Flight Simulator X
High drama, low framerates.
FSX is far too big and far too detailed a game to be reviewed by just one person so, with the help of EG's resident medium (Madame Muerto) I've enlisted the assistance of some famous dead aviators. Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic, is going to be covering fixed-wing aircraft for me. Amy 'Sweetcheeks' Johnson, Britain's most important aviatrix, will be looking at scenery. Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous Red Baron, has kindly agreed to cast his expert monocle over missions, and Stringfellow Hawke, that bloke out of crap eighties chopper show Blue Thunder, will be analysing helicopters and everything else. Me? I might insert the odd ill-informed observation now and again, and add a trite summing-up paragraph at the end. Possibly. If I can be arsed. Right, let's get going. Stringfellow, give the good readers a little FS background.
"I was in Airwolf not Blue Thunder, and technically I'm not actually dead."
Whatever. Just get on with it.
"The Microsoft Flight Simulator series, of which this is the tenth incarnation, started life in 1982. Back then users got just one aircraft - a Cessna - and only four sparsely-decorated scenery areas - the Big Apple, the Windy City, the City of Angels, and Seattle. Over the years the flight environment has expanded to cover the entire globe and the hangars have been extended to make room for jet airliners, helicopters, floatplanes, historical craft... you name it."
You're starting to bore me String. Over to you Charles. Impressed by the FSX aircraft?
"I've got a few reservations - which I'll come to in a moment - but overall, yes I'm impressed. At long last Aces have acknowledged the fact that not all airliners are made in the US. Now parlour pilots get a spiffy Airbus A321 in addition to the Boeing 737 and 747. Though there are more fastidious recreations of this modern marvel available (Commercial FS9 add-ons have worked harder to mimic the numerous onboard computer systems) it's a splendid addition to the fleet. Another welcome newcomer is the CRJ700, a regional jetliner made by the same folk that make iconic celebrity sky taxi, the Learjet (also included in the sim)."
Any interesting developments on the propeller-driven side of things?
"Plenty. Several of the series' core General Aviation planes have had their 3D cockpits and external models beautifully remodelled. A few - the Cessna 172, Beech Baron, and Mooney Bravo - now have variants that feature the same kind of hi-tech 'glass' panels you'll find in modern airliners like the Airbus. The introduction of fabulous recreations of the DHC2 Beaver, Grumman Goose, and Maule M7-260C is going to please bush pilots no end."
Charles, I'm almost afraid to ask - what's a 'bush pilot'?
"A bush pilot is an aviator that likes to fly small rugged aircraft around inhospitable wilderness areas. The Beaver and Goose with their ability to land on lakes and rivers, and the Maule with its talent for taking-off from postage-stamp-sized strips are ideally suited for this kind of flying."
Thanks for clearing that up. You said something about reservations earlier?
"Yes I did. While the calibre of the new aircraft is top-notch, I was deeply saddened to see that Aces had removed so many of FS9's charismatic heritage aircraft for this release. Two machines extremely dear to me - the Curtiss Jenny and Ryan NYP - have been cruelly ejected. Without access to my beloved Spirit of St Louis how on earth are today's youngsters going to find out what is was like to spend 33 hours hunched in an uncomfortable seat staring at the grey Atlantic through a periscope?"
You've obviously never heard of Silent Hunter III. Care to share your thoughts on the new missions Manfred?
"Certainly, old fruit."
Errr... you don't sound very German.
"There's an interesting story behind that."
Just tell us about the missions.
"Being dead means I get a lot of time for gaming. Flight simulations are a passion of mine, but, to be honest, I've never really gotten into the Flight Simulator series. There's just something about the lack of structure, drama, and crimson triplanes that always left me cold. Well, I'm pleased to say FSX's new mission mode has changed all that. Although Aces has stopped short of bolting machineguns to their winged wonders (a foolish mistake given the apparent demise of the Combat Flight Simulator franchise) they have finally realised that flight simulation can be exciting as well as exacting.
"Assuming you pick up the deluxe edition rather than the standard one (advisable considering the small difference in price and the significant difference in feature-sets) you'll have the chance to try over 50 imaginative tasks ranging from hairy stunt displays and tricky winter approaches, to eventful cargo runs and dramatic mercy missions. All missions come with custom content, duration estimates, and difficulty ratings (a good portion are geared towards novices) and have their own token rewards. A few even present you with adventure-style decision dialogues at certain points. Very novel. The legion of add-on designers are sure to have a field day with this versatile new system. Expect intricate campaigns built from interconnected missions, aerial RPGs with buckets of randomisation, makeshift combat scenarios that adapt the new flour bombing mechanism... yes, FSX is going to grow in lots of fascinating ways over the next year or two."
Danke Manfred. I think we'll look at scenery next. Amy, are you ready to go?
"Yes, but before I get started I thought it might be interesting to clear-up once-and-for-all the mystery surrounding my untimely death in 1941."
No time for that I'm afraid. FSX scenery. Does it please thine eye and does it savage thine framerates?
"Well, there's no question that FSX is much prettier than its predecessor. Aces has upped the resolutions for its terrain mesh and textures, added more variety to its 'autogen' tree and building libraries, and improved the stock water textures substantially. On top of this the team has enlivened their environments with animated road and sea traffic, airport service vehicles, and the odd animal herd and flock of birds. Predictably these worthwhile enhancements don't come without a price or problems. However formidable your current rig, it's going to struggle to achieve double-figure framerates at busy airports unless graphical sacrifices are made. As usual, users can expect to spend their first few hours tweaking detail sliders in pursuit of that perfect set-up."
So you're saying the 1GHz CPU, 256MB RAM, 32MB video card system requirements are a little misleading?
"Put it this way Oliver, my pal Amelia Earhart runs a system with a 3GHz P4 chip, 1GB of RAM, and a 128MB video card and I've told her to stick with FS9 for the time being."
Interesting. Is that it?
"I did also want to point-out to fellow Brits that, though vistas are generally much more attractive, new land-class and elevation data has produced some strange side effects in parts of the UK. While revisiting the sight of my unfortunate demise (the Thames estuary) I noticed some odd land bridges across the river and some winter countryside textures desperately in need of a dash of green."
Thanks a lot Amy. Now back to Blue Thunder's Stringfellow Hawke for assessments of multiplayer, ATC, and those all-important choppers.
"Are you doing the Blue Thunder thing just to wind me up?"
Ernest Borgnine said you hated it. How's the MP in FSX?
"Enriched. There's this new shared cockpit feature that means two people can operate the same plane; that's a big boon for tutoring situations and the realistic recreation of airliner operations. In online sessions, you've also now got the option of bossing the skies from the comfort of a plush 3D tower interior. It seems to work fine though hardcore VATSIM users will probably want to stick with their bespoke ATC tools. Hopefully some clever modder will eventually work out how to bring tin-pushing into single-player too.
"Helicopters? Don't get me started. The flight models have been tuned, but where it really matters nothing has changed at all; on the aircraft selection screen there's still only boring Bell JetRangers and Robinson R22s. Criminally, scandalously, unbelievably, FS still lacks supersonic stealth-helos armed with nuclear-tipped ATG missiles!"
It's a monstrous omission String. Thanks for the insights.
So there you have it. FSX is the finest non-combat flight-sim money can buy assuming you've got the sort of cutting-edge system that can do it justice. If you haven't pimped your PC within the last twelve months then you might want to stick with FS9 for the moment, or, at the very least, get a feel for framerates via the demo before coughing-up cash.