In my last review, of “Small Airfields Switzerland: Parts 3 and 5,” I said that “Orbx sets the standard for GA fields rendered in extreme detail.” That wasn’t a swipe at the Switzerland products: as I went on to say, the Orbx products are more expensive (if you calculate on a per-airfield basis) and, on my hardware at least, have lower framerates. Again, that’s a distinction, not a swipe.
Most of the products I review are good for something; part of the reviewer’s job is to say what that something is. I like the Swiss products because of their frame rates, where they’re located (in Switzerland, but also in clusters), and how they blend into the surrounding landscape. They’re a good compromise.
In this review, I’m going to look at a different compromise, another way of balancing the same elements: one field in each package, lower frame rates, and loads more detail. My examples will be a pair of airfields, located just 15 miles from each other in the Skagit Valley of northern Washington.
These are Israel’s Farm (WA65) and Concrete Municipal Airport (3W5), both from Orbx and both intended to be used with the separately-purchased “Pacific Northwest” (PNW) scenery product, which was reviewed here in April and received an AVSIM Gold Star.
Installation and Documentation
The installation process went smoothly. I had to enter three pieces of information (which were all in the same email), and then (if the scenery didn’t run smoothly on my hardware) configure it with checkboxes; I’ll say more about this under “Performance.” There’s also a third program, “FTX Aero Tool,” which can be used to replace the default textures for taxiways and certain runways; it’s not hard to use, but you don’t need it to get started.
Documentation is attractively illustrated and formatted. It has a couple of maps, showing where the Orbx airfields for this region stand in relation to each other -- I wish all scenery products would include this -- and then a close-up of the coverage area. For Concrete Municipal, there’s also a map of where you can hear different sounds: at the airport, a dog barking, a truck pulling up, another truck revving up, a telephone ringing, and an aircraft flying overhead; and in the town of Concrete, birds, country music, a waterfall, cars parking and driving, and conversation.
The guides purposely don’t name everything in the scenery, partly because there are just too many objects, and partly because the user is meant to explore the product and discover things for himself. Personally I like a little more direction, but that’s a preference, not a criterion. For example, the user guide for Israel’s Farm mentions that there’s a second airstrip (also private, like Israel’s Farm) “also featured in the scenery,” but never gives its name. To be fair, the second field doesn’t even appear on the sectional chart, so maybe it doesn’t have a name. But no: the locals must call it something, surely?
Once you know it’s there, it’s very easy to find (easier, actually, than Israel’s Farm). But if you don’t know it exists, there’s a good chance you won’t see it; or rather, that you won’t mentally register it as a place to land. Once you do land, there’s no question, because there’s grass lining the runway. But would you land, unless the user guide had said something? It depends on what kind of simmer you are.
The other thing the user guides are good for is configuring the scenery and configuring FSX. I was lazy about this, because even with my usual settings, the scenery looked very good. But when I tried the suggested settings, it looked even better. Don’t be like me. The explanations are extremely clear, so take a couple of minutes and try what they recommend.
What You Will See
Orbx is an Australian company, so its products are priced in Australian dollars: $25 for Israel’s Farm and $31 for Concrete Municipal. Israel’s Farm is part of Orbx’s new “budget line,” and doesn’t include a whole town, the way Concrete does. But both products are built to the same specifications, with .60 m/pixel photographic ground textures for the surrounding area and higher-resolution textures for the airfield proper (.15 m/pixel for Israel’s Farm, and .30 m/pixel for Concrete).
What do these numbers mean? The default ground textures, which I think look pretty good, have a resolution of 1 m/pixel, so the Orbx textures are between 1.7 and 6.7 times more detailed. That’s noticeable. The Orbx textures are also based on photographs of the actual terrain, rather than generic representations of a terrain class. In my view, the generic textures look very good; but you’ve seen them before. Like the generic textures, and unlike most photoscenery, the Orbx textures change with the season. In winter, the only place that doesn’t seem to have snow on it is the Concrete football field.
Both products also come with high-resolution terrain mesh (which is what gives you mountains, valleys, and hills). Again, the default mesh for this part of the world is pretty good; but the Orbx mesh is even more precise, by a factor of seven. That sounds like a lot, but from the air I don’t register the difference. Where I do notice it is on the ground.
On the ground? A lot of the effort in these products has gone into making them viewable from ground level: not just on the airfield, where you taxi between parking ramp and runway, but in the adjoining town (for Concrete) and on the adjoining farm (for Israel’s). Here is a very partial list of the custom 3D objects that you will see in these two sceneries:
This, as I said, is a very incomplete list, compiled from my screenshots. Most of these objects are custom-built, usually from photographs of the real sign or building. Colors are rich and subtle, rather than flat and uniform. (In my view, this is one of the best things about Orbx products in general, the region packs as well as the airfields.) Texture resolutions vary, which helps framerates, but where it’s important for something to look sharp (e.g., signage or the mural map of Concrete), it does.
There are fewer objects in the Israel’s Farm scenery because, again, it doesn’t model a whole town (though it does model part of one). Being more rural, it focuses instead on the landscape, especially the water features. Also, whereas the town of Concrete lights up at night, Israel’s Farm is mostly dark except for a few buildings.
“Extreme detail” comes with a price, in dollars and (usually) frame rates. This is why both products come with configuration programs and guidance on which features you can turn off if you have trouble.
With Concrete Municipal, I left everything on, and stayed close to 20 frames per second (which is my target). There was some stuttering, as new objects came into view, but nothing too bad; more video RAM would probably help. Of course, you can always make things worse, with heavy clouds or by flying a more complicated model. Concrete pushes my system more than the Switzerland products I was reviewing last time, but not to the point where frame rates became an issue.
I can’t say the same for Israel’s Farm. This was surprising, since that was the “budget line” product. The solution was in the configuration program. I unchecked all of the items that were labeled “High-end PCs only” or “FPS hit on low-spec PCs.” This meant losing long grass over the entire field, floating logs in the river, and flying birds. But afterwards the scenery was flyable, and there were still lots to see.
I don’t know why flying birds made a difference, because I’ve seen them in lots of other scenery where I didn’t have problems. But I retested, with and without birds, and the birds made a crucial difference.
In retrospect, maybe I could have predicted this by comparing the two products’ file sizes: Israel’s Farm is less expensive, and doesn’t have nearly as many 3D objects, but it’s actually the larger of the two downloads. Where does the extra size come from?
I’m guessing it’s the photographic ground textures, which are more detailed for Israel’s Farm, and the river, which has a rather complicated water mask, due to all of the sandbars in this part of the valley.
I like Concrete better than Israel’s Farm, because there’s more to see and it runs smoother on my hardware. It’s a great jumping-off point for exploring the Cascade Mountains, with fast access to Baker Lake and Baker Mountain; and if you have the Darrington scenery, it’s only twenty miles to the next Orbx-enhanced airport. If I could add one thing, it would be more points of interest around Baker Lake.
That’s not to say there’s something wrong with Israel’s Farm, or that it’s less well-crafted. In all of the Orbx products that I’ve owned -- including three of the Australia region packs and two of the Australia airfield sceneries -- the level of detail and polish has been quite high. I was going to say “uniformly high,” but it keeps getting higher, to the point where one has to ask, “Is this Flight Simulator that we’re running, or World Viewer?”
For a long time, Flight Simulator has been good enough that you can use it to see the world from the air; but there were software limits on how much detail you could see on the ground. With Flight Simulator X, there are still hardware limits, but the software limits are close to negligible. If your system can stand it, you can have almost as much detail as you want. The question has been, what would you want it for? Orbx has an answer: so that you can see a town from the sky, land, and then drive (or walk) through its streets.
Is this even desirable in a flight simulator? Except for the airport, it has nothing to do with aviation, and more to do with art. Today, we think of art as creation or expression. But if you take the long view of history, that is a recent idea.
Until about two hundred years ago, art was conceived of, not as creation but as representation. According to Aristotle, “the instinct of imitation is planted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons.” If that sounds abstract, let me give an example.
Last month, I attended a wedding in San Francisco. The bride’s condo had several paintings of the Golden Gate Bridge, even though, if she had wanted to, she could have taken a short drive and seen the real bridge almost any day of the week. Evidently, there is something in us that wants to see the real bridge and the painting of the bridge. This is why boys and old men still make model railroads.
The model is a substitute for the real thing -- we can’t all be engineers and conductors, any more than we can all be pilots -- but we also like models for their own sake: planes, airports, little towns in Washington state, it seems to make little difference. Human beings like art, because they like representation, and the Orbx sceneries are art.
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