Over the last few years I’ve stopped asking the question “can Flight Simulation get any more realistic?” and have accepted the fact that, yes indeed, it can, and I wonder what could possibly be next! We’ve come an extremely long way from the polygon days of yesteryear.
An outstanding job was done in creating the environment in Microsoft flight simulator 2004, as well for FSX. But the developers at Flight1 have figured out that these default environments, as good as they are, can even be better…far better in fact, than one might imagine.
Installation and Documentation
There are two options available to you for the purchase of this product; downloading it from the Flight 1 site, or by purchasing the DVD. Download size is considerable, at 1.73 Gb, and may take you some time, even with a Broadband/DSL connection to download the product.
Installing the product from the disc went very smooth. It took about 10 – 15 minutes to install, and then I was ready to “change the world”…virtually of course! It does not matter where you install FEX; I have mine on an external drive.
Windows XP SP2 / Windows Vista / Windows 7
There are numerous things that this utility is capable of, and it’s all covered in a well written, easy to read manual, which is in PDF format and located in the folder where you installed FEX. The utility is, for the most part, fairly self-explanatory and if you have used the similar utility for FS9 you should be familiar with most of the functions, although FEX does employ some new tools that were not available in the FS9 version. There’s a lot “under the hood” of this utility, and that’s where the manual is handy.
I visited the forum for FEX and found that there were some issues that usually concerned installation or just getting the utility to work. In the vast majority of the threads that I read, all these issues were resolved and were found to be a user-oriented issue regarding their operating system or graphics settings.
Folks with the newer operating systems such as Vista and Windows 7 should read the manual and if you do have problems, just visit the forum and you should find a solution. There were not an overabundance of problematic issues in the forum and that is always a good sign. Nothing is ever perfect, yet this utility comes real close.
Flight Environment X (FEX) uses a new technology called Xenvision to render clouds, sky themes, and water themes in a way that you have to see to believe. “Super High Definition” is utilized, giving you the option to use 4096 X 4096 texture resolution sets. The screen shots will speak for themselves as to what this utility is capable of.
As I stated above, FEX is a fairly easy utility to use. There are some necessary items to be dealt with in the “Install Options” category, which is located by clicking “Options” from the main menu. The path to fsx.exe must be entered; an option for the path to screenshots in FSX is also available.
Under the “Resolutions and Compressions” menu listing is where you will set the max resolutions for textures that your system can handle. Explanations are right there, telling you what these are all about. Pretty straight-forward, but I did notice that resolution issues seemed to be a slight problem in the forums for FEX and in just about all cases I reviewed, the fix usually entailed the user to adjust some settings in the resolution and font categories.
The newer operating systems seemed to have these issues more than us folks driving the “Model T’s” of the computer world. In any case, the issues were easily fixed. By the way, when setting these items in the options tab, don’t forget to set the max resolution and to click the update FSX.cfg button which is to the right of the setting box. I found that unless I reloaded the textures off the main screen after changing these settings, FSX would crash after setting the weather settings. I don’t believe this to be a bug in the software, just another case of “Operator Headspace”.
The other menu option here in this category is Login and user information. You need to create an account and log into a flight simmers environmental plethora of user-made and up-loaded themes. There are some beautiful themes folks have made and are proud to share with you. You can be one of these “creators” as well…more on this in a bit.
After taking care of the necessary items mentioned above, you are ready to pick, mix, create, chose, and load literally a countless amount of environmental conditions for your sim. The items that can be chosen are Cloud themes, for all types of cloud formations, Sky themes, which include sunset and sunrise, as well as an overall look for the sky itself. Finally, you can choose a water theme and how the water is animated. As you can see in the screenshots above, setting various environments up with this utility is extremely easy.
The Main Page is shown in Figure 1, above. This page shows Recent Themes that you have used, and if connected to the internet will show Themes that have been uploaded by other simmers for your downloading and flying pleasure. Downloading is a snap, and does not take but a minute or so, depending on your connection. If you are a “Downloading Addict” (ahem…like myself!), you’ll have a field day with what there is offered by the FS community.
This page will also show the current set of themes that you have chosen, with thumbnail views provided, as well as a “Randomize” button which is rather fun to use as you just don’t know what you’ll end up with “Theme” wise. You can also launch FSX from this utility. Personally, I usually close any programs not needed when I run FSX. The option is available to close this program automatically after FSX is launched.
As you work your way down the menu buttons on the left of the page, note that each one deals with the various environments within FSX. Selecting is done by either choosing off the listed textures that are displayed or by using the navigation buttons located in the Main Window. Rotate to a different environmental area within a particular theme with the arrowed buttons. Large views of the screenshots are available to view as well. Authors, descriptions of the textures, date of creation/installation are also listed for your information. The toughest part of using this utility is choosing a theme to go with.
The time it takes to install the texture sets/themes that you have chosen can vary. If it is the first time that a set has been used, it may take a fair amount of time to get everything installed. My first installation of sets took approximately 45 minutes as the textures had to be created and installed. There is an option to use cached textures if you have loaded them before which cuts down on the installation time considerably. But, all good things come to those that wait! There is nothing that the developers can do to speed this process up, so be patient, grab a donut and a coffee then come back and enjoy your new virtual world.
When I first saw what MSFS could do…way back when…I thought it absolutely incredible the way the overall environment was rendered. This was after the days of “pixel” clouds and “polygon” mountains. One of the big selling points of MSFS was the ability to render clouds in a three dimensional manner. You could fly right into and through them.
My mind was very accustomed to seeing the virtual world as presented to me by the folks at ACES studios. Then I started getting into taking screenshots and was wondering how the heck the screenshot “veterans” were getting such stunning shots, aside from the fact that a bit of touching up might have been used with a photo edit program. Those clouds and sunsets and sunrises were looking far better than what I was seeing within my sim, even with a new graphics card.
Enter stage left…Flight Environment. The first time I used the utility it was for FS9 (MSFS 2004). Absolutely amazing results. Not only did the screenshots look better, I felt that the “realism versus virtual reality” line was getting pretty thin. I enjoyed my flights even more, which frankly, I didn’t think possible.
With the addition of an easily used Designer Tool in this version of FEX, you can create your own unique environment textures for all of the categories. Using this tool, the simmer can vary many items pertaining to;
Clouds (intensity, brightness, contrast, shape)…
There is an incredible amount of “play” with these settings and it would take far too long to cover all of them in depth, but I found this to be an extremely fun tool to use within FEX. The way to the “Developer” page is simply by clicking on “Development” at the top of the page of themes that you are on, and go from there.
Uploading your creations for others to enjoy is just as simple as using anything else in FEX, but of course, an internet connection is required. Reading the manual will explain all the tools in detail and you’ll be creating your own unique environments in no time at all.
Summary / Closing Remarks
There are some products, both payware and freeware, that in my opinion are almost necessary to have in the quest for ultimate realism. One of these utilities on the list should be Flight Environment X, not only for the amazing amount of realistic, as well as surrealistic environmental settings, but simply for the pure enjoyment you will get out of looking out that virtual windscreen.
I really expected a large frame rate hit on my system as it is rather “old”, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was getting decent frame rates even with multiple layers of heavy cloud cover. Most of my graphics settings are in the medium to high range and I did use the max texture settings within FEX itself.
I also find that I am not hesitating as much to fly in the virtual FSX world now, as the “tune up” has begun and things are starting to look a little more acceptable. I suppose I’ve been spoiled with a great installation of FS9. There is much more information on FEX over at Flight 1’s website than I could fit into this review without boring you into a deep sleep, so I suggest that after you read this review, hop on over there if you are interested in even more detail. They are at www.flight1.com.
The price of this utility is as follows…Flight Environment X (DVD Edition) - $49.95 USD - Downloadable Version of Flight Environment X for FSX - $44.95 USD. Yes, the price of the product is an eye-catcher, but this is one of those payware products that you will enjoy every time you embark on a virtual flight. I like to call it the ultimate “Environmental Eye Candy”! It is also worth the price as you get the tools to create your own personal and unique environments. Yet another fun way of spending time out of the “cockpit” and tweaking the sim.
The aircraft that I used for this review are a couple of fantastic freeware packages. The FSX Classic Wings "Luscombe 8A Silvaire" by Lynn & Bill Lyons is a beautiful classic and has the file name of luscombex.zip. Alphasim’s excellent freeware SE5a for FSX, file name of alpha_se5a_fsx.zip was also used to putt around in.
Here are a few more screenshots to round out the review.
Have a great flight!
What I Like About Flight Environment X
What I Don't Like About Flight Environment X
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