I grew up having a deep passion for all things related to aviation. Back in the 70's, I was really into radio control airplanes. While not quite as passionate about computers, I was still a very early adopter, purchasing my first TRS-80 Model 1 while I was still in high school. Back then, there wasn't a whole lot you could do with a computer like that but just being able to write simple programs in BASIC was a treat. Eventually I added more memory, bringing the machine up to a whopping 16k. What prompted me to upgrade my machine way back then is exactly what prompted me to upgrade my machine just last week: the imminent release of a new flight simulator. Back then it was SubLogic Flight Simulator (the first, before they started appending numbers to the name) for the TRS-80. As far as flight sims go, you could find a far superior one today on a cell phone. At the time, though, it was the state-of-the-art in personal flight simulators. I have no proof of this, but I suspect I may have had the very first computer-based flight simulator in the entire city of Cincinnati.
When I look back at the rudimentary functionality of those early flight sims and compare them to the current offerings, it boggles the mind. Flight Sim I had a virtual world comprised of 36 square miles of flat grid, with a pixel thin backdrop of mountains along the northern edge. The frame rate was an abysmal 3 or 4 frames per second, and the screen resolution was something on the order of 320x200. The keyboard was the only means of control. The program loaded from a cassette tape. Ah, those were the days.
That inauspicious start blossomed into the far more capable PC-based flight sims of today, and in fact the soon to be released Microsoft Flight Simulator X is a direct ancestor of that original program. As a pure numbers comparison, consider that today's flight sim has a virtual world that is accurate to the n-th degree for the entire planet Earth. I can launch from my home base of Bolton Field, just outside of Columbus, OH, and navigate using real-world navigational facilities to any airport in the world. My screen resolution is currently set at 1280x1024, but I could go higher. I could also support multiple monitors to provide a peripheral view. My frame rate is measured in the 30's, I control the flight with either a joystick or a yoke, and the program is installed to the hard drive from 2 DVDs. Beyond even that, in the release version I will be able to use my TrackIR head tracker to move my point-of-view within a 3D virtual cockpit, lending a truly authentic feeling to the sim-based flying. So I stand corrected: THESE are the days!!
With the caveat that I am using what is called a "preview build," which means that things may change a bit from this version when Microsoft builds the release version, I'd like to tell you a little about the new Flight Simulator X (which I will hereafter refer to as 'FSX'). The first thing to realize is that 'aviation' means a lot of things depending on your personal needs or desires. To someone like me, it means a small 2-seat homebuilt that can cruise at 180 mph on a simple 150hp engine. It means looking at the sky, seeing pleasant flying weather, hopping in the car for a short drive to the airport, and with minimal interaction with the authorities in the control tower, taking to the sky to do whatever I want, just about wherever I want. To others, aviation means a career. Even in that realm, there are multitudes of options. Professional pilots fly airliners in a highly structured environment, they fly crop dusters is a nearly unrestricted environment, and they fly many things in between. They deliver mail and supplies in the arctic north, they deliver vacationing passengers in the Caribbean, and they deliver businessmen to high-power meetings. They even ferry NASCAR drivers and professional golfers to their next event.
On the recreational side, aviation encompasses such diverse pastimes as flying a high-performance glider in the Alps, performing death-defying aerobatics at an air show, landing on a small remote lake to fish, or going to a fly-in to commune with other like-minded pilots. The beauty of Flight Simulator X is that you can do all of those things. Of course, for the most part the preceding statement is equally applicable to Flight Simulator 2004, the previous version. With that in mind, I'll concentrate primarily on the improvements made in FSX.
Probably the most significant change in FSX comes in the form of missions. FS2004 had "canned" flights as well, but those were more suggestions that anything. While the missions provided scenarios, they didn't provide any kind of score keeping. In other words, you could perform the scenario as specified, or you could go fly into the side of a mountain. The program couldn't have cared less about either outcome. With FSX, though, the program knows if you completed the goals and tells you so. The missions are also more robust in that they include branching options and voice acting. For example, your mission may be the delivery of supplies to a remote Alaskan outpost but as you're en route to the destination, you might get a call asking if you could stop and pick up some passengers. Another nice improvement in the missions comes when flying a two pilot transport category plane, such as a Boeing 737. In this case, the co-pilot handles all of the routine radio tasks like changing frequencies and responding to controllers. This is the way these aircraft are operated in the real world, and I wish Microsoft would carry this new feature over to any flight of this nature, whether in a mission or not. I suppose there are technical reasons that preclude this, but it would be an enormously popular feature, I suspect.
The preview build provides a couple dozen or so of these missions, but I don't know how many will be included in the release package. Hopefully Microsoft will (or has) publish a development kit or tool suite to allow anyone to create add-on missions, in much the same way that there are thousands of independently developed aircraft available both commercially and via free download for previous versions of Flight Simulator. These add-ons have historically kept the program fresh and interesting and I don't see any reason why that shouldn't continue to be the case.
Another new feature that I found extremely useful was the ability to set a transparency level for the 2D instrument panel. It has always been difficult to see over the top of the panel in certain situations, primarily landing. As you raise the airplane's nose to slow it down and fly an appropriate angle of attack for landing, the panel often blocks your view of the runway, which is no treat for the pilot. With the ability to make the panel transparent, you can now have the best of both worlds. You can have the same high-resolution instrument panel provided in the 2D view, but you can also see the approaching runway. The 3D panel is still available, of course, and if the TrackIR functionality was built into the preview release, that would be my primary choice. Absent that, however, I'm finding the transparent 2D panel to be a suitable substitute.
As is usual with new versions of flight sim, there are also new aircraft included. While you could always supplement your fleet by either buying or downloading new planes, it's nice to have Microsoft include a few new ones. Their development standards are very high, and the same cannot always be said of third party developers. That's not to say that you can't find top quality add-on planes available as free downloads, because that is certainly not the case. It is the case, though, that you may have to download 10 clunkers to find one really good one. The new planes included in FSX include a seaplane, a regional jet airliner, an ultralight, a float plane, and a plane with both wheels and skis. Having "flown" all of them, I find them to be terrific additions to the already large fleet.
Also improved in FSX is the visual environment. The previous environment was arguably somewhat sterile, but the new iteration includes things like moving cars, boats, and airport equipment. There's just something about seeing a truck driving down the road as you're landing that helps with the suspension of disbelief that is such an important factor in simulations. In fact, I had to make a last second go-around when landing on a lake as a small boat drove right in front of me. Again, that adds so much authenticity to the simulated flight that it's scary! Beyond the addition of moving objects, the scenery engine has also been improved. The ground and weather rendering have both had incremental improvements that while still far short of photo-realistic are still quite compelling.
All that said, no review of a new version would be complete without addressing some of the things you wish had been included. For me, that would be more responsive and fluid-like movements of the instruments. Microsoft flight sims have always suffered from comparatively bad performance in this regard. It seems that the updating of the instruments is not prioritized highly enough in the refreshing of the screens. You might be seeing 30 frames per second out the window, but the instruments often seem to be refreshing at a much lower rate. That's unfortunate as it creates difficulty when flying purely on reference to the instruments. This may simply be a matter of my perception, but having seen the extremely smooth operation of the instruments in competing simulators like X-Plane, I think there is really a technical issue here. As I noted before, I'd also like to see the co-pilot in the big iron pull their weight in a more realistic manner.
I'm not sure how FSX will be received in the market. While there are clearly improvements in the sim, they come at a cost: unless the third-party add-ons that have cropped up for the previous version will run flawlessly in the new version, there will be a subset of people that don't want to have to go through the hassle of waiting for the add-ons to be updated to support the new version. Sometimes good enough is good enough, and the additional features of the updated version won't be sufficient to prod everyone into upgrading. This is, of course, not a foreign concept to Microsoft as they deal with it routinely in the Windows and Office worlds.