Last summer I reviewed the last three titles in the Scenery Germany series for FS2004: VFR Berlin 2006, Scenery Germany 4, and Scenery Germany: Bremen. A year and a half later, these are still some of my favorite add-ons for Flight Simulator. I only wish they worked in FSX, but when scenery has this many levels, it doesn’t transfer without a lot of work on the developer’s part, in this case Aerosoft.
Personally, I would have been content with a compatibility update: I liked the old products that much. But instead of incrementally improving what they had already done, Aerosoft decided to embark on a new strategy. The base layer would be photographic ground textures (similar to their Real Germany product for FS2004), with custom autogen and selected objects for VFR navigation. For simmers who wanted more, there would be a series of German Airfield products (for smaller airports), another series of German Airport products (for larger airports), and a third series of Mega Airports (for airport hubs). You’ll see reviews of those products later; in this review, we’re going to look at the first installment of the base layer, VFR Germany 1: West.
Installation and Documentation
Even if you have a very fast connection, this product will take a long time to download. The boxed version is five euros more, plus shipping, but in this case the extra money might be well spent. I reviewed the download version, and it does work -- it just takes awhile to get everything and then back it up onto DVD.
Once I got everything downloaded and backed up, the installation process went smoothly. Aerosoft no longer requires online confirmation of ownership, just your registration information and a product key. When that’s entered, an install program takes care of the rest. Again, there was a long wait while files were being copied, but I didn’t have to be around for any of that, and when I came back the product was ready to go. (Unless I wanted to defragment my FSX folder, which I recommend doing to get better performance.)
The English manual is 27 pages long. (The original manual is in German.) It explains the various layers of the Aerosoft product line, tells you where to set the scenery sliders for a balance of image quality and performance, and suggests routes for exploring the scenery. For users who want to know what’s on their hard drive, it also explains the file structure, which would be useful if you had an overlapping product for the same area (e.g., Ultimate Terrain); this information is very welcome.
Finally, the manual acknowledges certain limitations of the product: there are fewer churches and dams than one would have liked, because there was no good data for placing them; sometimes water appears in the wrong place; sometimes there is a flat picture of a bridge underneath the 3D bridge from the default scenery; and (finally) sometimes there are bands visible in the photographic ground textures. This didn’t bother me, but if you live in this part of the world and it would ruin the product to have something odd-looking in your home town, there is a special support forum where you can request a screenshot of any given location, by sending in a saved flight file (.flt) for the area you want a screenshot of. You would need to do this before you buy, because there are no refunds after.
One thing I appreciate about Aerosoft is that it puts most of its product manuals online, so that you can read the fine print (including limitations) before you buy.
This product also comes with a real-world chart for VFR navigation. If you get the download version, the chart comes as an Acrobat file. It’s locked, so it can’t be printed -- which is odd because the boxed version comes with the same chart in printed form. Unfortunately, the chart is not easily readable in either form: even when I turned the magnification up to 300%, I still couldn’t read the smaller writing, including the radio frequencies, and when I asked about charts on the support forum, someone who had the printed version reported the same problem: the writing is just too small, and the printing is too fuzzy. Still, for someone who doesn’t have any access to the real printed charts (which aren’t easy to get outside of Europe), it’s a step in the right direction.
Photographic Ground Textures
The bread and butter of this package is photographic ground textures, taken from airplanes. In the past, most scenery makers used satellite photos, which are cheaper but have lower resolution. The difference was noticeable, even in FS2004, but mattered less because the maximum resolution was relatively low: 5 meters per pixel.
With FSX, the resolution can go up to 30 centimeters per pixel (although in practice it’s rare to see anything higher than 1 meter per pixel). Where you notice this is close to the ground. With FS2004, photographic ground textures looked blocky up close (below about 3,000 feet AGL). With high-resolution textures -- the ones here are 1 meter per pixel, meaning they are five times as fine-grained as the highest-resolution FS2004 textures -- you can fly low and everything still looks good, down to, let’s say, about 1,000 feet AGL.
The result, with this product, is that the coverage area looks much, much better than you’ve ever seen in Flight Simulator. With the default scenery, you see an idea of the landscape, generated by a complex formula: trees here, hills there, buildings there, a ribbon of river running through them, criss-crossed by roads and bridges. With a good landclass product (like Xclass Europe, which I reviewed last year), it looks very good. But it’s still a formula. With this product, there is no formula: you are looking at an image of the thing itself. It is like the difference between a cartoon and a Dutch oil painting. Both are reproductions, but the oil painting is a million times more nuanced.
I’ve mentioned the problem with banding. This happens when two photos are stitched together from different photo shoots; it’s inevitable in a project of this size; and I’ve never seen a photoscenery product that didn’t suffer from it in some degree. In my opinion, it’s a minor distraction, but if it’s the kind of thing that might get on your nerves, ask for a screenshot before you buy.
The other places where you can run into trouble with photoscenery are object alignment and blurries. The objects in the default scenery are aligned precisely with each other, and only approximately with their real-world originals. When you replace an element with something from the real world (and photographic ground textures certainly qualify), the objects in the sim world won’t necessarily be aligned with it. This creates a lot of extra work for the developers.
Most of the time, you don’t notice, because the developers have done their job seamlessly and nothing looks out of place. Where I did notice problems was at smaller airports. At some of these -- by no means all -- there was signage on runways or in the middle of taxiways, and at one airport, there were actual buildings on the runway. I reported a couple of these problems on the support forum, but someone needs to go through the coverage area, airport-by-airport, and check to make sure that all of the runways are clear, at least of buildings.
As for blurries, they are no better and no worse than any other photographic scenery product I have ever seen, owned, or reviewed. FSX stores this type of scenery differently than FS2004, using fewer files, but in practice I haven’t seen much improvement. If you fly too fast, the textures will blur; it’s a limitation of Flight Simulator, and there’s nothing that Aerosoft or any other third-party developer can do about it.
What is “too fast”? It depends on your system, your settings, and your weather. On my rig, I get satisfying results if I stay under 140 knots. If you like flying the Cessna 172, this won’t be a problem. If you primarily fly jets, this product is probably going to be frustrating, and so will every other product that uses photographic ground textures.
Another limitation is seasons: whatever time of year you fly, the landscape colors will always be summer. This is normal for products of this type, because more seasons take up more disk space, and when just one season takes up fifteen gigabytes, that’s not practical (yet). What did surprise me was the lack of night textures, so that the landscape is completely dark at night except for buildings and road traffic. Other photo sceneries that I have owned and reviewed do have night textures, so I’m not sure why this one doesn’t.
Solution? When it gets dark, save your flight in progress, exit the flight, uncheck the relevant folders in Scenery Library, and reload your flight with the default scenery, which does have night lighting.
The presence of road traffic is worth mentioning, because in my view it’s one of the more attractive features of FSX. Some will dismiss this as eye candy, but even though FSX has been out for a full year now, I still get a little frisson of happiness every time I see it. This product won’t put traffic on additional roads (as Ultimate Terrain X will), but wherever there is road traffic in the default scenery, it will show up here as well (and seems to follow quite closely the track of the roads as laid down in the photographic ground textures, which tells me that the default roads were already pretty accurate).
What I missed seeing was boat traffic on the rivers. I’ve checked, and it’s plentiful in the default scenery, but in four weeks of flying I never saw it with this scenery active. I’ve posted a query about this in the support forum, but as of this writing have not received a response. Rivers and lakes can be landed on with floatplanes, and have detailed shorelines; in many cases, they also display static boat wakes on their surface.
Photoscenery is not new for Flight Simulator, although with FSX we are seeing more and more detail. What’s new here is the method of placing generic scenery elements (usually buildings and trees). Since, in the real world, these elements are not distributed by formula, where should you put them? Ideally, you want a 3D house object to be placed on top of a 2D house, a 3D tree on top of a 2D tree, and so on. But doing that by hand is very labor-intensive. I’ve seen it done in at least one package, the French Alps scenery that I reviewed last year -- but that was only for a few valleys, not the whole scenery.
With VFR Germany, you get this effect for the entire coverage area. How is this possible? Apparently, there is now a database of real-world structures, with their precise locations, and this has been used to place the generic objects, so that they appear in the right spot on the photographic ground texture. There is no comparable data for individual trees, but for forested areas of 12 sq m or larger, autogen trees have been inserted to suggest woodlands.
This is a big deal. I know that, with FSX, a lot of people have given up on autogen because turning it off improves frame rates. Doing so still looks good because the generic scenery tiles look pretty good, even naked. And with a good photoscenery (which this is) it works even better. But if you fly low (and your hardware can handle it), autogen does contribute to the overall effect. I noticed this recently when I upgraded my video card, and bumped up my autogen settings a notch. Towns look more populous, and forests seem more full. Horizons, where there are trees, look bristly instead of flat.
According to the product manual, VFR Germany includes “most objects shown on VFR maps,” such as “high-tension power lines, transmission towers, power plants,” and where practical “bridges, major buildings, or churches.”
In the version that I reviewed, there was an error in the installer that prevented most of these objects from showing. There is a fix, but you have to know it exists. (On the Aerosoft website, click on “FAQ’s/Updates”; you’ll need to enter your user name and password, and then select the product you want updates for.) As of this writing, the smokestacks do not emit smoke, but they do appear in appropriate places, along with observation towers and other landmarks.
There is some overlap here with German Landmarks X, a product which Aerosoft distributes for CR-Software. If you have that product, you can choose to deactivate the landmarks in this one and use those instead. I don’t have this product, so I can’t compare the two. I can say that, in comparison with Scenery Germany 4, which I reviewed last summer, VFR Germany seems to have fewer objects in this category, but it is still much better than the default scenery, and the effect (when I applied the patch) was immediate. Even on the ground, I could recognize new elements on the horizon: a smokestack, an observation tower, a church.
It used to be that photo sceneries took longer to load, but gave better frame rates once they were loaded. Load times are still higher, but frame rates are similar to the default scenery because in addition to photographic ground textures (which are relatively easy on frame rates), the package also includes additional 3D objects. As with the default scenery, the chief drag on frame rates will come from autogen; this can be adjusted using the autogen slider, same as the default scenery.
VFR Germany 1: West is 50 euros for the boxed version, 45 euros for the download version. If you live outside of the EU, the price is lower because you don’t have to pay VAT; at the current exchange rate, the download version is US$55.
Compared with MegaScenery Southern California, the boxed version of which sells for US$40 and includes night textures, that’s a little on the high side, except that MegaScenery is just photographic ground textures -- you don’t get extra VFR objects, and you don’t get house-by-house autogen, the way you do with this product. (You do get a more usable chart, though.)
I volunteered to review this product (jumped at it, actually), because I liked its predecessors so thoroughly. I have never lived in Germany, but the FS2004 products made me want to go there. And I will, next chance I get. Meanwhile, there is the simulator. It’s a poor substitute, I know, but a lot cheaper than taking time off work.
With the last generation of scenery, what struck me was the sense of a human intelligence interacting with the natural landscape. I’m less struck by that this time, because nature looks better with photographic ground textures, and because the distribution of man-made objects is much more even. There are fewer landmarks, and the GA airports that were part of Scenery Germany are now part of a different product series, German Airfields. But there are many, many more generic buildings and trees. Combined with photographic ground textures, the effect is less like a model railroad (which is a good effect, by the way) and more like a realistic painting. Sure, you can tell it’s not real. But you can keep looking at it, for hours even, and notice new things. There is a limit on this, because in a painting there is nothing on the canvas that an artist did not put there. But with a photograph, there is no such limit. Instead of hours, you can fly for days, even weeks, and not exhaust everything there is to see.
What I Like About VFR Germany 1: West
What I Don't Like About VFR Germany 1: West
Tell A Friend About this Review!
All Rights Reserved