For the last 100 years or so -- give or take 85 years -- Microsoft has dominated the civilian flight simulation market with various incarnations of its Microsoft Flight Simulator. But with the release of Flight Unlimited II, Flight Simulator is facing head-on competition -- probably for the first time ever.
The original Flight Unlimited boasted superb flight models and was fun to fly, but it didn’t even begin to recreate the experience of piloting a civilian aircraft from one location to another -- something Microsoft Flight Simulator has provided to millions of flight enthusiasts from day one. However, with its exquisite terrain, impressive flight-physics models, and meticulous attention to the details and procedures of civilian aviation, Flight Unlimited II now offers the closest experience to actual flight that you can get on a PC.
Flight Unlimited II’s hangar houses five aircraft: the Arrow Piper, the Trainer 172, the twin-engine Beechcraft Baron, the De Havilland Beaver, and the P-51D Mustang. Each has distinct handling and flight characteristics, making even a routine jump from one small airstrip to another a unique experience. I’ll have to admit up front that I’ve never flown a plane, but even a vicarious pilot like me can feel the difference in the way these craft fly: the Trainer, for instance, is as easy to handle as its name implies, while the Mustang is a wild ride that takes a cool head and steady hand to get the most out of the beast.
What ultimately gives Flight Unlimited II its authentic feel is the inclusion of audio air-traffic communications. If you’re taking off from an airport, you need to check with the control tower to see what runway you’re going to use; enter into an airport’s airspace, and you’ll start receiving audio transmissions urgently requesting information. It’s all delivered in dead-pan voices, just like you hear on the news when a black-box recording is being played back -- it’s so real that it’s almost scary.
As far as actual play goes, Flight Unlimited II is pretty much open-ended: you can design your own flight plans, take off and land at any of 46 airports (the box says 48, but I’m not complaining), start in mid-air at any point on the map, or tackle one of the "adventures" built into the game. The adventures range from the routine (coping with weather problems) to the absurd (dropping turkeys on 3-Com Park), but even the most mundane are engaging. What’s most surprising, though, is that Flight Unlimited II’s true appeal lies in its replication of the minutiae of civilian flight. Yes, that sounds boring to the Nth degree -- but once you throw yourself into it, you’ll be surprised at how addictive it really is.
Here’s where Flight Unlimited II really flexes its muscles -- in its attention to procedure. Six lessons guide you through the intricacies of civilian aviation, from taxiing and takeoff to instrument landings. If you don’t already know the rules, these tutorials are worth their weight in gold with constant reminders from air-traffic controllers and ground. But don’t think for a minute you’ve got to follow every edict to have fun: there’s no one to stop you if you decide it’s time to stretch your wings and go for a real joyride.
One criticism Flight Unlimited II is sure to draw is that the actual area in which you can fly is comparatively small -- it covers only a modest area of the San Francisco Bay area and the surrounding region. But the limitations in airspace are more than compensated for by breathtaking terrain graphics, reminiscent of the best I’ve seen from NovaLogic’s VoxelSpace engine. And the details are incredibly striking: raindrops hit windshields and stream in the proper direction, lightning bolts streak from cloud cover to the ground, and hazy sunsets bathe the California mountains in a golden light. Just these sights are worth the price of admission for flight-sim fans.
All these visuals, though, come at a price. The graphics are good at any of the available resolutions, but to get the full-bore impact, you really need to run this baby at 800 x 600 in Direct3D mode -- and by my best guesstimates, that means you’ll need a 233MHz Pentium with at least a 4MB video card that supports Direct3D to see a frame rate that truly satisfies. (Currently, Flight Unlimited II’s Direct3D mode supports video cards using the 3Dfx, ATI Rage Pro, Riva, or Rendition 2200 and higher chipsets.)
To be fair, the terrain looks awfully good in software mode -- but without acceleration, I shudder to think how much CPU muscle you’d need to get a smooth flying experience.
Aside from the somewhat steep hardware requirements, the other gripes I’ve got with Flight Unlimited II fall squarely into the nitpicking class. I’m a little baffled, for instance, at the lack of an Instant Replay feature: if I’ve managed to fly through a hangar at a NASA base, I damn sure want to be able to go back and lovingly admire my expertise.
In some instances, I’m disappointed merely because the Looking Glass team has come so tantalizingly close to re-creating the actual experience of civilian aerodynamics. When an air-traffic controller at Travis Air Force Base is ragging me for being in his airspace, I’d love to hear what he’s got to say after I’ve nose-dived into a parked helicopter -- just a "Where’d he go?" or "He’s off the screen!" would add a heightened sense of realism, even if I’m being burnt to a virtual crisp in a pile of wreckage when I hear it. And if I’ve buzzed the Golden Gate bridge, it’d be nice to see a multimedia news report -- yes, I said multimedia -- of the maniac who endangered the lives of hundreds by touching down on one of the world’s busiest bridges.
Then again, I might still get to see all that. Looking Glass has put a lot of effort into supporting its product, and when the 1.04 patch comes out, you can expect an adventure builder -- complete with "bounding boxes" to trigger sounds, failure triggers ("Oh no -- my engines have died heading out from the Bay!"), a hoop course for racing, moving ground objects, five new adventures, and a new plane -- I can’t name the plane, but "Richtofen" should say it all.
In the end, the achievement in Flight Unlimited II is so impressive that to even whine about little details shows a shortsightedness that’s all too common amongst us gamers. Whether you’re looking to experience the true thrills and challenges of flight or are simply out for a joyride, Flight Unlimited II is an absolute winner.