Expansion pack for Microsoft FSX
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the greatest show on Earth, the big one, the noise, the thrills, the spills... Welcome to... The Edwards AFB Executive Tour Mission!!! Yaaaaay!!!!
Ahem. Yes. Well. Maybe sir would prefer to be 50' above the deck at 400 knots in a 90 degree banked turn? Maybe flying the approach to a tiny and pitching carrier deck in an aircraft with no avionics? Maybe the test of skill required to lift and carry loads using a sling line underneath a helicopter is more up madam's street? You can do all of these, and more, with the first official add-on pack for Microsoft Flight Simulator X, "Acceleration!"
It's been some time since Microsoft gave us an add-on pack to a version of FS. I actually found my "Microsoft Hawaii" box a while back and spent a few minutes reminiscing about FS5.1CD, with it's blocks of apparently random colour for coral reefs and clouds that looked like Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway rather than strato cumulus. There was also an Oshkosh freebie that they did for... FS2002 was it? Memory fails me on that one, but it was to celebrate Microsoft's involvement with that year's EAA Airventure.
FSX has been different, however. The approach and openness of the team to the community has been different. The approach to 3rd party developers during the product's growth has been different. Now we see another break from recent tradition with a product that not only adds new aircraft and scenery to the sim, but also new functionality too. Until recently, this has been the realm of those third party developers, thinking outside the little boxes that the FS SDK (Software Developers Kit) encloses them in. You might think that ACES themselves are trying to steal a little of this market, but in actual fact, parts of Acceleration were developed by the third party companies or individuals contracted to ACES.
So the new aircraft are just a part of it. So are new scenery and missions. Service Pack 2 is in there as well, somewhere, as you'll see if you read on.
Obviously, before you can do anything with this expansion, you need to get it running. Fortunately, being branded with the Microsoft logo, everybody really should be familiar with how this goes. You must have done it for FSX already at least, if nothing else. There are, however, a few pitfalls for the unwary before you can get Acceleration up and running on your computer.
Fortunately none of these are that serious or hard to overcome, but one thing that everyone will be asked is whether you wish to overwrite your existing programmed control keys with the default ones provided by the installer for the new functionality. By all accounts so far, say yes. Apart from the fact that if you don't, you can end up being told to use a command that isn't programmed to, say, launch from a catapult, there have been a number of faults reported in forums around the net that appear to be common to people who have said "no" to this question. I can't explain these, but it seems a good idea to say yes anyway, if not only to avoid the reqirement of finding spare key combos for all the new toys.
The second problem is an activation issue. It may be obvious to some people, but many installers these days - including Microsoft ones - provide you with little boxes to put the groups of letters and numbers for the keycode in. Acceleration doesn't and this means you have to remember to put the dashes in between the groups, or it won't work. Apparently a number of people have fallen foul of this and been told they have an invalid code.
The problem I encountered was a little more subtle, in that when I first activated and launched FSX after installing Acceleration, it really did take forever to load, or would have, if I hadn't got bored waiting and started "alt-tabbing" between applications. This was after I'd already got bored once and made lunch, then got bored again and gone shopping... When I came back from high street and it still hadn't launched, I figured this wasn't normal. What had actually happened was that Acceleration overwrites any settings you have made regarding trusted software. There was another box, hiding behind the splash screen, waiting for me to tell the sim that it was allowed to run FSUIPC as a trusted application. With the toolbar hidden by default and the pop-up box behind the splashscreen, I had no way of knowing that it wanted my input! Six clicks later for three add-ons, FSX loaded in seconds and I was presented with a welcome page detailing the new functionality of the package.
The only indication after that first launch that you have the Acceleration pack installed is that the name appears at the top of the launcher screen. The splashscreen isn't changed from the default FSX release, nor is the icon. The Start menu options are equally unchanged.
Uninstallation, if desired, can be done through the Windows Control Panel and resets FS back to its pre-Acceleration state.
As with its host sim, FSX Acceleration does not come with a nice, shiny, thick manual that explains how everything works and why. Instead, it comes with a 12-page glossy manual that explains the basics, then expands the online help/learning center files to provide further information. I'd have to say, however, that it could still do with a little more.
When first installed, the "welcome"/"home" page is replaced with one intoducing you to the new add-on. Unfortunately, navigating away from this page means you can't get it back! If you're interested in what the page says, read it fully before clicking on something else - for instance the EH101 Merlin information page that I clicked on.
Elsewhere, there are new entries covering both the new aircraft and the competition air racing that has been introduced. I didn't find much else, to be honest, but it's not really required. The main things that are new here have their own tutorial missions which go through the basics. It might have been nice to have a brief guide to the new VCs, for instance I still haven't found the nav lights switch on the Hornet, and some more reference speed information than is provided, but instead, you'll find the speeds on the kneeboard inside the aircraft. The light switch? Unfortunately Shift-F10 doesn't help me find that. I'll keep looking!
Acceleration brings us three new aircraft to add to our stable, each of which is part of the new functionality and adds things new to the sim. The F/A-18A Hornet fighter/attack aircraft supports the carrier operations, Agusta Westland EH101 "Merlin" medium lift helicopter provides for new lifting and carrying capabilities and a racing version of the classic P-51D Mustang World War II fighter is pretty much the Reno standard mount. Note that it is a modernised racing specific Mustang - if you are after a period one, this one isn't what you're looking for.
What is particularly interesting in this instance is not the choices made, but the fact that some well known names in the FS add-ons industry have been brought in to work on them. The F/A-18, for instance, has an external model by Captain Sim and VC by Virtuali, who you may not know by name, but produced aircraft published by Cloud9, amongst other things. Indeed the Hornet's VC is well worth a specific mention, not only because it has an unofficial forum set up to support it, but because it actually needs one! This is not your average run of the mill default VC, with minimal functionality and switches, we have a radar here which can track other aircraft (AI, I've not heard of it being used in multiplayer). We have a decidedly unusual radio stack and a whole range of functions available on the two big Multi function displays that dominate the Hornet's panel. If you want to use these, however, you'll probably end up at that forum, because there's little to no documentation provided on how to operate the VC, which is definately a pity. The Hornet is provided in 6 flavours of Blue Angel, plus seven other liveries and a plain white version.
Elsewhere, the EH101 is far more like what we are used to seeing. The external model is of an equally high standard as the Hornet and, as you'd kind of expect, utilises all the new tricks and tweaks that FSX provides developers with. It also brings in the slung load and winch functionality that is new to the sim with this pack. The VC, however, is more back in line with the defaults, not having a huge amount of functionality or depth. It is functional and effective, however. My only real comments about the aircraft are that I find it easier to fly cross-country from the left hand seat than the right, because the default GPS-based nav display is over there (there's no autopilot, so you're still handflying) and there's a decidedly irritating bug with the engines, which I'll cover later. 13 paint schemes are added to your library with the aircraft, covering everything from a civilian version through a number of Air-Sea Rescue and military liveries to the ubiquitous white one.
The Mustang is very much a thoroughbred. Over 3,000 horsepower is considerably more than the old Merlin under its cowling was ever designed to produce and, as a result, the aircraft itself is quite heavily modified from it's fighter roots, although it still retains the basic lines of its progenitor. One of the less visible but most important changes is the Anti-Detonation Injection or ADI (not to be confused with an Air Data Indicator or many other aviation ADIs...) which, while it may not be capable of saving the Merlin from the most ham-fisted of would be racers, does help considerably at extending the engine's life expectancy. The wings are also shorter with new tips, the panel much modernised and you'll need a whole lot more training to know how to use it properly. For instance there's a green arc on the manifold pressure gauge that's about twice the redline... and twice the adrenaline level. There's also a new tick box that appears under the Realism engine options with this model, to blow the engine up if you push it too hard. This is another new feature to FS - while you've been able to "manually" break engines using the damage model for some time, the coughing, spluttering, dancing gauges and eventual total failure provided here is a new one, and pretty well done indeed. I've managed to avoid blowing one up unintentionally so far, but I really don't fancy trying to recover from what happened when I did it intentionally without the considerable safety margins I gave myself to do so.
The Mustang comes with five real world liveries (Cloud Dancer, Miss America, Voodoo, Risky Business and Ole Yeller),plus three generic numbered aircraft and yup, you guessed it, a white one.
It's worth noting that none of these aircraft come with 2d cockpit panels. They all have a number of different VC views available by cycling the "a" key, but the only 2d panel available is the pop-up default GPS unit. Instead, the vast majority of gauges are hard coded into the model, the way you may have seen in RealAir Simulations aircraft, for example, in the past. It's a distinct break away from what people are used to and maybe a glance into future development of the FS series.
With one of the most discussed features of the pack being expanded air racing, you'd kind of expect that FSX Acceleration would come with a range of new and interesting racing sceneries for you to blast past trying not to put a wingtip into the ground. It is a little strange, therefore, that one of the most improved sceneries that comes with the new package has nothing whatsoever to do with carrier operations, winch/sling loads or air racing - it is Edwards Air Force Base in California.
The new Edwards boasts improved, apparently photoreal, ground textures, a large amount of new buildings and static aircraft, along with a mission to introduce the Secretary of Defence to them, as you may possibly have derived from my slightly irreverant introductory paragraph.
That's not to say that there isn't new scenery for the air racing, however. Three new courses are provided away from the expected Reno pylon course: to be exact, they are the Red Bull air race courses at Istanbul in Turkey, Longleat in England and Templehof airport at Berlin in Germany. These courses are built out of the inflatable towers that those who have done the original Red Bull missions will know and don't survive from the missions into free flight, but Istanbul, in particular, has now joined the ranks of the detailed cities available for the sim with a number of landmark buildings and "atmosphere objects" such as boats. The amount of detail definately causes a small hit on the frame rate, but even with scenery complexity Extremely Dense, I was still able to fly the Merlin around it in a pretty low overcast without dramatic problems.
Longleat House in Wiltshire, England, is more famous for its safari and theme parks than anything else, but in 2006 it was the venue of an air race as part of the Red Bull series. I seem to remember actually turning on the TV to watch this race and the big finale never actually took place, because it was raining (this is the British Isles, after all!) but the qualifying and thus the event was won by a Brit, so the weather came up with the right answer for the locals at least! In FS the wild animals and rides may be missing, but the house lives on outside the racing season, as does a representation of the "Adventure castle" area of the theme park. It's also a challenge to find, not being near an airport or large town, so your best bet may be to find it using VFR navigation... as in Visually Following Roads!
Finally in terms of race venues, Berlin itself is already a detailed city in FSX, so the area surrounding Schonefeld airport is little changed from the default scenery.
I'm not sure whether aircraft carriers class as scenery or not, but in lieu of anywhere else to discuss them, I will note here that all the default moving aircraft carriers are upgraded as part of this package to handle appropriately equipped aircraft. I'll talk about what "appropriately equipped" means in the next section of this review.
As I've mentioned on several occasions already, Acceleration adds a number of new functions to FSX. Two of these, line ops for helicopters and carrier operations, require a number of additions to aircraft before they can be used, although with the involvement of 3rd party developers in both the addon itself and the beta testing, a number of 3rd party packages are already becoming available. The racing functionality also provides new aircraft features for developers with the ADI and nitrous injection, although these are not visible on the aircraft itself, and the engine damage capability.
I'll deal with helicopter operations first, as these may be of interest to those who just want to add them to their favourite helicopter. Both the winch and sling line can be added to any helicopter simply by copying and pasting the appropriate code from the EH101's aircraft.cfg and editing them appropriately for the aircraft you are adding the functionality to. The winch in particular is assigned to a door on the model, so how you would add it to an aircraft which has no animated door, such as Owen Hewitt's "No Doors" JetRanger, I don't know, but adding it to the Alphasim Westland Seaking pack took me about ten minutes in Windows Notepad. One nice feature of this system is that if you press the key combination to deploy the winch for use, the associated door opens automatically. This means that all you have to do is deploy it, winch up and down as necessary, then press the deploy keys again to disarm the winch and automatically reclose the door.
Changing what counts as a current specification carrier aircraft, usable with Abacus FD4, RCBCO or 3Wire, to work with Acceleration is a slightly different issue. Although the tailhook code remains the same and any tailhook equipped aircraft can nominally trap on the new moving carriers, a new launch bar is required on the nose gear to allow assisted takeoffs to take place. This can either be coded as part of the aircraft mdl file, allowing an animation of the bar, or can be added by an end user using a simple config file tweak. Unfortunately, it appears that ACES have not released the "tags" required for including the launch bar in the model as part of the SDK, so as such the only option available right now is the config file tweak for the vast majority of developers and users.
The ADI and Nitrous injection systems are again referenced in the aircraft.cfg, so it is possible for users to add these, although what effect this would have without air file tweaking is, I'm afraid, above and beyond my comprehension. I've done scenery design, started mission design, but aircraft design, I'm afraid, has so far eluded me.
Within the missions editing part of the SDK, there are a number of new features. I won't give the game away on some of the surprises, but suffice to say that Air Sea Rescue fans now have a more realistic experience to play with and there are a number of modes and GUI additions, such as a course map, available for those who want to invent new air racing events. Air races and carrier operations can now also be done online, for those who want to. All in all, Acceleration adds a considerable amount to what can be done both in and out of missions in FSX.
Talking of missions, there are in total 37 new ones added to your collection when you install Acceleration. Of these, you have three training missions for carrier operations, one for helicopter sling/winch operations and one for Reno air racing. The remainder are designed for fun rather than to teach you the new functionality of the sim and range from lifting a replacement cable car component to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain through intercepting an intruding UFO in the F/A-18A to the practice and "live" race meets of the Red Bull series events discussed above in the scenery section.
The practice missions, in particular, are well worth running through a number of times to make sure you've got the hang of things - literally in the case of sling load ops - before trying the real thing. There are a number of new keypresses required, which are programmed by the installation procedure if you accept the request to do so, and you may find you'll want to program a number of these to your joystick, such as I have tailhook assigned - race fans may want the ADI assigned instead, or the new option to apply nitrous boost to the little Extra 300 for the Red Bull races.
The other missions are fairly familiar types - Search and Rescues, delivery of packages to tiny airstrips, engine failures, if you've done the default missions, you'll be familiar with the types. That's not to say there aren't surprises, such as an African safari one that explains why Acceleration doesn't share default FSX's "U" PEGI rating. Casualties from rescue missions can also die now, rather than being miraculously cold but alive no matter how long it takes you to track them down in near freezing water.
Service Pack 2
Now you may or may not remember, some time before FSX was released, that an "artist's impression" was doing the rounds, showing supposedly what FSX would look like when Vista was released and DirectX 10 was implimented? It pictured some mountains and a lake that looked absolutely true to life, possibly a little too perfect. Unfortunately, it appears, so was the idea that DirectX 10 and Flight Simulator X would be truly mated to become a flagship product.
Instead, the implimentation of DX10 in FSX SP2, which is included as part of Acceleration, is a cut down "preview" of what the technology is capable of. It does add new features, such as self-shadowing inside the virtual cockpit, improved water and much new shinyness. Reality, unfortunately, does not add up to the artist's impression we were told it would. Fortunately, as a cynic who never believed that anyway, who uses Windows XP SP2 and a thoroughly DX9-only graphics card, it doesn't worry me in the slightest either. You might think otherwise, but to anyone, including I suspect the development team, it is a decided pity that the improvements offered by DX10 have not been able to see the light of day for us here.
What else does SP2 bring us? Well, the simple answer here is that I don't know. There's no documentation, anywhere either on the disk or in the FSX directory, that I can find which details what FSX SP2 does or doesn't do. Therefore, other than partial DX10 support, all I can tell you is what I've gleaned from other users or discovered myself:
- Raindrops are back! In the 2d cockpit, at least, if you fly through rain, you can finally see it hitting the screen in front of you again. Unfortunately the same can't be said for the VC, but it's an improvement over none at all.
- Frame rate/smoothness. Again, compared to "out of the box" FSX and SP1, most users are reporting a small but noticable improvement in both frame rate and the overall subjective 'smoothness' of the sim. As is usual with these things, the difference seen varies between users and PC specs, but there does seem to be a further incremental improvement.
- Imported aircraft glass. Because of changes in the way FSX displays textures and model component colouring, some FS9 aircraft that were used in FSX up to SP1 did not "display" transparent textures at all, wih the net result that glass was simply "not there" in the display. A number of reports around the forums say that this is now corrected, but they have developed different problems instead. I'll cover them later.
Multiplayer is also affected by SP2, with, right now, FSX/SP1 and Acceleration users segregated when logging into Gamespy's lounges to set up and join flights. Depending on who you speak to, this has both up and downsides, as it means that you can occasionally actually find the person you were hoping to add as a friend, but the reason for that is that much of the server is entirely deserted, with only one or two sessions per lounge. That will hopefully change when the standalone SP2 download becomes available.
A Bugs Life
Unfortunately, no product is free from bugs and one of these becomes very apparent whenever you try to perform precision hovering operations in the EH101 helicopter. This is fairly serious because that is, after all, one of the primary additional features of the pack. The problem is that for no apparent reason, the engines spool up and completely down again to zero. This causes the aircraft to yaw significantly, nose left as the engines decrease and right as they spool back up again. When you are trying to hold a very slow forward speed, this sudden unexpected change in yaw totally messes up the approach to pick up a load and is so very obvious that it really should have been picked up and fixed. It's not a "job-stopper", just an irritation, but definately one that shouldn't be there. While I'm discussing the EH101, there's a little glitch in the Slingload Tutorial as well - is it an "Advanced" mission, as it says in the selection list, or "Intermediate" as it says on the details page?
Much has been made in certain circles of a visual glitch on the F/A-18 Hornet, which means that it seems to sit "too high" on its main undercarriage, but pretty soon after release, it became apparent to those who dug into it that the Hornet has bigger problems than the fact that it is too high off the ground when unladen. One forum I frequent has an entire thread, still extending, about problems with the way the aerodynamics modelling deals with the lift enhancing devices and the low-speed handling of the aircraft. It has to be said, from a personal perspective, that I wasn't that impressed with the Hornet when flying 130KIAS approaches to the deck. I suspect that it really doesn't stall at less than 80 knots indicated air speed in the real world, eiter... The configuration file sets it that low, however.
-Finally of the bugs I'll talk about here, one that I have not seen personally, but a lot of other people have reported, is that further problems have been introduced to aircraft compiled using the FS9 mdl compiler. These include transparent objects such as glass being replaced by grey, preventing you from seeing through windows. The fight between backwards compatibility and moving forwards is one that never goes away, it seems, and this time MS/ACES seem to be coming down firmly on the 'moving forwards' side. It'll be interesting, I guess, to see what happens with FS11 when that is released.
Overall, FSX Acceleration is definately a significant increase over what the base FSX package is capable of. I haven't tried online racing yet, it's too embarassing to lose by so far, but I've thoroughly enjoyed (albeit sworn a lot at, but hey) the new missions and models. I can't say that I, personally, have seen a lot to shout about with Service Pack 2, which is apparently the last update ACES will be doing to Flight Simulator X, but have no problem at all recommending the add-on package that contains it
Not everyone will be particularly impressed by what's on offer. Apart from SP2, for instance, there's nothing for the virtual airline pilot at 37,000' in their Boeing 737 and SP2 is now available as a seperate and free download anyway. For those of us who have been after better use of helicopters, true carrier operations or the adrenaline rush of air racing however, Acceleration is a big step towards what we've been asking for. Not perfect, maybe, but what other $30 add-on gives you so much? In terms of value for money, this one is hard to beat.