Blinded by the light
When I look out of my window to the southeast at night, I can invariably spot the navigation lights of aircraft, blazing away above the hills of Derbyshire as they head toward their initial approach fix for Manchester Airport. And if by chance those aircraft point directly at me when turning for the localizer, their lights appear unbelievably bright, even from miles away.
Descending through the cumulous clouds at 2,500 feet with the landing gear coming down, swirling beams of incandescence stab at the darkness as they pass over my hometown. It’s quite a sight, but unfortunately, it’s not a sight that is portrayed particularly well in FSX.
The developers at Shockwave Productions thought this needed to change, so they decided to do something about it. And here it is - 3D Lights.
Shedding some light on the package…
The 3D Lights effect was first seen on Shockwave’s Wings of Power 2 Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress commercial add-on, released earlier in 2007.
In its standalone incarnation however, 3D Lights is achieved by means of an additional custom FX file installed in the FSX effects folder. This file can subsequently be assigned to any FSX aircraft by designating where on an aircraft you want the lights to appear, courtesy of editing that aircraft’s configuration file.
Tempted to go over to the dark side?
Now I daresay Shockwave may not thank me for pointing something out here (but I’m going to do so anyway), with good reason. If you purchase their FSX B-17G, a 3D Lights effect is installed as a very similar FX file along with it, so with a bit of messing around it is possible to use the B-17’s lighting effect on other FSX aircraft, without actually buying the 3D Lights package itself.
So why should we buy this effect on its own if we can get it with an excellent FSX B-17G thrown in, you may ask?
Shady dealings with light entertainment…
A few people have done exactly this. ‘Hacking’ of the B-17G’s effect to put it on other aircraft, even mentioning doing so on Shockwave’s forums, but it’s a fair bet that in doing this, they were contravening Shockwave’s End User License Agreement (EULA) agreement for the Fortress.
Of course some ‘modders’ might say that since you’d have to buy a Shockwave product to do this anyway, the effect is fair game. But as 3D Lights only costs a fiver (or $9.99 if you prefer that in US Dollars) it’s hardly going to break the bank to get this effect legitimately. And doing so means that you will not be robbing its creators of the reward for their efforts, and they’ll keep on coming up with ideas for products like this one. That’s something to think about if you like to encourage new developments in flight simulation.
Right, I’ve climbed off my anti-piracy soapbox now, back to the review…
If there was an award for the smallest dramatic add-on for FS ever, I suspect 3D Lights would be in with a shout at winning such a prize. At just 833Kb in size, even if you’ve got an antique dial-up modem, this file will download onto your hard drive in a matter of seconds.
Upon purchasing 3D lights, what you get unzips into a .exe installation file that is double-clicked to install the effect onto all your default FSX aircraft. An unlock code, given to you at the time of purchase, is required to complete this process.
Installation takes a minute or so and before applying the effect to all your default aircraft, 3D Lights backs up the original configuration files for you and places them into a Shockwave Lights folder within the main FSX installation. This makes reverting to the FSX original lighting very easy to do, and is a nice touch since you may feel Xenon spotlights look out of place on the wings of circa 1940’s default DC-3s, for example.
There is no documentation for 3D Lights, as it does everything autonomously to install the effect on the default aircraft when you double click on the .exe file. Nevertheless, if you want to use the effect on any other aircraft in your FSX folder, you’ll need to get comfortable with editing aircraft configuration files manually, as the practical installation process differs depending on aircraft type, and requires you to do it yourself.
So you might find this tricky if you are unfamiliar with editing configuration files for FSX aircraft, which is why Shockwave should have thought to at least include a tutorial file, explaining how to go about it. Especially since one of the main selling points of 3D Lights (mentioned prominently on Shockwave’s web page for the product) is that the effect can be easily added to other aircraft.
Now, granted it is not a particularly complicated process to alter an FSX aircraft configuration file (if you are familiar with doing so) but to simply assume that people will know how to do this is, to say the least, is a bit thoughtless and definitely needs to be rectified.
Come on guys, you can do better than this!
We certainly can…
But fear not, in the grand tradition of good old helpful AVSIM, I have put together a short tutorial on how to manually alter configuration files to get 3D Lights on all your other aircraft in FSX. So if you decide that 3D Lights is for you, please feel free to download it.
Hopefully, Shockwave will send me a free chocolate cake or something for doing this! But before you look at that tutorial, you need to decide whether you're actually going to purchase 3D Lights, so on with the review…
Let there be light
Okay, let’s take a look at the 3D Lights effect in some detail and see exactly what it does and, more importantly, see if it works as advertised.
Right off the bat, I should say that for such a small add-on, it has a massive impact on how things look on your aircraft in FSX, and it seems to be able to do all this without impacting on frame rates. Flicking the landing light switch on, brightens things up big time with this add-on installed. I think it is doubtful that anyone would have any other reaction than to be hugely impressed upon first seeing what a difference 3D Lights makes to the appearance of FSX.
A gremlin on your wing…
When viewed head on, it’s difficult to imagine anyone not preferring 3D Lights over the default FSX landing lights, which look like a economy 60 watt bulbs in comparison to these retina-burners from Shockwave. Likewise, from most other angles the effect is an improvement on matters previous, but there are one or two circumstances in which the 3D Lights can struggle a bit.
When viewed from the side on a zoomed-in tower view, the 3D Lights effect can throw up some anomalies, sometimes appearing patchy. It is only fair to point out that this dodgy appearance takes a bit of doing to find, generally speaking, it only shows up when you’ve zoomed-in really close from the tower view. In normal circumstances nobody would really do this, as there is a perfectly adequate fixed spot view for that purpose. Still, it can happen, so here are a couple of screenshots which show it:
Blowing a fuse
Once in a while, the lighting effect seems to behave somewhat intermittently, and I found the need to flick the lights off, then back on again, to get them to kick in properly on one or two occasions. It is however, understandable to some degree because the effect has to work within the confines of what the FSX engine is capable of reproducing. Nevertheless, while 3D Lights works well almost all of the time, you should be aware that this effect is not absolutely perfect in every degree.
Realistic and innovative…
Okay, 3D Lights looks good most of the time, and I’ve pointed out some of the glitches that can happen too. So now let’s check out some more of the good stuff, which as I’ve pointed out, is in fact the normal state of affairs unless you're a reviewer who is deliberately trying to break something!
I daresay many of us will have been onboard a late-night commercial aircraft flight at some point, and heard an announcement that the cabin lights are going to be dimmed on the landing approach. In real life, this is done to reduce the risk of the aircraft’s cabin light pollution spilling onto clouds, bouncing back, and affecting the crew’s level of visibility when they are looking at the PAPI lights alongside the runway for a visual approach.
You’ll find that 3D Lights can simulate this effect too, and where the lights are positioned on your particular aircraft has a bearing on the fidelity of the effect (more on this later). This is, in fact, also one of the reasons why most aircraft these days tend to put the landing lights on the gear, or in some other convenient location below the fuselage.
It should be noted that the cloud illumination effect in FSX occurs not because 3D Lights is actually illuminating the clouds, but rather because a halo effect appears in your cockpit viewpoint, altering the lighting levels from that viewpoint, which can mess with your night vision a bit.
Frankly, in practice I don’t care how it is achieved, it’s just cool that it can do this. But you should know that it does occasionally make distant terrain look somewhat brighter than it would really appear, given certain circumstances. Even so, there is no doubt that 3D Lights are more than just an eye-candy gimmick, as (display limitations aside) they genuinely introduce another element of realism into flight simulation with this effect.
A practical side benefit of 3D Lights…
Apart from when using helicopters in FSX, I would imagine it’s fair to say that most Flight Simulator users do not generally bother with the fact that you can rotate the landing lights on your aircraft downwards and swivel them to the sides. However, the ground illumination effect which 3D Lights confers upon your FSX chopper might force you to consider changing your ways in this regard, and perhaps assign these controls to some more convenient keys for exactly this purpose.
As the above Jet Ranger cockpit screenshot shows, having 3D Lights on your chopper does create the effect of illuminating the ground more than is the case with the default lighting, even if it is somewhat by accident. Accidental or not, there is no denying that it does make flying the chopper at night a more practical proposition.
If you were to attempt a search and rescue mission in FSX at night, it would be infinitely easier to locate something on the ground with those 3D halogen’s apparently blazing away at the terrain.
However there is one last fly in the ointment with this otherwise rosy state of affairs. Switching to an external view and swiveling the Bell Jet Ranger’s landing light up and down reveals that the 3D Light beam effect on the exterior model is static. When your landing light is trained below the chopper, this can look a little odd as the beam still projects forwards, which the screenshot below, clearly illustrates:
Lighten up, will you…
When I’d got over my initial disappointment with the fact that the 3D Lights effect doesn’t move on the external view upon swiveling the landing lights, I had to admit that I was still pretty pleased with the practical upshot of it, making the helicopters in FSX more usable. After all, using helicopters at night is challenging and fun, and is certainly something that happens in the real world. I know this from frequent low level visits by ‘India 99’ (Greater Manchester Police’s Aerospatiale Twin Squirrel) over my house, as the crews train around the nearby fields with their Nitesun searchlight.
In fact, as I was writing this review, that very helicopter went past my window with its searchlight on, which is very bright indeed! Being able to do the same thing in FSX, courtesy of 3D Lights, is enough to make me forgive the few issues it has in terms of not being absolutely rivet-countingly realistic.
So is it all sweetness and light?
And now it is time for me to sum everything up, and help determine whether the pro's outweigh the con's for us all where 3D Lights is concerned.
On the upside of things about 3D Lights, there is plenty to consider. If you are comfortable with tweaking configuration files, then it’s an effect that can easily improve the look of pretty much any aircraft you can put into FSX. So the price of 3D Lights spread across a vast collection of aircraft, means that it is probably the cheapest and most versatile add-on you’re ever going to find. Especially since it doesn’t seem to have any major detrimental consequence for frame rates as far as I can determine.
Another plus, is the effect does expand your options with regard to the kind of flying you can do. If you like piloting the heavies in FSX, where sweating out a tricky approach to a runway through bad weather is your idea of fun, you’re almost certainly going to like the atmospheric fashion in which 3D Lights cuts its way through those clouds and swirling raindrops.
And if you’re into low level night missions with helicopters, or landing on the rooftops of skyscrapers, 3D Lights offers really practical benefits to that kind of flying too. Likewise, bush flying in tricky terrain at night with small prop aircraft is made more of a practical proposition with this effect lighting your way.
Screenshot artists will find this one hard to resist too, as there is no denying it looks more realistic than the default FSX lights most of the time. And as you can probably tell from the screenshots in this review, 3D Lights has definitely got lots of potential for some really nice pictures.
On the downside, it doesn’t always work great from every viewpoint, and it does occasionally glitch. Also, some people have expressed the opinion that the light is too visible when viewed from behind the aircraft, and I must say I do tend to agree on that score. Although on balance, sometimes this effect does look good.
If you aren’t happy manually altering aircraft configuration files, then you are going to have to get over that, especially if you want this effect on your other aircraft. Hopefully, the tutorial I have created might improve your confidence in this matter. Ordinarily, I’d not do something like that but I personally think it would be a shame if people passed on 3D lights, simply because the documentation is lacking.
Another – admittedly very rare - minus point to be aware of, is that because of the way the 3D Lights effect works, it isn’t always going to look good on all aircraft. The two screenshots below of the commercially available Flight 1 ATR-72 will illustrate this.
And the exhaustive…
You should take into account the fact that it is my job as a reviewer to root out any possible difficulties or problems software might have. Just because I have found some in 3D Lights, it does not mean it is littered with faults, because finding them did require quite a bit of searching!
I had to work hard to find an aircraft (the ATR) which didn’t favor the 3D Lights effect. And the long range zooming of the tower view, which revealed the emitter problem, is a somewhat obscure way to view your aircraft when there is a perfectly fine spot view for that purpose which has no such problems.
I’ve solved the lack of tutorial documentation for you too, at the lighlighted link, so that shouldn’t affect your decision either!
On balance, I’d have to say 3D Lights is a winner. It’s true that the effect it offers is not perfect in some circumstances, but most of the time it comes very close to that ideal. And in terms of innovative and a different add-on for Flight Simulator, it’s well deserving of praise, especially for the price. So yes, I’d recommend it.
Just make sure you put a little tutorial in with the package ASAP, yes, I’m talking to you, Shockwave!
Test system for this review
3D Lights was tested on a Pentium 4 equipped PC with 2Gb of RAM, running Windows XP, and on a Laptop with a dual core processor and 2Gb of RAM running Windows Vista 32 bit and standard built-in graphics card. FSX had the most recent patch available applied.
Overall test time
the 3D Lights effect for a very long time, since I already had the
Shockwave B-17G with its similar effect already implemented (yes, reviewers
do actually buy stuff too). The 3D Lights package itself was tested for
What I Like About 3D Lights
What I Don't Like About 3D Lights
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