Microsoft Flight Simulator X - Flights of Fancy
By Jim Bray
If you liked earlier versions of Microsoft's Flight Simulator, you'll undoubtedly be champing at the bit to try the new version, which ups the ante over previous flight sims in many ways.
One of the first you may notice is the addition of even more aircraft than before – and there was already a bundle of them. New aircraft include the AirCreation 582SL Ultralight (for a real "seat of the pants" flying experience!), and the Maule M7-260C Orion – which comes with wheels and skis. There's also the De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver Float plane and the Grumman G-21A Goose.
There's a great variety of plane variants as well. For example, there is about a dozen different Cessna 172's and about as many Boeing 747's – to go from one end of the aviation spectrum to the other. And of course that's just scratching the surface.
There's so much new stuff on this version (Microsoft sent me the Deluxe Version) that it comes on two DVD's, which is better than having to mess with a bunch of CD's like I did last time I installed a version (Flight Sim 2000). The new sim is also set designed to work with Windows Vista, though I used it on XP Professional.
Every new version gets more detailed in the virtual world it creates, with more realistic graphics and the like, and this one is no exception – it's so much better than the last one I tried that my computer now refuses to run it at its full potential. This is great, though it's also kind of disappointing, personally, since it means it's time to upgrade my hardware yet again. It never ends!
But if your system will handle it (and even if it won't, you'll still find more than enough entertainment and realism to keep you at the yoke), you'll be able to see better detail in the weather conditions, seasons of the year, airports, planes and the like. Microsoft says you can even see moving vehicles and detailed buildings in the cities you buzz.
If you want to see a good example of the sim's realism, check out this comparison at http://www.gamespot.com/pc/sim/microsoftflightsimulatorx/video_player.html?id=JnBlxWH65bsFvj_Y. It features a landing at the Princess Juliana airport on the island of Saint Maarten, with the real landing and the sim's version side by side.
It's extremely cool, and it shows you the potential realism of this sim! The hills on the horizon are a tad different, and the scuff marks on the runway aren't 100 per cent perfect, but on the whole it's a darn compelling demonstration.
New to this version is "mission-based game play," which lets you participate in a specific purpose – more than 50 of them that help you build up your skills. For example, you can take part in the Red Bull air race, fly supplies to refugees in the Congo, etc. I managed to slam my plane into the drink a couple of times on one of the "beginner" missions where you're on an approach in Alaska. It's a beautiful place to fly, but if you're like me you'll want to bring along a simulated life jacket.
There's also more of an online component in Flight Sim X, which lets you role play as an air traffic controller, or just as a pilot or co-pilot interacting with other flyers, chatting in real time via your keyboard and headset.
And there are more than 24,000 airports you can buzz (or, better still, land at and/or take off from), and Microsoft says they feature AI-controlled jetways, fuel trucks and even moving baggage carts.
This variety of strips is really overkill in some ways, but it also means that regardless of where you live there's probably an airport in Flight Simulator X that'll be close to home for you.
Which led me to use my home international airport of Calgary (YCG) as my base (particularly when I "flew" larger craft befitting such an establishment), alternating with other nearby strips such as Springbank for those times when I wanted to fly something smaller, such as the Cessna 172's I used to fly years ago when I my private pilot's license was current.
One downside to these simulations is the fact that keyboards and mice just don't cut it when it comes to recreating the thrill of flying. In the past, I've used flight yokes and pedals, which do a great job of helping transform the experience from one of "airborne computer geek" to "deskbound ace."
One way I love flying the sim is to throw caution to the wind and "IFR" it ("I follow roads") for some seat of the pants flying. I particularly love revisiting my old flying haunts in British Columbia, Canada, recreating some of my favorite flights in the west Kootenay area – and FSX is more than happy to oblige.
So when I first installed FSX I began at Castlegar, the airport at which I took my training, practicing circuits and flying down the Columbia River valley to land at what had been my base airport at Trail, a 3000 foot uncontrolled strip nestled so close to the mountains that you have to fly between a couple of rather large rocky things to do a proper circuit.
I also took a few virtual trips through that area, and then branched out and flew from Trail to Calgary, a flight I had always wanted to make when I flew in real life, but never had a chance to do. One of these days I may recreate my solo cross country flight (Castlegar to Kelowna to Penticton and back) that preceded my flight test. Of course, I said that with the last version I reviewed and never got around to it….
One of the great things about a simulation is that you can try things you'd never consider doing in the real world, such as buzzing buildings and (at least for virgin pilots like myself) flying into clouds. Or even sillier things like flying right into buildings! I quite happily destroyed my virtual plane on more than one occasion – and lived to "fly" another day.
FSX is a wonderful toy for the pilot wannabe. It ain' t flying, but it ain' t bad. If you've always had the Walter Mitty-type dream of being a private or commercial pilot, you'll find more than enough in this package to keep you happy for many hours on the Hobbs meter.
Now, if only I had a virtual reality helmet to make the experience even more real!
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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