Missions in FSX, A flight of Fancy or something more?
Missions... one of the features in FSX that seems to have been both applauded and criticized since its release with the common criticism that I have observed being that ‘Aces are turning flightsim into a game’. The flip side of this argument or one of them at least, is that by adding interactive aspects to the single player experience, Aces have opened the door to a whole new generation of ‘simmers’.
At the end of the day whether you see FSX Missions as a stroke of genius or not, they do not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. By including the Object placer and mission development tool with the SDK in the Deluxe version of FSX, Aces, knowing the strong Flightsim development community which is the bedrock Flightsim is built on, would start developing missions and have basically dangled it like a carrot under the communities nose and said go ahead, bite me.
And bite them we have. Even though from what I have observed, it’s taken some time for those so inclined to take a good look and nibble on that carrot to come to grips with Object Placer and its mission creation ‘language’. But over the past 12 months we have seen (as of June 2008), a group of developers in the freeware community, myself included, that have taken a bite and found they want to do more and more, and this has been mirrored by the payware teams.
In recent months we have started to see fully developed mission add-ons coming out covering all manner of events and times in our history. Missions have also appeared with aircraft & scenery add-ons such as the Level D 767 and also Aerosoft’s LuklaX, that was reviewed by yours truly some months back. In my view, these free missions added another level of realism and atmosphere to the scenery, allowing the user to get a more indepth experience than what they may have got without them, and in the case of the Level D 767, they were included as a training tool.
So it would seem the popularity, or at least acceptance of missions, is clearly growing. This brings me to the topic of this review, RESCUE PILOT by English development house Just Flight. RESCUE PILOT is the first from Just Flight, and places you in the action front and centre flying a number of sorties in a range of aircraft across 12 missions. But before we start getting into the specifics, let's first look at installation and documentation.
Installation and Documentation
For this review, I received the download version of RESCUE PILOT, which was a 283MB download. Installation was straight forward enough, double click the self installer and after having the software unlocked via an internet based interface using the supplied keys, I then had the choice of installing there and then, or waiting to do so later. Naturally I was keen to get going, so chose to install immediately. The files unpacked themselves onto my hard drive taking no more than about 3 minutes to complete.
A number of folders were created in my FSX directory. The first was a Just Flight folder where all Just Flight products install information on the product being installed. This typically includes the manual and any additional software that comes with the add-on. In this case, these were two utilities called Rescue Pilot Configurator and Rescue Pilot Unlock, along with scenery for the missions.
In my mission’s folder, a folder called Just Flight Rescue Pilot was created. This was 293MB in size and contained all the mission specific files such as sounds and briefings etc, and the FSX config file was automatically updated to recognize this new mission group. Finally in my Sim objects folder, a folder called JFRescuePilot had been added. This contained the skins for the aircraft used for the missions.
On first looking at this folder I thought the install had duplicated FSX default aircraft such as the Jet Ranger and other aircraft that appeared in here, along with what appeared to be a number of AI aircraft. But cleverly, the chaps at Just Flight have used FSX’s excellent referral tree system, at least that’s what I call it, that allows the sim to access other folders to gather information and then display it. So while all the textures and specific aircraft config files are kept separate for the Just Flight versions, the aircraft models, panels and sound are sourced from the original default model folders.
Not only does this help to keep file size down, but it also means the installer isn’t playing around with your original aircraft config files, which if you’re like me and have a large number of 3rd party skins installed, is somewhat of a relief.
The ‘Operators Manual’ is a PDF file and has 17 pages that cover all aspects of RESCUE PILOT from install to what scenery is included that you can access in free flight. The manual explains things in simple terms and certainly sets the scene for the potential of the package as it becomes clear that what’s installed initially is just the start of what’s to come.
How to use the Rescue Pilot Configurator and Rescue Pilot Unlock are explained, as are various suggestions on ideal system set-up and how to get the best from the missions if you have any of the Just Flight VFR sceneries installed. My only gripe with the documentation, and I tend to say this with almost every download package I have come across to date, is instructions on the install process are always included but only accessible AFTER you have completed the installation.
I appreciate that boxed versions don’t have this limitation, but I remain perplexed on the rationale behind this for Download products, and RESCUE PILOT is no different.
Overall, I think the product manual hits the mark well. It’s professionally presented with enough detail to clearly explain what everything does without trying to address questions that the flying will answer. The second page of the manual really sets the scene for this mission add-on and I’ll quote it word for word here because after this, you don’t really need to know a lot more about what lies ahead:
“6 August, 11.30 GMT. You are sitting in the ready room in the company base at Caernarfon airport, having a chat with your long-term co-pilot. You are just thinking about getting your third cup of coffee of the day when an emergency message suddenly flashes up on the computer screen."
The message is coming in from Valley Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC), the facility where all regional rescue operations are coordinated. A road traffic accident on the A55, 4 miles east of Bangor. Emergency teams on site require a rescue helicopter to transport a casualty to the hospital. You put your almost empty cup back on the table, grab your headset and clipboard and rush out of the door towards the apron. Your day is just beginning…”
Saving the World, one mission at a time!
I was first introduced to RESCUE PILOT via the demo available from the Just Flight website. So the first thing I would say is, if you are interested in a hands-on look at this product, I would encourage you to grab the demo and fly. You will very quickly get a good feeling for what this add-on offers. I’m a big fan of product demos when it comes to Flightsim, developers can’t hide behind their spin and marketing hype when it's just you and the product. So Just Flight gets a big tick for that.
Mission Choices – Of the 12 missions available, each one utilizes one of the default FSX aircraft types, these being the Bell Jet Ranger, Cessna C172, King Air and the Learjet. Each aircraft type has been provided with skin sets created for the missions. While these are not selectable individually as part of the mission itself, you can specify the set you want across the aircraft range using the Rescue Pilot Configurator.
The missions range in difficulty from beginner through to advanced, so you can build up experience as you go. However, if you have flown the default FSX missions or if you purchased FSX Acceleration and have done any of those, you won't be pushed too hard as the missions are quite forgiving.
An example of this is one of the tasks required me to hover for 1 minute above a guy in a frozen lake. It would be fair to say I’m not the best ‘hoverer’ in the world and I only got near the guy once, yet after the minute, my crew member fishing him out and advised that he was onboard.
This was a surprise given the way I had been flying, and to be honest, a little disappointing because I wasn’t pushed to actually hone my helicopter flying skills, I just had to get close enough once for it to be ok. To be fair, this was a beginner mission so that may well have been appropriate, it just seemed a little too easy. But I’ll take the shiny gold medal as a mission reward for successfully completing the task regardless!
In general terms, the missions cover a good variety of situations from search and rescue over land and sea, airlift rescues from precarious places like mountains and ice lakes, or long range transportation to hospitals or larger metro areas all done using the aircraft mentioned earlier. 7 of the 12 missions are completed by flying the Jet Ranger, with a few missions giving you the choice between different aircraft types.
I found that to fly the missions effectively, I relied on the hours I had spent across the aircraft types used. When time sensitive situations appear, and they do several times, it can be quite stressful if you have to fly and navigate in an unfamiliar aircraft all the while listening to instructions from your co-pilot. The flip side of this, is it all adds to the fun and sense of pressure that ultimately leads to a real sense of satisfaction once you successfully complete a mission.
The triggers throughout the missions were sensible and forgiving, as long as I held a course close enough to where I needed to be, and I was able to progress through the missions successfully. For those not sure what I mean by triggers, these are the locations you typically arrive at or fly through during missions that ‘trigger’ the next event, whether that be some spoken dialogue or a new compass bearing etc. The only time this was not the case, was when waiting to depart a pick-up point and was advised by ATC to hold short due to the Beech King-Air on short finals. The King-Air never showed and I had to quit the mission and re-fly it.
While each mission is different, there is also a degree of repetition, fly from A to B and then typically on to C. While this is what you tend to do in flightsim anyway, I would have liked to have seen a little more variation in the mix as you go. Without giving too much away, once you complete a mission, the opportunity does present itself to change aspects of the missions using Rescue Pilot Mission Unlock. I’ll speak more about that later.
Every mission, if completed successfully, will award you with a Mission Reward. These take the form of a Gold, Silver or Bronze medal depending on the time it’s taken you to complete the mission and the activities you have completed during them. Having a tiered Reward system like this is a great idea, I know I felt quite indignant after I received my first bronze medal and it spurred me to want to rectify that issue forthwith! By rewarding strong performance and the not so strong, I felt encouraged to re-fly missions as it prodded my natural competitive nature.
Scenery & Effects - The area the majority of the RESCUE PILOT missions cover is limited to a few hundred square km’s in Wales and England. You are based at the former RAF Llandwrog, now known as Caernarfon Airport (EGCK), a small facility sitting on the western coast operating mainly GA aircraft. The airport is the home of Caernarfon Airworld, an aviation museum and has a Hawker Hunter T.7 as its gate keeper.
Just Flight have provided detailed scenery for this airport (minus the gate keeper) that captures the spirit of the facilities rather than presenting itself as a duplicate of its real world counterpart. This is, after all, a mission add-on not a scenery add-on. I liked this; it gave me a sense of having a home base and had the right amount of detail to make it interesting and ‘alive’ without impacting system performance.
A number of the other airports you fly into had similar scenery enhancements and it appears the village of Dolwyddelan, that sits on the A470 in the Lledr Valley within the Snowdonia National Park in the real world, has been included with a ‘flying club’ aerodrome, which is the only airport in the missions that you won't find in the real world.
I must emphasize here that Dolwyddelan is never named specifically in any documents or in the dialogue, but it would appear to fit the geographic location of the area as the most likely spot, but I’m happy to be corrected on this point. A detailed rendition of Ysbyty Gwynedd Hospital is also supplied for dropping off the injured you have plucked off the sides of mountains etc. In my view, having real world locations like this adds a lot of credibility to these missions, and if you take the time to look into them, you begin to appreciate that these are real places you are visiting as opposed to just buildings on a virtual landscape created for a mission.
This is a point that is likely to be lost on everyone other than those who live in the immediate area, as it was with me until I started to Google some of the place names and discovered some of their history and could look at photos etc. I found each area I visited became a ‘character’ in the mission and added a layer of depth and realism.
Depending on what was happening, various purpose built vehicles, AI Aircraft and ‘people’ were added as additional scenery items, and in many cases, these were complimented by default FSX scenery objects as well. To appreciate some of this, I needed to taxi quite close and found many items were animated and all had appropriate effects attached, such as flashing lights on the ambulances and fire engines.
This is another area of note, you won’t find too many default American FSX fire engines around. Just Flight have built their own to reflect the vehicle types you could reasonably expect to find in England. My one niggle with all the scenery in RESCUE PILOT is it appeared to me to be quite washed out in colour. An example is the fire engine below; note the tyres are not black? Looking at the textures, I can see that black equals transparency in many of the scenery items, so I can understand the texture artist wanting to avoid this for obvious reasons; however there are many shades of dark gray that would have been better than the gray used.
You won’t find the scenery featuring any FSX specific enhancements, for example, spec mapping was not present on the buildings or vehicles so unfortunately no shiny glass window effects. This is by no means a criticism; the scenery provided for the missions is perfectly functional and detailed enough and supports the activities well.
One thing to be aware of, is the scenery used for the missions is installed in the standard way, so some items set up at airports may be an issue for you. The Isle of Man Airport is a good example where the Boeing 737 has had a bad landing. The 737 is a scenery item and will appear in free flight, so you will need to turn this scenery off if you don’t want them showing.
The effects used throughout, appear to be default FX files; they are used well with some quite dramatic effects achieved particularly in areas that involved large bush fires. One memorable experience from one of the earlier missions, involved me having to fly through a wall of fire to reach the airfield, which made for quite a dramatic approach.
Sounds – One of the important parts of any mission is the sound that comes with it. All of the missions in RESCUE PILOT have sound sets unique to the mission being flown, with only some of the ATC ‘chatter’ being used across all of the missions, as this is more generic in nature. You know you are in England listening to your co-pilot and ATC as you fly, broad English accents are the norm with a token American and what sounded like European accent thrown in for variation.
In general, I thought all the dialogue was of a good standard, though at times it sounded like words were being read from a page rather than the voice actors really getting into the role. ATC Procedures are followed, and when compared to real world ATC chatter, I felt it stood up quite well. I noted a few times when the on-route conversation didn’t quite seem to be in-line with the events. An example of this, was when I was flying in quite heavy snow conditions. One of the guys started talking about it being a great day for flying with clear conditions. I had a chuckle and am pleased to note this was the exception, as most of the speaking was appropriate for the environment and circumstance.
I was also quite impressed with the ambient sounds whenever I landed at an emergency site. Inevitably as soon as the crew opened the door, I was met with wailing sirens making some of the locations quite frantic visually and auditory. Every time my crew jumped back in, I heard the reassuring thump of the door closing as well. Nice touch this, adding depth to the environment.
Overall performance across all the missions was excellent. I noticed no apparent drop in my FPS during any of them given the scenery is in a support capacity and made to keep frames up. I would say RESCUE PILOT will run across a good range of systems. As previously mentioned, if you try the demo first you’ll find out for yourself if your machine is up to spec.
The RESCUE PILOT Extras
Just Flight have included a number of extra utilities to enhance the experience of the missions, and also unlock additional features once you have successfully completed missions. The first of these is called the Rescue Pilot Configurator.
The Configurator allows you to select what skin set you want your aircraft to wear for missions. You’ll note throughout the screenshots above and below, all the aircraft are seen in different liveries. The choices are red and white, all yellow, or red, white, blue and yellow. The Configurator allows you to simply select the set you want and it automatically updates the appropriate files to display them once the mission begins. It’s a nifty tool and makes swapping skins a breeze!
The second part of the Configurator allows you to personalize the logo on the side of your rescue facilities at Caernarfon Airport. Note in the screenshot above at left, I was flying for AVSIM RESCUE. You can make this text say anything you want and have it in any colour, further personalizing your experience.
The other tool supplied is Rescue Pilot Mission Unlock. As the name suggests, this little utility allows you to enter a code you get after successfully completing missions. In some cases you receive more than one code per mission, which is then put into the Unlock to open enhancements to missions you have completed. These typically take the form off changes in weather and wind conditions adding additional challenge to these missions.
The final extra I feel is worth a mention because it has applications beyond RESCUE PILOT, is the Just Flight person, or who I affectionately refer to as ‘the invisible man’. The Just Flight person is you, and has you starting each mission at the door of your rescue base and you need to ‘walk’ to whichever aircraft you are using for each mission. Once you arrive, a menu pops up asking if you would like to fly the particular aircraft you are standing beside.
When I came across this in the demo, I thought what a great idea it was as I had never seen anything like this done before, and it adds a good effect to the start of each mission. I think this is a very innovative approach to missions. Gone are the days of starting a mission in the seat of your aircraft, you now have to walk, or run, to get going. A great yet simple sound set accompanies your movements; with the sound of crunching feet on gravel that get louder and faster the faster you go. The invisible man is controlled just like an aircraft, with a maximum speed of about 21 knots, 23 with a suitable tail wind.
Summary / Closing Remarks
I’m a fan of FSX missions. In my view they add depth to the flightsim experience and can be a great tool for learning and showing off the flightsim world. In this package, I think Just Flight have shown some of what can be achieved. Many aspects of this add-on are innovative and immerse the user in a world of rescue flying that I have yet to see in another package.
It’s by no means perfect, but the shortfalls are minor and don’t detract from the overall experience. Missions are not easy things to put together, particularly when they include multiple skins, additional scenery items and lots of speaking parts. So I feel the team at Just Flight have done a great job and I would like to think this is the start of a Mission series rather than an end, time will tell.
I have thought about the longevity of this package. If you fly all the missions and are successful first time you, have about 6 hours of flying time; with the unlock codes this probably triples. I have yet to complete them all as my aircraft have a knack of finding the ground frequently, especially in the latter missions, and I’ve already spent 20 hours at the stick.
From my own experience, I know I haven’t gone back and re-flown missions already completed in FSX, so the question I have to ask myself is, "will I choose to repeat RESCUE PILOT missions once I’ve been successful?" That’s an unknown, but Just Flight have clearly thought about this and done everything they can to keep users coming back for more.
So, if you are into FSX missions I can recommend this product 100%. Now you must excuse me, I have a heart that simply must be delivered to Luton in 45 minutes or I’ll have some explaining to do.
What I Like About Rescue Pilot
What I Don't Like About Rescue Pilot
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