SIMULATION cgw review
In real life, most of us are never going to get a chance to fly in a high-performance fighter jet. But as unglamorous as taking the controls of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk may seem to gamers trained at the controls of virtual F4U-1 Corsairs or F-16 Falcons, piloting a real plane-even an unarmed one over friendly territoryÑcan be quite thrilling. Taking in the scenery of your neighborhood from 3,000 feet while watching for other air traffic is more exciting than even the most harried computer air combat when you factor in reality.
I've flown nearly every civilian flight simulator ever released, from the original Flight Simulator to Solo Flight to the latest Flight Simulator 98, and none of these has captured the exhilaration of real flying. They're great for learning instrument procedures and general plane handling, but with unrealistic air traffic (or none at all) and no communications, itÕs as if youÕre flying in a Twilight Zone episode in which your Cessna is the only plane left in the world. It's an odd world at that, one where you get excited by seeing one recognizable skyscraper in a city full of boxes in a land of patchwork-quilt terrain and polygonal mountains.
Now, for the first time, a flight simulator has captured the real feeling of civilian flying. With the most detailed, vivid environment ever to grace a flight sim, Flight Unlimited II is the closest you'll get to knowing what it's like to fly a small plane short of a visit to a flight school.
To be fair to the competition, Flight II manages this level of detail by providing a very limited flight area-the San Francisco Bay Area, from north of Calistoga south to Monterey and east to Sacramento. The designers have used detailed satellite imagery to map the ground, with many buildings and landmarks represented in detailed polygon form. Once you get up above 1000 feet the view, with a resolution of 18 feet of real terrain per pixel, is startlingly realistic. And while 18 feet per pixel may not seem that detailed, it makes it possible to pick out major highways, large buildings, small parks, and other prominent landscape features. I easily spotted my apartment building and was able to follow a road from the lighthouse at Point Reyes to a hotel IÕd stayed at 20 miles away. This is the first simulation in which sightseeing is more than just trying to find where the programmers have thought to place a set of polygonal buildings.
This detail is available with or without 3D acceleration, but if you're using a supported Direct3D video card, the image will be improved through pixel filtering and a smoother color palette. I tested Flight II on a P166, and frame rate was good with or without 3D acceleration. Even at 800x600 resolution, I got around 17fps without 3D acceleration; 24fps with.
Of course, Flight II represents each of the Bay Area's 40-plus airports in full detail, complete with accurate taxiway layouts. One nod to playability is the inclusion of very large taxiway marker signsÑso large, in fact, that you can clip off your wing on one. (The first patch allows you to shrink the marker size, trading readability for realism.)
The Radio Dial
The detailed environment provides one level of immersion; this is enhanced by interactive air traffic control (ATC) and dozens of other aircraft sharing your airspace. The ATC is a snap to learn: You "build" requests and responses from a menu of appropriate choices, much in the manner of the LucasArts SCUMM adventure system. For the most part ATC is very good at responding appropriately to your actions, even warning other planes that thereÕs a Òdisoriented aircraft in the pattern" when you buzz an airport and ignore tower requests.
You'll need to wait your turn to communicate with ATC-there can be around 200 other aircraft in the Bay Area airspace at any time, taxiing around airports, flying approach or departure patterns, or simply transiting the area. These range from other general aviation planes to airliners and military jets. One great touch is the ability to pop into the cockpit of any other plane in the area as an observer. Watch a 747 through takeoff and climb, or sit in a Baron as it enters the approach pattern and lands. Riding along in other small planes is great for getting a visual illustration of how approach patterns work.
You can file IFR (instrument flight rules) flight plans specifying your route, or you can just turn off your radio and fly visually around the area. For the first time, you can actually practice entering an approach pattern with other aircraft.
The weather effects in Flight II are amazing, with rain splattering on the windshield and lightning in the skies. You'd probably never fly one of these planes in such severe weather, but the effect is still dramatic (and much safer than trying to experience it in real life.)
The Plane Truth
Flight models are fairly good-much better than Pro Pilot, although not up to the level of Flight Simulator 98. Stalls seem well modeled, but it's far too difficult to spin most planes unless you alter an .ini file. There are lots of nice effects, such as jetwash when you fly or taxi too close behind a jumbo jet.
You can fly a Cessna 172 (referred to here as a "Trainer 172," perhaps due to licensing issues with Cessna), a Piper Arrow, a Beech Baron, or an amphibious De Havilland Beaver (which you can indeed land on water). There's also a P-51D Mustang, but alas itÕs unarmed, so you'll need to use the kamikaze approach to down airliners. Instrument panels are nicely done, with fluid movements on instrument readouts. The instrument stack is fairly complete, although it lacks an autopilot.
There are a few disappointments here. Although there are runway lights at night, the Bay Area seems to be under constant blackout conditions. And many non-Bay Area residents will find it a downer not to have their local airport included. However, Looking Glass has made provisions for both third-party aircraft and terrain add-ons, and the first new terrain area is already in the works.
Flight Unlimited II is a must-have for any general-aviation enthusiast. If you're set on having large terrain areas and your local airport, then by all means pick up a copy of Flight Simulator 98 or Pro Pilot in addition, but don't miss this one.
By Denny Atkin