• FSX Preview

    FSX Preview

    By Andrew Herd (7 October 2006)

    The final code of FSX hit my desk yesterday, meaning that for the first time it became possible to form a judgement of the new version of the sim, free of the doubt that beta code inevitably brings in its wake. Having spent many espresso-fueled hours at the controls, all I can say is that FSX is awesome, as long as you have a system that will run it.

    I doubt that anyone is going to fire up the new version of the sim without being stunned and amazed, but like every new version of Flight Simulator I can recall - which is all of them - FSX has its pros and cons. The pros are that the interface has been brought right up to date; the graphics have leapt ahead several generations, making this the first version of FS that can really show off a modern video card; all the planes have had a makeover and many new ones have been added; the flight models have been improved; online simming has been hugely extended; Autogen, the road and river network and landscape graphics have been greatly improved; many of the atmospheric limits have been removed and there is a big new emphasis on soaring; and adventures have made a comeback in the form of some truly excellent 'missions'. The cons are that I used to think FS2004 was a resource hog; there are two different versions of the sim; a lot of old favorites have vanished from the hangar; and Microsoft have made some slightly odd choices regarding the replacements - but, as long as you have a computer powerful enough to run it, you are going to love FSX.

    This is going to be a real chase through the new features, so fasten your safety belts...

    Standard vs. De Luxe

    Yep, we are back to the old FS2000 problem of having two different versions of the sim, one of them containing what looks like a few optional extras and much more expensive than the other. There are two ways of looking at this: from Microsoft's point of view, it makes perfect marketing sense, because hard-up users can get the standard version and save cash; but be warned that going down this path has ended in tears for many users in the past, when owners of the standard version discovered that they couldn't run the latest addon, because it needed some crucial de Luxe version dll. The howls of outrage are still ringing in our ears, most of them triggered by the unfortunate fact that all the best third party planes for FS2000 were developed to take advantage of features only supported by dlls installed by the more expensive of the two versions of the sim - and the problem will be worse in FSX, because it uses online product activation and 'borrowing' of dlls is not likely to be an option.

    The problem as I see it is that the difference between the two versions don't sound that great on paper, boiling down to the standard version having around 20 less missions, fewer planes, fewer detailed airports, and no multiplayer tower support or the G1000 glass cockpit - but the last two features are going to be the real killers, because there is no way to upgrade the Standard version, short of buying the full de Luxe box. So parents please beware when buying for the kids, because FS2000 standard came as a crashing disappointment to many younger simmers when they discovered that Santa had brought them a version which didn't do the very thing they wanted and who couldn't afford to go out and buy the de Luxe package instead. Yes, I know the de Luxe version costs a lot more, dad, but I have kids myself and I would rather spend the money than hear the screams (-:

    System Requirements

    Every now and then, I toy with the idea an award for the developer who comes up with the most optimistic set of minimum system requirements on a box and every year, I abandon the scheme, because no-one can touch Microsoft when it comes to deliberate understatement. Take a game with bleeding edge graphics, promote the fast action that users can enjoy with it, extoll the joys of cooperative multiplayer flying - and then tell 'em that you need no more than a one gig processor, an ounce of RAM, a five year old video card and a modem.

    Microsoft wouldn't really do that, would they?

    Of course not. This is what they say on the official website:

    Windows XP SP2 / Windows Vista
    Processor: 1.0 Ghz
    RAM: Windows XP SP2 - 256MB, Windows Vista – 512MB
    Hard Drive: 14GB
    Video Card: 32MB DirectX 9 compatible
    Other: DX9 hardware compatibility and audio board with speakers and/or headphones
    Online/Multiplayer Requirements: 56.6 kbps or better for online play

    I agree with you. Even FS2004 would struggle on that kind of setup.

    Legal stuff follows.

    It is true that some might say that Microsoft's FSX spec is just a tiny weeny bit optimistic - but even the most sceptical among us would have to concede that it isn't factually incorrect. Before the lawyers drag me off and pull out all my fingernails, I therefore attest that a minimum spec system will run FSX. Yes, boys and gals, if you load the 2D panel of the Cub in 640 x 480, pull all the sliders to the left, turn off all the advanced graphics options, zap the AI planes, AI boats, AI vehicles and avoid ATC and don't fly over anything but desert, you will be able run FSX. A person looking over your shoulder would find it hard to work out which version of the sim you are running, because you would have stripped out just about everything that makes FSX FSX, but nonetheless, it will run, although IMO you will have wasted seventy bucks on the experience. Fortunately, there can't be that many of us still running one gig processors, because a more realistic spec would be a 3 Ghz system with a couple of gigs of RAM and a 256 Mb video card from a fairly recent generation. And don't miss the need for XP SP2 at the minimum - 98 and Me will not be able to run FSX and neither will the tens of thousands of pirate copies of XP that can't be upgraded to SP2. Having run the sim on XP, I suspect that it will run much better on Vista, but we shall have to see.

    Graphics

    Big, big change here. In the past, Flight Simulator would run on more or less any graphics card you cared to put in its way, so long as it had at least 64 Mb of RAM. The game was more limited by CPU than graphics power and when economies had to be made in budgeting for a new system, it made sense to specify a more powerful CPU, rather than spend cash on graphics. With FSX all of that has been stood on its head and if you don't have a cutting edge card, you will miss out on some fantastic effects. Where a 256 Mb Radeon X800XL/GeForce 7600GT did very nicely for FS2004, FSX users are looking nearer to the Radeon X1900/GeForce 7900 series of cards and upwards and having seen it in action, 512 Mb of video RAM doesn't sound like so much of a luxury any more. Why is all this extra power needed? Well, as I mentioned above, the interface has had a complete overhaul, although this is mainly cosmetic and experienced FS2004 users will still be able to find their way around; on the other hand, the support for new users has been substantially increased and the Learning Center should be a compulsory stop for anyone with no previous experience of Flight Simulator. Although the highest video resolution remains 1600 x 1200 x 32, support for 3D effects is hugely extended and absolutely transforms the whole look of the game, particularly where lighting is concerned - just take a look at the shots taken over water. Given that the pendulum has swung very much towards the virtual cockpit, texture and special effects management is at the top of the agenda now, which means that the days of being able to economize on cards for FS graphics are officially over - FSX is as demanding as some of the top end first person shooters on 3D code management.

    Despite the fact that the main changes to the interface are restricted to the eye candy, some big surprises lie in wait among the graphics settings; for example, terrain mesh complexity can be set to an impressive 1 meter and terrain texture resolution down to an astonishing 7 cm, which is good to see, although I doubt either will be useful until we are all running quad processor systems packing several terabytes of RAM. The terrain texture resolution increase is welcome, but will pose some interesting problems, given that at present, phototexture packages conform to a nominal 5 m per pixel standard: increase this to 1 m per pixel, which is the natural resolution of most aerial photographs and the size of texture tiles on disk goes up by a factor of 25, which would boost the size of many photoscenery packages up to the 200 Gb mark. Even if they start giving away hard disks for free, I can't imagine many users being keen to install a package which is supplied on 44 DVDs, nor many publishers being keen to develop such things, so much of the new texture display capacity is likely to remain unused except for small scale projects. Power users will be delighted to hear that scenery library management remains as horrible as it ever was with no obvious changes to the interface.

    Installing FSX for the first time will bring a smile to your face, followed by a frown which will remain until you get the video settings right. I installed my copy on a 3.2 Ghz Pentium D with 4 Gb of RAM and a Radeon X1950 series card with 512 Mb of RAM and was surprised to see that FSX had configured itself to run a target frame rate of 20 fps. Ten minutes after takeoff from Friday Harbor - the new default start location - I had yet to see 20 fps, having watched rates hover around 10-15 fps, with significant stuttering and some drops into single figures. A quick look around revealed that part of the problem lay in the amount of Autogen underneath me and some hurried tweaking of sliders followed; turning off lens flare and light bloom clawed back a few frames, as did turning off shadows, reducing texture resolution back to 5 m, cutting Autogen density to normal and setting mesh resolution to 76 m. I also zapped all the AI traffic, which accounts for why there isn't much activity in the airports featured in the screenshots, but I suspect it will be possible to add it back in without serious adverse effects.

    Traffic

    I guess I might as well deal with the AI now as later - a useful new feature is that airliner and GA traffic can be adjusted independently, as can airport vehicle density, the numbers of vehicles on the roads, and the numbers of ships and ferries and numbers of leisure craft on the water. The first option will be very welcome to simmers who fly only GA or big iron, as it will be possible to save frames by turning the other type of traffic off - much the same goes for vehicles and I am sure that the first thing anyone with a challenged system will do is pull the roads slider down to zero, as I did. AI water traffic is something else - I really like it and there isn't enough of it to cause a problem, so I left the sliders in the default positions and enjoyed watching the sailboats, ferries and ships. It is only a matter of time before we start seeing addon watercraft being released - they are just so cute.

    Hardware

    My CH Products yoke and pedals were recognised without any problems and were partially set up by the FSX installation process. All that remained was to set up the buttons and paddles, but the interface for this looks and works much as it did in FS2004. TrackIR didn't work with FSX at the time of writing, but it will be upgraded before long and looks as if it will be a compulsory purchase because you are going to be flying using the virtual cockpit.

    Weather

    At first glance, it doesn't seem that much has altered here, but a little digging reveals that some fundamental improvements have been made and the ability to use advanced graphics features makes the sky look much more real. Thermals have been added and appear whenever conditions are favorable - which is a huge change as in the past every thermal had to be placed by hand and could be relied upon to stay where it had been put, taking much of the challenge out of gliding, because it was so predictible. A new option gives you three settings for visualising rising air, ranging from realistic invisible upcurrents to no-brainer 'springs' that rise sedately up from the ground, showing you where each thermal is located. Glider pilots, having been left out in the cold in previous versions, will love FSX, so watch this space for a glut of new soaring addons. Microsoft have added in a seriously impressive tug option, which appears when you load one of the sailplanes and hit ctrl-shift-y; what follows next is a real eye-opener, because very shortly after it appears, the tow plane starts its run and the wire between your glider and the tow plane stretches to take up the load. As the glider gathers speed, its wings flex to bear the load and then you will have your hands full trying to formate accurately on the tow plane as you bounce around in the up currents. When you are as high as you need, you hit shift-y to release the tow and the tug banks away, leaving you to explore the sky.

    The advanced weather dialog hasn't changed much, apart from an interesting facility which lets you see fronts if downloaded weather is being used. The one time I tested this, the new weather dialog failed to show several fronts that were in the process of passing over the UK, so allowing for the fact that Jep weather downloaded into Flight Simulator isn't quite real time, all I can say is that I have logged this for further investigation.

    Another piece of big news is that the old 99,999 foot limit on the atmosphere is gone and I slewed to more than 500,000 feet before I got bored. This opens the way at long last to convincing X-15 and Space Shuttle simulations - the potential for a realistic X-15 sim is terrific, given that those planes were the first vehicles to fly re-entries, not to mention having Mach 6 capability and some of the most interesting panels ever designed.

    Rain effects have been enhanced and FSX displays a certain amount of water on the runway ahead of the plane, although the effect doesn't extend very far; but the wheels do trail spray when you land in the wet. Overall, the skies are generically the same as FS2004 and the custom weather dialog will be totally familiar to experience users - as will the fact that 8/8 cloud doesn't give you a total greyout unless you drop the vis down to half a mile or so, which will annoy real world pilots using FSX for IFR practice.

    Dynamic living world

    Get to the planes, Andy! Oh yeah... the planes. FSX has giraffes. No, I haven't actually seen any yet, but I am going on safari soon (-: The Learning Center speaks of livestock, wild animals and birds, illustrated by a tantalising shot of the alleged giraffes browsing on the plains of Africa, but you won't see any unless you enable the advanced animations option. I can see livestock becoming a major feature of a certain type of addon, although I just hope the birds will be better than the ones we have been treated to so far... Other aspects of scenery AI have been considerably enhanced, including airport vehicles, but we also get detailed scenery of the pyramids; the Eiffel tower; Uluru; Mount Fuji; the Himalayas; Beijing's Forbidden City; the British Parliament and Big Ben; Kenmore Air Harbor in Seattle; the Space Shuttle launch facility; an oil platform off the Texas coast; Honolulu city; and the Grand Canyon.

    The de Luxe list of detailed airports includes: Amsterdam Schiphol, Anchorage, Auckland, Beijing, Boston, Chicago, Copenhagen, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Hong Kong, Kill Devil Hills (Kitty Hawk), Las Vegas, London Heathrow, LA, Madrid Barajas, Mexico City, Miami, Minneapolis, Narita, New York JFK, Oshkosh, Oslo Gardermoen, Charles de Gaulle, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Rio, Rome Fiumicino, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Seoul, Lamber St. Louis, St. Martin (Netherlands Antilles), Stockholm, Sydney, Taipei, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington DC. The standard version has non-detailed versions of Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Toronto - the airports are still there, with correct runways and taxiways, but are much more basic. You will like the new airports, believe me.

    The ground textures are much more detailed and the old style, plank-type flat runways look to be a thing of the past, opening the way for sloping runways and nightmare bush fields like Mile High - but although I tried a few likely default fields, it looks as if Microsoft have made everything flat and level, leaving third parties considerable opportunity to 'enhance' our experience.

    Another big enhancement, along with better mesh outside the US, is that rivers and roads have been given a serious upgrade - for the first time it is possible to navigate across the default scenery using the road network in Europe - check out the screenshot above right. I haven't had time to take a look around Africa and Asia, but I will report back on this later.

    The Missions

    I haven't counted 'em, but it looks like there are over 50 in the de Luxe and over 30 in the standard version of FSX; the de Luxe version also includes a Mission Builder, so you can roll your own, if you have the inclination. Included in here are a set of improved tutorials, which appear (I had a very quick look) to be less buggy than they were in FS2004. Then there are some 'beginner' flights, including at approach to Sitka; a mid-west fly in that will be a trip down memory lane for those of you that remember flying through that darned barn in FS2004; an island run in the Beaver; flour bombing in the ultralight; and a Swedish championship soaring course. Each of these comes with its own mini-plot, people who talk to you, and some small challenges. Intermediate missions include chopper flying; soaring in Austria (with fewer thermals); a landing at St. Martin; and an ILS DME approach Innsbruck - there are many more, but this is the flavor of them. The advanced missions are tougher and include a time-limited mission to find a lost yacht; a search for a plane downed in the Idaho wildnerness; and a bad day in the 737-800 over the Indian Ocean. As you might have guessed, the expert missions are very tricky indeed, including landing a 747 in a monsoon; an NDB approach to Dutch Harbor; and a Red Bull pylon race. Those of you who missed the adventures have had their faith repaid - big time.

    Online

    Vast improvement here, although we will need to test exactly how good it is. The on-line interface has had a major overhaul. FSX lets you connect to other users via GameSpy or via a LAN. This has obvious advantages over the old system which was annoyingly limited and FSX opens the door wide open to multiplayer simming, which looks set to become a big thing. Using the new interface it is actually possible to 'share' an aircraft, handing the controls back and forth between two simmers sat many thousands of miles apart, but note that this doesn't include true multipilot flying, as one or the other of you has to have complete control; to talk to other on-line players; and (if you have the de Luxe version) to set up your own ATC session, something which has only been possible via organisations like VATSIM until now, but which becomes a no-brainer in FSX. Chaos will ensue, mark my words (-:

    The Planes

    Microsoft trailed their coat on this one a long while back, so it is no surprise that we have lost most of the Century of Flight planes, or that the only ones that have been kept are the Cub and the DC-3. What is a surprise is that the Cessna 182 and the Boeing 777 have gone to the great virtual graveyard in the sky, although this will no doubt be music to the ears of developers who will quickly step in to fill the gap. Even a quick pass through the hangar reveals that something unique has happened, because instead of the usual mix of 'old and new' that has been traditional with previous versions of FS, all the planes have had a complete makeover; meaning that for just about the first time ever, all the panels have more or less the same feel and styling, in as much as a group of planes from over a dozen different manufacturers can ever be said to look alike. This may well have been triggered by the hugely different look of the ACOF veteran panels compared to the more modern planes - it was hard to use the FS2004 Caravan without wondering what the panel might have looked like had it had the same amount of attention as the Cub. At long last, the jet panels offer a spur to developers to come up with something better than the flat, unappealing 2D graphics that they have so often served up in the past, so I would anticipate we shall see the demise of quite a few addons that are going to look antique next to the default FSX aircraft.

    The headline news about the new planes is that we have an Airbus A321, an SL450 ultralight, a CRJ 700, a DHC2 floatplane, a Grumman Goose and a Maule M7 (the 737 had been upgraded to an 800 series, but we'll count that as an original). The planes are all great, but the Airbus is especially interesting, given Microsoft's previously unswerving loyalty to Boeing, and long overdue, given the international purchaser base that FSX can count on these days. The ultralight is a bit of a surprise, given the need for speed which seems to drive so much of the addon market, yet in the real world, traditional GA manufacturers are smarting at the hands of an apparently unstoppable rise in ultralights, to the extent that it may not be long before PPLs as we know them will be in a minority. The CRJ makes sense, because the Lear has always been incredibly popular and a stablemate is welcome. The Beaver is long overdue, given the enormous popularity enjoyed by addons simulating this type over the past few years - bush flying has become increasingly popular from FS2000 onwards, thanks to a profusion of bush sceneries and the only surprise is that we didn't get a wheeled version as well. Much the same goes for the Maule, another bush favorite that comes on wheels and skis and compliments the DHC2 very nicely. That leaves the Grumman Goose amphibian, a classic if there ever was one and a sim that will prove very popular, given the new water effects.

    Having only seen the de Luxe version, I haven't figured out which planes are missing in the standard version yet, but brace yourself if the Grand Caravan amphibian was you favorite, because it has gone - Microsoft clearly see the Beaver floatplane as its replacement. Yep, that's right, there is only a wheeled version of the Caravan and likewise the Beaver only comes on floats. Crazy, but true and the sooner someone gets in there and puts this right, the better (-:

    The full list follows:

    A321
    SL450 ultralight
    Bell Jetranger
    737-800
    747-400
    CRJ 700
    Learjet 45
    Grand Caravan wheels
    172SP
    DHC2 Beaver floats
    DG808S sailplane
    DC-3
    Extra 300S
    Grumman Goose
    Maule M7-260C
    Mooney Bravo
    Piper Cub
    Beech Baron
    King Air 350
    Robinson R22

    Star of the show is the Goose, with those big throttles hanging down off the roof and a general air of being able to go anywhere and do anythng.

    Where are the shots of the 2D panels?

    This is going to sound astonishing, coming from me, but I took one look at them and that was it - I would be surprised if you don't feel the same way as I doubt very much if anyone will voluntarily use the 2D panels in FSX, because this version of the sim is where the virtual cockpit comes of age. Microsoft seem to have recognised this and the 2D panels have an air of having been frozen in time - somehow I doubt they will be there in the next version and I can't imagine that many third party addons are going to major on them. How times have changed.

    Flight models

    Much more real, although real pilots will instantly notice the problems caused by the lack of control forces. Highlights are the Extra, which really does fly much more like a real one; the Beaver and Goose, both of which can be 'stepped' like proper floatplanes; and the introduction of a feature that has echoes of RealAir's much admired 'RealView' system, mimicking the motions of the pilot's head relative to the panel and making aerobatics and flight in turbulence seem much more real.

    What is missing?

    Not much, now. Although the FSX water looks much more realistic, it stays calm and motion is limited to a gentle bob, regardless of how strong the wind might be. I realise waves would have introduced a new layer of complexity into the sim, but it would have been the making of floatplane operations. Perhaps some clever third party developer can crack this one? Modelling of the extremes of flight is better than it was and I would like to see what third party developers can make of FSX. With the realism settings at 'easy' all the planes are stable and will eventually return to level flight from an unusual attitude - pulling all the sliders to the right still leaves the 172 reluctant to enter a spiral dive, but the Extra will do so with ease and can be flicked and spun (although doing so requires full back pressure on the stick and prospin rudder). It will be interesting to see what third party developers make of FSX, because it appears to bring the opportunity to code some much more realistic profiles than we are used to.

    Piracy

    In the first six months after the release of FS2004, we were inundated with queries by users who had bought pirated copies of the sim and run into problems with them. It was hard not to sympathize, especially given that some of the folk who emailed us appeared only to have committed the crime of being a little wet behind the ears. Others had paid their money in full knowledge of what they were doing, only to end up with copies of an unfinished late beta that timed out and left them high and dry - and needless to say, the vendors' after sales service turned out to be less comprehensive than expected. FSX is activated online, which means that you can install it twice before hard questions get asked - this is a big improvement on the old system which meant keeping an installation CD in the drive all the time, but I am sure it will bring complaints in its wake. Sure, FSX isn't cheap, but then Microsoft have invested millions of dollars in the program over the years and a proportion of the cash paid for every legit copy is ploughed back into the development of the next version; just think, if every copy sold worlwide was legal, imagine the size of the warchest the development team would have been sitting on?

    Verdict?

    Fantastic, stupendous, awesome, best version yet, most advanced desktop flight simulation ever. Yeah, FSX needs macho hardware to run well, but we are on the verge of a new generation of processors that will pack some serious muscle without absolutely breaking the bank. For now, download the demo and if your system can run that, look forward to some serious fun - and stay with us and read the follow on articles as we dig deeper.

    Andrew Herd
    [email protected]

    Order FSX here

    Review: FSX Scenery
    Review: FSX General Aviation Aircraft
    Review: FSX Jets And Choppers
    Review: FSX Missions, ATC And The Rest


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