I confess, I’ve always liked a little action in my flight simulations. Hell, if you can’t blow anything up, what’s the point of pretending? But I’m starting to change my attitude now that I’ve found a flight sim that makes just plain flying fun.
If you’re a battle-weary veteran of air combat sims, Flight Unlimited might be just the sort of R&R you need. Forget the bogeys for a bit and buckle in for some pure recreational flying, because this flight sim soars.
Flight Unlimited is the most fun I’ve ever had in a computerized cockpit. It looks, sounds, and feels for all the world like you’re flying over Arizona, Virginia, or Alaska, pulling stunts in high-performance aerobatic aircraft.
The terrain graphics are just superb. Aerial photos, touched up and stretched across a 3-D contour map, give you a beautiful backdrop for your aerobatic antics -- and a pretty place to die when you screw up. You’ll roar over mountains, through narrow valleys, alongside rivers and highways.
What you hear in Flight Unlimited is every bit as good as what you see. The game’s developers recorded engine sounds for each aircraft, so no two sound the same. The sound effects are utterly convincing, from the growl of a rotary engine to the eerie rush of wind around the silent sailplane. There is some nice audio detail on the ground, too, although somebody needs to do something about that yapping dog.
As outstanding as the terrain graphics are, this aerial playground was designed for stunt flying: it’s what happens in the air that really counts. Flight Unlimited models not only the aircraft, but also the air flowing around it. It’s a dynamic model, with terrain and elevation affecting air currents. In the sailplane, you really get a feel for the fluid wind currents that are at work in the game. Catch one just right, and a thermal -- a rising column of warmer air -- can give you quite a ride. The sensation of actual flight is nothing short of magnificent.
You have four powered aircraft waiting in the hangar: the Pitts S-2B, the Sukhoi SU-31, the Extra 300S, and the Bellanca Decathlon. All are lightweight planes built for stunt flying. Throw in the Grob S-103 sailplane for a little seat-of-the-pants gliding, and you’re ready to take off.
There are no fancy airports here. For your flying pleasure, you’ll choose from five FBO (Fixed Base of Operations) buildings with small runways. These FBOs serve as the interface to the various game options; as you move around the 3D-rendered FBO building, you can pick your plan, check out your log book, travel to another FBO, and sign up for flight lessons. The first-person approach works pretty well, although some gamers may prefer a more traditional menu screen.
The flight school is a dream come true for any budding pilot. There are about 30 lessons, starting with the basics and moving on through some pretty complex aerobatic maneuvers. After some ground-school lessons, you’ll take a plane up to try out your new tricks, and that’s where the flight school really takes off. Your flight instructor is beside you every step of the way, talking you through increasingly difficult maneuvers, from a simple turn to an inverted spin. His voice is clear, his tone sure and patient. This sounds and feels so real that you’ll find yourself getting nervous as you attempt a maneuver. And the instruction is excellent, with a heads-up display showing you the proper angle of attack and other pointers for each maneuver.
The log book is another excellent feature, adding to the you-are-there realism of the flight school. Here you’ll see a record of your flights and the certificates you’ve received. You also use the log book to view the "tapes" of any flights you’ve recorded.
After you’ve earned your wings in flight school, you can test your skills on 18 race courses, where you pilot your plane through hoops in timed competition. Some are easy, while the aerobatic obstacle courses are incredibly demanding.
Cockpit instrumentation is minimal, but that’s consistent with these aerobatic aircraft and with the game itself. In Flight Unlimited, it’s not where you’re going that counts; it’s how much fun you’ll have getting there. Inside the cockpit, you can choose from several views, including a virtual cockpit mode that lets you turn your head to get a better view of all that gorgeous terrain. For serious stunt flying, the aerobatic view lets you monitor the gauges and watch a graphical representation of your plane’s position.
A joystick works fine for Flight Unlimited, but this sim deserves better. A yoke and rudder pedals add the perfect touch to the game’s remarkable realism. Flight also supports various virtual reality headsets.
Naturally, these high-end graphics come at a price. Even my Pentium 90 struggled to run Flight Unlimited at the highest resolution settings, but the program gives you enough options for reducing detail that you can get a decent frame rate with the fastest 486 machines. The box lists a 486/33 as the minimum platform, but that must be a joke. This baby really needs a Pentium -- the faster, the better.
If you’ve got the machine to run it, you’re gonna love Flight Unlimited. You’ll find out you don’t need machine guns and bombs to have fun in the computer cockpit. Now, if these guys would just start working on a World War II combat sim...