Back in September of 2006, I had the chance to preview Microsoft Flight Simulator X. My reaction was mixed. While it was very pretty, it was essentially unplayable on my aging P4 and ATI 850XT. I mentioned, with a hint of embarrassment, that my investment in Flight Sim 9 was roughly $500 due to the number of add-ons and fiddly-bits I'd added over the years.
Through chance and hard work, I finally managed to join the cool kids with new computer and retake the skies, and perhaps more important, to check on the industry that has grown up to service the past iterations of flight sim junkies.
Flight Sim is unique in the gaming world. It is one of the only games (if I can even call it a game) that actually burns up hardware. It's also the only game where the add-ons cost more than the game. While Guild Wars adds an expansion every few months, and Battlefieldies get their regular supply of paid new content, Flight Simmers pay for dozens of small upgrades and tweaks, customizing their virtual worlds to get them just right.
My old PC hadn't been stable enough to sustain flight-sim-level punishment in months. It's aging P4 and anemic ATI 850 graphics could barely load the latest games. My poor PC couldn't handle the truth -- it'd been left behind. I betrayed it by purchasing an Xbox 360, and it paid me back with ever more ill-timed reboots. After one particularly well timed act of violence by my anthropomorphized nemesis which resulted in the loss of 3 hours work, I curbstomped it and sold my soul to Newegg.
After building the new box, I optimistically installed FSX, set some aggressive graphics options and took off over Kauai in my faithful (stock) Mooney Bravo, and was treated to a wonderful slide show of someone else's vacation. After an hour online, digging through the forums, I found an excellent guide to tweaking the heck out of the settings, and I was in business. And that's how I discovered my flight sim nirvana (and the picture at the top of the page).
Tweaking is the part of being a flight simmer. While there masses of men leading lives of quiet desperation under their stock installations, they're missing out on what Flight Sim can be at its best. I love flight sim because when it works, I lose my sense of place entirely. It is, (with all apologies to Jaron Lanier's dreadlocks), virtual reality. And that's why I have spent so much money on both hardware and software to make my flight sim experience that little bit closer to real, pixel by pixel.
After my first round of tweaking, FSX put me right about where I'd left off with FS9. My 60 bucks on FSX replaced nearly all of my previous upgrades. Not one to pass up a kick and a snoring poodle, I immediately started trying to make it even better. I went through the laundry list of add-ons I'd purchased in the past:
Terrain: Terrain is most of what you see out the window. The more fine-grained it is (mesh in sim-speak), and the closer it matches reality (landclass), the better. I was pleased to see that FSX was better on both fronts than it had been. I was also pleased that FSGenesis, a company to which I have a lifetime pass, had done Microsoft one better already. As a consequence, my little town went looking like an urban Mecca surrounded by grasslands to the tiny smattering of houses in the middle of the woods that it really is. Thanks to the extremely photorealistic textures Microsoft put into the box (and which are in all the screen shots) I felt no desire to dig for new ones. This is a huge savings, I'd spent easily $100 trying to improve the incredibly crappy stock textures of FS9.
Environment: water, lighting and weather. Again, the FSX upgrade has wiped out the need for several enhancements I'd already purchased. All three are now stellar.
Scenery: Scenery is all the stuff that sits on top of the world. Some of it is generated automagically -- trees, random small buildings. It's the equivalent of pretty waving grass in Oblivion. This is a huge killer in terms of performance, as the sim has to constantly decide where to stick the next tree, where to line up the next building, and one of the first things I often turn off is this autogenerated detritus. While it occasionally looks good, it kills your frame rates right when you need them most -- takeoff and landing.
The other part of the scenery is site-specific. In the default simulator, the most common use for this is major landmarks and bridges. Since this kind of scenery is (to me) non-optional, but also a killer performance wise, intelligently designing landmark scenery is critical. The new scenery for FSX performs well, and also looks pretty darn good.
But the stock scenery can always be greatly improved. Because there are thousands of places on the planet Microsoft needs to model, they can't possibly include detailed, accurate scenery for specific local areas. The Golden Gate bridge makes the cut. Random buildings on Alcatraz, not so much.
This is where the flight sim community gets really interesting. There are thousands of geeks out there making small bits of local scenery -- their favorite airports, ski areas, towns and oddments. It's also where the payware companies really shine. I turned to Aerosoft -- one of the large, very high-polish scenery and airplane makers. They'd drained a lot of money from my wallet in the past. I tried their micro-scenery of Alcatraz. As I suspected, it's perfect.
Unfortunately there's little else for FSX (at least compared to their huge inventory for FS9) but I'm encouraged. FSX is giving Aerosoft and its competitors an incredible base to build on. Aerosoft is releasing their first significant small-scale scenery pack for the incredibly weird looking island of Helgoland in Germany that, based on their early screenshots, is so real looking it's scary.
Planes: Whether the actually airplane matters to you as a simmer depends entirely on what kind of flying you do. If you spend most of your sessions looking out the window, they don't matter much. If you like the chase-cam hero view, it matters a lot. And if you fly on instruments, your gauges are most of your experience.
Microsoft's stock airplanes have never been exactly bad -- they fly well, they look OK, and they don't slow the sim down. But my most prized possession (and single largest expense) in FS9 were the incredibly real gauges from RealityXP -- they're smooth, and they mimic their real life counterparts perfectly. Even complex avionics like weather radars and GPS systems are modelled so perfectly you use the actual avionics manuals to train yourself how to use them. But they're not available for FSX, and it looks like they won't be for the foreseeable future.
But at least my favorite airplane is still around. I've hundreds of hours flying the virtual Dehavilland Beaver. This storied plane is the workhorse of Alaskan bush pilots. It can land on snow, water, or rubble strewn fields. It's a marvel of engineering and art, and It just plain feels good. Aerosoft re-released it for FSX, and it's even better than the old one.
Everything works exactly as it should. Everything is photo real. Indeed, climbing into the cockpit was like putting on the proverbial old suit. Aerosoft has also released a Katana DA-20, increasingly the trainer most pilots are learning on, and while it's not my cup of tea, it's equally good.
And this brings me to my final configuration for my test flight -- a scenic tour of San Francisco, with my new and improved scenery, my better-than stock Beaver, and my hopped up new computer. Given my lukewarm reaction to FSX back in September, I can't say how pleasantly surprised I am that the hardware has caught up, and that by the looks of it, the add-on software is coming along nicely.
It's very, very nice to be back in the virtual skies.
Microsoft FSX, Deluxe Edition
Intel Conroe e6600 (@3.3Ghz)
Asus P5N32 Motherboard
MSI 8800 GTS-640 Videocard
Corsair Dominator Memory (2G)
While we don't usually reference things like this, given that this article focuses so much on the visual experience of a bleeding edge application, it seemed appropriate to mention. With the above setup, I was able to achieve the above screen shots at anywhere from 16-30 frames per second, which is about what I can live with. Your mileage, based on the phases of the moon and whether you have recently made your sacrifice of one yak, two camels, and a goat, will definitely vary.