Switzerland, as famous for the Matterhorn and the Swiss alps, cheese with holes and Toblerone chocolate, as it is for its neutrality during both World Wars. Switzerland is the home of Zürich Airport (Flughafen Zürich), and that, rather than the topic of chocolate, is the purpose of this review, or more specifically FSDreamteam’s latest scenery add-on release for FSX.
(Flughafen) Zürich, also known as Kloten airport (IATA: ZRH, ICAO: LSZH) is an airport on the move, selected as Europe’s leading airport for the fourth year in a row (World Travel Awards) and with increasing passenger numbers (20.7 Million in 2007) Zürich has become one of the key European hubs.
Naturally it wasn’t always this way. The original airport was opened in 1948 as part of an initiative by the then government to build 4 new airports across Switzerland. At that time Zürich had one runway (1900m) but this was lengthened and a second runway added in the late 1950’s, along with improvements to the terminal facilities. In 1970, the third and final runway was added along with another terminal, and in 1981, an underground railway was completed. 2003 saw the new ‘airside terminal’ opened.
FS Dreamteam are also an organization on the move, being a new ‘brand’ in the flightsim market, but consisting of developers responsible for some of the best scenery seen across a number of versions of Flight Simulator. Their most recent project being the VC and gauges for the FSX Acceleration F/A18. With Zürich they have sought to take a step forward in FSX scenery design, and from my first impressions, the bar for dedicated FSX scenery has just been raised. It was with some excitement I embarked upon this journey deep into Europe and a part of the world I haven’t visited a lot virtually, and never in real life. The screenshots for this scenery and on the FSDreamteam website suggested this scenery could be something special, time would tell if it would deliver.
Installation and Documentation
ZürichX comes as a 75MB file that is freely available to download from the FS Dreamteam website, no registration or activation is required. So, is FS Dreamteam crazy for making this scenery freely available? Well, I’m sure the developers are crazy for flightsim given their previous releases, but in terms of building scenery and distributing it, it’s a definite no, they are not crazy, quite the opposite in fact.
ZürichX is one of those sceneries that allows you to install and run unrestricted, so no obstacles on the runways or big signs promoting itself all over the place, just the scenery as it was built so you can actually evaluate it in its true form. However, you only get to do this for a few minutes at a time before all the airport buildings and objects disappear leaving you with the runways, aprons and shadows where everything once stood. Restarting FSX allows you another few minutes etc, and then if you decide you would then like to purchase the scenery there is a very clever ‘in sim’ activation process involved that we will discuss shortly.
When I got the green light for this review, it was the 1.2 version of the scenery that I downloaded and installed. The installation process itself is very simple with the installer automatically detecting the location of FSX, and the files then being installed within a few minutes. Total hard drive space used was around 224MB. Along with installing the scenery an additional utility called the Add-on Manager was included; this installs automatically and is not an optional install as it becomes important if you decide to purchase the scenery later.
With the install complete I checked out the documentation provided. Both the ZürichX scenery Manual and Install Guide are provided in PDF format. The manual is 8 pages but only 3 of those actually relate to features of the scenery itself. This being information on the way the Safe Gates parking system works, where De-icing facilities are available and how you can interact with them, and finally, how the animated Jetways will interact with your aircraft. Links to maps and charts of the airport and region are also provided.
The install information really focuses on the scenery activation process, so at that point I started FSX so I could take my first look at the scenery. ‘Wow’ was my first impression, and then ‘now that’s clever’, followed shortly afterwards by, ‘I don’t believe they have done that’, and finally ‘wohoo’ as the jetway snuggled up to the front door of my 737. And then pfft, it was all gone, the scenery disappeared!
Now, if I sound a little bit like a kid in a candy shop that’s kind of how it was, but before I get going on the scenery itself I need to tell you about the activation process, because only a few minutes at a time exploring this scenery was simply not going to do. FS Dreamteam uses the Add-on Manager to allow you to purchase the scenery in the sim. This is as simple as clicking on the top of the screen menu and bringing up the Add-on Manager that sits under Add-Ons.
From here you can purchase the scenery (requires a credit card and internet connection) access the documentation and websites for the scenery or tweak the FSX config file settings. The purchase process automatically sends an unlock code for the scenery, and you can save this for future re-installs. I had no hassles with this process, however I will note that not having a boxed version option will mean consumers who don’t have access to a credit card or don’t want to use one online, won’t have access to this scenery. There was nothing in the documentation or the FS Dreamteam website that suggested a boxed option was or would be available. Once completed, a message came up to tell me the scenery was now Active, and it was time to explore.
Facilities & Textures
Zürich Airport is split into 6 main areas. The main terminal facilities consisting of the large distinctive glass fronted main hall, with Terminal A and B effectively being finger piers. To the left of this is the main maintenance area and hangars. To the right is the GA and cargo area; while across from this are the Execujet and the Rega medivac hangars.
The airside terminal, referred to as the ‘Dock Midfield’, is located away from the main buildings and is sandwiched between runways 28/10 and 32/14. Around the perimeter are various other facilities, these include the Heliport and Swiss Post buildings and the UNIQUE airport administration buildings. A point of clarity here, when I say unique that’s the airport operator's business name as opposed to the buildings being unique in design etc.
On first load and look around I was immediately struck by how compact the airport is, a lot is located in a smallish area. One of the first things that comes to mind is ‘modern’. There is nothing 1940’s about this airport. Extensive use of glass in the main hall and midfield terminal mean this airport is very open, allowing the dramatic views of the alps in the distance to be a key feature for visitors, and this scenery is no different.
I also noted that many of Terminal A and B’s windows are also transparent, so don’t be surprised if you see the tail of an aircraft on the other side of the terminal moving across your field of view while doing your pre-flight checks. Having so many windows has meant FSDreamteam have had to fill these interior spaces, and they have done this well with shop frontages, staircases and other amenities you would no doubt find in the actual buildings. The level of clarity in the internal textures is not as high as the externals, and this is reasonable given they are designed to be viewed from the outside in.
However, if you are anything like me and love to go inside and watch, you won’t be disappointed either as the terminals are populated with passengers waiting for flights and doing shopping etc. Terminals A and B don’t have internals as such, making the buildings look hollow if you look closely, but the effect FSDreamteam look to be going for here works very well.
The external models for all buildings and facilities have been done to a very high level of detail; this is particularly evident in the main building frontage and the midfield dock, mainly because of the detail that has been built into these. I’m pleased to say all buildings have been given the same level of attention as these two, so no part of the scenery appeared to be generic. The bump mapping has allowed an enhanced level of detail to all buildings particularly where concrete has been used.
All terminals are fitted with fully animated jetways, and these have all been purpose built to reflect their real world counterparts. I was very impressed by the level of detail FSDreamteam have built into these, with what appears to be power boxes, control cables and the like all fully rendered and appropriately animated. The same can be said for the maintenance areas, some with open hangar doors that allow you to explore within. It’s worth doing so as you never know what you might find in any of these locations.
In terms of scenery settings, Zürich needs you to have your scenery set at Normal, anything less and you are looking at a large empty ramp with nothing more than the default FSX tugs and baggage handling trucks to keep you company. On Normal you get all the airport buildings and facilities but no additional eye candy. Move the slider up to dense and additional static scenery items will appear such as vehicles, containers, air stairs and the like, along with animated vehicles. On Extremely dense, I didn’t notice a big difference in what was rendered so it looks like dense is the right setting for maximum effect.
Depending on the time of year you fly in and out of Zürich, you will see the appropriate changes in the airport textures. Naturally during summer the grass is green and lush, by the time Autumn arrives the trees are displaying their vibrant red orange and yellow leaves and the grass has gone a deep mustardy yellow/brown. During winter, snow covers the airport surrounds and portions of the ramp, and once spring arrives, the green comes back. All seasons work really well, particularly winter, which was my favorite time to fly through this region.
The same level of detail seen in the buildings and seasonal textures are also evident at night. All buildings and ramp areas are suitably illuminated with the ramp lighting creating pools of light that look very realistic. The main building and midfield terminal are realistically lit as opposed to being bright beacons of light. In most cases, the lighting is ambient and reflects what it should actually look like.
The quality of the base texture, which is a photograph, and the overlaid textures are very high. If you look at the Ramp Detail screenshot above you will see the level of detail present, in this case the drain grating. The runways and taxiways have the same quality textures with the runway suitably cracked and tire marked. All the taxiways and runways have grass ‘growing’ along the edges. I’ve seen this effect in other sceneries and I personally find it looks very effective.
Is it real, and how does it perform?
One of the challenges in doing reviews of airports, when you have never visited or don’t live close by, is how do you actually know what’s real and what isn’t? It’s easy to say the main building ‘looks realistic’, but how does one say that with any credibility? In this case, I had the advantage of webcams located at Zürich which I was able to access through the official airport website (ZURICH Airport). I spent many hours ‘taking photos’ through the webcam and then cross checking what I was seeing in FSX from a similar location. Here are some comparison shots.
Overall, I think FSDreamteam have developed a very realistic simulation of the real world equivalent, and have done so in a way that won’t bring your PC to its knees. Like most scenery developers who are starting to really appreciate what FSX offers, they face the additional hurdle of how to get what are often complex and detailed sceneries to perform well.
The trick is in the Level of Detail modeling (LOD) and the way each scenery item is then triggered to display based on your viewpoint in your aircraft. Basically, the closer you are, the more you see. If you decide to download the scenery and check it out and you want to test this, go to tower view and slew your aircraft around, note how scenery items appear and disappear based on where the aircraft is positioned, not your view from the tower.
As I moved through the scenery, I certainly noticed scenery items appearing and disappearing as my proximity to them changed. A good example of this can be seen in the ‘LOD – Texture’ screenshot above. Here we can see the front of the main building, and on this occasion we are looking at a flat texture. The screenshot next to it, ‘LOD – Model’, shows that we are now close enough for the scenery to tell FSX to swap models and display the fully rendered main building with interior.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you the difference in computer power needed to display a single flat surface as opposed to multiple objects and textures. This is very clever design work and I was amazed at the lengths FSDreamteam had gone to in terms of this. Another example is the van. As you can see, the closer you are, the more the details increase to the point where you are eyeballing the driver, who, in this case, is fully rendered. The effort put into this aspect of the scenery is very much appreciated because performance was very smooth.
I run with my FPS set at 20 as I find I get good results with this. Exploring ZürichX was a joy and frame rates generally stayed around the 20 mark, dipping to low teens when lots of traffic was within my field of view around the detailed scenery. Performance remained consistent across all seasons and times of day. The ability to tweak your settings using the Add-on Manager also assists, particularly with Autogen, and naturally you can reduce the level of detail further depending on where you choose to have your scenery sliders set.
AI traffic adds another level of realism to this scenery. While it is not supplied as part of the install (nor are any static aircraft), I installed various third party packages for airlines such as Swiss, Edelweiss, British Airways and Lufthansa, which are the prominent airlines operating to and from Zürich. Because the LOD was so good, I was able to have my traffic settings set quite high, and as you can see below, this certainly adds to the scenery.
With traffic flying in, out and around the area you get a good sense of the traffic levels Zürich sees. Like all major airports, a full fire/emergency training simulator and associated facilities for aircraft emergencies is located at the airport. In this case its near the threshold of runway 16. This is a good example of the detail that has gone into the scenery, and also how updates are adding value with each release. When I installed V1.2, this area was quite bland but was upgraded significantly with V1.3 which included additional buildings and details.
Zürich is equipped with category III ILS on runways 34/16 and 32/14, and another ILS on 28/10. I found both ILS’s brought me down on the centerline nicely, and with weather being a bit tricky at times during winter, I found I needed to utilize this feature of the scenery a lot, as more times than not, I found my VFR flight was terminated and I was required to quickly organize myself for an IFR approach utilizing the ILS. Approach and runway lighting is excellent for all three runways, with quite dramatic views over Zurich itself on approach to both RWY28 and RWY34.
I do need to emphasize that if you have a system that struggles with the default high detail sceneries, you really need to take the time and test this product properly before you buy. If anything, ZürichX will most likely perform better because FSDreamteam have taken the time to think carefully about performance and LOD, and that’s the beauty of try before you buy in this case. But like anything, don’t expect AI traffic at 100% and all sliders to the max and then wonder why you have a slide show if your current system struggles.
Zürich is quite literally alive with animation. Whether it's the distinctive red airport buses moving throughout the airport grounds, security cars, vans or tugs, the activity levels right across the airport is extreme, but once again controlled very well by LOD. All traffic follows preset pathways and behaves well, stopping when you are taxing and pushing back (such polite people in Zürich). When you have lots of AI movement thrown into the mix, I did observe a few pile ups with vehicles waiting for aircraft. These sorted themselves out, but can be interesting to observe. Particularly when you start a session and the AI all want to leave at once.
Being an area of the world that experiences truly freezing winters, you also have the opportunity to interact with de-icing crews prior to departure. I taxied my aircraft to the appropriate location, of which there are two, and two deicing trucks appeared and started to do their thing. They are fully animated with the lifting arm moving up, down and across, with a nice spray sound and visual effect accompanying their work.
One of the nifty features included that you see at the midfield dock that had me looking twice initially, is the inclusion of animated people below the terminal. Flat 2D groups walk back and forth and this is a great effect and adds additional atmosphere and depth to the scenery. Having said that, our friends in Zürich must be incredibly tall as all the animated characters appeared to be about 8-9 feet tall when compared to those in the terminal above, or when you see them walk behind a van and their shoulders and heads are clearly visible.
The scenery isn’t without a few issues. At the time of review, I started with the 1.2 version and then updated this halfway through to v1.3. The tower view appears to be about 300-800 feet in the air, and while this is above the tower itself, does not give a realistic view. By the looks of things, considerable effort has gone into the AFCAD file, so tower height was a surprise. While on the AFCAD, I noted that on some occasions AI traffic would decide to use both ends of the main runway for takeoff. Now this may well be how things work at Zürich on calm days, however , I’m skeptical of this.
While I’m delighted the jetways are fully animated, I noted a number of issues with these. When I parked my 737 in the correct spot, the Safe Gate system also advised me. I noted at some gates that the jetway overstretched itself to reach my aircraft. This meant a gap opened up between sections leaving room for any passenger walking up or down the jetway to plummet to the ramp. I tested this at a number of gates and got a similar problem, so I learnt that I needed to go beyond the Gate Safe stop point in the 737 to ensure this didn’t happen.
I also found that the jetway would also settle with its wheels below ground, and when the stairway lowered, this also disappeared. Once again this happened mainly with the 737 as it is lower than the A321. None of these detract from the scenery to a degree where you’d stop using it, but they are glitches all the same.
Having said all of that, I am pleased to say that when I raised these points on the FSDreamteam forum, Alessandro was quick to respond. In the case of the jetways going into the ground, he advised this is a common problem in FSX and offered a few screenshot examples. I hadn’t noticed this myself previously, but it’s a minor point and appears to be something beyond the developer's ability to resolve. He was also kind enough to supply an update for the tower that corrects the height error and told me that both this correction and one that resolves the jetways overstretching are planned for the next scenery update. So chances are, by the time you read this the latest version of the scenery has resolved these minor issues.
Summary / Closing Remarks
Overall, I was very impressed with ZürichX. FSDreamteam have bought together all the elements of the FSX SDK and produced a scenery that is realistic, alive with animation, and allows FSX users to enjoy the enhancements the latest version of our favorite sim offers.
ZürichX caters to machines of varying performance in terms of the ability to not only adjust scenery settings in-sim, but also adjust the config file settings with regards to autogen etc, through the Add-on Manager. A very clever scenery design through LOD’s, demonstrates that top quality, highly detail scenery is not only viable in FSX, it’s now a reality.
I was also impressed with the after sales support provided through the FSDreamteam forum and the fact that two free upgrades have already been released, which shows ongoing commitment from FSDreamteam to keep improving this product.
If you are a regular flyer through Europe, this is a must have add-on to enhance your Switzerland stop-over’s. For the rest of the world, pack your skies, FSDreamteam have given us more than enough excuse to make Switzerland, and particularly Zürich, a regular flightsim destination.
What I Like About ZurichX
What I Don't Like About Real Sky Pro
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