Microsoft & Aces wanna go faster! Are you game?
So there you are, tracing your flight plan on a sectional, measuring distances between VORs, calculating the fuel, scouting weather reports and compensating for the wind. Or maybe you are programming your FMC, preparing for a five-hour haul in your state-of-the-art big iron. Or perhaps you are a flight controller at VATSIM, and enjoy coordinating thirty-eight flights in real-time on your area?
No wonder the flight simulation market has never been big. Willing to invest for our hobby in what may appear to some a ridiculous amount of time, effort, and money, we flight-simmers are a specialised, eccentric bunch, aren’t we.
With that in mind Microsoft & Aces release FSX Acceleration Expansion Pack, their apparent goals being to attract a wider audience to the Flight Simulator franchise, and to further stimulate conversion of FS9 users into FSX ones.
So how does all of this affect our simmer lives? Is our dearest Flight Simulator being rapidly transformed into a game because of market demands?
The main lodestone aimed at the general gamer is the new multiplayer racing system. You can easily tell this feature is not meant for the hardcore simmer who shoots precision approaches in IMC for fun. There’s no need to even look at the instruments at all, because a panel of cartoonish, arcadey icons simply tells your fuel, temperature, power, and RPMs up there on your screen. Just concentrate on the race and have lots of fun, either in the new P-51D (more on that later) or in the familiar Extra 300.
Of course nothing prevents you, if you’re a purist, from turning the offending panel off, watch and react only to your trusty instruments, AND have fun.
To amplify atmosphere for the races, the pack features some impressive new scenery: extensively developed locations for the Reno Air Race and the Red Bull Race in Istambul, Longleat and Tempelhof. All of these include high-definition mesh, photo-realistic textures, custom autogen objects, and surprising special effects: huge virtual crowds watch the races and take pictures (you can see the flashes of the cameras too) and the inflatable pylons actually bend whenever you hit them.
And of course there are more missions, which require you to learn the new aircraft’s particular characteristics and employ them in context. Missions were always a topic which hardcore simmers argued would turn the simulator into a game, and that fear is understandable. But it’s also true that they provide a sense of structure and achievement too. Successfully completing a specific task using aviation skills is rewarding in itself, for both newbies and veterans alike. If you don’t do missions it’s your loss, because they are very well crafted, and the familiar first-class voice acting establishes the mood and the pace.
So what’s in for the orthodox? What does it offer to them?
You get three new aircraft:
The Boeing F/A-18A Hornet,
The AgustaWestland EH-101 helicopter,
and the North American P-51D Mustang.
The aforementioned race locations, the huge Edwards AFB complex, and a large area of Florida, around the Cape Canaveral NASA launch facilities.
Each aircraft deserves its own article, because they’re really well made. I sense here the same hand who conceived the previous masterpieces I adore from the original FSX: the Beaver, the Maule, the Goose, the Extra. Those aircraft are objects d’art, inside and out. Their VCs were worth the price of admision, and I fly them often. The new Acceleration birds are like that, and I immediately fell in love with them as soon as I increased the throttle.
The Hornet is awesome. Just look at that virtual cockpit, for Tron’s sake. Aces is upping the ante to payware devs with this stuff! Behold the subtle craftsmanship combining the perfect number of polygons with the most immersive textures. This is industrial-strength design at its best. And the MFDs are interactive (you can adjust their contrast and brightness too). This cockpit rivals that of the cloud9’s Phantom F-4, and it might be even more complex. All of this detail should bring the simulation to a crawling stop, but it doesn’t.
Regarding the modeling of military aircraft within FS9, I always thought it a dumb exercise to faithfully model a gun you will never get to fire. A bit like going out for dinner with Giselle, then take her dancing, then take her… home with her mother, you know? The external model doesn’t even feature weapons, so I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with scrambling from and landing on the massive carrier, using the corresponding new equipment. Sigh.
The AgustaWestland EH-101 kicks rotary donkey too. A mind-blowing external model with the tiniest of rivets modeled, and a cockpit so intimidating you’ll think twice before taking off. It’s a devil to fly too (I haven’t been able to hover for more that a few seconds with reality set at maximum). It’ll take a while to master this beast, and when you do you can use the hoist to pick up and haul objects around. A lot of beautiful liveries too.
And my favourite, the modified Mustang P-51D. We have our fair share of good ‘Stangs out there, payware and freeware, why would we want another? Because this one is great, that’s why. The external model might not be wildly superior to that of its rivals’, but the VC is simply outstanding.
The bubble canopy has been designed with one purpose: racing. You have full 360-visibility and you want that when turning tight around pylons at 50 feet from the ground, fast. Smooth gauges and an attention to detail comparable or superior to the best payware out there are sufficient reasons to want to own this baby. And they have included a supercharger too. Now I only need John Terrell to paint me a Crazy Horse (hear me, John?).
Regarding the scenery, you gotta see the Edwards AFB complex. Standing atop a huge portion of photo-realistic textures lies an alarmingly high number of hangars and buildings, so many and so detailed it’s scary. There is a mission designed to give you a grand tour of the area, and you’ll discover some exciting items over there. And sceneries surrounding the Race circuits look gorgeous too, Istambul being my favourite. I abandoned the race and went to the market for a new water-pipe. True story.
Let’s talk performance: they have either gone through serious bug-stomping, an improvement of the code, or both. Performance has improved! YES! Even more than with SP1! So I guess they are making sure the new people who dare buying FSX can also run it. I admit it’s looking and running great on my DualCore E6600. Locked at 25 fps and autogen at dense, high water, high mesh, high aircraft detail, those 25 keep steady. Even with these ultra-realistic, multi-MFD super-VCs! I’ll better shut up before it hears me and degrades again. Also notice that you won’t need to buy Acceleration to get the SP2, it will be a free download just like SP1 is. Get it ASAP either way.
In the end, you can choose to enjoy the new, more ludic aspects of our beloved FS or not, but think about this: if they succeed in broadening the market so the franchise will keep making economical sense, it follows that they will continue pouring their resources into it, perfecting FS even more. We can always choose how real or serious we want it to be, from the Options menu.
So let them accelerate! They need to build better roads for it and we’ll all benefit, the fast and the ponderous.