Photo-realistic scenery. The words suggest something that should be the ideal for any flight simulator – scenery that represents the real world, not randomly generated objects! However up until now, photographic scenery in general has held something of a love-hate status among flight sim hobbyists.
The supporters will historically say that, in a VFR flight at 2,500 feet, the scenery looks amazing and it’s truly possible to navigate with reference to real world landmarks that feature on the scenery. The loathers will point out that the textures can be slow to load, and horrendously blurry at anything other than the ‘suggested’ altitude for VFR flying. (Especially at altitudes lower than the optimum or suggested altitude).
All of this was in the context of FS2004 and earlier versions of Flight Simulator. Enter FSX.
One of the first things you will notice when reviewing the box of Just Flight’s first scenery release for FSX is that, although there are many design similarities with the ‘VFR Photographic Scenery’ releases for FS2004, the word ‘photographic’ has been dropped in favour of the word ‘real’. Quite an assertion then. Is this product ‘as real as it gets’ in terms of scenery for the new flight simulator platform? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
Installation and Documentation
The product comes on DVD-ROMs and typically Just Flight products are not only well presented in pleasantly designed packaging, but are also reliable and straightforward to install. Although the full version of this scenery is only available in DVD-ROM form, reduced versions which features individual cities and smaller areas are available by download.
These include VFR Real Scenery London (the entire area within the boundaries of the M25 London Circular Road). Buyers can order directly from Just Flight, who, based in the UK, are a major developer and Publisher of FS releases. In Europe, Just Flight releases are available from the shelves of many retailers. Now buyers in Canada and the US can take advantage of Just Flight’s new agreement with North American partner CompuExpert, with Just Flight products soon becoming available on the shelves of their retailers.
Installation of the software is via 3 DVD-ROMs. Disk 1 contains the main installer. The content of Disks 2 and 3 are contained on a dual sided single DVD. A further “Mesh Update” Disc is then provided for installation after the scenery. The process is a breeze and very straightforward, however, don’t expect this amount of detailed data to be installed in a few minutes. On my E6700 Core2Duo system, installation took around 45 minutes. Installing a large amount of data such as this, it’s often a good idea to perform a hard disk de-fragmentation after the installation. This added a further 45 minutes, although it is clearly not essential.
During installation you have the option of selecting 2m or 1m terrain detail. Selecting 1m terrain requires more disk space. You cannot install both as the 1m terrain includes 2m data. For the purpose of this review, I installed the 1m files. The installation process configures everything in FSX’s scenery library so there is no need to visit the scenery library after installation unless you want to check the scenery has actually been installed.
Documentation is in the form of a high quality printed pamphlet typical of Just Flight boxed products. As well as a detailed description and installation instructions, there are some FAQ's included to ….well… answered frequently asked questions!
What exactly is it?
So we know it’s scenery, but what exactly is all the fuss about with this new type of photographic scenery in FSX? Well, although Just Flight may have replaced the word photographic with ‘real’, make no mistake, the main feature of this type of scenery is that it is based around digital aerial photographs of the featured area.
One of the key exciting developments of this type of scenery in FSX is that new technology within the host sim’s graphics engine and the product means that the scenery is presented in a high resolution at various altitudes. High resolution at 800 feet? High resolution at 2,000 feet? High resolution at 8,000 feet? We will soon see!
As well as the detailed photographic scenery, the product also boasts custom water features, night lighting, and a 9.6m terrain mesh, which provides more ‘ups and downs’ than the default FSX mesh for the UK.
I have made a conscious decision in this review to ‘leave it at that’ when it comes to the technical specifications of these types of scenery packages. Essentially, it’s not the numbers, figures and measurements that matter – it’s all down to how it looks and performs in the simulator.
It’s a set up!
I have a reasonably powerful system, but decided to go for the middle ground when it comes to Settings for running this software. It’s worth pointing out that the settings for running this type of scenery program are not always the same as those used for general or ‘normal’ scenery within flight simulator.
Autogen does not come into the equation with this type of scenery. The scenery will display the ‘real’ scenery on the ground and so adding randomly placed objects would not in anyway augment the outside world. The documentation in the Just Flight box gives precise settings for flying in this scenery area that will give the best results in terms of appearance and performance.
It should be borne in mind that photographic scenery is approached quite differently in flight simulator. Put simply, when rendering photographic scenery, FS does not need to work as hard as it does when it renders generic textures, and adds auto generated objects to these. In terms of performance, that’s the plus side. The downside is that the photographic textures that are rendered are clearly more detailed and larger than the generic files.
The area covered by this volume is a rather slim but tall Easterly slice of England. The most obvious area to mention in terms of the coverage provided, is that it includes the City of London. But when you tire of checking out the City, you also get the eastern section of the South Coast area of England as well as the flat and generally rural East Anglia region. (The ‘hip’ of England!).
As well as the Capital, towns and cities such as Brighton, Folkestone, Dover, Ipswich, Norwich, Peterborough, Cambridge and Luton are also featured in this area. The Counties covered being Kent, East Sussex, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and parts of Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and West Sussex. Quite an area then, and lot’s to see. So, without further ado!
Looks are everything
Let’s delay no further from talking about, and taking a look at, how the South East of England looks with this software installed. I decided that a good way to check out the eye candy, and try some true VFR navigation, would be to start from an area I know and check out some references on the ground that I know. The problem is I'm from the North East of England, some 200 miles from the border of the area covered by this software! (perhaps I should have waited to review Vol 4 that covers my home part of England!).
However, there are 2 areas within this scenery that I am familiar with, as my work takes me there. Those areas are Peterborough and the surrounding villages between the town and the A1 road, along with the Brighton area. So I decided to take off from Conington Airport, not far from Peterborough.
I took off in what I believe is the best ‘default’ aircraft to appear in any version of FS – the Flight Simulator X Ultralite Trike. If you are a TrackIR user, as I am, this is a delightful little plane to explore the scenery within FSX. The viewpoint is superb and being such a simple little plane, it is very forgiving on frame rates.
Taking off from Conington, I very quickly reached the A1 road and started to track it North. While FSX has reasonably accurate main road placement for the UK, what I immediately noticed was how better the Just Flight Real Scenery sits alongside the main roads. As I reached 600 ft, I was exceptionally pleased to note that the quality and focus of textures are immeasurably better at this low altitude than they were in the previous VFR Photographic Scenery software for FS2004.
Although I had Autogen switched off (as recommended for this add-on), I was pleased to note that the scenery lost most of it’s 2 dimensional appearance from as low as 500-700’ AGL. The quality and resolution of the textures remained at a high quality up to and beyond 2,500 AGL. I continued to climb and to track the A1 North, passing a number of well detailed villages and small towns on the way. However, I was having trouble referencing these to the enroute charts I was using, so I decided to turn around and fly in a south-westerly direction.
I soon found and flew right over Peterborough and recognized all of the roads to the west of the City, near Alwinton and the Showground. I also flew down to a low altitude right over the Peterborough Business Park at Lynchwood and spotted the office building that I had been working from (in real life, not the sim unfortunately) some two days earlier! This was now becoming fun. Look, there’s the Marriott Hotel next door!
I headed back to Connington and landed, then changed to something larger – The Carenado Cessna U206. I took off and decided to head east towards a holiday destination from my childhood – Great Yarmouth. It was here that I noticed that the coastline is far more accurate and detailed with VFR Real Scenery, as opposed to FSX’s default scenery.
During this leg I flew a lot higher, up to 9,000 AGL, and I was slightly disappointed at the textures above 6,000 ft. Things tended to get blurry and there was a general ‘green mush’ appearance to the scenery below me for a lot of this leg. As I descended, the detail seemed to return and by the time I reached my next destination of Norwich, I was again being treated to a visual feast below me.
From my correspondence with Just Flight prior to reviewing this product, I was told that this version of the VFR Scenery uses more recent aerial photographic detail than the older VFR series for FS2004. It also uses more recent photographic data than its arch rival product “VFR Generation X Scenery” from Horizon Simulations. However, in my experience of using both products, I do not think this automatically makes the Just Flight product more superior.
Whereas the Just Flight scenery seems to capture the ‘hue’ and ‘haze’ somewhat more realistically than the Horizon product, I find that from a colour and contrast perspective, the Just Flight Scenery can appear a little too Green in places and almost ‘generic’ in some other places (accepting that it is, of course, not generic!). This phenomena is exacerbated at higher altitudes in rural areas. Contrastingly, the Horizon scenery appears generally more colourful but to an extent, some may find it unrealistic. Haze and hue is not generally conveyed in the Horizon product as well as it is in the Just Flight offering, in my opinion. (although this aspect can be improved by the user, within FS Weather settings).
My next flight within the area of coverage offered by this product, was from Shoreham and flying along the nearby coast to Brighton. I was again very impressed by this scenery and the general ability it offers for VFR flying that relies on ground based reference. Next, off to Central London.
Now this is where this product really excels. Even those who’ve never been to Europe can enjoy all the sights (and sites) of the big city. Tracking the Thames River from west to east, you can’t miss London City Airport, and just past it the famous Millennium Dome, the largest dome in the world, soon to re-launch as a major new musical venue for London. Even given the 2 dimensional nature of this type of ‘layer’ of photographic scenery, flying over London is a treat and you could spend hours hunting out the sights. It really is great fun and about as good as we’ve seen yet for VFR flying.
Whether you want this scenery on your hard drive will largely depend on your preferences within the hobby. If you are into low and slow VFR flying, then I could not recommend this product highly enough.
Perhaps those who are into flying their PMDG's and Level D complex airliners according to strict IFR rules, will be less drawn to this product. However, I personally think that if you bear in mind one important factor, the fact that this scenery is actually faster in terms of frame rates than the default FSX Scenery for London and the South East, on virtually any system, it is hard not to justify ignoring this add-on as part of your set-up.
Take-offs and landings, even in IFR circumstances, can still take in some of the benefits of this scenery. If you are a great lover of FSX’s good looking new Autogen then this may not suit you as it is designed to be used with autogen switched off (to prevent random placing of objects by FSX, which would clash with the ‘real’ scenery).
The world of photographic scenery within the sim is a developing technology and this product is not perfect. I experienced blurry textures when switching from a cockpit to an external view regularly, and the level of detail also degrades visually further into the distance (as one would expect), resulting in a ‘distant view’ that is far from impressive as the close range view. There can also be some angulation distortion of the images, especially from a spot view. By this I mean that the angular perspective of the more detailed scenery can look a little strange from time to time, if you aren’t looking at it from the optimum position or point of view.
But generally, this is an awesome add-on that will transform the way you see and even think about the ground below you.
I do not believe that either of the key product offerings from Just Flight or Horizon are clearly superior to the other. Before buying, I would advise you check out the screenshots from both publisher's web-sites and decide which one looks better for your preferences.
I finally asked Just Flight whether we could expect any coverage for Scotland or Ireland? The issue is around the fact that the ability to use the aerial photography within a flight simulator is a by-product of the photography that is commissioned by local councils and utility companies. There is currently very little existing photography available to Just Flight for Scotland and Ireland. However, Just Flight is currently “working on some data from Ireland” at this very moment and are also investigating further options for getting data for Scotland. No promises, but watch this space!
You can get further information about the “Real Scenery” series by checking out http://www.justflight.com/vfr-info.asp
As well as Volume 1 featured in this article, Volume 2 (Central & Southern England) has just been released and a number of individual towns and areas are available by download from the Just Flight web-site.
What I Like About VFR Scenery - Vol 1
What I Don't Like About VFR Scenery - Vol 1
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