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PC Review - 'Microsoft Flight Simulator X'

by Paul Kehler on Dec. 9, 2006 @ 6:16 a.m. PST

Flight Simulator X will present players with a wide array of new aircraft to fly in a beautifully rich and believable world which will contain greater detail than past entries in the franchise.

Genre: Flight Simulation
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: October 17, 2006

Ah, flying! The exhilaration of soaring over mountains and through clouds, doing things with an aircraft that would get a real-world pilot's license pulled. For 25 years, Microsoft has been bringing us one of the best, if not the best, flight simulation programs available. I personally have been using them since about 1984, when SubLOGIC ported Flight Simulator II to the Commodore 64, Apple II and Atari 800. I loved my C64 and one of my favorite programs for it was Flight Simulator. Okay, now that I've dated myself, so let's move on to the present.

For those of you not well-versed on Roman numerals, Microsoft Flight Simulator X is the 10th installment of the series and represents the accumulation of a lot of experience. Like its predecessor, FSX features advanced weather generation (with the ability to download real-world weather patterns that update every 15 minutes), GPS navigation, AI controlled traffic, and many other features which I will discuss in this review.

The first time you launch FSX, it takes to a screen that Flight Simulator 2004 users will recognize right away. This screen allows you to check out an aircraft for a free flight, fly a mission, connect with some of your friends for multiplayer flying or access the Learning Center, which is essentially a huge encyclopedia with information about everything in the game. It even includes information for players who are interested in purchasing special flight yokes and other controllers, as well as paper flight charts, in addition to tips for real pilots in using FSX as a training aid. The opening screen also provides you with access to pilot records, showing what rewards you've earned through missions, a logbook documenting all of your flights and even a section for screenshots that you've taken.

Free flight mode is the same as the last few versions of FS, allowing you to choose an aircraft, starting location, time and season, and weather conditions. Also, fuel/payload (center of balance), and failures are all adjustable, allowing for more realism. There are over 24,000 airports to choose from in more than 15,000 cities across 223 countries or regions, so you can pretty much fly wherever you want. The weather selection is pretty standard, with no noticeable changes, and allows you to be very specific with the weather, creating different zones with various attributes.

The aircraft selection screen has been improved to allow you to filter by not only manufacturer and aircraft type (as in previous versions), but also by publisher, so if you have a favorite third-party developer of aircraft, their work can easily be found. In iterations up to and including Flight Simulator 2004, the interface for selecting an aircraft was functional, but not as user-friendly as it could have been. FSX has improved on this with more than just better filtering; as soon as you go to the selection screen, you are presented with a series of thumbnail images that represent available aircraft, and as you set the filters, the list gets smaller. There's even a selection box at the bottom of the screen that allows you "Show all variations," opening up all of the different paintjobs or skins for the aircraft.

Flying in free flight mode, as mentioned above, allows you to choose from thousands of airports all over the world. I typically like to fly either around my home of Vancouver, Canada, as it's familiar to me, or the San Francisco Bay Area, as it's been one of the major scenery areas of the Flight Simulator series since the beginning, so I tend to not get lost.

For the purposes of this review, I decided to fly around Vancouver and see the sights. I chose Vancouver International Airport as my starting location and a Cessna 172SP Skyhawk as my aircraft. There is an air traffic control (ATC) window that you can open to select local frequencies for takeoff, ground operations and weather information. I request takeoff with a departure to the east and am instructed to taxi to runway 26L and "hold short," which means that I am to stop at the runway without actually moving onto it. I've taxied to runway 26L many times so I know the way, but for the purposes of this review, I turned on a feature that also existed in Flight Simulator 2004, known as Progressive Taxi. This feature draws a path from your location to the place where you are supposed to taxi. In FS 2004, it was a pink 2D line, which was effective but not very flashy, and FSX improves on this by making the line 3D and yellow, which is much easier to see, especially during bad weather conditions.

So I taxi to the runway, hold short and notice that a Boeing passenger jet is just about to touch down on the runway. Rather than get squashed like a bug, I decide to wait my turn. I inform the tower that I have arrived at runway 26L, to which I am told to again hold short, as the Boeing has to clear the runway before it's safe to use. After a few moments, the Boeing makes a left onto a nearby taxiway, and I am instructed to take off.

ATC chatter in FSX is no improvement from its predecessors; the emotionless, perhaps caffeine-deprived workers remain calm even if your wings fall off (which can't happen, by the way). Familiar landmarks of downtown Vancouver are well-rendered, as any locals might recognize from the accompanying screenshots. The maneuvers I performed in my flight would more than likely get my license pulled, but they did make for some nice pictures. After flying under the Lions' Gate Bridge, I decided to turn on the bad weather. The sound of the rain hitting my windshield is very realistic, and the overall graphics for the weather system are impressive. I make a left after the bridge and head back to the airport for a wet landing.

As with previous versions, Microsoft spared no expense in adding detail to Flight Simulator. An example is the spray coming off of the wheels as I move down the runway, which is also reflective now that it's covered in water. Considering the staggering amount of rendered objects in FSX, the aircraft and building scenery is visually impressive. In FS 2004, there wasn't nearly as much variety in the scenery whereas in FSX, boats actually move through the water, and small details, such as the logo for one of Canada's banking institutions, appears on the side of the appropriate building downtown.

The complexity of the graphics brings me to my first complaint about FSX: The framerates are quite low, even on my system, which is running a high-end ATI video card and 2 GB of RAM. In a suburban area, expect to get between 15-20 FPS, whereas at a major airport with active ground and air traffic, my FPS hovered between 8-12 FPS. During my mission in Africa, however, I was getting great framerates up to 40.

The sound in FSX is very well done. There are over 1,400 available sound clips in the installation directory, giving the game incredible detail in this area. A lot of the switches on the cockpit have a noise, navigation sounds inform you, and there are wide array of warning sounds to let you know if you're doing something wrong.

Multiplayer support has been improved to allow you to use your Gamespy account in lieu of the inadequate Microsoft Zone web-based multiplayer service. As expected, upon connecting, you enter a lobby area where you can chat with other players and enter different rooms that represent playing styles other than "free flight," such as bush flying, competitions, flight training and helicopter operations. Like every other lobby, you are presented with a player count, ping and server name, but FSX also provides a column showing you the airfield that everyone is closest to, so you know whether or not the scenery is going to be camera-worthy.

The mission system in FSX is very impressive. Missions are divided up into many categories including tutorials, backcountry flying and emergency rescue scenarios. All give an estimated time to complete, so if you only have a limited time to play, you can find something appropriate. Once a mission is selected, you are taken to a briefing screen, which shows you an overview of the mission, plus mission details and even a very official-looking map provided by Jeppesen.

I chose a fairly easy mission called "Game Park Patrol," which takes place in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Upon entering the mission, one of my "co-workers" jumps on the radio and tells me that a baby elephant has wandered off and that I need to help find it. I take off and fly pretty low and after a few seconds, he tells me to turn right and fly west toward a village called Guvalala.

I notice that there is a light, 3-knot wind blowing almost due-north, which doesn't sound like much, but when your aircraft only weighs 400 lbs., even 3 knots is quite noticeable, so the flight is turning out to be a bit bumpy. I turn to the west and moments later, a lady with an Australian accent radios in and reports that she's had no luck and that they are parked along side the road up ahead. There is an arrow on my compass that changes color as I start pointing the right direction for the waypoint. There is also a very obvious marker that exists in the world, showing me exactly where I want to be.

If I hold down the spacebar and move the mouse, I can look around the "virtual cockpit." It's really quite spectacular looking out across the plains and puffy white clouds in the distance, with the sounds of the wind blowing in my ears.

I fly for about 10-15 minutes or so, and I finally get to where the truck is parked. They radio in and tell me that they've already searched to the south, so I should turn northeast and try searching there. Well, suffice it to say that I never found the elephant. I suspect that "find the elephant" was some kind of hazing ritual for new park rangers, but it's more likely that the poor thing became lion food … ah, the circle of life in all its glory.

FSX is a very impressive title, but there are a few things about it that bother me. For one, you can't map extended mouse buttons to anything. Mapping "mouse 4" to adjust your view direction would be handy, as using the spacebar to do it while using a joystick is impossible because you'd need to have one hand on the keyboard and one hand on the mouse to actually pan the view.

Loading times when stating the program are terrible, but I suppose it can be attributed to the amount of sheer data in the game, so it's somewhat forgivable. Finally, Microsoft has once again chosen to not include an aircraft and scenery editor, which was only included in Flight Simulator 4, but I've been pining for ever since. The editor of the time allowed you to create an aircraft from one of three basic designs and then adjust a wide assortment of flight dynamics. Not only was it a lot of fun, but it was also very educational in learning about how aircraft stay in the air.

A great deal of us would love to be able to fly a plane; I myself would love to get my license in the future. For now though, we'll have to make do with flight simulators and friends with planes. Microsoft has been providing high-quality flight simulation for over 25 years, so they are, and continue to be, the leader in the market. With Microsoft Flight Simulator X, they've once again impressed me, for the most part; the low framerates and failure to support modern mice isn't enough to turn me off of it. If you have any interest in flying or you are already a pilot and want to cater to your hobby on day when flying just isn't advisable, then I highly recommend this title.

Score: 8.9/10

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