Horizon Simulation England and Wales VFR Photographic Scenery for FSX
By Andrew Herd (7 April 2007)
'Photographic' scenery has had a long, long association with Flight Simulator, going back to at least 1996 and Microsoft's New York scenery addon, areas of which were photorealistic as long as you didn't fly below 5000 feet, looked at the ground with squinty eyes and didn't mind always being in sight of an edge; but the first practical photosceneries appeared for FS98, among them PC Aviator's iconic Pacific Northwest Megascenery, which took up a seemingly incredible 800 Mb of hard disk space at the time.
Things have changed. With the advent of FSX, which can't be installed if you don't have a DVD drive and plunging hard disk costs, developers can take it for granted that users have a lot of space available and the new generation of photographic sceneries are very detailed indeed - gone are the days when you had to go a mile high to work out what you were looking at, now you can come down to a few hundred feet and still appreciate the view.
Horizon Simulation established themselves as one of tne of the leaders in the photographic scenery market when they released their VFR Photographic Scenery of England and Wales for FS2002, in a joint venture with GetMapping and Visual Flight. At the time we reviewed it, early in December of that year, it was a landmark product, because it was one of the first practical commercial offerings to offer replacement textures for an entire country - there had been quite a few other photosceneries released by that time, but with the notable exception of PC Aviator's products, none were in the same class as far as quality and extent were concerned.
With the VFR Photographic Scenery installed, it was possible to practice ground to map cross country navigation in Flight Simulator, using exactly the same methods and seeing exactly the same features as you would in real life, with the result that it revolutionised pilots' and flying schools' attitudes to FS2002. But, needless to say, there were snags, the most unfortunate of which was a consequence of the way FS2002 (and FS2004) worked - in order to keep things in the cockpit as fluid as possible, the FS engine often gave ground texture tile loading a low priority, with the result that the tiles found themselves shuffling into place at the last minute. This didn't matter so much with the default textures, which were designed to minmise this effect, but the Achilles' heel of FS2002/FS2004 photosceneries was fits of the 'blurries' which occurred when the FS engine's attention was fully taken up with other things, like displaying the virtual cockpit of a high quality jet fighter addon in a tight turn at a couple of thousand feet. Under those circumstances, it was only a matter of time before phototextures dissolved into a blurry mess and it didn't matter whose product you bought, the end result was pretty much unavoidable. There were ways around it, but none of them worked a hundred per cent, so that when it boiled down to it, the only way to be really sure that phototextures weren't going to go to hell was to restrict yourself to light aircraft with cruise speeds of less than 120 knots. The other problem was that the default ground texture resolution of FS2002/FS2004 was 4.75 m per pixel, which meant that the lowest you could fly before photoscenery textures 'broke up' was about 2500 feet above ground level, with the result that you wouldn't be able to recognise your house unless it happened to be a mansion.
FSX is a great shaggy dog of an application which has only been partially house-trained by the developers, but one great step forward it has made from FS2004 is that it has a curved world - in previous versions of Flight Simulator, the earth was flat. One by product of this redesign is that texture loading has been changed and there is noticeably less shuffling and blurring - removing one of the major objections to photosceneries. But, in a little noticed change, it is now possible to display textures down to a resolution of 7 cm per pixel, which is far beyond the display capabilities of any existing CPU/video card combination. Horizon have taken full advantage of this in the England and Wales packages to deliver textures which can be displayed down to 1.2 m per pixel resolution; four times better than anything we have seen in the past.
The package is only available on DVD and is split into three volumes: part 1 covers southern England and south Wales; part 2 covers central England and central Wales; and part 3 northern England and northern Wales.
Each pack contains three DVDs and a slim instruction manual. Installation isn't particularly complicated, although Horizon included a separate sheet explaining the order in which the DVDs needed to be inserted; because DVD 1 needs to be inserted twice, it is necessary to ignore a dialog it triggers the second time around which invites you to begin the whole process over again. You have the choice of installing a set of 2.4 m textures, a 4.8 m mesh and a set of 2.4 m night textures; or of going the whole hog and installing the 1.2 m per pixel resolution textures. Given that the speed penalty of loading higher resolution textures is relatively small, you might ask why the 2.4 m textures are included - but the disk space requirements hold the answer. The first option consumes 5.3 Gb of disk per volume, while the second takes a eye-smarting 32 gigs a pop; which means that if you install all three volumes, you can kiss goodbye to nearly 100 gigs of hard disk space. If you install the 1.2 m textures, be prepared to spend a looooong time while everything transfers off the DVD and decompresses onto your hard disk.
Some things haven't changed from the FS2004 version, for example, there is only one season and all the Autogen disappears. Being no particular fan of Autogen, I can't say that I miss it, not least because when Autogen is displayed with photosceneries, it has a bad habit of appearing in the wrong places and spoiling the effect - but note that Horizon seem to have gone some way towards solving this problem, because they include a demo area of photoscenery from the next version on the DVDs. This is worth a look. As far as the lack of seasons goes, well, in my experience, the UK looks much the same from the air whatever time of year it is and Flight Simulator's seasons have always been highly artificial in that respect, but I realise that many simmers are used to them - you pays your money and takes your choice here, as they say. The night textures are a real bonus.
The manual recommends a 2.0+ Ghz processor with a gig of RAM and a 128+ Mb graphics card for both XP and Vista, but as usual with things Microsoftian, more power would do no harm at all. I haven't come across a single system which can run FSX in comfort yet, so if you are speccing a system to run this package on FSX, just get the fastest, most RAM-full, system your money will stretch to. Horizon include comprehensive advice about how to set up FSX for best results in the manual and it is worth following, given that they have years of experience under their belt and the choices they have made are very sensible.
What is the package like in use? I guess the short answer is that once you have seen 2.4 m resolution textures, you won't want to go back to 5 m res tiles and once you have used 1.2 m res scenery, you will go out and buy a larger hard disk - or even a second one, given that it is possible to run FSX scenery areas on different hard disk drives. The 2 m textures are a revelation to fly over and make the default landscape look toy-like, while the 1.2 m textures show such a high level of detail that it is easy to forget you are using a simulator. The first time I loaded the textures and the new mesh, I flew over ground I knew well in the North of England and was stunned to see stuff I had never expected to see in a million years in Flight Simulator. Blurring is much less of a problem than it was in FS2004 with this package and I was able to fly the default Baron without experiencing any more than transient episodes - the review system being a 3.2 Ghz Pentium D with a 512 Mb video card and running XP. The one time I consistently got a fit of the blurries was when I swapped from spot plane to cockpit view, although for whatever reason, it didn't happen a single time when I swapped views in the reverse direction; but it only took about ten seconds of straight and level flying before everything came back into focus again.
With texture resolution set to 2 m, I could fly down to 1500 feet without experiencing significant texture break up and with it set to 1 m, things held up until I was so low that avoiding the terrain became a priority - although below a thousand feet, the 3D effect generated by the shadows loses its power and some of the magic disappears, in as much as buildings and woods look flat. However, with the mesh setting set to display at 5 m, England's gently rolling landscape came alive for me in a way that it never has before in Flight Simulator, the effect being quite startlingly real if you look at the way the ground dips down to the river as it loops around in that top right shot.
An unexpected bonus was that although loading times are longer with the scenery installed, they are nowhere near the carpet-chewingly slow loads that I associate with FS2004 photo sceneries - even with texture resolution set at 1 m, my impression is that FSX only takes about twice as long to load a flight. The screenshots show a flight I made from Durham Tees Valley (EGNV) in the Baron. Top left, I am flying over Fishburn airfield, where we used to keep our Rallye - in this and most of the succeeding shots, the plane is at 1500 to 2000 feet. Top right, the Baron is over Durham city, with the cathedral and castle on the penisula below the right wing. In the pair of shots below the maps, the left hand pic shows a top-down view of the plane over my home village of Brancepeth, with the nose of the plane just overlapping the castle and the right wing pointing to the golf club, which is tucked into the trees half way up the left side of the shot. On the right of that pair, the Baron has just flown over Quebec at about 1200 feet above ground level (yup, the original Quebec, the original Washington being only just up the road and Ontario about five miles away, believe it or not) at bottom right. Just ahead of the left wingtip is our friend's farm, where Barbara keeps her horses.
Now look at the final pair of shots. On the right, the Baron is flying over Brancepeth at 1500 feet. If you click through to the larger shot, I have circled our house and if you look carefully, you can see that both cars were on the drive. Looking at the shots, I would say that the pictures were taken in early in a summer morning between four and seven years ago, because our house had been extended (you can see it has a gable end if you look closely) but our friends hadn't bought their farm yet, because the fields weren't being grazed. The shot on the right shows a livery yard called Lane Foot, which belongs to another friend of ours - you can see the horses as brown dots in the fields, the plane being at about eight hundred feet above ground level. Ahead of the plane lies a long swathe of brown heather and bracken moorland, which is a nature reserve now. If I had a pound for every time I have exercised animals by riding them along those roads, I would be considerably better off, believe me!
The other point of interest in the shot on the right are the lines of caravans stretching away at 45 degrees from the Cub's right wingtip. Call me slow on the uptake, but I spent years trotting past this place without realising why it had such a high fence around it - so when I discovered that one of the pilots at Fishburn had it in his GPS, I was intrigued. Why? The place is a nudist camp and the sad old git told me he flies low over it every time he goes out in the hope of catching sight of some bare flesh.
Verdict? If you do your simming in England and Wales, get a larger hard disk and buy all three volumes. A worthy winner of my first Armchair Aviator Gold for an FSX product.Andrew Herd