Thursday, 23 August 2012

The best things in life are free.. or at Platinum prices.

So here's the thing.  I've been reading on various forums about how a lot of people are still flying FS2004: A Century Of Flight, AKA FS9 and claims that it runs an order of magnitude quicker and smoother than FSX, while looking almost as good.  The killer moment came with an online video showing a split-screen view of a takeoff, half the screen FS9, the other half FSX, with the challenge to Can You Tell? Now while there are clear differences between the two, for much of the video I personally felt it was impossible to say that one was objectively better than the other (up until the aircraft starts to climb and you can see the coastline, something that FSX seems to do a lot better in my opinion.

So inspired by all this, I thought that since FS9 is available for under a tenner it was worth checking out, for curiousity's sake.

I really wish I hadn't done that.

For the simple reason that if I'd tried FS9 first, I'd probably never have spent the money I have on FSX.

Let's start with what for me is the worst feature of FS9 - the multi-screen support.  In FSX it's relatively easy to undock a window and drag it to another screen.  In FS9 when on full-screen mode that's not possible.  You have to ALT-ENTER to go to windowed mode to do so.  When you switch back to full-screen, the windows generally stay on the monitors where they're dragged, but without visible borders it's a little clumsy resizing them, plus sometimes they can drift from one monitor to another.  Worse is that once you've positioned them, ALT-ENTERing back to windowed view re-docks everything back to the main window for some reason, so you have to get the layout right first time or start again from scratch.

Apart from that, I'd say that FS9's visuals are at least 90% as good as FSX, even better in some instances.  Most importantly, where my FS PC was getting frame rates of 30 under FSX, it's getting 200+ under FS9.  Even flying over UK2000's Manchester Xtreme (15 fps on FSX) I had no problems maintaining a locked frame rate of 60, same for GAP's Rhodes Diagoras (which at night turns FSX into a slide show)  I'm able to run with every single graphical detail slider slammed all the way to the right, including extremely dense autogen, which makes things look superb.

So spurred on by this, I thought I'd see how pimped out I could make my FS2004 install without spending any more money.  The only payware I'm using on it are the two aforementioned airports - Manchester and Rhodes, and that purely only because I already have them (and fortunately they're dual compatible).  There is a freeware Rhodes airport that's pretty good, but I also wanted to use a free Rhodes photoscenery which for some reason puts the freeware Diagoras about a hundred yards out to sea.  The GAP version of Diagoras is somehow able to correct for this and appears safely on the photoreal land.  For Manchester the only freeware scenery I could find was the cut-down demo of the UK2000 Xtreme airport.  There is however a freeware Manchester Ringway 1975 airport out there, which represents the airport as it was when I was but a wee sprat, if flying vintage iron is your thing.

So off on a voyage of freeware discovery, I hit the various forums and searched for things like "best freeware FS9".  Funnily enough, the vast majority of posts I found asking this question were generally met with the irate response "This question has been asked so many times before!  Learn to use the forum search function!".  Or other equally helpful posts like "Best is a relative term.  Make your own choice." followed by a link to a freeware site listing thousands of titles.

But finding a few people willing to help and actually express opinions finally got me on the right track.  I found Peter Slater's scenery packs which were excellent.  Peter didn't create them, but he compiled sets of other creator's freeware airports into handy downloads for the virtual airline he was involved with, then posted them online for everyone's benefit.  The airports are an eclectic lot, including the must-have Princess Juliana at St Maarten (complete with sunbathers & planespotters on Maho beach)  He also hosts the work of the defunct Irish Flight Sim Design project, covering several airports & fields in the Emerald Isle.  Since I've added Dublin to my list of regular practice routes, this makes a welcome addition.

This video on Youtube showcases several very good airports, of which I've installed Zurich, Stanstead and Rome.  A comment on that video also led me to EGBBDesign, which is a pretty good Birmingham airport.  For EGNX East Midlands I was only able to find an old FS2002 freeware which, while compatible, really wasn't up to scratch.  Instead I installed the UK2000 free version of their East Midlands product.  It's a considerable improvement over the default, though naturally it's well short of the quality of their full Xtreme airport products.

With regards to the overall eye-candy quality of FS9 I did try a couple of things with mixed success.  A pack that promised a complete overhaul of the FS9 textures failed to deliver, as it made linear terrain items like roads and railways a lot more pixellated, and I honestly couldn't see enough of an improvement in the other textures to justify it.  To improve the seas and coasts I found a freeware add-on called Aquarama, which gave some very nice darkened seas.  Finally to pretty up the skies I found an environment package called HDEv2 which changed the sky colours, enhanced the clouds and with the aid of a third party shader added some really nice light bloom effects.

And last but not least, to boost up the AI traffic I returned to the World of AI, and downloaded a whole bundle of packages (every airline that it lists as calling at EGCC Manchester)  The only annoying feature of this is that some of the AI aircraft have been setup with the model/AI creator listed in the Manufacturer field of the aircraft.cfg, which means that their names show up in the red identifier text appearing above each aircraft model.  But the important thing is my FS9 EGCC is now just as bustling as my FSX EGCC.

For aircraft, while you still get sone of the same unhelpful responses in the various forums, there are a few freewares that people generally agree are above and beyond.  Project Opensky's Boeings, Project Airbus's Airbuses, Project Tupolev's... you see the pattern, right?  There's also the iFly Boeing 747-400, which comes with its own 300+ page manual (for freeware?!!)  I'm discovering the smorgasbord approach to freeware FS aircraft - find a model that you like, pair it up with your preferred panel setup then frankenstein them together in the aircraft.cfg  As someone who generally prefers to fly with a virtual cockpit on a single screen, it's taking a bit of getting used to flicking between 2D panels, but long term I can see how this approach might better suit those looking to create "real" simulators (i.e. physical things that feel like an aircraft cockpit when you sit in them, instead of sitting at a computer desk)

The result of this is that for a day's work, I've got an FS9 setup that looks almost as good as my FSX setup, with 10 times the frame rate, all for a tenner.  (Not including the two payware airports, or MCE which also works on both versions, though I've yet to get it working on FS9).  Compare that with £15 for FSX, £25 each for GEX Europe and UTX Europe and another £17 for TrafficX.

Honestly, if I'd started out with FS9, I probably would have been happy running it on my old 2.4Ghz quad core, which would have saved me the cost of the 4.5Ghz monster I built for FSX.

So if even a tenner is too much for your budget, the Flightgear free open source simulator team squeaked out version 2.8 last week.  I'd previously rejected Flightgear as something looking more like FS95, but some neat looking Youtube vids tempted me into giving it another try.  I have to say I'm very impressed with how much it's improved since 2.6 (the version I tried a month ago).  Generally we're still not up to FSX standards or even FS9, but 2.8 may be nipping at the heels of FS2002.  One area where I think it may even be better than FSX is with the city terrain, more on which below.

There's still a long way to go though.  Pretty much any setup required means delving under the hood and tinkering with XML files, including configuring a joystick.  Someone described Flightgear as "A flight simulator by people who enjoy creating flight simulators, for people who enjoy creating flight simulators."  It's a fair enough comment, though given how much tweaking and tinkering a lot of MS FS users have to do, not as damning as you would think.  It was a relatively easy hack to convince Flightgear to recognise my generic "USB Game Controllers" as a Speedlink Black Widow (for that's what it is) and from then it was able to use all the buttons and axes correctly.  I also experienced a problem with Flightgear insisting on starting fullscreen on one of my smaller secondary monitors.  While FG does claim multi-monitor support, the online documentation immediately takes you into the arcane world of editing camera views in XML files, rather than the simple fix needed for getting the default window to open on a particular screen.

Once up and running I still found the default Cessna 172 to be annoyingly twitchy compared to its FS9 and FSX cousin, but then I didn't know the keys to adjust any of the trims in FG.  The appearence of the cockpit was definitely the visually weakest part of Flightgear, looking very computer-y.  Defenders of Flightgear say that quality varies widely from aircraft to aircraft, but frankly folks the aircraft you bundle with your application ought to showcase the very best you have, especially something like the Cessna 172 which is almost certainly going to be most users' first choice for getting to grips with the sim.

To give FG a fair shake I downloaded its version of the Bombardier CRJ family, since I'd been doing most of my jet flying in the FSX version of the CRJ700.  For the most part the cockpit layout was comparable, with things generally in the same positions, so I was able to find most things in the startup sequence.  The EICAS however cannot be switched between views.  The cockpit designers have gotten around this to an extent by displaying a different view on the copilot's screen.  The Flightgear version does however have a functional FMC, unlike the FSX version.  The Flightgear CRJ did have a virtual cockpit view, but it was entirely non-functional and untextured.

I got about halfway through the aircraft start-up sequence based on my FSX experiences, but then hit a brick wall when I couldn't find the equivalent of the Fuel Flow switch.  Since I couldn't view the fuel system in the EICAS, I have no idea whether this step is even necessary, but the engines steadfastly refused to spool up.  In the end I relented and hit the Auto Start option, which brought everything in the aircraft up and online automagically.

From there getting the CRJ into the air wasn't too difficult.  The cockpit view seemed strangely close to the runway surface  Once airborne I was able to get the Autopilot engaged using the controls in the cockpit.  But I couldn't work out how to adjust the speed, altitude or heading bugs manually - the knobs in the cockpit appeared non-functional and I couldn't find it in the onscreen help.  In the end I took back manual control and just barnstormed around San Francisco for a little bit.

One thing that might not be obvious from this picture I took with the Cessna.  All of those buildings are in 3d relief.  Every... Last... One... I believe the effect is produced by a process called Displacement Mapping. Instead of seperate 3d models, there is a texture that says "this part of the ground texture  should be elevated X pixels"  This is a lot faster for the graphics engine to process than hundreds of tiny building models.  The downside is that side-on those raised bits have no side textures, so it looks terrible if you want to recreate the Death Star Trench Run down Main Street.  But once you're over a thousand feet or so the effect is spectacular.  It really looks like a proper city down there, unlike the "leafy Manhattan suburbia" that MSFS always seems to generate.

In addition, the SFX airport scenery visible in the background is the default model that comes with Flightgear.  It's certainly as good as any of the detailed freeware models I downloaded for FS9, and streets ahead of the default FSX airport models.

All in all I'd have to say that Flightgear isn't ready for primetime.  It has however progressed from public-access TV and is all over the daytime cable schedules.  What I'm saying is that in a few years this may well be a viable competitor for FSX and XPlane.  If you were looking to create an airliner type sim cockpit for a particular aircraft and are prepared to put in the time and effort required to get under Flightgear's technical hood, then I think it would make a quite acceptable engine for a "serious" sim.  I might keep it around to tinker with in times to come, maybe fly the odd unusual aircraft from its collection, but for eye candy, immersion and the sheer fun of casual flying it's not quite there yet.  But given how big an improvement 2.8 is over 2.6, Flightgear is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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