To Fly: Flight Simulator X
I sat down to write a review -- a preview really -- of Flight Simulator X from Microsoft. I thought it would just be fun, 'cause hey, I love Flight Sim. I thought it would be cute to talk about the good old days, before I lost my pilot's license, so I pulled my logbook down from the shelf. That's when I realized two things:
1: My log book is over the shelf on my desk. I haven't opened it in years, but still, no matter how I rearrange my office, it's within arm's reach. This is an entirely unconscious act. I can't even remember putting it there.
2: It's been exactly ten years to the day since I first learned to fly.
I remember that first day with extreme clarity. It was unseasonably cold. The sky was completely free of clouds. I walked into the Hanscom Field FBO and asked, nervous as hell, if I could take them up on the "Learn to Fly!" coupon they'd put in the Boston Globe.
I was introduced to Mike, my instructor. He was 20 years old. I filled out some paperwork, and with little ceremony, we grabbed headsets and walked out onto the tarmac. If I close my eyes, I can smell it: avgas fumes blown across acres of perfectly smooth concrete. We approached the Cessna 150 from the rear, Mike pointing out the various control surfaces, their functions, statistics about the plane. While petrified, I was also cocky as hell. I'd flown a Cessna for dozens of hours in Flight Simulator for Windows 95. I'd read every book I could find on becoming a private pilot. I am quite sure I could have passed my written exam that first day.
Mike walked to the left door, opened it, and unlocked the controls. "Go ahead and walk around, move the control surfaces, hop up on the wing and check the gas."
I obliged. I ran my hands across the elevator, flexing it back and forth. The aluminum felt insubstantial. As I continued my walk around the plane, it hit me. This icarian contraption weighs nothing. It's a dragonfly. One person can easily push it around. Two people could flip it over. We hopped in. Mike read the checklist, showing me where everything was. I already knew. We started the engine, and moved through the interminable delays of running up the engine, waiting for traffic to clear, waiting for tower to clear us.
Lined up on the runway, I looked down a cliff of stained, crosshatched grey concrete. "Cessna Lima Papa Alpha, clear for take off." Mike nodded. I pushed the throttle to the firewall and released the brakes.
In that one ceiling-and-visibility-unlimited afternoon, I became a pilot.
Fast forward two years. I'm flying every chance I get. I'm sending my wife and I slowly into the poorhouse with rental fees. Page after page of my logbook fills up. I've graduated from tiny planes to bigger planes, from flying patterns around the airport to taking weekend trips to Nantucket. My "casual" flying days involve strapping on a parachute, climbing into a far lighter, far more powerful airplane, and flying upside down and sideways for hours. When I'm not flying a Decathlon in real life, I'm practicing in one of the best simulators ever made: Flight Unlimited. While not a huge commercial success, it stills stands as the best aerobatic trainer ever made.
Then one Saturday afternoon, sitting on the couch, I have a seizure. In 45 seconds, I lose my license -- my ticket -- and I'll never get it back. The FAA has a zero tolerance policy on a few things, and a predisposition for unpredictable losses of consciousness is one of them.
Some month's later, medicated, stable, re-evaluating what all this means for my life, I look at the shelf above my desk, see my logbook, and start flipping through the pages, remembering, until I get to the end.
Aircraft: 8-KCAB Decathlon
Route of Flight: BED-Local / Aerobatic Box 2 Ldg
Time: Single-Engine Land - Solo 1.5
Note: Review dutch/slow roll, loop, half I, invert stall, spin, hammerhead
I sit there staring at that last page. This is it. There will be no more lines scribbled, announcing my progress into twin engine planes, or my first aerobatic competition. In cold, black Sharpie, I add one more note, across the bottom of the page in straight, large capitals
I had no desire to ever fly a flight simulator again. I went so far as to uninstall Flight Unlimited from my computer. My anger at God overtook any pleasure I had in the recollections of flying. I sold everything I owned that made me a pilot.
In late 2003, half a decade later, this changed. Microsoft released Microsoft Flight Simulator: A Century of Flight, known colloquially as "FS9" for being the 9th release of the franchise. I bought it. I bought a yoke and rudder pedals. I bought a really good joystick and a throttle quadrant. I bought a better PC. I became a junkie.
The current version of Flight Simulator: FS2004/Century of Flight/FS9 is insanely great, but it's not a game. You don't "play" flight simulator. You fly. Where you go, what you fly, how you get there, how real it is -- it's all up to you. What FS9 gives you is an engine. An engine that takes you somewhere.
Just as the Half Life series spawned a thousand mods, so has Flight Simulator. The difference is that the vast majority of good Flight Sim mods are commercial. Microsoft does something quite non-Microsoftian when it comes to the franchise; they actually encourage the users to make new stuff. They not only expose the programming interfaces, they provide you with the actual tools. Here in 2006, virtually every aspect of FS9 can be dramatically improved with third part products.
My current add-on tally -- software alone -- is $510, distributed between aircraft, gauges, terrain, and pure functional modifications. This doesn't include the hardware, or the hours upon hours of setup, tweaking, and performance tuning I've spent to get everything just right. I'm probably about average for folks you'd see hanging around the Flight Sim message boards. You can spend a LOT more than this.
Now consider the conundrum when a copy of Flight Simulator X drops on my desk last week. At first, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. Me likey the shiny. I installed it, fired it up, and low and behold, I saw...
There's very, very little that's different between FS9 and FSX. But there are improvements. They've implemented a mission system which solves the "well, what should I do in flight sim today" problem. While the previous version featured some very limited pre-planned flights, the new system allows for well scripted, goal oriented missions. The missions that ship are just OK, but the tool set it gives the Flight Sim community will indubitably yield some very cool stuff. The game also ships with multiplayer features and real-person air traffic control. While interesting, it already seems inferior to what the community developed on its own for FS9, and its success will be determined more by whether anyone shows up than the new features themselves.
Visually, the game does ratchet things up. The textures, scenery, etc. are all better, but they're still not as good as what I've bought in the after market. The airplane designs have improved, but again, they're nowhere near the level of those from third parties. The best feature will likely be the one we can't even demonstrate -- the Direct X 10 graphic engine. If you look at Microsoft's screen shots, you will see some very pretty pictures. I can make the sim look nearly like them on my machine.
It's very pretty. At 2 frames per second. DX10 will, supposedly, make scenes like this possible at playable frame rates.
If I sound down on the game I'm not. There is good news for the hard core simmer here, and it's how much Microsoft didn't change. FSX remains FS9 in all the good ways. Word from the developer community is that most products will be easy to transfer. Many of the third party assets, particularly the visual ones, merely require new installers and a few tweaks.
Microsoft will be criticized by many in the mainstream gaming press as charging full-product prices for what is truly just an upgrade (of course, a $40 upgrade to my $500 flight sim seems like a bargain). Still, FSX won't be my primary platform for myself, nor I suspect for most hard core simmers, until that other $500 worth of software is upgraded too. Next year, when I can get a new computer, and all my software is compatible, FSX will be the catalyst for a substantial reduction in my savings account. Flight Sim will be prettier, faster, and more real than ever. My guess is that the computer that can max out the graphics options hasn't even been built yet, and it won't be until 2008 when the engine runs out of tasks to throw at a hot new PC.
Which is precisely when Flight Sim 11 will come out.
Calling Flight Sim a $500 product may seem absurd. An outrageous commitment of capital to a single game. But I'd venture that I've put more hours on my rudder pedals than most Xbox owners have on their Xboxen. And when I fire up Flight Sim, turn off the lights, turn up the sound, pull out my maps and my checklist, I'm there. Seen from the outside, it's a poor simulacrum -- a kind of golem, strong, automatic, perpetually tasked to imitate, but never succeeding. But when it works, I recapture some small bit of something that was at one time so supremely important to me.