Aerosoft Night Enviroment California
A review by Roger Curtiss
For some years now, I have lamented the huge disparity between real night flying and the simulated version. As a passenger on commercial flights on clear nights, I will spend my time looking out the window at the islands of lit populated areas surrounded by black seas of darkness. It never fails to impress me and I have been greatly disappointed that flight simulation has been unable to reproduce that depth of visual experience.
A few months ago, I saw a release from Aerosoft for Night Environment. The product’s stated purpose was to improve the default FSX night textures by adding many more lights to roads and other areas for a much more realistic presentation. This hit home and was of great interest to me.
The product screenshots seemed to offer considerable promise, however, my desire to try the product was tempered by the fact that the initial and subsequent releases were offered only for European locations and my flying is predominantly in the United States. Finally, curiosity overcome resistance and I perused the Aerosoft site looking for a suitable second choice. I was quite pleased and surprised to find amidst the growing Night Environment entries one for California, perfect. I have flown to quite a few California airports and feel reasonably comfortable with the look of the areas as conveyed by the default presentations of FSX. I was especially looking forward to seeing the treatment of the Los Angeles area. FSX does a reasonable job of showing the huge expanse of night illumination in and around that city and I was eager to see if Night Environment would dramatically exceed that level.
This title is presented as a big download-1.54GB. I had been plagued with a dying modem metering download speeds averaging only about 14Kbs, so it was a very slow process. In fact, it took me five tries (each requiring 12-20 hours) before the entire file was successfully downloaded. My connection to the Aerosoft site timed out on two attempts, I had a browser crash on one, and the file was corrupted on another.
The actual installation was no problem at all but be prepared for slower than usual start-up time for FSX the first time running after; it must digest the texture and terrain data files. Subsequent startups were back to the usual launch times. Once the product is onboard, a quick visit to the Scenery Library will ensure everything is in its proper place. Night Environment (NE) loads five layers and all must be above any photo real titles. NE will operate just fine with default or photo real titles. The five layers allow the user to customize the NE intensity:
Base Layer- is the master layer and must be active in order to user any of the customized layers.
Base + 0-replaces default night textures with developer Chris Bell’s “ground splash”
Base + 1-25% of lights for use in low end PCs
Base + 2-50% of lights for use in medium PCs
Base + 3-100% of lights for use in medium to high end PCs
NE can also be configured with Base + 1, 2, and 3 which uses default FSX textures, however, best results are gained with using the 0 layer replacement textures.
According to the NE manual (it is all of three pages so there is NO excuse not to read it) the lights are on all the time, including daylight, but can be disabled using the FSX Scenery Manager to turn off NE during daylight flights in California.
The first time running FSX after installing NE, I went to the Scenery Library and confirmed that the 5 NE files were at the top of my scenery list. The setting was Base + 0 +3 which my computer should have the horsepower to handle. I departed from KSFO in daylight, climbed to only 2000’ and did not notice any lights.
I paused FSX, adjusted the time to full night darkness, and continued the flight.
Let me rephrase that in prose that is more descriptive…WOW!
Just to be sure, I paused again and turned NE off in the Scenery Library to display the default lighting. No more wow. Enough default-I cannot imagine I will be using that setting on any night flights in California again.
The difference that NE makes is stunning. There are many well-defined roads and the lights around prominent buildings are clear and bright. Populated and urban areas are much sharper and from altitude the whole islands of light in a sea darkness effect is artfully replicated.
The lights also seem to maintain their definition even at treetop level, which I found a bit surprising. One would think that getting down close it would become clear that all that was present were a whole lot of points of light. However, in practice, the arrangement of the lights still provided definition of roads and buildings. The grid pattern of housing neighborhoods was apparent and it all looked quite real. I am trying very hard to resist saying that the difference is like night and day, but that is pretty much the proper description.
So, with my breath taken away by the view, let us take a moment to recover and discuss some technical aspects.
All that lighting requires quite a bit of electricity so minimum specs to run NE are:
FSX with SP2, Acceleration Pack or Gold Edition
Win XP, Vista, 7 or 8 64 bit highly recommended
3.0 GHz processor Dual Core highly recommended
2GB RAM 4GB recommended
3D Graphics card minimum 512MB 1024MB recommended
Frankly, with the amount of features and performance offered by the newer and better flight sim products, this type of setup should be what most folks are running nowadays, anyway.
The unfortunate point here is that I am not able to properly illustrate for you how dramatic a difference NE makes. I have attempted to produce quite a few night shots of sceneries and aircraft over the years as well as looked at the efforts of others. They all share one universal quality-night screenshots suck. They are either much too dim to discern any features or lack the size, sharpness and clarity to convey the effect that has been created.
I flew a trip from Phoenix to Los Angeles to look at treatment of desert areas and to be able to swoop over the Los Angeles basin and experience the light show. West of Phoenix the default scenery showed a blocky display of lights on a couple ribbons of interstate roadways. But once I was west of Twentynine Palms, CA, the road lights were noticeably better defined as were the pockets of civilization in the desert. Getting closer to Los Angeles the lights increased as areas of towns were depicted until they appeared as an expansive array. Even then, the lights were not overwhelming; there was a subtlety to them that made the effect most realistic and pleasing.
After experiencing a few more flights, I am no less impressed with how more substantial is the nighttime feel. I think the reason is the variations in light colors used. Predominantly, the mix is of the gold/orange of mercury sodium lights interspersed with white lights. The white lights seem to define urban concentrations and it is the placement of those that generates the effect of various areas. The subtlety of it and the broad distance range within which it is effective are the standout features.
Chris Bell and his Creative Design Studio are producing night environment treatments for as many geographical areas as they possibly can. Bell has stated that his intent is to eventually provide nearly global coverage. Much of Europe has already been addressed and in North America, Florida is about to be released with a plan to cover all 50 states.
There may not be that many “must-have” add-ons, but if you fly at night this is one of them. A great product; artfully executed and offered at a very reasonable price.
I believe this series is headed for greatness.