KerrSpectives - So What About The MSFS 2020 Scenery?
Introducing The Series
By Kenneth J. Kerr
I don't often fly airliners, but had to try this A320 over the Scottish Highlands from Inverness (EGPE), to Aberdeen (EGPD).
Hey there folks, it's Kenneth J. Kerrhere, and I'm back on FlightSim.Com with a brand new series of views,reviews, and sometimes opinionated rants concerning the world offlight simulation.
So what happened to the old series(On An Older System)?Well, through the generosity of another reviewer (I won't mention hisname, but he knows who he is), I acquired a much younger system afterhe upgraded to a brand new one and "handed down" his older one tome. Bottom line, my old system was retired, and with it the concept ofthe original series, and the articles that were still in theworks.
So, here I am with a newer computer, a whole new idea for articles,and along comes Microsoft with the earlier-than-expected release ofMSFS 2020. No question, it's time to put pen to paper again, and getwriting!
What is this new series? I've coined a new word forit. "KerrSpectives" is short for Kenneth J. Kerr's perspectives onflight sim, although I might just extend the term to encompass otheraspects of my writing too.
Let's set some ground rules. What is a perspective? A perspectiveis essentially a person's view of something. So, if you have aperspective on some aspect of life, you've got to appreciate that itmight be highly subjective, intensely personal, woefully inaccurate,and open to change as time goes on.
The implications for my flight simming KerrSpectives are this. Youmight not agree with me, I might not always be correct, and I mighteven change my mind as my experience grows. As Wayne Dyer said,"Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change."In other words, if you disagree with me it's OK, I might end updisagreeing with myself as time goes on!
And with that said: Let's get to the very first article in theseries. Let's talk about my KerrSpective on the MSFS 2020 scenery. Bythe way, I run the sim in 1920 x 1080 resolution, so the screenshotsreflect that. 4K would be better.
It's A Whole New World
Flying the Katana over a small town on the Canadian prairie. Yes, this is where I live, population around 500 and more than
200km to anywhere over 100,000 population.
There's no question about it, Microsoft has re-written the rulebook with this one, and in MSFS 2020 have given us a whole new worldin which to fly. Just think about it, the whole world in photo imagery(also known as "ortho"). This would have been unimaginable just a yearor so back, and if you've been around the MSFS franchise for 32 yearslike me, it's a long way from the solid blue sky and single-tonedgreen land that we once knew!
First impressions are of course mind blowing. The wow factor is offthe charts. The subtle lighting, the amazing weather engine, these arejaw dropping. And when you combine them with that stunning scenery,it's everything that many of us have hoped for--for decades!
However, those are the first impressions, and sometimes the secondand third impressions can muddy the waters. It's like buying a carthat you see in a showroom, you can see no wrong in it, but when youlook at it in the light of day a few days later, you begin to see thescratches. And so it is with the scenery in MSFS 2020. It is stunning,it is brilliant, it is awe inspiring... BUT it is flawed, incomplete,and at times disappointing.
Not everyone will see this of course. Once again it is a matter ofperspective. If you only fly airliners at 33,000 feet, you might have avery different view of the scenery (both literally and in terms ofimpression) from someone who putters around the sky at 1000 feet abovethe ground in an ultralight. You might also have a differentperspective if you only fly in areas that you don't know, comparedwith flying over parts of the world that you know like the back ofyour hand.
In my case, I usually fly General Aviation, often below 5000 feetAGL, and mostly over areas that I have some real-life flightexperience with. My expectations then are very high, and therein liesa problem. Great expectations can lead to disappointment, and this iscompounded by the fact that for a year Microsoft hyped this product uplike we would never again need another scenery addon. Rightly orwrongly, I expected error-free perfection, or at least darn close toit.
So did we get that? In a word, no. Is it great, oh yes. Is itbeautiful, no question. Is it perfect? Sadly it is not.
My KerrSpective On Scenery Elements That Need Fixing
I have already logged almost 50 hours of flight time in the newsim. Of course, my first flights were to find the houses I've lived inover the decades, and right there I encountered my firstdisappointments. I then checked out places I had done flight trainingfrom, and eventually re-traced areas over which I had flown in reallife, or had frequented in sims over the years. While the wow factornever left me (I am addicted to the new sim already!), thedisappointments began to congeal into certain patterns. I will addressthese now in the hope that Asobo, and the other development partnersmight take note.
On the positive side, I do like flying over buildings that matchthe real thing, especially when they are laid out over really goodphoto terrain. This is perhaps what I expected for the whole world, atleast in the early days of the promotional development videos. It isan enticing and brilliant idea, and maybe it will come one day in afuture incarnation of the franchise, but that day is not today. As ofnow, there are still only several hundred photogrammetry citiesglobally.
Unfortunately, there are several issues with these photogrammetrycities that just feel like an annoying stone in my shoe. The first isthe textures of the buildings. Get too close and sometimes they aredownright ugly. Next are the various objects in a photogrammetryarea. Trees, boats, cars... these are blocky and ugly as heck if youget too close. In the same way, the buildings can lose their shape thefurther away you get. A city skyline from a reasonable distance canreally look wrong. Another issue is the filled-in gaps beneathbridges, fly along a river in photogrammetry and you'll see what Imean. Talk about a visual disappointment. And then there is the factthat some of the photogrammetry cities sit on blocks of ortho that aremuch darker than the ortho from surrounding suburbs. Just disablephotogrammetry and suddenly the ortho matches.
Down low in Vancouver the photogrammetry suffers from blocky trees, poor building textures, and filled-in bridges.
It's not the idea that is bad here, it is the currentexecution. But there is a reasonable workaround. Just as food has asell-by, or best-before date, photogrammetry cities need a "bestaltitude above" indication. I have found that staying above 2000 feetAGL really helps with these photogrammetry areas. Is that why we don'thave a helicopter yet? But then, watch out for the infernal popping-inof scenery from that altitude. Yes that bug is back too, and I'd justgot used to it being under control in P3D!
VFR Photogrammetry flying is better from a few thousand feet up. This is Vancouver again.
So, is my KerrSpective on photogrammetry good or bad? It is50-50. Let's say I love the idea, and if I ignore the aboveshortcomings I have a blast overflying the likes of Vancouver, but Imust hope this element is an improving work-in-progress.
Of course, when you get out of the photogrammetry areas, you areback into auto-generated buildings and trees. There's a big plus pointhere, typically the definition in both shape and texture is muchbetter than you get in photogrammetry. And this is down to that fancyartificial intelligence that we learned about in one of thedevelopment videos. Great idea, most promising, but again it is notwithout its flaws.
Years ago, I did some research into the creation of homemade photoscenery for Aerofly FS2. I learned about using the available tools tointerpret buildings from maps. One important factor was theinterpretation of building heights. Unfortunately this is one areawhere MSFS 2020 seems to often miss the mark.
For example, I could not find a twin set of condos in Mississauga(part of the Greater Toronto Area) I once lived in. These buildingsare so easy to spot in real life because they are 18 floors high, andthey rise significantly above most of the surroundinghousing. However, in MSFS 2020, I had to navigate by the roads to findthem because they'd been represented as a mere four or five floorshigh.
The condo on the left is 18 floors, reduced to four or five floors in the sim. The building on the right is part of a town house
with two floors, increased to three or four floors in the sim. I lived in both of these. Finding your house has limitations
when the building height algorithm is this much in error. This is a global problem in MSFS 2020.
On the other side of the world, many two-story buildings in theScottish Highlands have now become more akin to office blocks twice orthree times their height too. Sorry, but unless Drumnadrochit and FortAugustus (Loch Ness area) have changed since I moved away, this is nothow it should be. And why are farm buildings throughout the sim(barns, quonsets, etc.) now also looking either like factories orapartments?
Could this be an algorithm issue waiting to be fixed, or furtherdeveloped? I live in hope that it will be fixed, because it reallydoes kill immersion in VFR flight when the towns look almost, but notquite. When we had lesser expectations (as in FSX scenery) we hadmore tolerance. But, with the bar of expectation raised, the bar ofexecution must similarly be elevated to a new level.
3. Missing Landmarks
For years I flew FSX using Orbx regions. Earlier this year I movedto P3D 4.5 with TrueEarth, and still had my FTX regions layeredunderneath. The result was that landmarks looked correct right acrossthe UK. I hoped to find the same in MSFS 2020, after all we had beenshown numerous examples of landmarks in the promo screen shots andvideos.
Alas, a VFR flight over Edinburgh showed an ugly generalizationwhere Edinburgh castle should be. Princes Street has no character,there are no real hand-designed landmarks, and the bridges over theFirth of Forth are a non-starter. Ask an Australian about the SydneyHarbor Bridge and you might get a similar sentiment expressed. Londonis also missing many landmarks, including Buckingham Palace, and asfor the good old USA, Trump now works in a nondescript office insteadof the White House. The list goes on and on.
Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. The castle is the most obvious landmark in the city. sitting on a hill. No attempt to reproduce
it in MSFS 2020 (just behind starboard wing).
To me, it feels like this was a beta that was rushed intoproduction. Sure, there are landmarks in the sim, some of themoutstandingly well done, but why did they stop when and where theydid? Was it economic pressure to start repaying the investment indevelopment? Honestly I can think of no other reason that makessense. So who will fix this? Will Asobo? Or will it be left to thelikes of Orbx? And what happens if Asobo subsequently fixes a landmarkthat has already been replaced by Orbx? Will a future update screw upthe work of Orbx?
For now, I am still using TrueEarth UK to fly around Scotland inP3D. While I miss the weather and lighting from MSFS 2020, Scotlandstill looks more accurate with the hand-touched work of Orbx than itdoes with the AI generated version of the newer sim. Hint Orbx: Weneed everything you had in TrueEarth (custom landmarks, bridges,churches, height-correct and regionally-appropriate buildings), plusthe enhanced airports from the FTX full fat regions, all imported intoMSFS 2020. (We don't need your floating buildings though).
Almost the same view as before, but this time in P3D 4.5 with Orbx True Earth GB North. While the lighting and ground texturing
cannot match MSFS 2020, it will be nice when more high quality, hand-designed landmarks are brought into the new sim,
either by Orbx, or someone else. If Orbx, hopefully they will learn from their London Landmarks misfire.
4. And Then There's Bing...
My heart sank when I heard they were using Bing for MSFS 2020. Afew years ago, I spent quite a bit of time looking at the Canadianprairies in both Google Earth and Bing. Over time, I noticed thatareas can be updated on these servers in an incremental way. In otherwords, one small section can be updated and then plastered on top ofearlier images, and often there's a change or mismatch in contrast,color, and sometimes even season.
Virden, Manitoba. As streamed into MSFS 2020 courtesy of Bing. Note the obvious winter season for the left side of the image,
and summer for the right. A few years ago this whole section was consistently summer. What protections are in place to stop
this from ruining your home area in MSFS 2020 in a future Bing update?
My point is this. Bing has said they will continue to update thescenery that is being streamed into MSFS 2020. But, can they guaranteecontinued color match and seasonal consistency? Can they guaranteecloud-free images?
Imagine this: You fly over your favorite area for the next sixmonths and love it. Suddenly Bing updates the area with images ofinferior quality, and seasonal or tonal mismatch. Just how is thatgoing to impact your enjoyment of MSFS 2020?
With the new simulator, we are faced with a conglomerate ofdifferent partners working on a streamed core product, and a singlechange made by any one of these partners could impact the enjoyment ofthe whole. Microsoft, Bing, Asobo, and Blackshark better come up witha quality control policy, and contingency plan ASAP, or there could besome extremely upset simmers in the future if their home area isruined by an incremental image update.
5. Resorting Back To FSX-Like Detail
My last KerrSpective on scenery relates to those areas where theoriginal Bing images were covered in cloud, or where the imagedefinition was very poor. When this happened in Orbx TrueEarth, therewas a level of human attention and editing to do the best job possibleto blend the hand-edited area into the good ortho. Is this happeningwith MSFS 2020? Maybe, or maybe not, but either way it's not quiteright.
I was flying over a small town I know in Saskatchewan, Canada, andwas dismayed to find that half the town was good imagery while theother half was like something out of vanilla FSX. The contrast was sostark it was disappointing. The roads were very different in color,and the density of vegetation coverage in the "FSX area" was far lessthan the photo area too. These two elements only served to draw myattention to the deficiency. What a shame.
Melville, Saskatchewan, is the town mentioned above. Note the contrasts between the left side of the town and the right. You
can clearly see where the road color changes at the leading edge port wingtip. If you know a town or area and this happens,
you really notice it.
I understand that it is unrealistic to get global, cloud-free, highdefinition photo coverage. However, when this is impossible, the planB employed must be A-grade in execution. Again, I harp back to my fearexpressed in the previous point, what if your city looks great thisweek, but reverts back to looking like something out of FSX a fewweeks from now?
KerrSpective Conclusions On The MSFS 2020 Scenery
I know I've been a bit harsh in this article, and I do want tostate that I would not want to abandon MSFS 2020. I know some peoplehave asked for refunds because they were disappointed, but I am farfrom being one of those people. Flying around the coastal area of BClast night was incredibly satisfying, indeed I could hardly holdaltitude because I was too busy gawking at the incredible vistaunderneath the wings! In short, I am very much in love with this newworld, and I know we're just at the beginning of it.
However, as a low-level VFR pilot, flying over areas I do know, theabove shortcomings are a distraction, and they do detract from theoverall pleasure when they are noticed. Sure, I try to ignore them andfocus on what I do like, but like a small blot of ink on a brand newwhite shirt, it's not so easy to keep your eyes off the blemish.
I applaud everyone, from each individual company, who worked onthis masterpiece. It is not just a game changer, it is an industrychanger. And, they have stated this will be a work-in-progress formany years to come. I think that's exactly what is needed, as it canonly get better. I sincerely hope my above points serve the designersin reminding them of things that are important to address to enhancefidelity.
Enjoy your flying in MSFS 2020, I certainly am--mostly! So let'sclose off on a positive note, and share a few more images to showcasethe beauty of this amazing simulator.
Looking south west down Loch Ness.
Recreating one of my many real-life solo fights in C-GBWJ, out of Burlington Airpark, Ontario. (CZBA).
DHL run from Regina (CYQR), to Saskatoon (CYXE).
Setting up for a touch and go at Manston, (EGMH), on England's east coast.
Ultralight flying over Wasaga Beach, Ontario. This is the world's longest freshwater beach.
And that's my KerrSpective on the current state of the scenery inMSFS 2020.
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