at how much has changed in the new version of the sim, one by product of which is that load times frequently extend to a minute or longer. The mesh has been hugely upgraded, the old terrain tiles being swept away by a new set, the way the tiles load has been improved, the Autogen has had a complete overhaul and throughout much of the world we have a new and far more accurate road, railroad, lake and river set - so much so, in fact, that you can tell when you arrive in an area where there isn't any data, because you are back to the old angular tracks we know so well. One of the key upgrades to the landscape in FSX is the use of vector data for transportation systems and rivers, because it means that at long last we can say goodbye to the horrible mismatches that used to occur between rivers and the valleys they were supposed to run in and to roads that performed incredible climbs up vertical mountain sides and to railways that ran under airport taxiways. Yes, I agree that Flight Simulator is supposed to be about airplanes, but if Microsoft have any defence to offer about including the elephants, I would advance the fact that we won't ever see them drinking from a river that is running across the face of a hill, rather than down it (-:
One consequence of the cooperation of road and river vector data and of the mesh that they run on is that we are a step further towards the goal of VFR navigation in a default installation of the sim - ground to chart navigation was only possible in limited areas of FS2004 but most of the European and American landscape (possible more, I haven't had time to explore yet) beckon in FSX. This doesn't remove the need for photographic sceneries, but with the setting cranked up high enough, FSX looks like FS2004 with Ultimate Terrain and high resolution mesh preinstalled - and it appears, although I have no confirmation of it, that the landclassing has also been improved, with more accurate outlines of many towns and cities than used to be the case. Finally, the coastline is much more detailed and towns with complex harbors are much easier to recognize from the air because of this.
As examples of the new and more subtle coastlines and mesh, take a look at the screenshots above, showing the default DC3 flying over Teesside in the UK - the harbor you can see above the plane in the left hand shot is a shapeless blob in FS2004 and the Cleveland Hills that you can see casting a long shadow simply ain't there in the previous version of the sim - the only way to get them being to buy addon mesh. These examples may not mean much if you live in Rio, or Adelaide, but as far as I can tell, enhanced mesh and coastlines have been provided for as much of the world as data can be got, which appears to be most of it.
Which brings us to the scenery settings display dialog, which has seen a few changes since its FS2004 incarnation. Top left is the level of detail radius slider, which governs how far away detailed terrain is displayed. Using a 512 Mb ATI video card, I found I could drag this all the way to the right without much impact on performance, the gain being that terrain tiles and elevation was correctly displayed as far away as I could see at GA altitudes. Below that comes mesh complexity - no change there, left it at 70 - and below that, a mesh resolution slider, which allows you to display mesh with data points as coarse as 305 meters and as fine as one meter apart. As expected, there is an increasing performance hit once you cross the 76 meter point, although for most GA flights, 38 meters seemed to work pretty well.
Below that is the famous texture resolution slider, which has limits set between 10 meters and 7 cm, although as I remarked earlier, I don't think we are going to see many 7 centimeter res sceneries. The right hand slider column has hardly changed, except that there is a slider for special effects detail, which I left at medium.
I don't know why, but I had expected the texture resolution slider to have been provided to allow future expansion of the game, but when I tested it, FSX went into a huddle and reloaded all the terrain textures again. When they reappeared, I was astonished to see the increase in quality that the game displays at the 2 meter resolution level. Going beyond this doesn't seem to bring any improvement, even in the detailed cities and it makes sense that Microsoft haven't included textures with such a fine resolution that you would be able to read billboards as you flew by, but I take back some of the things I said in the preview - I think we are going to see some 2 meter photosceneries, although be prepared for them to occupy a lot of hard disk space.
The good news is that (again, with a 512 Mb graphics card - less video RAM is likely to alter the equation) 2 meter res textures don't kill the frame rates and at best only kill about 1 or 2 fps off the sim speed. With 2 meter textures loaded, you can fly right down to 1500 feet and the ground still looks real, while from three or four thousand, cities look fantastic. Even the default terrain tiles look better, which takes me on to how they interact with the Autogen and the roads. As you can see in the shot above and the row above that again, Autogen behaves very much in FSX as it did in FS2004, with houses lining up neatly along the roads and trees doing their best to stay in parks and to grow in hedges, rather than the middle of fields. All in the garden is not totally lovely, however, as the shot above right shows - take a look at the roads at the bottom of the picture below and slightly left of the chopper, where they run in front of the 3D buildings. The use of vector data means that we are looking at two road systems: the imaginary one that is part of the FSX city scenery tiles; and the vector data roads, that run right over the top of the tiles, cutting factories and houses in two without hesitation as they pass. This is nothing new and all vector packages suffer from this, but although the 3D buildings generally line up with roads on the tiles, they don't always and it pays to be prepared to see some clashes - but, and you have to hand it to Microsoft, the general effect is outstanding and the terrain in FSX looks much more real than it has done in any previous version of the simulator.
The next advance is nowhere better illustrated than in the screenshots above. Readers of the preview will be aware of my battle to get decent frame rates out of FSX and while that battle hasn't been totally resolved, I have now got it going at a reasonably acceptable speed (mostly), the key being to hand over control of antialiasing to the video card, rather than letting FSX handle it and to turn off aircraft shadows, lens flare and light bloom. With those settings, my 3.2 Ghz Pentium D can meet the FSX target frequently and returns more than 15 fps most of the time even with 2 m terrain resolution set. Having just made this discovery, I took the Maule on a flight over the desert to see what was new in the Grand Canyon, beyond the fact that the rivers now ran along its floor. Imagine my surprise when after a sedate haul through the bumpy desert air in the Maule, I succumbed to the urge to fly down the canyon and everything didn't dissolve into a blurry mess.
Yeah, I knew you would be amazed too, given I know that you have tried it. FS2004 could not cope with canyon flying - canyon walking was more its thing. It would be fine for a while and then some buffer somewhere would empty and suddenly there were no texture tiles and everything went to hell. Even a plane flying at Maule-type speeds was liable to cause the problem, but this did not happen to me in FSX and as you can see in the right hand shot, I swapped to the Lear and flew it at 300 knots down the canyon and that didn't cause blurring either. I grant it is possible that a 512 Mb video card might be the reason, but doing some quick math, I don't think so, because to my reckoning, the buffer should have filled up after the first couple of turns. So something has definitely changed for the better in the scenery engine and for what it is worth, I don't see so much texture tile shuffling as I did in FS2004, so there is hope that photosceneries might work as we all want them to in FSX.
But though I am sure many cool FSX photosceneries lie in the future, for now, Microsoft has provided us plenty to look at in the form of the detailed airports and cities. Do be aware that you won't see everything unless you whack all the detail sliders up, because the detailed airports won't yield up all their secrets until the scenery complexity slider is at 'very dense' and the Autogen slider is at least at normal - but if your system has the grunt to do it, scenes like the one on the left beckon, which shows Rio de Janeiro spread out below my departing Airbus. Click on the thumbnail and take a look at the more detailed shot and you will appreciate that there are literally hundreds of 3D buildings down there - who knows how many thousands of hours of work went into that scene? Not only that, but you have ferries and sailboats in the harbor and the whole thing looks pretty darned good. The nearest thing I have seen to this was one of Lago's Italian city sceneries, but that was an addon - what you are looking at above is default FSX and frame rates stayed in a just acceptable low teens through my departure, even at that level of detail.
So much for Rio. What if bush flying is your thing? Well, say hello to the (wheeled) Caravan and Papua New Guinea. In FS2004, this takeoff would have been less than inspiring, thanks to the anaemic jungle Autogen, which managed to pack in about three trees to the square mile. Here, with Autogen on the 'normal' setting, we have trees, lots of them and very believable too - and good frame rates. That flight out saw fps between 17 and 20, which again, is something I would not have expected to see in FS2004 with all that wood out there. Bush scenery developers are going to love FSX - the opportunities seem limitless.
The detailed airports are as good as they were in FS2004, the chief difference being that in addition to AI traffic, you get moving jetways, baggage handling vehicles and other ground traffic airside, so there is much more activity than there used to be and it looks more real, allowing for the developers having taken some liberties with heroic sunsets. On my system, with FSX handling the antialiasing, 100% AI traffic took the frame rates down to 6.3 per second, so clearly you aren't going to be enjoying the detailed airports at maximum speed and resolution on a minimum spec system. Halving the AI traffic percentage let me turn up the airport ground vehicles to the 'medium' setting and the fps came up to ten and stayed there. If I let the video card handle the antialiasing (i.e. unchecked the box in FSX), I got 50% more frames per second.
That is the bad, I guess, after a lot of good, but then the detailed airports weren't that fast in FS2004 either, so we haven't really lost anything. There is some ugly, however and there is a shot of it up there on the right, which shows Teesside Airport in FSX, sitting, as it does not in the real world, on a complex system of raised taxiways and berms - FS2004 has this area totally flat, as it appears in real life. The explanation is a mismatch between the field elevation and the mesh elevation data, which almost certainly come from two different sources - in this case there is about a 30 foot difference between the two and FSX has dealt with what would otherwise have been a floating runway by heaping up the ground to provide some support. FS2004 ran into the same issue from time to time, but it dealt with it more elegantly, raising the entire field on a mesa, which was eye-catching, but not weird, Tribhuvan International in Kathmandu being a case in point. I wouldn't be too worried about the built-up runway problem if it didn't appear to be reasonably frequent - a trip to Telluride reveals another one on a mountain top so close to the flight path that whoever wrote the Telluride approach mission must have flown past it many times. Changing the mesh resolution doesn't seem to fix the problem and what would be great would be a flattening tool that just let us 'stamp' the airports down to a single level, without all the pain of having to work out the coordinates. It is a crying shame that we ended up with code smart enough to produce the effect we can see in the shot above right, but dumb enough not to appreciate that a better solution would be a fix that flattened a wide area around the airport - this being a total contrast to how well roads and rivers work with the mesh. Two different development teams involved, I suspect.
The other problem we are looking at here, as I am sure you will appreciate, is that against all of our hopes, FSX still majors on level runways, although they haven't been technically necessary since FS2004, which allowed you to land anywhere you wanted as long as you had the correct sort of gear for the terrain. In FSX, a runway 'built' over mesh that slopes from one threshold to the other will be levelled so that both thresholds are at the same elevation, because of legacy code left over from many versions of FS back - I guess it was far too much work to fix it on a worldwide scale, but it would be great to see third party developers have a try, because it would let bush pilots try their hand at places like Mile Hi in Idaho, which in addition to being at 5831 feet, has an 18-22% upslope; or Courchevel in France, which is nearly a thousand feet higher and has much the same kind of gradient. In FSX both these fields are completely and utterly flat. Which takes me to my final point about airfields, which is that as you can see in the screenshot above left, we haven't lost the FS2000-style grass tiles around the runways of most of the larger airports - these clash horribly with the new terrain tiles and make the non-detailed larger airports stand out like sort thumbs - while by contrast, the smaller fields which don't have FS2000-style plank runways, blend into the surrounding countryside as they should.
Next we'll take a look at the planes.Andrew Herd