Ultimate Terrain Europe (UTE) is the third product in Allen Kriesman’s Ultimate Terrain (UT) series and the last one for FS9. For a clear explanation of what UT does and how it works with other scenery products, I recommend that you start with Steve Chappell’s AVSIM review of Ultimate Terrain USA + FS Genesis + BirdsEyeView.
For ground textures I am using Ground Environment Pro instead of BirdsEyeView, but the principles are the same. For example, even though UT has terrain in the title, it doesn’t actually provide terrain mesh. (For that, I use the 76m Europe mesh by FS Genesis.) Instead, UT goes to work on landscape features that are formed by lines. This includes dirt roads, urban streets, highways of every kind, railroads, streams, rivers, coastlines, lakeshores, and also the borders around certain types of real estate: namely, beaches, commercial building zones, industrial harbors, golf courses, and parks. At night, major roads are also lined with glowing street lamps.
Installation and Documentation
UTE is available in two forms, as a 1.5 gigabyte download and on DVD-ROM. I tested the DVD version, which includes all the patches up to version 1.1 and also comes with a printed version of the 23-page configuration handbook. On my system (which has a lot of scenery add-ons), installation went smoothly using the default settings.
Once it’s unpacked (and it does take awhile, especially on older hardware), UTE will take up about 1.5 gigabytes on your hard drive (plus the original download, if you keep that on your computer). It’s probably a good idea to defragment your hard disk when it’s done.
Before you fly, though, there’s one more step: you need to select which features of UTE you want activated. The configuration program is flexible but also easy to use, and you can revisit your choices at any time.
How Good Is It?
I’ll evaluate each of the major features separately.
For night lighting, UT has no competition. There are other road products (including UT’s predecessor, USA Roads) which conveyed the effect of street lighting by “painting” a light-colored blotch over the road texture. This works fine when seen from very high altitudes, but from the altitudes normally used for VFR, the lighting looks flat -- which makes sense, because it is flat. With UT, street lights are actual sources of light (similar to the beacon light on one of your aircraft) that hover over the ground at the height of a lamppost.
Seen from the air, the effect is quite realistic. On some aircraft (including my all-time favorite GA flyer, the RealAir Marchetti SF.260) there is some interference from the prop blur effect in the virtual cockpit. But I have been living with this for more than a year now (since I purchased UT USA), and consider it a minor distraction. Another drawback of night lighting is that it reduces somewhat the number of autogen buildings displayed along the route of the street lamps; I confess this has never bothered me.
UT products include their own land- and water-class, which is superior to the one that ships with the sim. What’s a landclass? Landclass is short for “land classification” and tells the sim whether a given square of land is urban or rural, mountain or field, marshland or desert.
The default landclass is somewhat crude and leaves out thousands of small towns and villages around the world. The make-up of cities that it does reproduce is also very generic, and is based on the notion of a typical city has a high-density core at the center and suburbs around the edge. UT cities are more nuanced. If a city’s downtown is on the edge instead of the center, UT will show that. Where the real city has a park or golf course, UT will show a park or golf course. Moreover, it displays the park in the shape of the real park, even if that’s an irregular polygon. (This is different from the default sim, where all golf courses and parks are rectangular with rounded corners.)
Are there better, more accurate landclasses than UT? For the whole coverage area, no. For parts of Europe, yes. It takes a little work to set up, but if you have specialized landclass files that you want to take precedence over the UT landclass, it’s possible to use them and still retain most of the UT features for those areas; this requires the construction of a “sandwich” and is explained on the UT support forum.
For roads and railways, UT is the gold standard. I don’t know of any road scenery, for any region of the world, that rivals or even equals UT for accuracy or precision. First, all of Europe’s roads are here (if you want to see them; I’ll say more about why you might not want to under “Performance”), from dirt roads to the Autobahnen. Second, all of the parts of a road are visible, including highway onramps and cloverleaves. When railroad tracks cluster at a station, you will see each of the separate tracks (even if there is no station building in the FS9 scenery; UT doesn’t provide any 3D objects other than those floating street lamps I mentioned a moment ago). Third, the different road types are readily distinguishable from each other. This is because Kriesman uses a custom set of road textures; to my knowledge, no other road product does this, though I wish they would follow Kriesman’s lead. Fourth, major roads can be flattened in mountainous terrain, so that the road surface seems to be carved out of the mountain instead of painted onto its sloping side. Fifth, UT roads follow more nuanced paths than their default counterparts and track other features of the landscape perfectly. For example, if a road follows a river, the UT road will follow the UT river.
River crossings are a different matter. In the original UT products, UT Alaska/Canada and UT USA, roads that crossed bodies of water in the real world appeared in the sim as flat concrete bridges. This looked particularly bad when the default sim had a 3D version of the real bridge: if the 3D bridge was accurately placed (a big assumption), the “road bridge” looked like a gray shadow under it. If the placement was off (and it frequently was), there would seem to be two bridges: one “road bridge” and one 3D bridge.
Eventually, Kriesman patched the products so that roads crossing water could be made to disappear at the water’s edge: no more “road bridges.” This setting is available in UTE as well, but I have noticed a slight hang-over in some roads, whereby the gray road texture extends for several pixels “over” or “into” the river. I don’t consider this a big defect, but I didn’t notice it in UT USA.
This brings up an important difference between UT Europe and previous UT products. On the one hand, UTE has some new features: an improved golf course texture, additional land types (commercial building and industrial harbor), and beaches (with animated waves where appropriate). This last feature is particularly welcome. The quality, though, of the underlying data is less uniform than in UT USA. This, I am guessing, is why UTE sometimes has a slight overhang where roads cross rivers: either the road data is not quite as precise as the river data, or the river data is not quite as precise as the road data.
The problem here, is one that Kriesman has been quite open about in the support forum. Although it’s possible to make a road and water package using cheap or freely available data, Kriesman made the decision, with all his products, to purchase high-quality data even when it was expensive. (I recall that when UTE was still in its initial phase, Kriesman asked forum users whether they would prefer a more expensive product with the best data available, or a less expensive product with less accuracy; the response was overwhelmingly in favor of the more expensive, more accurate data.)
The problem is that even the best data for Europe is not always as good as we might want. The result is that for some regions (Norway is the prime example), rivers and coastlines are noticeably rougher: better than the default, but not up to the normal UT standards.
Those standards are very high indeed. As I said in my review of Tongass Fjords, it is possible to get more accurate coastlines, but only for small areas. UTE covers about two thirds of a continent and, except in Norway, the water features are extremely convincing. This makes a noticeable difference, whether you are skimming the treetops or looking down from the flight levels, and not just at the seashore.
Inland bodies of water are just as lovingly carved out as the coastlines, though where you will see the most dramatic difference is with rivers. In the default sim, almost all rivers are really brown crayon lines scrawled on the surface of the land; they are painted on using the same method as roads, only with different textures. But with UTE and other UT products, rivers are treated as actual bodies of water, just like oceans and lakes: they vary in width, their shores twist and turn, you can land on them with a floatplane, and they reflect sunlight.
All this accuracy does reveal -- I say reveal, not create -- one problem: many of the buildings and bridges in the default sim are not accurately placed. Or rather, they are accurately placed relative to the inaccurate rivers and roads. In the default sim, we don’t notice this because the inaccuracies match each other. But when you suddenly have accurate rivers and roads, the buildings and bridges can end up in funny places. Bridges cross land instead of water, landmarks end up offshore or in rivers.
UTE addresses this halfway, by giving you the option to remove default bridges and misplaced buildings. It should be said that there are fewer such objects (150) in Europe than in North America (550). Still, what fun is it to fly over Paris if there’s no Nôtre Dame? Or London if there’s no Millennium Dome? Fortunately, there is a fix: "Quantumleap Repositioning Project for Ultimate Terrain" by Jeff Parker. QLRP4UT, as it is known to its friends, repositions all of the default buildings and bridges in all three of the UT coverage areas (Canada/Alaska, USA, and Europe). Installation is simple and fixes the problem right away. Shareware cost is US$10.
When UTE was first published earlier this year, the developer also released a slew of patches for various European scenery add-ons to make UTE compatible with them. This was reassuring to customers, but since the spring, new patches have been slow in coming. (To give just one example, there are patches currently for Scenery Germany Volumes 1 through 3, but not for Scenery Germany 4, VFR Berlin 2006, or Scenery Germany Bremen.) This has been discussed on the support forum and it’s still not clear how or when this will be resolved. Moving UT over to FSX seems to be the developer’s first priority and the patches, while they do make UTE more attractive to new customers, are time-consuming to program and don’t generate additional revenue in themselves. As of this writing, the future is unclear.
UTE, like other products in the UT series, has little effect on framerates (except for night lighting and road flattening, where some impact is noticeable but not, on my low-end hardware, distracting). However, in cities with dense road networks, there is a tendency to blurring. That is annoying. Some of it, I suspect, is perceptual: with UT you look at the ground more because there’s more to see, and as a result, you notice more when the sim’s rendering engine falls behind. But the problem is not all in your head and with UTE there is now an auto-configuration that will help balance features and performance. In my experience, both with this product and with UT USA, there is really only one thing you need to do: disable all roads except major roads, especially in the cities.
That sounds drastic. “If I’m going to pay for all of those roads, by gum I want to see them!” Trust me, you don’t. With all roads turned on, a densely populated city looks like a plateful of noodles. Turn off the minor roads and the city will immediately look better than it did with the roads turned on. This is because urban ground textures already contain roads on them: they're not the actual roads, but they are designed to fit in with their surroundings on the texture tile. So turn off the minor roads, enjoy sharper textures and better looking cities. Don’t worry, “major roads only” is still a lot of roads.
State Of The Art
Even as I am writing this, FSX is appearing in retail stores. Probably the biggest question for any add-on buyer right now is “Will it be compatible with FSX?” For the latest word, check the UT support forum hosted by Flight1 and manned by the developer. In the meantime, I am evaluating UTE as a product for the 2004 version of Flight Simulator, FS9.
Ultimate Terrain Europe is the biggest UT package so far and, at US$40 for the download and US$45 for the DVD, the most expensive as well. Let’s assume for a moment that this won’t overwhelm your budget. (If it will, don’t buy it.) Is this a good place to invest your (presumably finite) flightsim dollars?
Let me tell you a story. About a year and a half ago, before UT USA was available, I tried my hand at carving out the river that runs past my local airport. Scott Gridley, of FreeFlow fame, had placed a detailed tutorial in the AVSIM file library and I was following it step by step. About one quarter of the way through, I decided to spend my time in other ways. I reasoned that UT USA was due to come out in a couple months, and for US$35 I would be able to buy, not just my river, but every river in the whole country, plus every road, plus night lighting, plus enhanced landclass. I thought that was a good deal then and now, a year and a half later, I consider UT USA one of the must-have scenery add-ons for FS9. UTE is in the same class.
Is it perfect? No. When I was flying out of Lisbon, I noticed a road snaking out into the water, submerging, then surfacing, and then diving underwater again. I checked on Google Earth and that ought to have been either a solid bridge or (with my settings) nothing at all. Was I annoyed? Maybe I would be if I lived in Lisbon. Or maybe not.
When the first patch for UT USA came out, there was still an extra “bridge road” over “my” river, the one I had started to create earlier. I wasn’t put out, though: I was just happy to have “my” river in the sim. I was grateful, even, that Kriesman did not wait to release the product until it was perfect. With products of this scale, perfection would take years to achieve and in the meantime, we would have nothing. What we have now is very good, and -- when I consider how much time it would take me to carve out even one good water body -- very reasonably priced.
In my view, a product doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be great. UT Europe isn’t perfect, but it is one of the great scenery products for FS9.
|What I Like About Ultimate Terrain Europe|
|What I Don't Like About Ultimate Terrain Europe|
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