Microsoft Flight Simulator v5.0
Is Bruce Artwick the father of PC computer graphics? Perhaps he's the grandfather. More than a decade ago when Bill Gates conviced Bruce Artwick to bring his Flight Simulator from the Apple to the fledgling IBM PC, its descendant Pentium wasn't even a gleam in a 486's eye and that program was a milestone in the PC industry. Time Magazine said of the new release: "Flight Simulator might just be reason enough in itself to buy a personal computer". People did just that, and they still do. Just as several generations of PC's have come and gone, we are now present at the birth of the fifth generation of Microsoft Flight Simulator. Rather than retiring and passing the baton to a new generation of graphics gurus, Artwick (computer-years are like dog years but he is still a young man in human years) is hard at work coding assembler day in and day out along with a small staff of mostly younger programmers at Bruce Artwick Organization (BAO) in Champaign, Illinois.
Let's get right down to it. This new release is about graphics. The graphics in Flight Simulator Version 5.0 (FS5) would be simply astonishing if we had seen them two years ago, but several air combat games have also recently broken new ground in graphics displays, so our perception of this as a breakthrough product has been dulled. But FS5 is nevertheless something different. The scenery technology is patent-pending, and from what I can see it might just be different enough to be patentable. Just as BAO allowed FS4 to endure through extreme flexibility, FS5 has been given two distinct methods of displaying scenery, leaving many options open for later development.
The first type is called by BAO "Cybergraphics". This makes up most of the FS5 default scenery and looks somewhat similar to FS4's polygon-filled graphics we are so familiar with, except that it is in two hundred and fifty-six colors and has amazing "texturing" effects added which seem to add thousands of polygons to surfaces without adding anywhere near the extra computational load that they would entail in the old system. Unlike the air combat sims to date, this two hundred fifty-six color scenery is available in 640x400 resolution, which runs well and is certainly flyable on my 486/33 computer (but with less than a glass-smooth frame rate). It will also display in 320x400 resolution, which looks very good also and of course has a faster frame rate. The pre-release version I saw had a sixteen-color EGA display, which was just awful. Using FS4 would be preferable. I wouldn't be surprised if EGA were taken out of the final release version.
In Cybergraphics, the ground is now covered with the texture of forest, farmland, city streets, deserts, tundra, and surburbs with streets and houses. The texture is flat, but the effect from the air is convincing. The sides of buildings can be textured also (the texturing effects are switchable) with realistically-sized windows. Yes, each skyscraper will have the correct number of windows on the sides, some of which will be lit at night. Three-dimensional objects such as buildings have light-source shading which varies with the time of day. A shadow is displayed but the shading of the building sides really helps the image more than the cast shadow.
With sky texturing turned on, the old blank pale-blue sky of all previous versions is rendered with wispy cloud cover in a selectable coverage. The effect from the ground is like a photograph of a sky, but unlike some recent sims such as Microprose's F15 Strike Eagle III which did use a photographic bitmap sky, these clouds are really there at the height you set and you can fly above them. The effect up close is somewhat blocky and less convincing, but still more pleasing overall than other cloud renditions I've seen. At dusk, the clouds gradually turn a gorgeous rosy pink.
These graphics are highly configurable, with varying degrees of complexity and texturing. Chicago set on "Very Dense" complexity with all texturing and light-source shading turned on is just incredibly dense indeed. I can say with a straight face that it's flyable on my 486/33, but really this is a simulator for the future. With the highest levels of graphics all selected you have a simulator worthy of the fastest machines now available and into the near future.
The other distinct form of graphics display is what BAO calls "Real-Time Raytracing". Ray tracing as we have known it usually takes many hours to produce just one image -- even on serious workstations -- and thus there has been some debate as to whether or not this can truly be categorized as "ray tracing", but that's what BAO calls it. According to Mark Randall, one of BAO's young prodigies whom I was able to talk with at the MicroWINGS Convention at Cornell University, the ray-tracing is greatly speeded up through the use of a heuristic algorithm which makes a "best guess" as to what each pixel will be, rather than calculating exactly what the pixel should be. A bitmap image of a satellite photo is then mapped onto the terrain, which has three-dimensional topographical features.
The effect really is quite stunning, and can actually be described as photorealistic when viewed at a distance. Mountains displayed this way are just breathtaking. Up close, the bitmap starts to break up into pixel-like blocks as the the resolution of the bitmap becomes lower than the screen resolution. The earliest preview version of FS5 that I saw did not give any relief for this "pixelization" but later, BAO added a feature called "Image Smoothing" which not only makes the blocks irregular in size but also can blend them together in a half-tone process. The smoothing works, even though it makes you feel like reaching for your eyeglasses. Everything is a little out-of-focus-looking. The half-tone smoothing is switchable.
The only example of this photographic scenery in the default scenery is Meigs Airport area of Chicago, but BAO will be marketing the photorealistic scenery in special packages through Mallard Software.
I don't know what category of scenery the aircraft fall into, but graphically they are pretty amazing too. From the outside, the aircraft have a stunningly three-dimensional look. The surfaces look very solid, rounded and detailed and look nothing at all like polygon graphics. The light-source shading on the rounded surfaces is particularly nice. The animated moving parts such as gear and flaps all look better and move more smoothly than ever before. Inside, the control panels are photographic reproductions of the real thing. At night, the panel appears to be bathed in red light. Looking left, right and back results in a much more realistic view, with various parts of the aircraft obscuring the view. Those parts -- such as wings, struts, fuselage panels, and the back seat -- are all rounded looking with light-source shading. The parts are actual computer models, rather than simple bitmapped images superimposed over the scenery. They are part of the scenery. When I looked back at the left-rear view to watch the flaps go down I was amazed to see that it looked eerily like the real thing as it lowered slowly and smoothly. Although I am not a licensed real-world pilot, I have spent many hours in real Cessnas as an photographer.
Alas, the aircraft are beautiful, but you only get the standard Cessna, Learjet, Sailplane, and Sopwith Camel. As of this writing, there is no word on how user-designed aircraft made with Mallard's Aircraft Factory will be made FS5 compatible. Laemming Wheeler, one of the authors of that program, pointed out to me that the key is the .AFX or "crate" file. It contains all the raw point data of the old planes which, if you think about it, should be able to be made compatible with anything.
I'm still not sure what to make of the flight equations of these aircraft. BAO has clearly added a lot of new parameters. On take-off, "P-factor" (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "torque") clearly comes into play if you have selected full realism, requiring you to correct with right rudder on take-off. A functioning constant-speed prop is available. All three wheels are clearly modeled, making for much more interesting and realistic landings. When powering up for take-off roll, the nose of the aircraft dips; it also dips when you apply the brakes. Upon coming to a stop, the nose bounces back up and then gradually oscillates to a stop. That is a small feature but I must say I find it very satisfying to watch at the end of a flight! Ground loops and other landing problems are possible to encounter, although I still have not detected the presence of the cushioning "ground effect," something sorely missing from FS4. Speaking of landing problems, there are several different forms of crash graphic effects, ranging from a bent prop to total destruction. Flying the aircraft on full realism is now a much more complicated affair than before, but I think that things could still be better. As of this writing, the stall characteristics of the Cessna are not good, the advertised spin feature and the constant speed prop don't work properly, and realism during turning is compromised if you have high winds turned on. I certainly hope that user-control over these features is not far in the future. We have become accustomed to tweaking flight equations in FS4 and the ability to do so will be missed in FS5.
The instrumentation, although beautiful to look at, is not substantially improved in functionality over FS4. Actually, if you have become accustomed to using the unique control panel available only for the ATI Ultra family of graphics cards, you will find the FS5 instrumentation a step backward. You will be giving up the fully functioning HSI and the on-screen autopilot controls. The Learjet does have multiple engine controls, but as of this writing the control of them is not really working too well. I am particularly annoyed that the Learjet cockpit only displays one OBI at a time, making VOR and ILS navigation considerably more difficult in the fast moving plane. Speaking of autopilot, the Nav1 Lock feature is finally working, and you can thus now set the Altitude Hold through a keypress rather than having to open a menu
From FS1 through FS4, the world has been flat. Many compromises and fudges had to be squeezed into the the world-system in order to simulate the curvature of the earth as you flew over long distances. To have any scenery at all outside of North America required that you just draw it over the top of North America. That's all now ancient history. FS5 finally has a spherical world model. If you zoom all the way out in Map View you can even see the entire Earth as if from a satellite.
However, this does not mean that you can now fly anywhere in the world and expect to see the general land features you might expect, such as coastlines, city outlines, rivers and roads. The FS5 default scenery contains fairly accurate features only in the handful of standard default areas of New York/Boston, Chicago/Champaign, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with two new areas -- Munich and Paris -- added to the old list. You can, however, fly between these areas much more realistically than ever before, since these areas are all based on latitude and longitude rather than the flawed FS4 North/East coordinate system; and the FS5 database contains all the VOR navigational transmitters in North America, as well as many others around the world.
So... what will you see flying between, say, Chicago and San Francisco? You will see roughly what you might expect to see, farmland and forest in Illinois and Nebraska, mountains in the Rockies, etc. But nothing in between Chicago and the Bay Area will correlate exactly with the real world. The FS5 world is planted with what BAO calls "seeds." They plant a seed and, voilá, have a large square section of forest. By planting another seed they have a huge square section of farmland, and this all takes up practically no disk space. It is even possible to plant a seed and get an entire city with skyscrapers, urban land and suburbs all around. It's not a real-world city, but it's there. If you fly south from the New York area toward Philadelphia, the square block seeding effect becomes painfully apparent, however, as the eastern coastline becomes an extremely coarse, blocky succession of seeded areas. The southern coast of Florida also ends too soon, leaving no land where Miami should be. This crude background cries out for a new FS5-compatible version of Microsoft Aircraft & Scenery Designer. At least it's all based on accurate lat/long coordinates so scenery placement should be much more straightforward from now on.
Speaking of user-designed scenery, FS5 is backward compatible with the old SubLOGIC and Mallard Scenery Disks as well as FS4's Aircraft & Scenery Designer scenery files, although there is some question as to whether or not SEE effects (those added with Mallard's Scenery Enhancement Editor) will be visible. The good news is that the ground and sky texturing is visible under the old scenery making it all look even better than before. So if you want to use the old Scenery Disks and the hundreds of matching user-designed files, it's not only possible, in some ways it's better than before.
Add-on scenery disks have already been announced from both Mallard and Microsoft. The Mallard Scenery will be mainly the "Ray-Traced" scenery, consisting of one city-area per package, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Seattle. These cities will be taken from satellite photos of these areas, and will be processed to contain the topographic features. The San Francisco scenery that I have seen is remarkable, but is not finished. It has some "Cybergraphic" scenery added to it, such as downtown buildings and airport detail. The Microsoft Scenery Disks appear to be of city areas also, but will probably be only Cybergraphics. They have announced New York and Paris disks. These areas are also on the default scenery, but it remains to be seen what the difference will be.
Speculation ran wild for years that FS5 would be a Windows program and from what I hear, BAO actually did try to accomplish that. It turns out it's not a Windows program, but it sure does look like one. The interface is similar to Windows, which is a vast improvement over the unique, clunky, non-standard interface of all previous versions. There are a few annoying departures from the Windows interface, but they are truly minor. The installation process is not fancy, but it works reasonably well.
Unfortunately, the sound received virtually no attention whatsoever. I was expecting at least for FS5 to have something new, such as engine start-up and shut-down sounds (which I believe are sorely missed), or perhaps some rushing wind sound in the sailplane, but all you get is what you had before with Mallard's Sound, Graphics & Aircraft Upgrade. We have five senses. A computer simulation can't access many of these senses, but it can access two. The sense of sound shouldn't be given short shrift.
Air Traffic Control
If you expected FS5 to compete with SubLOGIC's ATP program in this arena, you'll be disappointed. There is a menu item here for Air Traffic Control, but it only activates the same uninspired landing clearance feature found in FS4. Surely an upgrade to Mallard's Adventure Factory and Pilot's Power Tools will be forthcoming to fix this deficiency. Mallard indicates that a new Adventure Factory will be along shortly, but I'm not sure if the Pilot's Power Tools' air traffic- controlled adventures can be made compatible with the new lat/long scenery. The old adventures that it created are based on the antiquated North/East coordinate grid.
As I mentioned before, the clouds are beautiful. You can now assign cloud layers and wind layers with varying degrees of density and depth as you might expect, but you can also make the weather area global or local. The local areas can be assigned to move. Thunderstorms are represented by bitmapped photos of thunderstorms, which can be scaled to size. They look alright if they are combined with other cloud layers, but they are cardboard cut-outs; when you fly into one you just pop out the other side. In my preview copy they had no wind effect at all. I certainly hope wind effects are given some "teeth" in the final release. Random weather generation seems to work well.
Anyone can get Flight Simulator off the ground and fly around. Landing is the first major hurdle to overcome and achieve a satisfactory flight experience. To help the novice, a "Land Me" feature has been added. You can just turn the controls over to "The Instructor," who will land the plane for you at selected airports. Several other features to aid the novice have been added including "First Flight Familiarization" and "Simple, Medium, and Difficult Landing Practice."
A new feature that I found very useful in preparing this article is the "Flight Photograph". At any point you can select this from the menu and easily grab a PCX file to be saved to disk. All of the screen captures you see here were done in this manner.
In the Entertainment Menu, "Multi-Player" (flying via modem or null-modem with another player) has been aptly renamed "Dual Player." It had been insinuated in years past that it might be possible to fly with many players, but that was never so. The old version was extremely buggy, and this version of Dual Player is also very buggy in the pre-release version. I was not able to maintain a connection at 2400 baud, but 1200 did work -- with the expected degradation in smoothness of the appearance of the other plane's flight. No significant features have been added, but Microsoft seems committed to fixing the remaining problems. "Formation Flying" and "Crop Dusting" have been retained from FS4. There is a new feature called "EFIS Navigational Challenges" which I did not try, but which sounds interesting.
As of this writing, it's not clear what the official hardware requirements are. I certainly would not recommend trying it on anything less than a 386, although the official line started out to say that it would possibly run on a 286. Only 530K of conventional memory is required, but that assumes that you have approximately two megs of EMS/XMS as well. I would say that a bare minimum of two megs total RAM might work, but I'd say four megs is really the minimum to be safe. I am using FS5 with five megabytes of RAM and I still wish I had more. I am still getting a few too many annoying disk accesses.
What we have here is, I believe, a firm new foundation on which to build. Version 4 of Flight Simulator spawned several new companies just to produce add-ons for the base program. Version 5 is not perfect, but it's a new larger foundation upon which the building can continue, without the contraints of sixteen colors and a flawed coordinate system.