Anyone having both Microsoft Flight Simulator X and a reasonably decent internet connection knows that FSX is almost infinitely expandable, and if you’re willing to spend the time separating the wheat from the chaff with regards to downloaded add-ons, a lot of really good stuff is available for absolutely no cost. Third party airplane designers have all of the tools they need to create very high-end products, and Microsoft enables that practice by including the Software Development Kit (SDK) with the Deluxe version of the retail FSX package.
With that in mind, I thought it would be very interesting to see what kind of additions Microsoft would be offering in the Flight Simulator X: Acceleration expansion package, and even more interestingly, how the additional features would compare to what is available for free. As you’ll see as you read further, the answer to that question is mixed. There are some things that fall into the category of “Well, it’s about time,” and some that fall into “WTF?” In one notable case, both of those answers apply.
As noted in my initial review of FSX, one of the more compelling enhancements was the new Missions system, whereby the success or failure of missions would actually be tracked. My assumption was that any expansion pack for FSX would include not only new aircraft, but new missions as well. Indeed, such is the case. There are three new aircraft available, and a collection of missions to go with them. The aircraft are the F-18 Hornet carrier-based jet fighter, the venerable P-51 WWII fighter in an air racing configuration, and the AgustaWestland EH-101 helicopter.
The missions for the F-18, in one of the aforementioned “It’s about time” examples, allow for takeoff and landing on aircraft carriers. The capability had been kludged together my modders at least as far back as Flight Simulator 2004, but the new work from Microsoft makes it much more seamless. My experience with carrier operations showed that both the catapult launch and cable arrested recovery worked well, but worked much better if I set aside the Microsoft F-18 and used a free download F-14 instead. I found the F-14 to be far more forgiving on landing; with the F-18 I was able to get to the deck and catch a wire, but every single time, the airplane would flip and crash on the ship’s deck. I grant that my inferior piloting skillz were very likely to be the problem rather than anything in the modeling of the airplane, but the fact remains that the free F-14 offered a more gratifying (and survivable) experience. The F-14 was more stable in the approach, and quite possibly more forgiving of my ham-handed flying than the F-18. The F-14, however, wasn’t capable (in its current iteration) of using the launch catapult, so I had to use raw engine power and prayer to get it off the deck. My hope is that the additional carrier capabilities will encourage third-party modders to create a collection of new carrier-based airplanes for me to download.
Another “It’s about time” feature is the addition of Reno air racing. This too has been available in the past as a scenery download and an online racing club, but Microsoft has added the ability for a single player to race against AI planes. This appeals to a hermit such as myself in that multiplayer requires scheduling with other people, and a devotion to said schedule that I’m afraid I cannot commit to. Unfortunately, the Reno feature is combined with one of those “WTF?” moments. The P-51 included in the expansion is far below the standards available for free download when it comes to the instrument panel. The air racing tutorial (very well done, by the way) puts a great deal of emphasis on monitoring engine parameters, but the associated gauges on the panel are virtually unreadable. This may have something to do with trying to preserve a decent frame rate, but I found it extremely disappointing. I tried to go back to the 2D panel, which is my normal recourse for a bad 3D panel, but Microsoft didn’t include one. Of the three new planes, the P-51 was by far the biggest disappointment. That’s a shame because the air racing is quite fun.
The third new aircraft, the EH-101 helicopter, has a glass panel in the 3D cockpit, so it was more legible. Parenthetically, the F-18 has a HUD, so the panel clarity was for the most part moot. I flew a few of the new missions in the EH-101 and found it to be more stable than the smaller, more nimble choppers included in the original FSX package. This is important to me as I am by no means a good helicopter pilot. In fact, I don’t think I have ever completed an FSX helicopter mission, although I have gotten far enough into some of them that the only reason for failure was my inability to land. Same with the EH-101: I simply cannot land a helicopter. Birth defect, I suppose, but I’ve made it through life this far with it. I’m fully adjusted to it. I just don’t fly the FSX helicopters anymore.
A few of the new missions provide new scenery and goals for the planes that came with the original FSX. Three of the most compelling of them also turned out to be three of the most frustrating: Microsoft included three new Red Bull Air Racing tracks. The Red Bull racing is something that I really, really wish I could do, but I can’t make it past the second gate without hitting the ground. I’ve spent hours trying to get the hang of it, but I just can’t do it. I know it’s possible because I’ve seen it on YouTube, so I’m sure the three people in the world that can do it successfully will be thrilled with the new tracks. Me? I’ll keep trying, but a hamster has a better chance of completing a Rubik’s Cube than I do of ever finishing a race.
My bottom line is that the FSX Acceleration expansion pack is worth getting for the improvements to the infrastructure (carrier operations, Reno air racing), but that better add-on airplanes are available elsewhere. Which, now that I think about it, is pretty much how I felt about Flight Simulator X too.
The new capabilities are intriguing, but wait for modders to provide airplanes to use them.
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