Review by Ray Marshall. The latest phase of introducing near unbelievable add-on scenery for FSX is the Ultra-Resolution Cities theme marketed by MegaSceneryEarth.com. Starting in New England with the Boston Terminal Control Area then rapidly moving along the Eastern seaboard, MSE is churning out this latest scenery at a blitzing pace of another new area every 10 days or so.
One glance at this scenery and you instantly know it is something truly useful and special. Why? Simply because, in addition to being absolutely stunning on your monitor when flying in FSX, the scenery remains clear right down to minimums for the instrument approaches into the busy airports. For the VFR or more casual pilots it brings in a whole new level of real world areas to explore.
A long time drawback of photo scenery has been the closer to the ground one gets the fuzzier the image becomes. This was partially addressed in the MegaSceneryEarth v 2.0 individual states for 49 of the 50 United States with their border-to-border 50 cm source data. This was actually a huge leap forward and covered the entire continental US and Hawaii. This was great for cross-country flying because what you saw out your window was the real world and not a repeating fictitious image (i.e. Orbx type scenery). It was also well received by the high flying airliner pilots and all types of pilots because a river is a river and properly located, as were hills and mountains, lakes, parks, forests and such.
But, as sharp as it was, the cars in the parking lot at your local mall was still not quite in focus or that interstate bridge or power plant just down the road from your girlfriend’s house was not as sharp as when you are flying your flying club Cessna 172. Real world yes, sharp yes, super sharp, no.
So now we have some very large geographical areas that are more in focus and noticeably sharper to the eye. The bonus is there is almost always going to be one large busy airport near the center of the scenery and a lot of secondary airports nearby. This is because each of these Ultra-Res Cities is in fact a Terminal Control Area as defined by the FAA. You can pull out your TCA chart or use the enclosed electronic version that comes with each download or DVD and see that, sure enough, the Ultra-Res scenery follows exactly the TCA outline.
Should you not live near a TCA but do live or have an interest in a large metropolitan area, there is still hope - actually, better than that. Let’s check the name of the scenery package again. Yep, Not Terminal Control Areas, it’s Ultra-Res Cities, then Boston, Pittsburg, Atlanta, etc. Is just so happens that the first batch did indeed have a Terminal Control Area that matched the scenery borders exactly. Hmmmm.
In case you might not be familiar with TCAs in the US, there are about half as many defined TCAs as we have states. Some actually overlap while others are hundreds of miles from each other. Florida and California are the leaders with 3 each, Texas has two and others are stand-alone cities or overlaps like Washington/Baltimore, Denver/Colorado Springs, Minneapolis/St. Paul, or Tampa/Orlando.
Although Los Angeles and San Diego have individual charts and defined areas the two have a common border and appear as one chart or area on the map.
These generally smaller special-use areas have a scale that is twice that of the sectional chart which is twice that of WAC chart. Most VFR pilots have a stack of printed Terminal Area Charts stashed in the back of the passenger seat because these charts tend to have more detail displayed than the sectional chart.
We can guess that MegaSceneryEarth will repeat their approach of releasing new scenery packages on a similar schedule which will start in New England, move down the Atlantic coast states, and then head west. If that was your guess, you are wrronnngggg! Tampa/Orlando should be available soon, followed by Miami. Then it could be either New Orleans, Memphis, or St. Louis. But, according to Robert at PC Aviator they are not going to follow this path this time. It seems Texas, California, New York, Illinois, and Florida are the most popular states for the v2 MegaSceneryEarth so they are going to be rewarded for their popularity. That is a population thing, guys and girls, nothing more. It has nothing at all to do with the BCS South Eastern Conference.
One thing you will notice is that the area covered varies greatly. The largest release so far is the Baltimore/Washington area and it covers an astounding 13,000 square miles. (13,000 mile² = 33,670 km²). Holy cow Batman, that is larger than the entire state of New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii or Maryland.
It actually touches on 3 states – Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia in addition to the District of Columbia.
This is comparable to the other six released areas that cover 6 – 7,500 square miles.
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Should you already have the associated MegaSceneryEarth v2 state then the Ultra-Res City will fit like a glove. I think the same applies to major developers add-on airports as well. I have Massachusetts MSE v2 and FlyTampa’s Boston Logan airport scenery that is marketed by Aerosoft and the three fit together perfectly. I will check out a few of the others. I’m not sure how a large scenery area like Miami City 2012 X by Drzewiecki will match up with the Ultra-Res Miami TCA when it makes it to market.
Hey, maybe one of those Ultra-Res Cities without a TCA will be Fort Lauderdale. That would be a nice bridge between Miami and Orlando/Tampa and reward Florida for being so popular. No inside line there, I’m just practicing my subliminal suggestions.
I have no idea how many ‘Cities only’ releases we can expect once all the TCA areas are released but I do know TCAs are only present in about half the states. I also know the source imagery is still quite expensive to purchase and some of the smaller cities or metro areas may be even more expensive than the larger
cities simply based on demand.
How do we get this scenery onto our hard drives?
Two methods are available for us. Speed is the big difference and it is a BIG difference. I downloaded Ultra-Res Cities Boston and it took me about half a day with my mediocre download speed. The download speed will be dependent on the user’s connection speeds and not the MegaSceneryEarth servers. They have blazingly fast, high capacity equipment.
I asked Robert at MSE for some download capacity information and he stated all their servers are on a 1 GB uplink and based on their average load they have enough bandwidth for those with 100 Mbps connections to download at full speed at any time. Wow. He also stated this bandwidth is outrageously expensive but customers still tend to think there are no costs to the seller for download delivery. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m sure part of the retail cost of these packages is to pay for maintaining this high tech delivery system.
Not being able to take advantage of these super high download speeds because fiber optic is still about a hundred miles from my street and the local cable is not a good option for me I decided to buy the DVDs instead.
I immediately placed an order for the other 5 areas; Atlanta was not released then, to be delivered to my mailbox on DVDs. Now granted, it sounds like a big stack of DVDs and I guess it is, but they all arrived about 3 days later in a small, DVD sized box about an inch thick. There were 21 DVDs in the box and this method sure makes life easier. An auto-installer is on the last DVD for each TCA/City.
Each DVD has 4 large bgl files and it took my setup about 6 minutes to install each of the large files. The Washington/Baltimore TCA comes on 8 DVDs and it took just about an hour for me to install it and load up FSX to take a look. Now, I didn’t sit at the PC and try for a record, I was futzing around the house and keeping an eye on the popup boxes that prompted me to install the next DVD.
When I downloaded Ultra-Res Cities Boston I collected 14 individually zipped bgl files. Each one is a gigabyte or more. When you have them all collected in a folder you can start the auto-installer that works extremely well. You don’t even have to unzip them; just make sure you point the installer to the correct folder for installation. You definitely should use some form of auto downloader in case something goes astray you won’t lose the entire file to the cyber gremlins. I think they are also a little more efficient than the old right-click-and-Save-file method. Many are totally free.
So how does it look at 500 feet?
My personal opinion is the scenery looks a lot better at 1,000 to 1,500 feet. Yes, you can fly at 500 feet and the ground and objects are certainly sharper than any large scale photo scenery we had before. But, why would you want to fly cross country at 500 feet? Maybe helicopter pilots or one of those guys checking pipeline rights-of-way or the like. I can’t see far enough ahead flying that low, but I do enjoy clipping the tree tops from time to time with my A2A J-3 Cub looking for a pasture to buzz the cattle or sheep.
I think the big advantage with having this higher resolution scenery will be most useful and noticeable during approaches, departures and just staying in the flight pattern at the local airport shooting touch and goes in the new A2A C172 Trainer. Of course all those helicopter pilots will absolutely love it with all those landing pads in sharp focus.
I still like the view at 1,000 – 3,000 feet while flying low and slow and just looking around the countryside. These Ultra-Res Cities are also ultra large areas that are perfectly suited for the VFR pilot with beautiful scenery and lots of new airports to visit. I wonder if that one at 2 o’clock has fresh coffee at 2pm in the afternoon.
I think the big boost here is the large areas we now have available with an even higher resolution than the v2.0 MegaSceneryEarth. Take a look at these screenshots of the Washington/Baltimore TCA area. This is a monster area with airports of all shapes and sizes. Just look at how many airports there are and how many square miles of super sharp, real world scenery we have available for our fun.
If you flew the border rectangle in your trusty Cessna 172 at full cruise settings you would cover about 425 nautical miles. That would be a full tank of fuel and take about 4 hours. That folks, is a lot of super high resolution scenery.
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You can also fly a round robin in your Cessna Citation or the 737NGX from National to Baltimore to Dulles and back to National all within this TCA. It is huge.
How long would it take someone to takeoff or land at every airport in the TCA area?
In addition to the large area covered, there are some outstanding sights to see. We all know about all the historic and government sights inside the Beltway, but how about places like Annapolis, Baltimore, Camp David, Patuxent River, plus all the large airports like Dulles, National, Andrews AFB, BWI.
This one has to be the buy of the century in high resolution photo scenery for FSX. It works out to be something like 2 square miles of ultra-resolution, real world scenery for a penny. Think about that. Maybe 500 square miles for a dollar would be easier to understand.
The New York package, with 7,000 square miles, is kind of special in that it contains parts of New Jersey and Connecticut and includes 3 major international airports – JFK, LaGuardia and Newark. This scenery can co-exist with your New York (and New Jersey) complete state scenery - just place the Ultra-Res City above the state scenery in your scenery library.
So how do I choose which one to get?
I can’t help you there. I think it depends on your type of flying, where you prefer to fly or would like to fly. Some of these areas that I have like Pittsburg or Philadelphia probably will not get a lot of action from me. But, for others, these might be the most important areas of the whole shebang.
I’m looking forward to the Orlando/Tampa TCA area that covers central Florida area from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico in a broad swipe. This is my old stomping grounds where I learned to fly before Luke Skywalker was even born.
Meanwhile I have half a dozen new and outstanding large areas of the best resolution we have seen to date for the real world. Charlotte
I think there will be a lot of interest in these areas especially when you add some 3rd party airport scenery on top of it.
Is there any downside to having Ultra Resolution scenery for FSX?
As mentioned earlier, the file sizes are huge. Everything is in multiple gigabytes for storage. Fortunately, storage space has never been as inexpensive as it is right now. I already have 5 or 6 Terabytes of hard drive space but I just added another TB of USB 3.0 external space for under $60 delivered. These small units are great for storing these multi-gigabyte folders of scenery and fast enough for FSX not to notice except for the initial load time.
How about some screenshots?
You can find a nice collection of screenshots at the MegaSceneryEarth web site for each specific TCA or City. I snapped a few for comparison of the FSX default to the v2.0 MSE to this new Ultra-Res Cities. This set was taken at 1,000 feet - 1,500.
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This Ultra Resolution scenery looks different from the V2 Mega Scenery Earth scenery
Yes. One of the reasons is a different source of imagery in addition to the higher resolution. The Ultra Scenery images are true half meter aerials whereas the v2 NAIP scenery is not. One of the complicating factors when we mix and match the scenery we find many of the new Ultra aerials were taken in the fall season with no green grass or leaves but the v2 MSE aerials are mostly springtime aerials with bright greens.
These source aerials come as smaller areas and have to be patched and stitched to create these full TCA coverage areas. It is very possible that some of the areas within a given TCA were taken at different months or seasons of the year. Each of the six areas that I have seem to have at least some areas with difference seasons. Not that this is bad, it is just making the best use of what is available as source material.
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Compare Colors – Greens vs Browns
Color correcting with Photoshop is about the only reasonable method of blending the two and that is very time consuming.
Water masking still needs improvement
My personal complaint with any photo scenery has always been centered on the lack of good water masking. V2 of MSE made some big improvements but there is still room for more. Some of the European photo scenery seems to have better looking water than the USA for some reason. It could be as simple as a totally different approach or the source imagery could be better suited to this type product as they have lots of islands and therefore coastlines.
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Pittsburgh and Washington/Baltimore
My guess is each new version will have an incremental increase to solve the problems until it is finally resolved.
How about better night lighting?
Although a night lighting update is not one of my priorities for photo scenery, some flight simmers continue to complain that it is a big issue.
MegaSceneryEarth is on record as stating that they plan to update their scenery with better or improved night lighting. The problem is that lights are coming from the FSX default scenery and very seldom does the real world image and FSX scenery match. The end result is a shopping center parking lot or a neighborhood may have good lighting but it is not located properly in relation to the real world photo scenery. This is not obvious and of course not a problem while flying during the day.
The major streets and highways do not tend to create a night lighting issue as they are generally much better aligned. However, many of the smaller or local streets do not match at all.
The forest and lakes are also not much of a problem with the lighting being misplaced as FSX is fairly good at shapes and placement of lakes and forest areas.
So what is the bottom line?
Nothing is more satisfying to me than to fly one of our latest high-end flight models, like the RealAir Legacy, A2A C172 Trainer, or Milviz Baron, on a leisurely 2 hour VFR flight and look out the window and see the real world and it looks and feels a lot like real flying.
Most of our top-tier developers have been on a roll recently and introducing new realistic flying models that I never thought possible using FSX. Well, the FSX envelope has been stretched and expanded with hooks back to FSX and it is all for the better. These new add-ons are actually more FPS friendly than those more simple ones that stay inside the box that look great and fly like, we let’s just say those with less than desirable flight characteristics. So now with the introduction of the Ultra-Res Cities/TCA sceneries we have a perfect playground for these `new aircraft. The entire United States TCA network will be available as far as I know. Not too sure about Anchorage. Highly Recommended.
When I feel like going further, faster, and higher I roll out my new RealAir Duke B60 v2 or my new Flight1 Super King Air B200 with the G1000 panel and make a fast climb to the rare air. I just made a flight from KIAD to KBOS via KPHL and LGA. Except for part of one leg between the Bridgeport and Norwich VORs, maybe 40 miles, I was in or over one of the Ultra Res TCA areas. The overlap is great for this cross-country type flying. I used Washington/Baltimore for my departure, and then overflew Philadelphia and New York and Boston for my arrival. Neat.
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This ultra-resolution scenery is stunning during climb out and while descending and making approaches. I can’t tell much difference from the Flight Levels but I know what I see is real world and that is rewarding in itself. Here is Boston @ 1500 ft:
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How about the price?
Less than $20.00 for a large chunk of super high resolution FSX scenery that comes as either a download or optional DVDs with an auto-installer has to be priced correctly. With all the sales going on, those on a limited flight sim budget can pick and choose what to buy now and what to buy with one of those discount coupons or during some other sales event. PC Aviator has a sale every week. Check out their special discounts every Tuesday.
Some of these add-ons are coming at us so fast that it is difficult to predict more than a few months in advance. I suppose should you get bored while waiting for your favorite Ultra-Res Cities/TCA area to be published you could check out one of the European countries that MegaSceneryEarth has recently released. I see Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal are available.
A new Ultra-Res Cities release schedule that calls for a new area every 10 days or so is very aggressive and quite remarkable. The wait should be rather short for your home time or favorite TCA/City.
Thanks to Robert at PC Aviator/MegaSceneryEarth.com for providing the Ultra–Res Cities and answering my questions.
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Publisher: MegaSceneryEarth – Ultra-Res Cities/TCA
Download or DVD
Platform: FSX only, SP2 or Acceleration