Flight Simulator X

Review

posted 10/10/2006 by Dave Gamble
other articles by Dave Gamble
One Page Platforms: PC
As I settled into the Captain’s seat of the venerable workhorse of our fleet, the King Air 350, I could tell that this wasn’t going to be the low-stress routine flight I had hoped for. Even though this was just a short hop, the low hanging clouds and heavy rain indicated that I would be earning my Captain-level pay today, and my co-pilots comments about the odd sounds emanating from one of our two turboprop engines did nothing to alleviate my gut-feeling that this flight was going to be a doozy. Still, when you fly for a living, you fly when and where you’re told to. Gut feelings don’t feed the bulldog, and they don’t constitute a reason to cancel a revenue generating flight. The FO went ahead with our departure plans, working through the pre-flight tasks of getting our ATC clearance and checking the weather.
 
Those items completed, we taxied to the runway for departure. Takeoff went well enough, but it sure didn’t take long to get into the fat, wet clouds looming over the airport. It looked like we were in for one of those rides where you see the runway as you take off, see absolutely nothing but the featureless inside of clouds for the entire enroute portion, and (hopefully) break out of the clouds in time to see the runway at the destination. We climbed to our relatively low cruise altitude, and I settled into the monotonous routine of scanning the flight and engine instruments. It wasn’t long before things started heading downhill. My first indication that something was amiss was when I noticed that the attitude indicator was showing a right turn, but none of the other instruments agreed with that mechanical observation. Being heavily ensconced in the clag, this was the worst possible time for a vacuum failure and the resulting loss of my primary flight instruments. Bad timing isn’t unique in aviation, however, and denial really isn’t an attractive response to an impending emergency, especially if you happen to be the pilot in command. My training kicked in and I immediately went to partial panel, using the turn coordinator (an electric gyro not affected by the loss of vacuum) and the ultra reliable pitot-static instruments to provide the clues as to what the airplane was doing in 3D space that I would need to stay alive. “Well,” I thought, “at least it can’t get much worse.” That’s when one of the engines quit. The seat cushion has not been created that could withstand the pucker pressure that was being applied to mine at that moment. Low IFR, partial panel, and one of the two engines no longer carrying its own weight: this is why they pay me the not-quite-big-but-better-than-burger-flipping bucks.
 
The fact that I’m still around to write this indicates one of two things: I either successfully made the ensuing single-engine emergency landing, or is this simply an utterly transparent hook to lead in to my review of the new Flight Simulator X from Microsoft. Given the nearly certain knowledge that you’re reading this on a game review web site you’ve probably already guessed which of those options is appropriate. My flight in the fault-prone King Air was entirely simulated, but that is not to say that it wasn’t pretty exciting. Microsoft Flight Sim has been pretty good in the last few iterations, but the last couple have leveraged advances in 3D graphics accelerators to provide 3D virtual cockpits that quite capably aid in the “suspension of disbelief” that is so critical to simulators. Sure, at some level you still know that you’re safely seated at a presumably stable desk, but with the lights turned down, the surround sound cranked up, and absent any nagging from the spouse about the deplorable condition of the lawn, you may tend to forget that you’re ground-bound for a few moments and experience some of the joys and terrors that are inherent to aviation.
 
That King Air flight was one of the 30+ new missions that come with Flight Simulator X. Previous versions of Flight Simulator had canned scenarios that suggested what a flight should be, but the sim itself provided no guidance as to how to complete the flight and there was no feedback as to whether or not you had succeeded in meeting the goals of the scenario, so there was basically no incentive to finish the flight. All of that has changed in FSX. For example, in Flight Sim 2004 you might have chosen to fly an air mail flight in the early 20's, flying a simple, yet often dangerous, biplane. Jumping in to the flight, however, you find yourself at a modern airport in a modern city flying over modern landscape. The incongruity of the environment was shocking and worked against creating the required ambience for the flight. The new missions are designed to negate the incongruity factor by either placing the pilot in either a modern-day scenario and location, or in a remote region of the world where the only scenery is the ageless landscape of mountains or oceans. With the correct environment in place, the suspension of disbelief that is so critical to simulations is easier to attain.
 
There are other new features in the missions, and the sim in general, that will also contribute to the overall environment and liven things up a little. One new feature is the inclusion of dynamic ground-based traffic. Previous versions had airborne traffic to deal with, but with FSX you need to be aware of what’s happening on the ground as well. A perfect example came as I was landing at a small tropical airport: on short final, a cruise liner passed across in front of me, requiring a last minute adjustment to my glide path to ensure I cleared the relatively tall ship. It also adds a touch of realism to see cars and trucks navigating the roads below, although there is a risk of incongruity here: I apparently had my scenery options set low enough to suppress the drawing of bridges, yet had my dynamic scenery level set high enough that cars and trucks were driving across the invisible bridge. Specific to missions, long stretches of enroute flight now have voice acting interspersed to keep your attention on the flight. Some of the conversations are simply window dressing, while others may impact the flight. When your virtual co-pilot mentions an odd sound from one of the engines, for example, it would be in your best interest to pay attention. In the Advanced and Expert level missions, it pays to expect the unexpected and any verbal foreshadowing of impending events should be treated with the utmost respect.
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