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Flight Sim World

Flight Sim World

Written by Dave Gamble on 6/26/2017 for PC  
More On: Flight Sim World

It can arguably be stated that the maturation curve of PC-based flight sims has reached an asymptote. As evidence of this assertion, I present you with X-Plane 11.  Given that upgrading from any previous version is going to cost a cool $59 plus the replacement costs for whichever of your payware airplanes, helicopters, and sceneries are broken by the version change, it can be a pretty pricey upgrade when considering that the most obvious improvement is in the user interface and improvements in the default stable of airplanes to raise them to a minimum payware-equivalent standard.

Also consider the huge following of Microsoft FSX users, who also have (and continue to) spent significant monies on payware improvements for a simulator Microsoft abandoned almost a decade ago, if one doesn’t count the half-hearted Microsoft Flight release (which I do not).

On the plus side, Microsoft didn’t entirely turn its back on the large FSX fan base; two other companies acquired rights to product, albeit in different ways.

Lockheed Martin bought the intellectual property (including source code) for the Microsoft ESP (Enterprise Simulation Platform) product, which was the commercial-use version of "Flight Simulator X SP2". Lockheed announced that the new product based upon the ESP source code would be called Prepar3D, although the contemporaneous term used by non-lawyers is P3D.  P3D has gained a strong foothold in the home consumer market, although the $199 price tag has doubtlessly prompted quite a few buyers to falsely attest to being students; the Academic price, while not cheap at $60, is still palatable.  In fact, even the $199 license prohibits use for “Personal Consumer Entertainment.” One wonders how it seems to be in so many hands.

Dovetail took a different path. Their agreement with Microsoft, starting in 2009, was to create the next version in the Flight Simulator series. This led to the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition, which was not much more than the basic FSX and the Acceleration Pack combined and Steamified. Priced at $24.99 and with periodic Steam sales, it wasn’t a bad deal, but nor could it seriously be qualified as the next version in the lineage.

This brings us to Dovetail’s Flight Sim World, currently available as an Early Access product on Steam which, probably not coincidentally, also sells for $24.99. FSW isn’t Dovetail’s first shot at a truly new version, though. A product called Flight School was Dovetail’s attempt to focus on the potential flight training aspects of the FSX platform and as such was really more a release of FSX with some well-crafted training missions. The intent as seemingly to provide an entry-level flight sim for those that needed extra hand-holding as they tried to surmount the fairly steep learning curve of flying which, even in the sim world, is quite complex. I do not believe that it was appreciably successful. It may fare better as a subset of FSW’s overall feature set.

I know I enjoyed it as such.

Flight Sim World itself has taken a much larger step forward. While it still actually includes the Flight School functionality, it expands the entire application in meaningful ways. At some point the physics engine moved to 64-bit and the user interface was vastly simplified. Orbx FTX Global, a payware add-on that is intended to improve global textures, will be merged in by default and at no additional cost. Most obviously, the included airplanes are far superior to the FSX models they replace - they are now equivalent in quality and features to mid-range payware.

An unfortunate side effect of using the same FSX engine is the retention of all of the old nagging quirks of FSX. Presumably FSX was designed before the mass adoption of flight yokes and HOTAS systems, and it was probably considered just fine to have a single up/down toggle switch for the retractable landing gear as the number of other controller switches was limited. However, you will have to look long and hard to find even a single instance of a real airplane that does not have separate actions for raising and lowering the gear. Most typically you will find some kind of lever, or at a minimum, and up/down switch. But never a toggle. It seems a small thing, but it really isn’t. It should probably be fixed. 

Similarly, the control configuration screens see the hat switch common on most flight sticks today as one single switch rather than as a multi-position switch with at least four distinct directions. The hat switch is primarily used for up, down, right, and left trim. It is rendered useless for these functions by a config screen that only sees one possible action. That isn’t helpful. 

Where the difference between FSW and FSX is most apparent is the strong collection of included aircraft in FSW.  Relying on a solid stable of default airplanes could become critically important as the simulation grows, but only time will tell. The potential problem is the way Dovetail plans on managing DLC by requiring all “official” DLC to also be sold through Steam or Dovetail’s online store, both of whom are going to want a slice of that pie. Not too many third party developers that have their own storefront are going to want another slice of their revenue going to someone else. This could potentially end up as a chicken/egg problem: if profit margins are significantly reduced by a higher cost of sales, a larger market for the products will be required to offset those losses. But if significant DLC isn’t available because developers can sell more efficiently into the existing FSX market, Dovetail may be faced with a market that may never develop.  At which point the default airplanes become pretty much the only airplanes. So they better be good!

That having been said, I would have gladly paid $24.99 for just one of the (currently) included FSW airplanes so, as far as I’m concerned, I’m already well ahead of the game. So to speak.

So, about the Early Access airplanes: they are a Piper Aircraft salesman’s dream fleet! While not universally Piper airplanes, it comes mighty close. The (currently - Dovetail has hinted that there may be more) included planes, in increasing order of complexity, are:

  • Piper PA-18 Super Cub, a two-seat (tandem) conventional landing gear (taildragger) classic.
  • Piper PA-18 Cherokee, a vintage four-seater with a 180hp engine and an IFR-capable, mechanical gauge instrument panel.
  • Van’s RV-7A, a very popular and very fast two-seat Experimental category plane.
  • Diamond Aircraft DA-40, a modern, glass panel, fixed gear, four-seater.
  • Piper PA-46 Malibu Mirage, a high-flying, pressurized six-seater with sophisticated avionics.
  • Diamond Aircraft DA-42 Twin Star, which is essentially a DA-40 with retractable landing gear and a second engine.
  • Piper PA-34 Seneca V, which is essentially a PA-46 with a second engine. 

The top three on the list are planes that I have flown some version of in the real world, so those are the ones that I concentrated most of my efforts on.

Starting with the Super Cub, which you will if you start at the lowest level of the Flight School, you have a very stable and easy to fly plane, although the simplicity and stability come at the cost of a relatively slow airspeed. As the only airplane to have a tail wheel rather than a nose wheel, you would normally expect it to be far more difficult in takeoffs and landings, but the FSW version is quite docile on the ground. As it is the introductory airplane, that is a good thing.

Piper Super Cub

Piper Super Cub

Once comfortable with the Cub, you can move up to the Cherokee 180 either independently, or by going through the second course in the Flight School. The Cherokee quickly became my favorite plane. Again, I would have paid $25 for this plane alone. This is the plane that I used for flying cross country flights in rainy and foggy weather. It’s a stable instrument platform, and the mechanical “steam” gauges were far more legible than the glass panels of the more sophisticated planes, and I felt much more in my comfort zone cruising at 140 knots that 240 knots.

The Cherokee has some very nice little touches that add a dose of reality to the sim. As an example, my first landing was pretty rough - I banged it down on the runway so hard that the sun visors dropped down from above the windshield. That was so unexpected that it elicited a guffaw that brought a pair of curious dogs on the run to see what was going on. And, while not unique to the Cherokee, the raindrops on the windscreen also do an amazing job of bumping up the realism levels.

Alas, there were a couple of little fit & finish issues with the Cherokee. One is a constant mismatch of 15 - 20 degrees magnetic between the whisky compass and the directional gyro. You can, of course, set them to match, but you will end up off course if you do. This can be confirmed by using the D key to do the syncing for you - you’ll stay on course, but the indication on the directional gyro will look wrong.  Another is the throttle mapping. Full throttle will have the engine running well over red line. This is possible in the real world; a fixed-pitch prop that has been set as a “climb” prop will do that, although not to the extent seen here. I had to pull back the throttle far more than I would have expected to get the RPM down to a reasonable level.

While the Cherokee is good for stable flight in bad weather, the Vans RV-7A is the sportsman’s airplane. Unlike the Cherokee, the RV capable of mild aerobatics, but is still usable for fast, albeit cramped, cross-country travel. It has only half the seats and far less baggage area than the Cherokee, so there are compromises to be made when choosing between the two. In the real world, this is the trade I myself made when I sold a placid but capable four-seater in order to by a Vans RV-6. The RV-6 and the RV-7 are nearly identical - the difference is most noticeable in how they are built from the kit.

Built? From a kit??  Well, yes. The Vans fleet of airplanes are all built from kits by their owners. The RV-6 was the 2nd model and it was developed back in the day when the kits were more or less just boxes of pieces of aluminum and a set of plans. The builder had to first build jigs to get the pieces aligned, then drill thousands of rivet holes. Build time was measured in thousands of hours. The RV-7 modernized some of that. Through CNC machines and the like, Vans was able to provide what they called “pre-punched” kits wherein pilot holes were drilled at the factory, thus removing the work of building the jigs and presumably offering a more foolproof alignment. Build times were still in thousands of hours, but fewer of them. My RV-6 was built by someone else. I just bought it used. It was also not an ‘A’ model. The ‘A’ indicates that the plane has a nose wheel rather than a tail wheel. That all started with the RV-7A. There was no RV-6A. Other than that, they flew pretty much the same.

Vans RV-7 Flying Inverted

The RV-7 included with FSW would be considered a moderately equipped example. These days, well equipped RVs have more modern glass panels than many airliners. The Experimental category has lower standards for the certification of avionics, engines, etc. As an example, my current plane, a Vans RV-12 that I built, has a Linux-based set of avionics that provide a full autopilot, on-screen/in-air NEXRAD weather radar, and traffic avoidance features to help me see and avoid other airplanes, all at a cost in dollars and weight far less than the old mechanical gauges.

The RVs are also joystick controlled, just like the Piper Super Cub and the Diamond airplanes. Unlike the Cub, however, the RVs are flown with very small movements on the stick. To move the stick half an inch in any direction will result in very rapid course/pitch changes. This is modeled in the FSW RV-7A graphically, but I was not able to get my HOTAS stick configured to provide the same feel of flying by stick pressure rather than stick movement with FSW. Other than that, the FSW model flew very much as I would expect it to.  

There was one glaring reality problem with the panel, though, in that none of the switches or warning lights were labeled. Home built airplanes are nothing but expensive sculptures until they are certified by the FAA. This certification involves an inspection by an FAA airworthiness inspector. I can tell you through personal experience that an airplane with no labels on the warning lights and switches would not pass inspection. I remember joking with my inspector that it was nice that the FAA was so concerned about whoever might steal my plane being able to fly it safely.  The tooltips do work, albeit inconveniently, but it would be very nice to have the actual labels on the panel.

Other than brief test flights in the remaining planes, I don’t have a great deal of experience with their real world counterparts, but they seemed just as well modeled. As I alluded to before, though, I had trouble reading the small numbers on the navigation displays. I was flying with TrackIR and that seemed to override the ‘move eye view forward’ keyboard control, so I wasn’t able to satisfactorily do any serious flying with them.

Diamond TwinStar Over the San Francisco Bay

As far as what you’re flying over, there isn’t a great deal of improvement in the scenery. It’s not as noticeable if you’re flying high in the Malibu or Seneca, but low and slow in the Super Cub gives you a close-up view of ground scenery that hasn’t much improved in a decade or more.  There are some custom structures here and there such as The White House or the Statue of Liberty, but they aren’t surrounded by accurate roads, trees, fields, etc. This too is an area where FSW will hurt if it cannot or will not use third-party scenery packages.

Diamond TwinStar Interior

Low-level scenery normally wouldn’t be a huge problem, but perhaps through a personal deficiency or a deliberate decision by Dovetail, I was unable to find a way to open the map while flying. One would like to be able to fly the Cherokee or the Cub by reference to ground objects as compared to the map, but with no in-air access to the map, that becomes far more difficult.

Finally, it is clear that a great deal of thought went into the redesign of the user interface. I’m not sure if I like it or not. While it is vastly streamlined, it has been done so through the expedient of removing complexity, which is simply another way of saying “removing utility.”  As one example, consider that there is no longer a Free Flight option. Every new flight has to go through a three step process of choosing plane, weather, and departure airport.  Gone are the days when you can start a flight, then decide to change the airplane or weather whenever you want to whatever you want.  It’s the same with the weather: you can choose from a palette of weather templates, but you can’t customize the weather to your wants and/or needs. This is actually the bigger weakness of the two.

Whether that’s a good design decision or not will depend on the player, of course. There is one design decision that I do believe will be universally despised: while a flight is being generated/loaded, there is a circle shown with the word ‘Loading’ at its center, while a top down silhouette of an airplane orbits the outer boundary of the circle, very much like a Windows wait cursor. At some point ‘Loading’ becomes ‘Start,’ but you may sit there waiting for quite awhile before you notice the word change because that little airplane is still orbiting. That too really needs to be fixed!

Waiting and waiting and waiting...

Other than the notable problems of third-party expandability/compatibility, I’m very happy with where Dovetail appears to be headed with Flight Sim World. In its current state, it shows great promise in carrying forward the decades of progress made by SubLogic and Microsoft, but it will struggle to find broad acceptance with the extant flight sim community if it doesn’t raise the bar significantly with regards to compatibility with add-ons. With the Flight School component and the reduced need for third-party supplements out-of-the-box, it seems tailor made for folks just getting started with flight sims, but the size of that potential following remains as a big unknown.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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