The original Tongass Fjords came out a couple months before FSX. It was the third major payware scenery by Holger Sandmann (after Misty Fjords and Vancouver+) and his first full-scale collaboration with Bill Womack, who did the airfields and settlements. The product received several awards, including the AVSIM Gold Star, and in my mind still represents the high-water mark of scenery development for FS2004. But it didn’t work in the new sim, and eventually I stopped visiting.
After almost three years, Tongass is back and flyable in FSX. What took so long? The story can be found elsewhere, in the product’s support forum. It turns out that adapting scenery for FSX was harder -- and more interesting -- than anyone would have predicted. What started as a conversion turned into something much larger. I don’t mean that metaphorically: the original download was 173 megabytes and the new download is 1.1 gigabytes, an increase of more than 500 percent. Get ready for some new content.
I reviewed the first Tongass in September 2006. Where appropriate, I will quote from my original review, to explain concepts and make observations about the effect of the scenery that I think are still valid. The bulk of this review will be divided into two parts: natural terrain and man-made settlements; this roughly corresponds with the division of labor in the project, between terrain-maker Holger Sandmann and airstrip/settlement-maker Bill Womack.
Installation and Documentation
Installation was easy and automated. There is a configuration program, but the defaults worked fine on my system; and when I went back, a month later, to look at the configurator, I didn’t see anything that needed to be changed. That being said, you can adjust a number of variables, including the types and models of AI traffic, ambient sounds, marine navigational lights, custom water textures, and seasonal ice. (In the original Tongass, there was an option to ice the inland water, but you had to activate it manually; now ice is applied automatically, based on the season.)
The PDF documentation is 56 pages long, in English, and well-illustrated. What I wrote in 2006 still applies: “So far as I can tell, most scenery manuals are written at the last minute. This one clearly wasn’t. It is by far the most comprehensive manual I have seen yet for a Flight Simulator scenery. Since you can download it from the Tongass Fjords website -- without purchasing the product -- I won't describe it in detail, except to say that I wish all scenery developers would study it and vow to do likewise. There are detailed descriptions of how things work, what to look for, and what the various files do (in case someone needs to tinker).” Now that I have been around for a few years, I can see that manuals like this are characteristic of products from François Dumas, the manual’s author and Tongass’s publisher.
If you’ve read some of my other scenery reviews, you’ll know that I like to have a map -- and that most products don’t come with a usable one. This is an exception. Tongass comes with excellent maps, based on VFR sectionals (Juneau and Ketchikan) published by the U.S. government -- and therefore not subject, as most European charts are, to copyright.
Unlike the paper sectionals, the Tongass maps load in your web browser. This is a feature from the previous version that has been carried over to the new: “Click on an airport and your web browser will retrieve the current information, including weather and radio frequencies, for that airport. Click on a forestry cabin and you will get information on that, as well.” The underlying image files can also be calibrated for a moving map program, such as FSMap.
Natural Terrain (Holger Sandmann)
Most visitors come to Alaska for the natural scenery (though they might come back because they like its people). Holger Sandmann, who is still responsible for the project as a whole, has a degree in geography from Philipps University in Marburg, Germany; and today he conducts government research on forest management. Living and hiking in British Columbia, he combines first-hand knowledge of the coastal terrain with expertise in computer databases: specifically, the geomapping databases that have been compiled over the last several decades, mostly by national governments. In other words, Sandmann has both a practical and a theoretical understanding of land forms and land coverage. What makes the practical knowledge scalable -- the coverage area for this product is about thirty-thousand square miles, which is more than anyone can survey on foot -- are his theoretical knowledge and his skill at translating numerical data into visual form.
For large parts of the world, third-party terrain mesh is less important than it used to be. FSX already has good mesh (38m) for the United States and pretty good mesh for Canada (76m). Tongass brings everything up to 38m standard for the coverage area (which extends into British Columbia) and fixes some anomalies. In general, though, flyers of the default scenery won’t notice a huge difference in this regard.
What they will notice right away are (a) richer landclass and (b) more detailed shorelines. Here’s how I explained the former in my original review:
“Landclass is what tells the sim rendering engine where to put a city and where to put a forest, where to put a glacier and where to put a regular valley, where to put autogen suburbs and where to put autogen high-rise buildings.
“What the forests and town actually look like is dependent on ground textures, and Tongass Fjords bypasses the standard ones in favor of custom ground textures based on designs by Ruud Faber, the developer of FScene. The use of custom textures has two consequences. First, because the ground textures for Tongass Fjords aren’t used anywhere else in the sim, they don’t interfere with ground texture replacement products such as BEV, Ground Environment, or FScene. Second, and for the same reason, the designer is free to create landclass types that don’t normally exist in the sim: specifically, muskegs, gravel bars, and logging areas. (What’s a muskeg? I didn’t know either until I looked it up. It’s a kind of bog that you find in northern latitudes.)”
All of this is still true, except that (a) Ruud Faber seems no longer to be involved and (b) ground textures in FSX are much, much more detailed than in FS2004.
What I wrote about water features is still valid as well:
“To my knowledge, there is no real place called Tongass Fjords. There is a Tongass National Forest, though, and it is riddled with fjords, lakes, and rivers. These different water types are carefully distinguished in the waterclass. Glacial lakes are turquoise, rivers are brown (because of silt). Even more striking, to my eye, is the way the shorelines have been carved out. In the default scenery, shorelines are crude and angular. Most rivers are just brown crayon-scrawls. Thanks to add-on products such as Ultimate Terrain, this is getting better. Once you get used to sinuous rivers and naturally curving coastlines, it’s very distracting to fly in areas that haven’t been enhanced in this way -- they seem so primitive.”
Looking back, that word primitive seems out of place, as a description of natural terrain features. But I’ve reviewed a lot of products since the original Tongass, and its water features are still the best I can remember seeing. With more detail (a data analyst would say “more granularity”) everything looks more organic.
What’s new here? First, everything is done at a higher resolution; this is true of FSX scenery in general, and it starts to account for the higher download size. Second, rivers that go down a steep incline have been whitened to simulate rapids; it’s a subtle effect, and one that’s consistent with the trend of the whole product. Third -- and this effect is more noticeable -- photographic ground textures have been used to enhance selected areas, especially around human settlements. These textures are seasonal, and they also affect water, giving water at the shoreline more gradations in color and tone than would otherwise be possible. Finally, the coverage area has shifted somewhat in western Canada, growing in some places, shrinking in a few, for a net gain of about three-thousand square miles.
One thing that I complained about in the original Tongass was the custom ice texture used for frozen rivers and lakes. It’s a good idea: the ice can be landed on and, with the new version, it freezes automatically. But the texture used is too regular and still looks (in my view) artificial.
On the other hand, glaciers now look more natural. There are also more of them (the manual says “more than 250”).
We need to say more about Sandmann’s work, but at this point, our distinction between natural and artificial scenery is going to break down, because Sandmann is also responsible for the product’s road system. This includes moving traffic as well as logging trails. Finally, there is traffic. Sandmann was an innovator in this area (although the modeling of boats and planes was done by other authors). Air traffic we have seen before, though most other sceneries do not have flying helicopters (another technique that Sandmann pioneered).
Another characteristic of Sandmann’s sceneries is boat traffic. Coordinated with marine signal lights (another stand-out feature of the original Misty and Tongass sceneries), the combination of air and water traffic is responsible for a lot of the product’s magic. I emphasized this in my original review as well: “Without moving objects, a well made scenery can feel lived in. But to feel alive, there has to be motion: sailing boats sailing, cruise ships cruising, airplanes taking off, kayakers paddling, birds circling.”
With FSX, the kayakers are gone. Sigh. Circling birds, which were a big deal in the original Tongass, are now available as part of the default scenery library -- although few scenery designers take as much advantage of them as one might expect. Default FSX also has lots of leisure boats circling its waterways. The difference with Tongass is that (a) the boat models in Tongass are generally bigger and more interesting; and (b) the boats in Tongass run on a real-world schedule, whereas (on inland waters at least) the default boats just wander.
I was a little surprised to see that boats in Tongass still function as AI aircraft. It probably doesn’t matter, unless you happen to use FSDiscover!, in which case you will see blue labels for lots of otherwise-invisible airports; these exist as terminus points for the various shipping lines. In FSX, AI boats are handled differently from AI aircraft, and they don’t need virtual airports to define their routes. This is the one area in which the product seems not to have caught up with what’s possible in FSX --and it’s an area that most users will never notice.
Manmade Settlements (Bill Womack)
Bill Womack’s last name is pronounced wah-muck, not woe-mac, according to podcast interview #26 at FSBreak.net. Tongass for FS2004 wasn’t his first commercial project, but it did get people’s attention. Since then, Womack has produced a couple of well-regarded solo projects, Dillingham airfield (for Aerosoft) and Plum Island airfield (for Tongass’s publisher FSAddon). Now, with the new version of Tongass, Womack’s role has expanded.
There are 4 new airfields, bringing the total up to 13, and 11 new forestry cabins, up from 20 in the original. Bring some pontoons, though, because most of the cabins are only accessible on floats. So are most of the product’s 44 seaplane docks, which outnumber the region’s landing fields (listed and unlisted) by a factor of almost 3. There are also 11 helipads (including the emergency Coast Guard pads at Five Finger lighthouse and Cape Decision lighthouse).
What are the airfields and seaplane bases like? The larger fields -- especially Sitka and Petersburg -- have more detail and more objects (some custom, some generic). Runway and taxi textures are often photorealistic; and some fields have inclined runways. Many, if not all, of the fields and docks have birds -- which you will hear, as well as see. Where there is water, you will hear water; and where there are equipment sheds, you will hear machinery.
Compared with the bush strips in Raw Grit: PNG Bush Pilot (which I reviewed this spring), the fields in Tongass Fjords don’t have a lot of objects; and Raw Grit does more with animated sea life. What I like about Womack’s scenery, and what I imagine that his fellow developers admire, is the rich, subtle coloring of otherwise prosaic objects: a dock, a post, a wooden building, a metal roof, a weathered sign.
Looking back at my earlier review, I see that this was true of the original product as well: “Everything looks clean. I don’t mean that it’s sterile -- there is dirt where regular use would make things dirty, and organic material growing up around the fences -- but the joints and placement are all craftsmanlike. Womack evidently took his time making these, and the result is we accept them at face value. When, for example, you approach an Alaskan Airlines luggage truck, you don’t think, ‘Oh, there’s a GMAX model of a luggage truck.’ You think, ‘Oh, there’s a luggage truck.’
In the original Tongass, Womack had two showpieces: the harbor towns of Sitka and Petersburg. Here’s what I wrote about Sitka: “It’s not big, but it’s very densely populated with custom 3D objects: sailboats in the marinas, docks of several sorts, marine signals, breakwaters, a low bridge (which is not too low to fly a helicopter under), and various town buildings (which I’m sure a native would recognize, but which this observer can only enjoy as objets d’art). Again, the adjective that I would like to use for all of this detail is “cleanly.” Everything is well executed and, despite the number of objects (and there are quite a few), there is always a sense of proportion or, better, harmony in their placement and disposition.”
In the new version, Sitka and Petersburg are both here, with more nuances. But what owners of the original Tongass are going to notice right away is that, instead of 2 settlements and harbors with detailed scenery, now there are 17. These include all of the larger airfields -- Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, Kake, and Klawock -- and several of the seaplane bases as well.
Each one is based on a photographic ground textures, which makes them stand out a little from the surrounding scenery, but (again) in a subtle way that’s satisfying rather than flashy. There’s a lot to see here: school buses, warehouses, docks of various sizes and shapes, locally-registered airplanes, shipping vessels, fishing boats, cruise ships, and other boats that I don’t have names for. At several points, I switched from airplane to speedboat and explored the scenery from water-level.
I still haven’t seen everything. (Though I did notice, on one recent visit, a complete logging camp that I don’t think was in the previous version.) This product covers a very wide area, and its two main developers, Holger Sandmann and Bill Womack, have been building it up, detail by detail, for at least five years. So what’s it going to cost, in terms of frame rates?
Hardware aside, there is one big variable and that is weather. Some days are clear, and some days you can’t see anything. In-between, there are days with big cumulus clouds that cut your frame rates in half (and look great in screenshots). For the purposes of this review, I am going to ignore the effect of weather, because (while it’s a big part of the total experience) it’s not part of the scenery.
At Sitka, I get noticeably lower frame rates. “Lower” does not mean “low,” and “noticeably” does not mean “extremely.” It means I notice when the frame rates go down, which they do. This was true of the original Tongass as well. If you want to, you can adjust the level of detail with the scenery slider and get higher frame rates; I didn’t find that necessary, but the option is there if you want it. Outside of Sitka, I didn’t notice any slowdowns. Petersburg felt smoother than I remember from the first version.
I did have a couple of crash-to-desktop experiences, and one Blue Screen of Death. Those aren’t normal for me, and I’m still not sure how to account for them. I’m not ready to say, “It’s the product’s fault,” but it happened enough that I spent a couple of hours watching the memory meter and installing new video drivers (which, in turn, seemed less stable than the ones I had before).
Theoretically, there’s nothing in Sandmann’s landscaping techniques that would slow down a machine that’s beefy enough to run the default scenery. That’s one of the things I like about this product in general: it looks great and it’s smooth. What I think has the potential to create problems -- and, in extreme cases, program or even system crashes -- is autogen. Sandmann’s real-world profession is forest management and Tongass is a forest. There are a lot of trees in this scenery, and if you don’t limit them -- the manual explains how -- it can crash the program.
That’s my current theory, anyway. Two things seem to help. One is a 64-bit version of Windows, because it can access more RAM; I’ll try that when Windows 7 comes out later this year. Meanwhile, what works for me is to fly something that places low demand on system resources.
So, not the Aerosoft F-16 (even though it comes with an Alaska livery). I’ve had lots of great flights with the Aerosoft Beaver -- which, of course, is better for STOL and water operations anyway. (Thank you to Chris Brisland, who made the Coast Guard livery pictured here.) I’ve also had good results with the Acceleration EH101 helicopter and the Aerosoft Seahawk -- except in heavy weather, which dragged frame rates down for the Seahawk.
Even with the Beaver, however, there were some places -- even away from towns -- where I still got stutters. When I dialed back the autogen a notch, the stutters went away; again, autogen seems to be a critical factor: specifically, autogen trees. I noticed the same thing flying with Orbx in Australia -- so the stutters, at least, aren’t a scenery problem. They’re a slider problem, and that can be fixed.
Tongass Fjords X sells for US$39 online, US$45 on DVD. It has been a long time -- maybe since the first Tongass -- that I have reviewed a scenery product where everything was this polished: terrain, harbors, traffic, even charts. Two that come close are the Orbx sceneries for different regions of Australia, and Switzerland Professional photoscenery, which covers about the same number of square miles as Tongass but costs 130 Euros.
What makes Tongass stand out, even among these products, is its comprehensiveness: terrain plus traffic (air and water) plus airfields plus settlements. It’s normal, with scenery on this scale, for one aspect of the product to lead the others. But with Tongass, the quality of each element is uniformly high. Manual, muskegs, traffic, terrain, harbors, airfields: nothing seems rushed, experimental, or half-baked. There’s no hiding behind terms like “beta” or “preview.”
Will we see even better scenery in the future? I expect we will, maybe starting with the X version of Misty, or the first Orbx product for North America -- both of which projects are headed by Holger Sandmann. For now, though, products like Tongass are the best examples of what can be done, in 2009, with the latest -- maybe the last -- version of Microsoft Flight Simulator.
What I Like About Tongass Fjords X
What I Don't Like About Tongass Fjords X
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