As far as series of computer software go, few are more venerable than the Microsoft Flight Simulator legacy. Beginning in 1982 with version 1.0, the series has matured steadily until the recent release of the tenth iteration in the series. From wire-frame graphics and a handful of US locations to having the entire world mapped in topographically correct gorgeous 3D, we’ve come a long way, baby. The question is, was it worth the trip?
Let’s be honest; the flight sim market has diminished from the behemoth it was during the early-mid 90s to something of an extreme niche market. It was our own fault; simmers caused the demise of flight simming. A generation of would-be fighter pilots demanded greater and greater complexity from their sims. During this crusade, they lost sight of the question all producers of entertainment should hold first and foremost in their minds – is it fun? The answer, for more and more people, became a resounding “no”. People abandoned sims in droves; scared away from the necessity to read several encyclopaedic volumes of manuals before even installing the sim, they migrated to havens of more instant gratification, and who can blame them? There’s a lot to be said for a gaming experience that doesn’t require hours of practice, learning and forethought before you really start to enjoy yourself.
There’s no getting away from it, FSX is an exceptionally complex beast. It models real world navigation near-perfectly. Traffic patterns, airways and radio frequencies, they’re all present. Rivet counters rejoice - there’s enough here to keep you occupied for hours. But is that all that FSX is? It’s testament to the longevity of the FS series that there’s been something in there for everyone, and FSX is the epitome of this rule.
Just want to go sight-seeing around your favourite country? No problems – just jump in and fly. Ever fancied stooging around in an unpowered glider? With the new lift model of FSX, that’s now a possibility with minimal effort. For the last couple of iterations, Flight Simulator has introduced a kind of virtual 'flight school' where you’re taught the basics. FSX continues this tradition, and it’s a good thing. Designed for the complete novice, these fun interactive lessons emulate real-world pilot training, and introduce the basics in a timely and easy to understand manner. This, reader, is one of the strengths of the Flight Sim series: anyone can pick it up in minimal time, and can have fun with it with relatively little guidance. The real gold, though, is what lies beneath the surface, if only you care to go digging.
In addition to the interactive flight school, there are numerous new additions to FSX that make it into the truly engaging experience it’s always meant to have been. While previous iterations of the FS dynasty (and numerous of its direct competitors) have felt relatively sterile, with the user required to generate all of the impetus for interaction, FSX offers a small but important addition; missions.
Initially, these might seem a little gimmicky, but upon reflection, they add a great deal of flavour and variety to what might otherwise seem like a clinical, sterile environment. They’re a real boon to the overall experience and one has little trouble envisioning a whole new dimension to the payware market that has sprung up around the series.
What better way for producers of addon scenery and aircraft to showcase their wares to best effect than to include a package of missions specially designed to do just that? Microsoft has even seen fit to add colour to the environment in the guise of AI road and sea traffic in addition to the classic AI aircraft, they’ve even gone so far as to include AI animals in specific parts of the world. While not perfect (the road traffic only appears on the major arterial roads, and the pathing is a little off in places, so that the traffic appears to take detours through residential housing) these additions add a lot to the suspension of disbelief so critical in simming.
These new features are not free, however; you’ll need a monster computer to run with the detail sliders set to even half of their maximums, and we doubt the computer has yet been produced that can run FSX in all its glory. On the modestly spec'ed computer on which this review was conducted, we were initially disappointed. Even with very conservative settings to begin with, the frame rate tended to bottom out to single digits and the sim was virtually unplayable. Given a little tweaking, however, we were able to single out specific settings that had a large effect on frame rate, bloom and autogen being two notable examples. While it is possible to wring decent performance out of the sim and still achieve great eye-candy with a little dedication, one wonders how eager newcomers to the genre will be to persist such a long time without consigning the sim to the 'unplayable' bin.
For hardcore converts of simming, Microsoft has pulled off a stunner, keeping everything that was good about FS2004 and previous iterations while adding a generous helping of eye-candy and new 'stuff' that makes the world feel more alive than ever. For the newbie, the would-be convert to simming, MS has, unfortunately, dropped the ball. Unplayable on budget systems - even on relative enthusiast systems requiring tweaking - FSX will turn off those curious about the subject matter but not dedicated enough to persevere, which is a real pity, because there’s a lot here that’s well worth discovering.