After spending the last year and learning how to develop scenery for Flight Simulator X, I've gained a lot of insight into not only what makes scenery function on a technical level but on an aesthetical one as well. There's a lot of know-how that goes into making scenery work both in the simulator and for the person experiencing it and I will be taking a very close look at both of these views throughout the review.
Rotterdam The Hague airport (also known as Zestienhoven) is the third Dutch airport in passenger numbers and functions as a major regional airport. While it has limited scheduled flights there is a lot of General Aviation, business traffic and several flying schools based there. During the vacation seasons it also handles a lot of charter traffic.
This scenery has been done with great attention to detail according to the most up to date ideas on making scenery for FSX. It is very good looking and it is also frame rate friendly. As default FSX is not brilliant in this region, a large area is included around the airport so the circuits and VFR approaches are possible with great realism. [source: Aerosoft product page]
More information on the airport can be found on its Wikipedia page
Installation and Documentation
As with most if not all Aerosoft products, you'll be presented with an InstallShield wizard once you've completed the 570MB download which will guide you through the process of placing the scenery on your hard drive for FSX to use. The one thing I like most about the DRM used by Aerosoft is that it doesn't require an internet connection at the time of installation, you just need the serial number and email you used to purchase the product and you're all set to go. While you're given the option to pick your installation folder, this folder can only be the one that contains the FSX executable, which will be your main FSX installation directory (that the installer will locate for you if it can).
Once the 700MB installation is complete you'll be asked to close the InstallShield wizard. At this point I always like to have the option to open up the product manual but this is not given to you. To locate the manual just look in the Start Menu where you will find it in the Rotterdam X folder created in the main Aerosoft folder (which will also be added if you don't already have any Aerosoft products installed).
Load up FSX and search for the airport in the Location window and it will pop right up - no need to activate it manually within the Scenery Library, although you may want to layer it properly for whatever your preference may be as it will simply be placed on top by default.
If you don't like placing everything within your default FSX installation path (storing add-ons on a separate hard drive, for example) then there are two options available to you:
Both options will satisfy those of you that want more control over the placement of your FSX add-ons.
It's highly recommended by Aerosoft that you uninstall the scenery through your Control Panel, as the product manual warns that "serious problems" will arise from a manual uninstall. Note that if you did a custom installation you may have trouble removing the product through the Control Panel, so plan ahead.
One of the most likely problems to occur from a manual uninstall is FSX throwing up an error message when it tries to find a scenery layer that is no longer there. This is not an application-terminating error however - just remember to delete the layer before launching FSX or clear out the error box and do it from within the simulator.
Again you'll be given an InstallShield wizard to help you remove the program, which will also clean up any Start Menu folders that were created with the installation. You may be asked to restart your computer to complete the uninstall process after the scenery is removed - I've gotten this with previous Aerosoft products and haven't been able to determine what triggers it, but it doesn't ask you to restart all the time.
The manual is 14 pages of useful and important information that should be read prior to using this scenery. One example would be the section that notes the ILS frequencies in use do not match the real world airport due to conflicts within the simulator. This is the kind of thing people notice and complain about because they didn't read the manual. The same applies to the nice FAQ included, which covers topics like graphics issues and simulator scenery settings issues. The product support thread has several examples of people posting without reading these useful manual sections.
A common inclusion in Aerosoft scenery manuals I appreciate are screenshots of the recommended scenery settings so you can get a good baseline to start from when tweaking to find the balance between frame rates and scenery complexity. I found the recommended settings to give me excellent performance on my machine, but more on that later.
While no charts are included with the product, a link is given in the manual that leads you to a website that offers the charts for free. The manual says you need to register but I was able to make my way to the charts without having to sign up for any sort of account, although it did take me a bit of searching to find the page that listed them. Here is a direct link (charts are at the bottom).
Grammatical errors in the text exist but do not cause any confusion while reading the manual's contents. A bit of copy/paste was evident in the Aerosoft Season Tool section when it told you to find the tool in the "Startmenu | Aerosoft |Lelystad X | Season Tool" folder.
Buildings and Objects
Within the airport
To check the accuracy of the buildings and objects modeled and placed for this scenery I used my favorite scenery design reference tool, Bing maps aerial imagery. The aerial photos provide excellent detail on objects and happened to be available over Rotterdam airport. Comparing the photos to the FSX scenery I found buildings right where they should be and looking just like they do in the real life images. They've gone so far as to even model the helicopter trailer resting on one of the helipads you can see in the photos. While you can't start a flight on the trailer, it is landable.
Many of the objects you see placed in the scenery like rolling staircases and fuel trucks you'll find in that exact spot looking at the aerial photos. You'll find people plane spotting up on the open air cafe balcony atop the terminal and the flags are slowly fluttering in the breeze.
Building and object textures are all very well done and look great even up close. Some of the "open" hangars that use skewed perspective to make it look like you're seeing into the hangar don't look quite right, but you know it's just an effect. It would have been nice to actually have some hangars to park your aircraft in, but unfortunately none are available for this purpose although it is a service the real airport offers on request for transient aircraft (up to the size of a B737).
Building textures are also enhanced with reflective and environment mapping, which means you'll see the sun shining off them and some surfaces will not just reflect light but also appear to reflect images of the sky and surrounding buildings.
One of the features touted by Aerosoft for this scenery is that buildings and objects are made to use the volumetric lighting capabilities of FSX that allows dynamic shadows to be cast on the ground. These shadows move with the sun unlike "baked" shadow textures that have a fixed position on the ground regardless of the time of day. While these baked shadows aren't as realistic as the volumetric ones they are a lot better in terms of performance. Unfortunately you can only choose between volumetric shadows or no shadows, there is no baked shadow option.
There are additional issues that are covered in the manual's FAQ, such as a shadow bug with the nearby Rotterdam default scenery and the fact that this shadow option will affect everything in the simulator, not just the Rotterdam X buildings. I have to say despite the performance impact, which we'll discuss later; these shadows add a lot to the scenery. I would recommend using them mainly during the early or late hours of the day when the shadows are long and have a more visible impact on the scenery. A small annoyance though is that the shadows affect objects that don't really need them.
Despite all the great representation from the buildings and miscellaneous airport objects like rolling staircases and fuel trucks, I really dislike the lack of static aircraft around the airport. Running AI traffic is the only option to make the airport not look completely deserted and isn't the best option for everyone. AI traffic is a CPU hit, whereas static objects are a GPU hit. If you have a decent graphics card, you might not see as big a frame rate impact with static aircraft as you will with AI aircraft eating up your CPU cycles. It would be nice to have the option of, for example, disabling all commercial AI traffic and still be able to see static airliners parked at some of the gates.
A similar issue is touched upon in the manual FAQ, which covers the topic of there being no 3D car objects in the adjacent parking lots even though you can clearly see the cars parked there on the textures. Aerosoft's response to this is "Adding those cars would be easily possible for us as we have a set of many 3D cars we could use here, but adding so many cars would have a very, very hard impact on performance." However given the inherently modular nature of FSX scenery what Aerosoft is really saying here is more akin to "we don't feel like giving you the option to enable cars to be displayed and then deal with you complaining to us when it impacts your performance." What I mean by this is similar to how Aerosoft has a Season Tool that lets you change the foliage to match the season you're currently flying in - a similar tool could very easily let you enable or disable 3D cars in the scenery. Or certain types of static aircraft.
Let's do a quick harmless exercise to demonstrate this. Loading up Rotterdam I take note of the trees and snap a picture of the ones surrounding the airport that don't automatically update with the seasons (these are the ones Aerosoft placed, not autogen). I then close the sim, go into the Scenery folder for the airport and find the file "EHRD_Vegetation.bgl" which I rename to "EHRD_Vegetation.off". I have now effectively disabled all custom vegetation around the airport, which I prove by loading the scenery again and seeing only autogen-placed trees.
Much in the same way Aerosoft replaces these custom trees it would be just as feasible to include a "EHRD_Cars.bgl" file (in fact I created my own) that can be switched off in much the same manner I manually switched off the trees but is done automatically through an application interface. There are many ways to balance out FSX performance and many different perspectives on what is considered "good" performance. I wish Aerosoft had given users more freedom to find a good balance on their own rather than deciding for us that extra objects were too much of a performance hog (or perhaps just not worth the extra development cost).
Speaking of the Season Tool, it works as advertised and you can even use it while FSX is running - just restart the flight to see the changes.
Lastly, a noticeable object omission to the scenery are the windsocks the airport diagram clearly indicates exist in two locations - one by the Runway 06 displaced threshold and another along Taxiway N.
Around the airport
A lot of effort was put into the surrounding airport scenery. We'll discuss the textures next but the large area around the airport is filled with custom objects and the autogen annotation is very well done considering this is photoreal scenery, which means it’s unique throughout its entire area. A KMZ file is available to download that will load the coverage area into Google Earth and place pins on all the locations where you can spot custom objects like the windmill, the high-rise with a spinning Mercedes-Benz logo on top, etc.
Hop in a helicopter or light aircraft and go sightseeing! There's even a clock tower where you can hear bells chiming between 1200-1300 hours local time. The vehicle traffic, if you have it enabled, is also well-mapped to the roads running around and through the airport area, both major and minor. Some changes were made to the city of Rotterdam off in the near distance to help with performance - again this is noted in the manual FAQ you should have read.
The ground textures around the airport are 40cm aerial images, which is a better source of imagery than satellite photos, and the immediate airport area has even higher texture resolution although the exact definition is not specified. The airport does not use any visible FSX apron textures to draw tarmacs and taxiways, which means you'll be taxiing on the ground scenery itself. This works well for the majority of the airport like the larger main taxiways and the main apron with the gate parking - however when you taxi over to some of the GA areas the lack of resolution becomes painfully apparent.
It would have been nice if the developer had used some custom textures here to recreate the stone pattern work that ends up a blurry mess with the aerial imagery. The effect is made worse by the crisp and clear taxi lines laid over the blurry textures.
One of the hardest things with using photoreal textures is making them blend in well with the default textures used by FSX. The developers did a great job here, making good use of landscape features like roads and water to end the aerial imagery and return to default textures without a hard transition line visible. I only have default textures for Europe so I can imagine this would look even better with something like Ground Environment X Europe installed.
Although the ground textures are billed as being equipped for all seasons this isn't entirely accurate. There are really only two sets of ground textures as far as I can tell - Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. The 5th season, Hard Winter, is left completely out in the cold. So while there are 4 main seasons, the aerial imagery does a good job of blending in with the surrounding default textures; it really does it best in Summer and Fall when the colors match the closest. The lack of snow in Winter/Hard Winter and the darker colors in Spring compared to the lighter default textures make the scenery stand out more. It is noted in the manual however that Winter does not go well with this scenery and you're recommended to stay in Summer weather.
Let's not bash on the scenery too much though, as I do dole out a lot of credit for the excellent and very thorough water masking job the developers did to expose every square inch of the water features using the FSX water instead of sticking with flat and non-environmental imagery. There really is a lot of very small and narrow water features (farmland irrigation canals, for example) around the airport and it's all masked out properly.
The apron and taxiway textures at the airport itself are all well done and accurately placed when comparing them to aerial images from Bing. However I'm not a fan of the "bent" curves given to all the taxi lines, which look smooth from a few hundred feet over the airport but when you're on the ground taxiing you see they aren't smooth at all. Additionally, while the taxiway lettering is included on the ground and the gates are labeled at the top of the T marker like the real airport, there should also be gate ground numbers at the turns off the main taxiways that are missing. Finally, the airport ground textures are comprised of a series of individual blocks aligned together and this alignment isn't perfect - the most noticeable slip is at the B gates.
An odd feature I noticed on the ground textures is this "shadow" that extends past the terminal building area. While inspecting the airport file I saw that this was an apron extended over the ground textures that "masks" them and removes some of the details like images of aircraft on the tarmac. I used Airport Design Editor to tweak the apron and remove the overlap and the result looks much better and makes it so the ground shadows from the scenery in the early morning/late evening don't get lost in the fake shadow.
I really can't figure out why it's there to begin with and I probably wouldn't have noticed it so much if I weren't using a very dark asphalt texture from the REX Overdrive HD pack that cause the masking to shade the ground darker than a default asphalt texture. If anyone's using 3rd-party textures and wonders why their airport ground looks a bit darker or lighter from the product photos, this is why.
I also want to commend the developers for getting the runway markings correct. Checking satellite photos and aerial images available on the net right now you'll still find the old markings and even images of the runway being repaved before being re-marked. The old runway had solid precision markings and only for Runway 24 - the current runway has striped precision markings for both runway ends and is properly depicted in the scenery.
Let's discuss the actual use of the airport by user aircraft and AI aircraft alike. First, it should be known that since its release,e Rotterdam X has been made compatible with Aerosoft's Airport Enhancement Services pack. I do not have this program so I was unable to test these features but it's a big plus to include with the scenery as Aerosoft recommends in the manual that you disable all default FSX service vehicles. So having this program will help bring the airport to life some more.
There are several issues with the way the airport operates for AI traffic. One is that AI aircraft will not taxi on the taxi lines. Since these taxi lines are custom textures and not drawn by the paths laid out by the developers, if these two don't line up you get planes taxiing alongside taxi lines and turning inside curves. It just doesn't look right. Some more tweaking of the airport file gave me AI traffic that taxied along the taxi lines and I wish they had done that by default.
A similar issue is the hold-short lines. These are custom textures and so the actual behind-the-scenes hold short points can be completely different, and they are. The default airport will have planes holding short of the runway well ahead of the hold short lines. There is a limitation in FSX that if the hold short point is not close enough to the runway AI planes will never receive takeoff clearance, but this limitation has no effect here as I again tweaked the airport to move the hold short points back to where they belong and experienced no AI issues.
Then there's the problem with the runway, which has no displaced threshold. Oh sure, you see the displaced threshold there but as far as the AI is concerned the displaced threshold does not exist. This is really an issue only for AI - you'll still be able to follow an ILS glide path down to the touchdown markings and make a visual approach properly as well, but AI aircraft will all land short on the runway. This is because when a displaced threshold is created for a runway FSX draws down the threshold markings and it's not possible to completely removed them (in my experience).
Since Rotterdam's threshold does not use markings similar to the standard FSX textures the developer created the runway with no displaced threshold - however this is one of the values AI aircraft use to determine where to land on the runway - they don't follow an ILS glide slope even if it exists. Tweaking the airport's runway to start after the threshold brings aircraft down where they should land (airliners between the touchdown marks for example), but no longer allows AI aircraft to take off from the threshold due to the previously-mentioned limitation of hold short points needing to be close to a runway.
So while this is an issue I feel is worth pointing out, it's not one that I feel really affects the scenery in a detrimental way and is simply one of those FSX imitations we have to live with.
General Aviation parking around the airport is also rather sparse given the amount of GA traffic Rotterdam supports. If I crank my Ultimate Traffic 2 traffic sliders to full with all the World of AI airlines installed I'll have planes arriving that can't find parking spots because they are all occupied already.
The default airport comes with 13 ramp parking locations. The airport diagram shows at least that many exist in the west GA tie down area alone, never mind the whole airport. After tweaking I was able to add 40 more for a total of 53 including two new parking areas in the Jet Center and at the end of Taxiway A. The parking is also not labeled (West, South, Northeast, etc) so you don't know in what area of the airport you're going to end up in unless you memorize what spot takes you where when you start a flight (you can also use these locations to specify to ATC where you would like to park).
Finally, the parking spot sizes are too big for the west GA tie down area, causing business jets and large twin prop AI aircraft to spawn there when in reality those tie down locations can only accommodate planes with wingspans smaller than 40 feet, not the 66 feet allowed by the default parking spots included.
One issue that bugged me as well is the "plumbing" or the behind-the-scenes pathways that are laid down for the AI aircraft to follow are all completely basic and do not represent the way traffic is routed around the actual airport. Rotterdam has specific ground movement procedures (see charts for Runway 06 and Runway 24) and unfortunately the plumbing was not laid out to recreate this. I decided to try to implement these ground movements myself and after a lot of tweaking I do indeed have AI traffic following these movement routes while taxiing in and out for both runways. However there are several persistent issues that, due to the limitations of the AI in FSX, are not easy to solve - if they are even possible to solve at all. You can come close, but not without degrading the product slightly in the process.
This video I made shows aircraft following the ground movement pattern for Runway 06 active. Note the fluidity of multiple craft taxiing in and out at the same time. Unfortunately this could not be achieved without issues that would not work well in a commercial product.
For more about the changes I made to the airport to improve operations, see my review addendum.
Let's turn down the lights and see how things look once the sun starts to dip below the horizon. The first thing you'll notice is the ground lighting for the area around the airport, both the default textures and the surrounding aerial imagery. It's good to see night lighting added to the aerial imagery so you don't have this big black dark spot sitting outside a bright city with an airport in the middle. The roads are variably lit, which looks better than having every mile of roadway the same level of brightness, and areas like sports fields are lighted as well. There is a small issue with some half-lit terrain behind the main airport terminal, however.
As the day moves closer towards night you'll see the pole lights surrounding the airport tarmac come on, as well as the airport beacon light atop the control tower. The pole lights don't immediately illuminate the ground, but you figure there's still enough daylight for them not to. The lights themselves are soft and small, they don't have that exaggerated "glare" effect and they blend in well from a distance. The airport beacon is not a rotating object like the default FSX beacon light, but an omni-directional light point that fades in and out between green and white. It's also a smaller and dimmer light than the FSX default making it more difficult to pick out from the air; however that's not a far cry from reality.
The taxiway lighting also comes on at this time, and has a nice soft blue glow, as well as being actual 3D objects you see on the side of the taxiways. There's also the red light stop bar strung across the V3 Taxiway. Looking again at the airport diagram I was surprised to see how detailed it is compared to American charts, noting that taxiway lighting was depicted around the airport. If it's accurate in this regard, then Rotterdam X is missing a few taxi lights around the main tarmac and also alongside Taxiway V3. It is possible though that some of the lights could be reflector poles, as those are placed around the main tarmac (but still nothing for Taxiway V3).
Finally, as the sun is disappearing below the horizon the tarmac lights and taxiway sign lights come on. I'm not sure how much control developers have over this ability but if it's possible to turn these features on a little sooner it would be better in my opinion - especially in the case of taxiway signs which become hard to read as the sun sets behind them and doesn't provide them any illumination (remember these signs are 3D objects not default FSX signs). The tarmac lighting is "baked" into the ground textures for better performance and looks great.
One little problem I noticed, and I could be mistaken as I'm not familiar with standards in Europe, but the green runway start lights exist only on the threshold and do not also exist at the start of the runway itself.
You can see the specs of my computer in the sidebar to give you an idea what to base these performance results on compared to your own system. Additionally. it should be noted that I do run a tweaked FSX.cfg file although there are really only 3 settings that might matter:
In addition to what you see above, Ultimate Traffic 2 Daily and weekly aviation is set to 100%, and both are using increased traffic databases from World of AI for all airlines and GA traffic to Rotterdam. Settings like the boat traffic density and the terrain mesh complexity, resolution and texture resolution are all set to what Aerosoft recommends in the manual. The road traffic has been bumped up to 50% (from the recommended 20%) as well. Also, I usually run with the sim externally locked to 30FPS but I disabled the external frame rate limiter for these tests.
The result is a fairly steady frame rate of 15FPS from a stationary high vantage point overlooking the main area of the airport as well as the extensive default Rotterdam city scenery in the distance. Because frames can stutter while you are in an aircraft in motion I like to test the overall smoothness of scenery by hopping into the Dodosim Bell 206.
Controlling a helicopter requires very responsive input and the Dodosim 206 can simulate some very realistic handling. If there are any large frame drops or stutters it is not an easy thing to take off, fly around and land again (at least, land on a specific spot). After spending about half an hour taking off, flying around the airport and landing at both helipads I was happy to see that the scenery was indeed flyable with all these bells and whistles turned on.
From this point, removing or toning down graphical features only sends the frame rates upwards. Although ground shadows will incur a performance hit of at least 5FPS, it's only effective during the daytime when the shadows exist and you'll see an FPS jump at night even with them enabled. Due to the amount of water masking in the area, bringing the water down to a Low setting can net you some good gains in performance.
If you bring the Scenery Complexity down below Normal level you'll start removing major airport elements that actually breaks the scenery rather badly. The manual says you can take it down to Sparse and Very Sparse but I'm not sure why given what happens.
If you can't live with your sim running below 30FPS rest assured this is attainable with tweaking. Bringing everything down as low as possible jumps the sim up to 60FPS easily. Starting from the recommended settings in the manual and tweaking from there is a good route to go.
Summary / Closing Remarks
Despite several minor issues, this is a solid scenery addition worthy of inclusion in the library of anyone flying around Europe or looking for a reason to do so. Not only do you have the immediate airport environment to enjoy upon arrival or departure, but there is some exploring to be done in the surrounding area - even the default Rotterdam city scenery from Microsoft has several landmark buildings, a stadium and a docked cruise ship.
It would be nice to see an update to improve some of the airport operations issues which is where I felt the scenery was weakest, but if you are knowledgeable about scenery these are also changes you can make yourself (for yourself!).One final note is that this airport was not developed to work with DirectX 10.
What I Like About Rotterdam X
What I Don't Like About Rotterdam X
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