Something happened to me last night that hasn't happened for around 25 years. No, not that. (It's only been 138 days since that last happened.) No, last night I was shot down in Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Back in nineteen-eighty-something-or-other the culprit was one of FS1's dastardly Fokkers (sadly absent from FS2, FS3 etc.) last night it was a gang of rhino poachers in a speeding 4WD. I was trailing them in my Bell JetRanger and foolishly ignored the co-pilot's advice about not getting too close. Result: a bullet-riddled helo, a flaming engine, and an unscheduled landing in the middle of a lion-infested game reserve. Excellent edge-of-the-seat stuff.
It's taken them twenty-odd years, but MS have finally realised that not everyone buys realistic non-combat flight simulations to Sunday-drive Cessnas, and autopilot Airbuses. FSX added a welcome dollop of drama to a staid series, and this official expansion pack continues the good work.
Meet the fleet
An Aladdin's alcove of new aircraft, missions, scenery areas, and experiences, Acceleration immediately stands-out in the crowded world of FS add-ons thanks to its size and eclecticism. Most of the packs produced by publishers such as Just Flight, Aerosoft, and Flight 1 contain one plane type only. This one boasts three high quality machines that couldn't be more different. For flying incredibly fast you've got a remarkably detailed F/A-18 Hornet strike-fighter. For flying incredibly slowly you've got a versatile EH101 whirlybird, and for flying incredibly stylishly there's a gorgeous P-51 Mustang (de-gunned, sadly). Had ACES been generous enough to include an A380 or a 787 then just about every element of their customer base would have been catered for.
The Hornet is my pick of the new flyables. While it doesn't come with wings festooned with working Sidewinders and Mavericks, it does go like supersonic shingle off a shovel, and feature a surprisingly functional virtual cockpit. Tinker with the myriad switches and MFDs and you'll discover amongst other things, a sophisticated autopilot, a working radar (with ability to lock-up targets and adjust scan parameters) and the button that lower the all-important tail hook. Even if you've remembered to deploy the latter device, landing the F/A-18 on Acceleration's carrier is a nerve-shredding experience. So far most of my attempts have ended up looking more like this than this. Maybe it's a good thing that the devs haven't modelled parked planes or deck crew.
Promisingly, it appears to be relatively easy to add working tail hooks and launch bars (the bit of kit that allows the F/A-18 to use the carrier's catapult system) to other add-on planes, and place CVs in new locations (They are already integrated into FSX's sea traffic system, though finding them can be tricky) so the future for carrier ops looks bright.
Thunderbirds Are Go!
The Hornet stars in around half a dozen of Acceleration's 35 missions, including a spooky intercept above Edwards Airforce Base that's guaranteed to infuriate FS puritans. Reflecting its multiple real-world roles, the lucky EH101 gets twice as many outings. There's floating rocket capsules to be recovered, drowning trawlermen to be rescued, drug traffickers to be chased down, and nervous geologists to be plucked from rumbling volcano summits. Many of these imaginative excursions feature twists and decision points. Most require delicate work with the hoist or sling. Like the carrier landings, lifting and lowering things from a helo turns out to be devilishly tricky. A lot of challenge is doubtless authentic, but a portion comes from the fudged physics. At times cargoes and cables can behave strangely. Well, that's my excuse for not being able to place the Humvee on the deck of oil tanker in the advanced slingload tutorial.
The third of the new flyables - the P-51 - doesn't get to appear in many missions but does get a new competitive multiplayer mode to itself. Simulating one of the only real-life sporting events that manages to make Formula 1 look sedate and safe, Reno Air Racing is all about flying souped-up WWII Mustangs round and round a circular course in the Nevada desert. Those that put the practise in and find a field of similarly skilled human opponents to compete against will doubtless have fun. Personally, I found it a bit NASCAR (nothing but left turns). Red Bull Racing - also new - is far more enticing thanks to busier scenery (venues include the grounds of Longleat House, the Golden Horn in Istanbul, and Templehof aerodrome in Berlin) and slalom courses incorporating compulsory aerobatics. Anyone that reckons FS has dumbed-down of late needs to strap themselves into an Extra 300 and go fly these hair-raising, wingtip-whittling challenges.
Thoughtfully, ACES also provide some gentler competition types and some more fanciful ones. Glider racing, aerial orienteering in Beechcraft Barons, canyon running in Hornets, Mustang romps round a fictional island... if Acceleration doesn't kickstart a lively FS racing community then nothing will.
No gain without pain
I'd love to be able to tell you that this multi-talented add-on will also add 25 FPS to your framerate, eliminate blurry textures, and relive painful trapped wind, but I can't. Buyers get an early taste of 'SP2' - the second FSX patch. Compared to SP1, the gains seem slight. It's a similar story with the DX10 'preview'. Those with Vista and appropriate hardware may click a checkbox and see nice cockpit shadowing plus marginally prettier water and lighting. Unless you're an avid user, you'll barely notice the difference.
Technical niggles? Uncharacteristically for ACES, there do appear to be a few. Those with masses of add-ons may experience small issues with 3rd-party content after install. More worryingly, there's been a smattering of lock-up and crash reports on FSX forums since release (most of the afflicted seem to own NVIDIA 7xxx series cards). Should you be wary? Should you stick to freeware and SP1 for the moment? Should I stop asking so many rhetorical questions in my reviews? Who knows? The bottom line is you won't find a better value, more generous or more diverse FSX add-on than this one.