Ever since I’ve owned a Tandy 1000 PC, I’ve owned a Flight Simulator title to go with my PC. Through the last two decades it has evolved from a simple wireframe simulation of flight into a fully 3d accelerated game. With the advent of version 6 on Windows 95, the game stopped being a simple simulation and exploded with the ability to accept scenery libraries, and included airports that were not located on the continental United States. Now, with version 10 appearing on store shelves, it promises an even higher level of detail and interactivity. Let’s take a look at how it flies! Before I start, here are the system specs of my review PC:
- Athlon 3000XP
- 2 gigbytes of Corsair Value Select RAM
- ASUS A8N-SLI Premium Motherboard
- Nvidia Geforce 7900GT video card
- AC97 Sound
- Logitech MX1000 mouse
Setting up your visuals for your flight simulator will be one of the most important parts of the sim. Weather, terrain, and airport flight indicators are very important for Visual Flight plans that you will file as a civilian pilot. The downside is that Flight Simulator X makes use of an engine that isn’t fully realized on PCs as of yet. The game, out of the box, supports Windows Vista and DirectX version 10. Of course, hardware for DirectX 10 isn’t out yet either (at the time of this review, the NVidia 8800 series was just releasing) and Vista is just now going to manufacturers for the Christmas season. Where does this leave the flight sim enthusiast? Well, the game will run on DirectX 9 systems, but even with my system being as robust as it is, I found that discovering the happy medium of detail versus performance was very difficult. There was a very thin line of where my settings should be to get a decent framerate, but still have enough detail in the simulation to satisfy me.
One of the first things to go was the random ground clutter. For the most part, I practiced flying either the Bell Jetranger or the Cessna craft over Dallas/Ft. Worth, and the ground clutter was so random, I would actually get lost trying to navigate to either city center, or even get near my neighborhood. After some tweaking, I found that the standard ground texture could be made detailed enough I could recognize various highways and major streets above 1000 feet, letting me enjoy my hometown just a little bit more. The downside is that if I wanted to try flying in other weather types (rain, snow, clear, fog) I had to check all my graphics settings to make sure they were dealing with the changes. In some cases I had to lower detail just to enjoy non-ideal weather conditions.
While I was reviewing this title, I did discover several sites with higher resolution ground textures and settings for the autogen system that created the ground clutter that would result in better looking visuals, but all at the expense of framerate. I may have to hold out until DirectX 10 for the high res shots that we saw when the title was first announced.
Moving on to the sound…okay, we will touch on the sound a bit. There isn’t much to say about the simulation sound. There was no music in game to speak of, but a lot of voice traffic going on. I did like that they provided several different voices for the Air Traffic controllers, and other aircraft to use. You still hear a lot of the same voices piecing together sentences, but it works and they don’t sound like complete robots.
Annoyingly enough, the multiplayer mode seems to put some sort of a voice filter over your mic to make it sound like you are really sitting in an airplane cockpit. I found that frustrating more often than not, but you could still understand what your co-pilot and other craft were saying.
This is a game that requires the whole keyboard…and then you need a joystick as well. What made it nice is that a fair bit of it can be remapped and set to where you need it. It is also very flexible on the input devices you use. I was able to play the game with a Pelican Xbox 360 controller quite well (though I still needed a keyboard nearby for other commands) and only had problems with the deadzone on the right stick. I pulled out my Saitek X45 setup and spent the time needed to set it up for the game, and found a very beautiful flight experience (until my joystick broke.) This game has what is needed to create the flight experience you want. As far as I can tell, if it worked in Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight, then the input device of your fancy should work here just fine. I can’t wait to see the kind of cockpits people build just for their flight sim. What is there to say about a flight sim. You take a plane up, you fly it around, you land again. For the most part, people will look at this title and say that. Even more so, they may just clutch their older version and walk away. I’d urge those people to give this one a try as it has some features that weren’t in the previous titles.
First up, the missions have to be the primary draw to the game. Initially, they’re disguised as the initial training runs that every sim should have, covering basic take off, landing, and flight operations. But they move on to more difficult tasks.
One detail that I felt really detracted from the simulation was the inability to crash. If I stalled my plane and/or fell out of the sky, I would simply bounce off the ground or hit the ground and my gear would pop out. I found this to be so jarring that it almost completely turned me off to playing the game. Now, to it’s credit, you can set various equipment and instrument failures at the start of the session, but the invincibility that is included by default really made me cringe.
One of the things that Flight Simulator X did right was to include GameSpy as the matchmaking service. I’m not endorsing GameSpy as the best or the end all of matchmaking, but it is very heavily used and can influence the online playability of a title. I was able to log in, find a session, and even jump to the nearest airport of the other players in under a minute. Though I think my best sessions had to do with a feature only included in the Deluxe version, the ability to connect as an Air Traffic Controller. I found a session that had a group of people who were practicing take-offs and landings around Seattle/Tacoma airport in Washington State. I connected as the SeaTac ATC, managed to convince people to switch to various radio frequencies as a part of bringing them in on instruments, and then convinced two Learjets to land on the same runway, only 100 feet apart. The ATC display is very well done, and gave me a real good handle on the occurring events around SeaTac. Anyone who has the Deluxe version should definately give this feature a try (not counting my pranks played on fellow players).
It was also nice simulating a long flight with a friend as my co-pilot. Flight Simulator X has the ability to share your plane with another player, and the two of you can share responsibilities for keeping the plane in flight. Even better, the primary control stick is the only part that has to be passed back and forth with a keypress. All the other cockpit functions are controlled by both players simultaneously. This allowed one of us to worry about autopilot and miscellaneous settings while the other flew. Great opportunities to help teach someone the basics of flight.
Sadly, missions are single player mode only from what I have found.