FOREWORD: Over Hill, Over Dale
USA Extreme Landscapes V2 by Abacus is a very large add-on for FSX, which does not promise the world, but it does try to give you a more lifelike North America. How this works is by refining and adding detail to the default FSX terrain mesh. For people who are used to creating or managing scenery add-ons for Flight Simulator, the concept of a “terrain mesh” should be a familiar one. However, if you are a casual user or new to FSX, you might not have considered how a good scenery add-on can add to the realism and appeal of the view from the cockpit. For those people, I would like to briefly explain what a terrain mesh is, and how it fits into FSX.
Contemporary Flight Simulator scenery consists of several parts to make the sim world look realistic. At the most basic level, there are three-dimensional models, which form the shapes of everything you see in FSX: aircraft, buildings, clouds, and the contours of the land and water. Textures “cover” the models with colour information to make them look more realistic and recognizable. What USA Extreme Landscapes does is add detail to the shape of the land.
Land-based scenery requires three basic ingredients to work together to look like it does as if you were in a real airplane. One ingredient is the terrain mesh, which is the data used to form the three-dimensional shape of the land. The other two ingredients are “landclass”, which is a large, complicated table of texture tiles that give colours and visual details to the terrain, and “autogen”, which is a massive library of realistic-looking buildings and objects like trees and vehicles that are placed on the ground to make low-level flying more exciting.
Anybody hoping to improve their FSX scenery will want to invest in better terrain mesh, landclass, and autogen scenery packages. There are many talented developers who offer these improvements on a freeware basis, and as well, there are also many excellent sceneries available for sale.
INTRODUCTION: FSX, Topography, and You
USA Extreme Landscapes V2 is an add-on for FSX that uses the latest USGS data to create a highly detailed terrain mesh. USGS stands for “United States Geological Survey”, which is a large American government organization dedicated to mapping out the shape and surface of the Earth. Developers using this data can create a realistic terrain mesh for Flight Simulator, meaning that mountains, valleys, rolling hills, and vast plains can all look very realistic as you view the world from your FSX cockpit window.
The USA Extreme Landscapes add-on is shipped by Abacus Software on three DVDs in a colourful DVD box. The installation is very large, as it takes up around 10 Gigabytes of hard drive space to hold all of the data. The purchase is on DVD only, as I presume that downloaded files would be huge. As it happens, USA Extreme Landscapes is also a re-packaging of the North American mesh provided by FSGenesis, so if you have that product, it’s the same as USA Extreme Landscapes.
As the name would suggest, USA Extreme Landscapes is a terrain mesh for the continental United States. The best, most refined topological data is used for the United States; however, Canada and Mexico are also given coverage at a reduced resolution. This product does not cover anything beyond those regions mentioned.
So how does terrain mesh resolution work? Resolution refers to the ability to perceive the difference between two definite points. If the points are physically very close to one another, yet you can still tell them apart, the resolution is said to be high. If the points are very far apart, then the resolution is low.
For a terrain mesh, the resolution is between any two points on a three-dimensional (topographical) map. If the points are far apart, then the resolution is low, and the map won’t be very detailed. If the points are close together, and a higher resolution is used, then the map can support more landforms. The trick seems to be that the more detailed the map is, the more computer resources will be needed to render it, especially in FSX.
Some parts of the world map are very detailed, while others remain rather sketchy. The really remote locations of the planet will probably have the lowest topographical resolution on a map. Generally speaking, the lowest resolution for FSX is 302 meters, which means that every point used to calculate the height of a point of land is 302 meters away from the next point. That’s roughly the distance from one end of three football fields (American football, Canadian football, World Cup soccer) to the other, laid end to end. So, if the elevation at point A is sea level, and the elevation of point B is 300 meters, with a 302 meter resolution, the slope drawn between the two points would be close to 45 degrees.
Higher-resolution data comes into FSX at 76 and 38 meter resolutions. Most of the USA in FSX is mapped out to 38 meter resolution (38 meters is somewhat less than half of a football field, or about the length of a larger luxury yacht). Every 38 meters of horizontal distance results in a datum for terrain height, which results in a much more detailed resolution than for 302 meters. By comparison, I am told that FS9 uses a resolution of 1,223 meters (approximately ¾ of a mile, or very roughly 12 football fields end-to-end) for its lowest resolution, and approximately 611, 153, and 76 meter resolutions for the higher-resolution regions.
USA Extreme Landscapes V2 goes well beyond the 38 meter resolution used in FSX. The continental United States is rendered by USA Extreme Landscapes in 9.6 meter detail (roughly the distance of a single “down” in American or Canadian football.). For a normal-sized adult, take twenty walking steps, and the distance from where you started and where you finished would be the two points of resolution for the USA. Canada is rendered in FSX at 76 meters resolution; USA Extreme Landscapes boosts the resolution to 19 meters. FSX has Mexico mapped in at 302 meters resolution, while USA Extreme Landscapes will improve that to 76 meters.
By way of note, there is USA Extreme Landscapes V1, which is different from V2. I am told that the V1 version is compatible only with FS2002/2004, and the terrain resolution for the US is not as fine as 9.6 meters. V2 is compatible with FSX only, and boasts better resolution than V1, thanks to better topographical data as well as improvements to FSX in general.
INSTALLATION & DOCUMENTATION: Have A Good Snack On Hand
USA Extreme Landscapes V2 installs from three DVDs. The most important thing to look for is that you have enough space for all of the new data: a whopping 10 GB. Other than that, installation is very easy to do. After the first disk goes in, you will get the usual assortment of self-installation prompts, and then the program does most of the rest. A progress bar shows you how well the entire program is loading, and you will get prompts to switch the disks at the appropriate time.
I brought my stopwatch, and thinking this would take forever, started the timer upon inserting DVD 1. From then on, until I could load FSX and look out of the cockpit window took 25 minutes on my system, which was much shorter than what I had expected. Still, you can have time to grab something to eat while the computer does its work, just be on hand to switch the DVDs in your computer’s drive.
Once the new terrain is installed into FSX, it cannot be de-activated. There is no switch or scenery layer you can turn on and off to go back and forth between original FSX terrain and USA Extreme Landscapes terrain. This is because the new terrain is fully integrated into FSX. If you like, you can choose to uninstall USA Extreme Landscapes, which is very easy to do from the Windows XP control panel. FSX terrain will return to its original form.
The technical support staff at Abacus has this to say about installing their product:
“FSX (and FS2004) has Adaptable Mesh Terrain Technology (AMTT), to use a phrase from Microsoft. This means that Flight Simulator will read both their files and our files, but will only load the file that has more detail. This way the files can co-exist in the same folder and not have FSX double-load data. This also removes the potential hassle of the scenery library and 3rd party add-ons conflicting with loading ability. USA Extreme Landscapes V2 does NOT overwrite the default files or replace/modify them. It installs new files with new names into the same folder as the default files. FSX (again with the AMTT) only loads the more detailed files.”
Installing USA Extreme Landscapes after SP1 (the first Service Pack from Microsoft for FSX) presented no difficulties for me. I don’t run Windows Vista, so I cannot comment directly on how USA Extreme Landscapes will work under that operating system. The good people at Abacus have informed me that both XP and Vista should run USA Extreme Landscapes equally well. Vista does have an issue where other programs may write into the C:\Program Files folder or the Registry after USA Extreme Landscapes has been installed, which may affect USA Extreme Landscapes. Turning off User Account Control should make USA Extreme Landscapes work as it does for XP.
Documentation for USA Extreme Landscapes is limited to just a couple of paragraphs. Since the installation is automatic, and the terrain mesh is integrated completely into FSX, there’s not much for Abacus to say. Either the mesh works, in which case all you need to do is fly around North America in FSX and enjoy the visual splendor, or the mesh doesn’t work, in which case you can contact the friendly and helpful Abacus support team.
There is documentation for the extras that are included with USA Extreme Landscapes: a Liberty XL2 General Aviation propeller-driven aircraft from Eaglesoft, and some scenic flight plans that show off the scenery. The documentation is in .PDF form, and is installed along with the scenery.
The Liberty XL2 manual goes into good detail on how to operate this snazzy little airplane, focusing attention on its state-of-the-art “glass cockpit” gauges. The Eaglesoft installer will require you to accept some new gauges for FSX; doing so will allow you to activate and fly the Liberty XL2 in FSX.
The flight plans that Abacus provides are intended to highlight the more dramatic parts of the United States terrain. Flights include a leisurely tour through the Appalachian Mountains, a rip-roaring adventure to the Grand Canyon, an excursion along the coast of California, and a breath-taking run up to mysterious Crater Lake.
I recommend these flights very highly. Although they are not presented as FSX Missions (I wish they were!), they are played out in Free Flight Mode, where the sim pilot is expected to follow the directions (or not) at their own pace. The flights are extremely well written and researched, and offer clear, concise flight instructions, as well as vivid descriptions of the sights to be seen along the way.
Excellent airport approach plates and in-flight charts illustrate your intended flight plan every step of the way so you won’t get lost unless you want to. These flight plans add tremendous value to this product, especially if you want to see lovely scenery but don’t yet know where you want to fly to next.
VISUALS & PERFORMANCE: What You See Is What You Get
I always felt that for the old Flight Simulator 2004, the one thing that could make the terrain look more realistic was a good terrain mesh. Considering that some of my favourite areas to fly over were rendered in a resolution of 1,223 meters, I was never pleased to see landmark mountains and valleys that were more or less wiped clean off the face of virtual Earth. Over time, there have been many outstanding freeware developers who have worked hard to enhance the terrain mesh of small areas of the globe. After you get a taste of what a really good terrain mesh can do for your sim flying, you want bigger and better meshes to cover a greater territory.
To my mind, a good terrain mesh adds a lot of realistic colour to the world below. Contours of the land seem to show up much better and look more varied and realistic with a higher resolution mesh. In mountainous areas, you will see more variety of landclass tiles, as more vertical topography results in more cliff face textures showing up in the appropriate places. Microsoft seems to have paid attention to sim pilots who wanted a better terrain mesh for FSX right out of the box, and have included an enhanced mesh that improves the land masses all over the world.
I think that the default FSX mesh is actually very appealing, so that the argument for purchasing a higher-resolution third-party mesh becomes less of a concern for many users. It is definitely an improvement to have 9.6 meter resolution, but at this time, I would doubt that Microsoft would want to pack the many DVD’s worth of data it would require to map out the world at that level of fidelity. For most sim pilots with reasonable processing power for their computers, the enhanced 9.6 meter resolution won’t cause much in the way of frame rate slowdowns, rather the cost is in the huge amount of hard drive space required to store the topographical data.
Let’s look at how USA Extreme Landscapes performs on my system. The biggest drag on my system is the size of the data files, which come to 10 GB in total. Other than that, I can report that dialing up the detail level of the terrain mesh had little effect on the frame rate of FSX+SP1. In some regions, I did notice a drop of frame rates on the order of maybe two or three frames lost per second on a sim that typically runs at around 30 fps. Most of the time, USA Extreme Landscapes did not have an impact on frame rates at all.
Of course, to view high-resolution contours of the Earth from above is beautiful for anybody who every dreamed of flight. USA Extreme Landscapes brings a high level of detail and realism to FSX. Like many Avsim readers, I chose to install SP1 for FSX, and in doing so, I started off with a clean FSX install. This allowed me an opportunity to set up some “before and after” screenshots to show you the differences I had found between the default FSX mesh and USA Extreme Landscapes V2.
For those of you who prefer sim flightplans in and out of Mexico, I must apologize. I have lost my photo set of “Before” Mexican screenshots, so I cannot present them to you at this time. However, I can present to you screenshots of other areas in North America, and from those, I hope you can draw your own conclusions.
As much as I could, I have preserved the same settings for the before and after shots: clear weather, noon-time sun, maximum visibility. I ordinarily wouldn’t choose these settings for my usual flights, nonetheless, FSX ran well in any case.
Note: some of the “Before” and “After” pictures look quite similar. I found the best way to compare them was to load them into Photoshop in their own layers. Then, by turning off and on the top layer, I could easily see the difference between the two images. If you don’t have Photoshop, there are other graphic arts applications, including some freeware utilities, that should do the same job.
The Grand Canyon: No scenic tour of the USA using FSX could ever be complete without a visit to the Grand Canyon. The canyon, situated in Arizona, was created by the rushing waters of the Colorado River that over time cut out a gigantic valley approximately 277 miles (446 km) long, 4 to 18 miles (6.4 to 24 km) wide, and up to a mile (1.6 km) deep.
In this set, the differences between FSX and USA Extreme Landscapes are evident. Extreme Landscapes adds more detail to the cliff sides, and makes contours that are more sophisticated. Edges that are rounded out in FSX are given a craggy, more realistic look in USA Extreme Landscapes.
Vancouver, Canada: Vancouver sits at the terminus of the “Sea to Sky Highway”, a road that reaches from the Pacific Ocean right into the Rocky Mountains. This kind of terrain can make for some exciting adventures for the sim pilot. My view looks across downtown past Stanley Park and up towards the North Shore Mountains.
The differences between the two shots are subtle. USA Extreme Landscapes places more contours in the downtown area, especially near BC Place and GM Place, the two stadiums. This resulted in a couple of small green spaces that are in reality paved over. Other areas enjoy slight tweaks in their profile.
FSX Mission - Telluride Landing: FSX provides a Mission to land a Learjet 45 at Telluride Regional Airport (KTEX), deep in the Colorado Rockies. KTEX itself perches on a 9,000 foot plateau, surrounded by mountains and wicked crosswinds. It is reported to be the highest commercial airport in North America.
Again, the differences are subtle. Extreme Landscape USA seems to add a higher level of resolution all over this area, causing the wrinkles and folds of the land to stand out a bit more. Good dramatic lighting will enhance this effect.
Savage Lake Region, Vermont: Savage Lake is a small, private island in Lake Champlain, Vermont with its own airstrip VT15. It makes an excellent getaway from the big city, and provides a fantastic base of operations for flight adventures into Canada or the wilderness of New England.
From what I can see, FSX and USA Extreme Landscapes use similar, but not identical data to create topography. The USA Extreme Landscapes version seems to have more sophisticated contours, but even as seen from high altitudes, the cumulative effect is a subtle one.
Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada: Large sections of Saskatchewan are flat from horizon to horizon. In the southern agricultural region, the Qu’Appelle Valley slices through farmland in a most dramatic way. The valley is deep enough and wide enough in places to create excellent thermals and ridge lift for gliding. The name “Qu’Appelle”, pronounced “ka-PELL” in English, is derived from the French for “Who is calling?”
I wanted to pick out a flat region to test out USA Extreme Landscapes. There should be no surprise that both FSX and USA Extreme Landscapes chose to render Saskatchewan’s prairie as totally level. In truth, there are some rolling hills in the area, but from the air, the scenery lacks contours for the most part. Still, USA Extreme Landscapes managed to add definition to the coulee in the bottom of the picture. Since the sides of the valley have more contours with USA Extreme Landscapes, more trees appear on the slopes, which in turn add to the level of visual detail.
San Francisco, USA: Host city to some of the greatest car chases filmed for action movies, San Francisco is built on rugged landscape. With a mixture of hills, ocean, and urban sprawl, San Francisco is a study in contrasts of terrain. It’s a vibrant and beautiful place to visit in Flight Simulator! My view showcases the Golden Gate Bridge, with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Presidio at either end. Farther off, we see the high-rise buildings of downtown, and San Francisco Bay beyond.
As with many of my other comparisons, the differences between FSX and USA Extreme Landscapes can be subtle. The terrain in the Golden Gate Recreational Area and the Presidio both get a small boost in detail. Improved contours in the land help tree textures and tree autogen to be placed more realistically. Still, the difference isn’t a large one.
OUTSTANDING ISSUES: The Bug List
USA Extreme Landscapes is a solid, robust product, at least from the operational point of view. I had absolutely no problems installing or using this add-on. It didn’t crash my test system or cause any unusual errors. From this point of view, USA Extreme Landscapes passed all of my tests.
One problem with a terrain mesh that covers a very large area, is the creation of discrepancies where the new data comes into conflict with parts of the Earth that FSX considers unmovable, usually water and airports. The usual result is an airport or a lake that ends up on top of a strange-looking plateau, or at the bottom of an unusual trench. The solution is to go back into the terrain mesh and “fudge the data” a little bit: change the elevation numbers so that the error is smoothed out. Unfortunately, the terrain data in FSX is complicated and not easy for a casual user to edit. For most of us, we have to rely on a talented software developer to make the edits for us.
This problem is by no means unique to USA Extreme Landscapes: many third-party terrain meshes will have airports and lakes in plateaus and trenches, especially in the less-traveled regions. Of course, if your favourite FSX base is a rural airstrip that is now at the bottom of a weird trench, this isn’t much comfort to you.
Here are some illustrations that show these anomalies:
This remote airstrip appears on its own plateau. It rather reminds me of an aircraft carrier deck. This happens because airports in FSX must be absolutely flat. The runway altitude is determined from the FSX database, and the rest of the airport is forced to occupy the same altitude. Sometimes, the results are unpredictable.
Sometimes, lakes are put on plateaus as well. If FSX sets the altitude for a lake at a different figure than what is reported by the terrain mesh data, the lake visuals will look bizarre. Like airports, lakes must be flat, so FSX does its best to keep the water on an even plane. Let’s zoom in on this picture to see a really unfortunate result of this error:
FSX reports this runway as CML2, or Raven Airstrip. Here, every landing is a real cliff-hanger, right?
Finally, some anomalies in FSX just don’t go away, no matter what you do to them. Again, this isn’t so much a fault with USA Extreme Landscapes, as it is more likely some flaw in the basic Flight Simulator data that can’t be fixed. By way of example, here is a picture of the “Mystery Corner” that shows up in FSX off the coast of Vancouver, BC:
I do have “Before and After” pictures of this location, but to tell the truth, USA Extreme Landscapes made little difference for fixing this issue.
Overall, I would have to say that despite the issues that are common to many large terrain meshes, USA Extreme Landscapes, as well as the original meshes from FSGenesis, represent an improvement over meshes that are available for FS9. Extreme Landscape USA covers North America with a higher-resolution mesh, and it does seem to feature fewer lakes and airports in plateaus and trenches than other meshes I have seen. FSX itself allows for higher-resolution terrain, and has the potential to display the most realistic topography ever.
BONUS CONTENT: Liberty Aerospace XL2 by Eaglesoft
USA Extreme Landscapes not only provides a finely detailed terrain mesh, but as a bonus, FSX users will gain a new general aviation aircraft. The ultra-modern Liberty XL2 provided by Abacus’ developer-partner Eaglesoft. Lydell Stelmack reviewed the same Liberty XL2 for Avsim in June of 2006. I won’t go over the details of that review, except that I agree with Lydell’s comments on this exciting little airplane.
The Liberty XL2 is a small, propeller-driven two-seat trainer or touring airplane. Its large glass cockpit affords for some very nice TrackIR views out of the window. The Liberty XL2 is both peppy and manoeuvrable, yet it is easy for rookies to fly and forgiving of pilot errors. Perhaps the most interesting feature is the extremely modern Garmin navigation avionics suite, which although seemingly complicated, can go a long way to reducing cockpit workloads.
I did have a couple of problems with the Liberty XL2. Although the sound set for this aircraft seems to be recorded at the highest fidelity to realism, especially including some great engine start-up and shutdown noises apparently recorded from the real aircraft, I noticed what I would consider a looping artifact at cruising speeds. It didn’t take long before the repetitive motor sounds drove me to “put on the noise-canceling headphones” and just turn the engine noise way down in FSX.
The other problem I had was with the Liberty XL2 custom gauges. When installing USA Extreme Landscapes and loading up the XL2 for the first time, FSX will ask you to verify installing these special gauges. This should be no problem, as the new instruments are excellent. My test system however, did have a problem installing the “Vision Tech” engine gauge that had a corrupted read-out. Fortunately, Eaglesoft offers a patch for this gauge that can also be requested from Abacus.
The Liberty Aerospace XL2 is a quality add-on for FSX and makes a very nice bonus for anybody who chooses to purchase USA Extreme Landscapes. I found this little airplane to be a pleasant surprise and a fine choice for scenic clear-weather cruises over North America.
CONCLUSION: Executive Summary
USA Extreme Landscapes V2 is a high-resolution terrain mesh for FSX that covers the United States, Mexico, and Canada in detail. This means that three-dimensional landforms such as mountains, hills, valleys, and canyons will all show up in your flight sim in greater detail than ever before. USA Extreme Landscapes is a re-packaging of the North American terrain mesh from FSGenesis. It can be purchased on DVD only, and in fact, comes as a set of three disks. When installed, USA Extreme Landscapes will take up 10 GB of hard drive space, but in terms of performance, it should not have a large negative effect on simulation frame rates. USA Extreme Landscapes installs easily on FSX, FSX+SP1, and FSX on Vista systems.
As a bonus, Eaglesoft’s fine Liberty Aerospace XL2 touring aircraft is included in the USA Extreme Landscapes package for free. You may use this modern and engaging little prop-driven plane to follow Abacus’ excellent flight plans, which cover some of America’s most beautiful scenery.
FSX significantly boosts the visual resolution of the terrain mesh from the default levels of FS2004. USA Extreme Landscapes increases the resolution of the terrain mesh for FSX up to 9.6 meters for the United States. Is the boost in resolution enough to justify paying out for this add-on? That’s a bit hard to say. If you are not satisfied with the level of terrain mesh detail in FSX, and want to see more contours in the land, and you primarily fly over North America, then you might want to try this product.
On the other hand, if some lakes and airports standing on top of plateaus or in deep trenches bother you, then you may want to stick with FSX. USA Extreme Landscapes is about as good as I would expect to see from a newer terrain mesh for FSX. It has its problems, but no more so than any other large-scale mesh.
Here are some more pictures of landmarks and regions that I had fun taking as I went on my cross-continental tour of North America:
THE FINAL WORD: Now In Stunning 3D!!!
My final word for this review is instead a final picture, and a very special one at that. As a rare treat for some sim pilots who are reading my article, I managed to make a screen capture of a flight I was experimenting with near Jackson Hole, Wyoming (a tremendous area for aerial sightseeing).
For this flight, I used the 3D drivers from nVidia to create a stereoscopic image. You will need special glasses to see the image properly. I prefer the superior anaglyph (red/green) 3D Wasp clip-ons from Eyecessories.com, but you should get reasonable results from most 3D glasses. The 3D separation is set to 50%, which is fairly high. If you are having trouble seeing the 3D with the glasses on, try looking at the distant valley first, then shift your focus to the nearer valley. The effect is absolutely stunning when FSX is in full motion. Enjoy!
What I Like About USA Extreme Landscapes
What I Don't Like About USA Extreme Landscapes
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