AVSIM Commercial Scenery Review

Simulating Art
Phoenix Metropolitan Area v2.0

Product Information
Publisher: Simulating Art
Description:  Photoreal scenery package for FS2004.
Download Size:
499 MB
Format:
DVD or downloadable executable autoinstaller
Simulation Type:
FS 2004
Reviewed by: Zane Gard, Jr AVSIM Staff Reviewer - September 9, 2006

Introduction

I’m figuring that you don’t need a historical account of the central Arizona desert here. It’s an inferno in the summer and despite that, a beautiful city has sprouted up there and people actually move there and love living there. I lived there in the late 1970’s and again in the early 1990’s and the area has a warm place in my heart… every pun intended ;). It is the home of my favorite rocker Vincent Furnier aka Alice Cooper. Some of the most spectacular thunder/lightning storms I have ever seen and oh the sky after a dust storm all lit up red is something you do have to see to believe. I logged my first official flying lesson there on April 9 of 1980 and it is the only time in my life I got airsick. I was so nervous and that mid 90 degree afternoon had kicked up some thermal activity, making the flight well, let’s just say a bit bumpy.

Art Martin lives just southwest of where I used to live in Litchfield Park and shared the excitement and experience of many of us first purchasing Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. He loaded it onto his computer and promptly selected a nearby airport so he could fly around “home.” The default Phoenix Int’l airport is actually not all that bad in FS2004 and the Phoenix downtown skyline looks reasonably familiar, thanks to Microsoft focusing on this as one of its higher detailed areas. But when Art started to fly out towards his neighborhood and over his own home, which is between the Glendale Municipal Airport and Luke AFB, he discovered that this is just generic scenery and no, you can’t really recognize anything but the bigger landmarks. Disappointing, but how do you cover the entire world in just a few CD’s?

Art’s a computer programmer by trade so he thought, hey, I’ll just dig into this flight simulator and lay a few satellite images down and that’ll make it look better. He discovered that while it might look good at higher altitudes, when you get down closer to the ground it can look downright awful. Microsoft’s SDK for scenery explains how to lay down autogen scenery objects so he went to work placing buildings, houses and trees which made an enormous improvement on how the landscape looked especially flying down closer to the ground. While the included Microsoft program worked well for doing small areas, Art wanted to be able to lay down scenery items into a large area and found the program Microsoft included in the SDK wasn’t well suited to this task. He wrote a program that allows for laying down of autogen information for very large areas of scenery and then shared his neat little program with the simming community. Yeah, he’s a neat guy with a true love for flying and gazing back down on the earth.

When he shared what he was working on with a few friends, they told him this was truly exceptional work and that he really should consider marketing this little obsessive passion of his. So Simulating Art was created. Now, before you think this is just a simple task of laying down a few hundred square miles of hi-res satellite images and then popping some buildings and trees in, think about this. How many times have you looked at a Google Earth image only to notice mismatches in adjacent tiles?

Art has put a great deal of man hour work into color matching and balancing all of these tiles so they produce a seamless span of the Valley of the Sun. Since Microsoft included all the buildings downtown, that part shouldn’t be hard, right? Well, they didn’t include many of the buildings and in addition, he discovered they were not in the correct places. Those all had to be moved so they matched with their corresponding outline on the images. And all that autogen? Those are individually placed houses and its associated foliage, sometimes lining a street, all matching with the ground images. This is the kind of labor of love that only someone in the community would want to do.

Art released version 1 of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area in October of 2005 without any big advertising or hoopla. I remember seeing it thinking that it would be interesting, but I also recalled some of my earlier experiences with satellite imagery in FS and how much I didn’t like flying low level with it. I came across a forum thread about four months ago that mentioned this scenery. Actually, the guy was griping about the software and someone commented on how different this guy’s tone had been on Art’s forum. So I went to Art’s forum to see for myself.

There had actually been a very nice conversation there about the placement of some building and Art was looking into it. I guess it wasn’t happening fast enough for this whiner, because Art posted an update, correcting it just a few weeks later. Art did have to go to the actual location, look at the building himself, then modify the scenery, test it, then program a patch, and finally have his beta team test it. There’s an old saying about pleasing everybody… it seems in this computer age, the internet and special interest forums have certainly brought the “I want it all and I want it now” crowd out to be the squeaking wheel.

Less than a year after the original release, Art is back updating his Phoenix Metropolitan Area to version 2. Basically doubling the coverage area. You now have the Phoenix valley from Gila Bend up to Lake Pleasant and spanning all the way East to Roosevelt Lake. There is a lot Art has also learned in making this updated version, including some special eye candy that I dare say few, if any, have tried before. This is not your run-of-the-mill satellite scenery and if you love the Phoenix valley like I do, read on.

Coverage as seen on MSFS map

Installation and Documentation

Test System

Athlon 64 4000
Asus A8N SLI Premium
2GB DDR3200
Windows XP Pro
ATI Radeon x800 256MB
21” Sony Trinitron @ 1600x1200x32
14” Compaq V410 @ 1028x768x32
Track IR4PRo
CH Products Yoke
CH Products Pro Pedals
CH Throttle Quadrant
Aerosoft ACP Compact

Flying Time:
29 hours

I got the DVD version of Phoenix v2.0 which was released just shortly after the downloadable version. Art wanted to be able to include custom nightlit textures for this scenery package and he discovered that to do this, MSFS also needs to have individual seasonal textures for it to work properly. He did make a full set (all five sets) of seasonal textures for the release but discovered that the download size was over 2 gig. Too big for pretty much anyone to download even with a fast connection.

The answer was to create the summer textures (is there really any other season in Phoenix?) and then create a program that, on installation, copies those textures into each of the other seasons so the night textures will work. You could think of them as early summer, summer, mild summer, moderate summer, and hard summer. If you order the DVD though, you get the full set of seasonal textures which do have some subtle differences in color and hue and of course the hard winter set shows the Phoenix basin all covered in snow… something that rarely happens and when it does, it lasts for a few minutes! I’m pretty sure I have a picture of the ASU campus covered in snow from 1978. If you are using real weather you probably will never even access the hard winter textures, so you have to set up a custom weather scenario just to see them.

In a hurry? Hope not… I placed the DVD into my computer and started the installation process. Remember the file size I mentioned above for the full seasonal textures? I vacuumed the house and mowed the lawn and my computer was still chugging away with the install. Two hours later it finally finished. I know the installation time for the downloaded version would be less but am not sure how long the process of making the additional seasonal sets would be if you were using that version. No mussin’ or fussin’ with scenery priorities, it’s all taken care of for you and if you’re worried about it interfering with Ultimate Terrain USA, don’t. I have that installed and this installed and placed it above so you can see it. If you do have Simflyers Phoenix, you do have to make sure it is above Art’s work on the scenery priority list.

Let’s Go Have a Look Around

Of course, I couldn’t wait to go flying. So after that two hour installation, I was really anxious to see it in action. I loaded up a flight to depart from Deer Valley airport, a place I know from real life. Anyone used to using satellite or photoreal imagery in MSFS knows that the loading time is greatly increased when starting a flight in one of these areas and Art’s scenery is no different. This texture loading time is not nearly as noticeable if flying in from an outside area unless you are coming at SR71 speeds, then you’ll get a whole bunch of blurries. I had been using William Ortis’ Deer Valley scenery which worked nicely with the default area. I found it doesn’t match up as well with the underlying satellite image though, so I reluctantly deactivated it. I took off and flew out to Lake Pleasant where my friends frequently tried to do me in by towing me behind a boat on an inner tube at 60+ mph! Did you know an inner tube will fly like a kite at that speed if you’re not in it? Falling off at that speed can and will strip you of your bathing suit and has knocked the wind out of me more than once… I don’t recommend it.

First flight out over the desert towards Lake Pleasant Lake Pleasant Marina

I turned around and started to fly back towards downtown Phoenix and noticed some air traffic and figured it might be one of Art’s special touches flying out of the Turf Soaring School, which is operated out of the Pleasant Valley Airpark. As I got closer, I was surprised to see a towplane with a glider… and it released the glider! That is one of Art’s little surprises and he explained later that it took quite a few hours to make that merged animation set work right.

Towplane with glider in tow Pleasant Valley Airpark Heading back towards the city

As I approached downtown Phoenix, I descended to get a full flavor of making a low circle around Phoenix Metro and noticed the “Simulating Art” hot air balloon hovering overhead. Art's downtown looks a little more like the real place with the addition of several of the real buildings, complete with their signs and even some with murals painted on them. The Bank One Ballpark looks like the stock building but watch the roof and you will notice that it opens and closes, another added touch from Art. The America West Arena is just west of the Ballpark, like it should be. I noticed that all kinds of stadiums and ballparks are in Art’s scenery, they're good landmarks for flying too.

Veterans Memorial Coliseum Gonna circle around downtown, yes that’s KPHX in the distance
Nice, clear imagery and accurate building locations Margaret Hance Deck Park lower right

The images used for the downtown area are very high resolution and show up very well. What will surprise you though, is moving vehicular traffic including buses and, if you dare to fly even lower, you’ll notice working traffic lights. Watch those traffic lights long enough and you will notice that the cars ignore what color they are, just like real Zoners! Several of Phoenix’s freeways are subterranean and those are correctly shown in Art’s package, complete with the overpasses and including the Margaret Hance deck park tunnel, complete with the Burton Barr Central Library extending slightly over it.

You can fly through the tunnel but don’t expect the insides to be textured… you’re not really supposed to do that! If you have ever lived in Phoenix or just driven there, you know the street system is comprised of numbered streets and avenues running North to South. All the streets are on the East side, and all the avenues are on the West side. Just learn the progression of named roads from Baseline to Union Hills and you know in a heartbeat where an address is and how long it will probably take to drive there. If Portland streets were only that simple.

Traffic on I-10/Az-51 Stadium roof open Stadium roof closed
A low pass through Patriots Square, notice the traffic and the stoplights
America West Arena A higher pass of downtown There’s Art’s balloon

I decided to take a flight up to Scottsdale airport and take a look at one of my old schools. The Thunderbird Adventist Academy is where I spent my Junior year of high school and also where I took my first flight lesson from. It was a boarding school run by the church and had a good percentage of what were called "village students". I was one of those, and lived walking distance to the South. Yes, it had a flight school that was operating when I was there.

Thunderbird Adventist Academy in foreground

The school borders the airport on the South side and was once an Air Force Base before the conference bought it. The school dropped the in-house flight training and sold their aircraft years ago when enrollment dropped, but they still have agreements with the flight schools operating at the Scottsdale airport. One unique feature that has been kept active is the aircraft crossing on East Redfield Road, I recall taxiing across that and seeing all the cars stopped waiting for us to pass, kinda neat.

The photoreal images of Art’s scenery depict all the buildings but the few autogen buildings on the grounds and water tower are wrong and the taxiways for Scottsdale airport don’t extend into the area that used to house the school’s aircraft. Maybe I could talk Art into adding these features to a future revision ;).

I landed and switched not only aircraft, but weather as well. This seemed like a good time to see those hard winter texture sets. I took off from Scottsdale airport and headed down toward downtown Phoenix through the little valley where the Paradise Valley Country Club is. There was snow falling all around the aircraft and the ground was covered in white, kind of alien for this place. Downtown, I noticed that the hi-res portions of Metro Phoenix did not show the snow, they retained the crisp images that look so good but do contrast with the surrounding hard winter set. One of these winter days I might see a real weather day that activates these texture sets, that would certainly be interesting.

Paradise Valley Country Club below Downtown Phoenix covered in snow Snow and no traffic… hmmm

Test System So How Does It Blend With Outside Textures?

After making a few flights down to Tucson, and noticing the edge of the enhanced scenery butting up against the surrounding FS textures, I thought to myself, "how do some of the other texture sets match up against this real life imagery"? I am fortunate to have not only the default textures FS shipped with, but also BEV, VOZ, GE and the new GE Pro all installed on my computer.

I saved a flight from which I departed Scottsdale Airport and headed direct for Tucson and then shot some external views showing this edge with each of the above named texture sets so you can compare for yourself. My apologies to Ruud Farber, since I don’t have FSScene on my system I can’t show how they match up against Phoenix v2. You will notice that VOZ, both SW and Central sets show the most contrast and although they do represent a dry desert type climate, they are far too red for this area of the US. They work so magically in the land down under but when you try to use those texture sets in other regions, you notice mismatches where some of MSFS’s region specific landclassing will place a texture that is not modified into those sets.

I might also mention that in all shots, the specific weather information was set using Active Sky v6. The cloud textures were default MSFS in the default ground texture set, the additions VOZ makes in their respective sets, Flight Environment with the Ground Environment sets (GE Pro does set sky textures) and lastly Active Sky’s own autoselection in the BEV set.

Steve Rapp did this really cool repaint of the Eaglesoft Liberty XL2 for me ;)

Default MSFS textures VOZ Central VOZ Southwest
Bird’s Eye View Ground Environment Ground Environment Pro

Night Textures and Did I Mention Fireworks?

I made quite a few flights at dusk and watched the transition into the night texture set. This is all a very smooth process thanks to Art making the night texture sets specifically for this scenery. The lighting is beautiful, with believable street lighting and certain buildings all lit up. One of the things that really looks neat, is flying out over the desert and then returning towards the city. I like seeing this in real life and Art’s scenery captures this quite well in the sim. Make those night flights on the 4th of July and you will be treated to a spectacular fireworks display, not only over downtown, but also over the Tempe Town Lake which is close to the Sun Devil Stadium.

The night lighting is really a treat, well done Art Fireworks over downtown
Closer look at fireworks Fireworks display at Tempe Town Lake, there’s the Sun Devil Stadium

Conclusion

I recently attended a conference in Phoenix. Yes, someone scheduled a conference there in July and it did hit a record 118° F for the day while I was there. I was actually loving it and taking walks outside on the breaks.

Descending in to the Valley of the Sun on our flight, as well as on our departure, I was paying close attention out the window to what I saw. It looked pretty much exactly how Art’s scenery looks in the sim. I don’t know how to sum it up any better than that.

Art has not only laid down photoreal images to create a true to life representation of the Phoenix valley, he has added that magic touch that only a local with a real appreciation for the area would give to make it stand out and have the ability to capture that real feel of flying in the Valley of the Sun.

 

What I Like About Simulating Art’s Phoenix v2.0
  • Nicely color matched photoreal images of the entire Phoenix valley
  • Carefully placed autogen makes flying down low look very realistic
  • Lots of accurately placed custom buildings brings downtown Phoenix to life
  • Freeways, including the subterranean ones, with overpasses and even some moving vehicles on them
  • Inclusion of the “Deck Tunnel” under downtown Phoenix (you can fly through it although it is not textured inside!)
  • Animated vehicles in downtown area with working stoplights (cars run red lights just like they do in real life, too!)
  • Roof on Bank One Ballpark now closes… and opens… and closes… and opens
  • Custom fireworks displays set for 4th of July in two locations
  • Full seasonal texture sets included on DVD
  • Neat animation of glider with towplane that releases over Pleasant Valley Airpark

 
What I Don't Like About Simulating Art’s Phoenix v2.0
  • I didn’t find anything to report negative about this software package

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Simulating Art’s Phoenix v2.0

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