This is the fourth and final installment in Aerosoft’s VFR Germany project, which combines aerial photography of the country with a database of buildings. I reviewed volumes 1 and 3, so I had a good idea of what to expect.
When I reviewed volume 1, I talked at length about the concept of photo-based scenery and how it differs from the generic, landclass-based scenery that you get in the default. Since the old review is still available, I’m going to concentrate in this one on evaluation: granted the concept, how well does this implementation of it work in practice? My evaluation will be divided into six categories: installation and documentation, water and landmarks, aerial photography, Berlin, autogen, and performance.
Installation and Documentation
This is a massive download; even with a good DSL connection, it took me the better part of a day. My advice is to compare the download price with that of the boxed version and see whether you can’t rationalize buying the DVDs.
Once you have downloaded all of the files, you need to unpack them into one folder (for which I recommend the freeware utility Unziplify). Run the installer, enter your email address and serial number, and wait while the files are copied. Then defragment your FSX folder. It’s going to take awhile, so go do something else.
Documentation is minimal: a few pages explaining how Aerosoft’s various scenery products interact, some tips on settings, and some notes on the product’s limitations. There is also an ICAO chart (the European equivalent of a VFR sectional) for the coverage area, in the form of a PDF file. If you print the PDF at 100%, it’s too small to use comfortably, but if you blow it up to 300% it’s quite readable. (This is an improvement, by the way, over the chart in volume 1 which wasn’t comfortably readable even at 300% magnification, and was locked in such a way that it couldn’t be printed.) Thank you, Aerosoft, for providing this.
Water and Landmarks
The basis of the whole VFR Germany project is aerial photography. I’ll say more about this in a few minutes, but a photograph of a lake doesn’t reflect light or have moving waves. To get that effect (which we are all used to from the default scenery), someone has to add all of the rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. Some of this process is automated and, in the first volume, you could tell.
Volumes 4 (and volume 3, which I reviewed earlier) are noticeably better in this regard. Eastern Germany doesn’t have a coastline, but there are lots of water features and in this product they have been recreated with great skill. If you wanted to criticize, you could point out that some rivers are forded by 3D bridges and that, where this occurs, no one has gone back to erase the photograph of a bridge that lies flat on the surface of the water.
That’s not unusual: Switzerland Professional X -- which is still, in my book, the reference standard for photo-based scenery -- has the same problem. I don’t remember whether it used to bother me, but it doesn’t now.
The one thing I do miss from the default scenery, is AI boat traffic on the inland waterways (although at Dresden, I see, there are static boats in the river).
Like previous volumes, this product also comes with thousands of VFR reference points. Most of them are generic: power pylons, nuclear reactors (which emitted steam in volume 1, but not in any of the subsequent volumes), animated wind farms, various types of broadcast towers, and observation saucers. In larger cities, such as Berlin, Dresden, and Erfurt, there are also custom churches, castles, sports stadiums, bridges, and other local monuments.
No one city has as many custom objects, for example, as Aerosoft’s Manhattan or San Francisco products. But for navigation, the included landmarks are more than adequate; and the various towers -- especially the observation saucers -- give the landscape a European feel that we don’t get from the default scenery.
With FS2004, there were two major complaints about photo-based scenery: it blurred at high speeds, and it looked chunky at low altitudes. Blurries are still possible, but upgrading to a quad core CPU helps a lot. As for flying altitude, the recommendation for FS2004 photo sceneries was to stay above 3,000 feet. That’s no longer necessary: the scenery in this product has about five times more detail than the maximum you could display in FS2004; and it’s based on aerial photos, not satellite photos (which are cheaper but less detailed).
In other words: if you tried photo scenery in FS2004 and gave up on the whole genre, it’s time to reevaluate. The one remaining issue -- and it’s not a deal breaker, the way the other two were -- is color. All of these large-scale products -- MegaScenery, Switzerland Professional, VFR Germany, Real Scenery England -- are based on aerial surveys that take place over several months, if not several years.
Even if film stock is no longer an issue -- now that everything is moving to digital -- weather is still a huge variable. Photographs taken on sunny days look bright; photographs of the same landscape taken in overcast weather, look dull by comparison. Mix them together and where the bright days are juxtaposed with dull ones, you get banding. I saw some of that with this product, but not a lot.
What’s more annoying is when you get a dull photo mixed with bright- or dark-colored autogen. This is most noticeable in forested areas, which East Germany has quite a few of. Without autogen, you don’t automatically notice the overall dullness, because the tonal range within colors is still rich. But when you plant a dark-green tree on a beige-brown photo of trees, it stands out in a way that doesn’t look natural. (In contrast, a scattering of autogen trees superimposed on a photograph of other, like-colored trees can make the whole forest of them seem three-dimensional.)
The problem is with the source photographs, which are licensed from GeoContent GmbH. Perhaps, at one stage, it could have been fixed or at least ameliorated by adjusting the color channels in Photoshop. Oh well, too late for that now; and maybe too expensive for an area this large.
I don’t wish to exaggerate the color problem or its extent. It’s patchy, but I’ve noticed it in all of the volumes that I have reviewed for this series.
What I like about the photographs is their uniform crispness. They’re sharp enough that you can enjoy flying at low altitudes, and this level of detail is maintained throughout the whole coverage area.
We should add that, like most products in this category, VFR Germany has only one season: “not winter.” It also lacks night lighting (which a lot of photo-based sceneries do have). Both of these lacunae are acknowledged in the Q&A section of the manual (which is available as a free download), but they should probably be mentioned on the product web page as well.
One of the first products I ever reviewed for AVSIM was called VFR Berlin 2006. Made by the same developer, Aerosoft, it remapped the roads, rivers, monuments, and small airfields of the capital city; unlike this product, it was based on generic scenery tiles, not photographs. The scenery was for FS2004 and I remember it fondly.
In FSX, Berlin needs less help: it looks pretty good right out of the box with no add-ons. In the default scenery, Berlin has a large number of custom buildings and monuments, and a more accurate network of roads, lakes, and waterways. How does the new scenery compare then? Compared with VFR Berlin 2006 for FS2004, VFR Germany 4 for FSX has fewer custom buildings and bridges. For the most part, it reuses the default monuments and relocates them on the photographic background.
Even though the models are the same, the monuments themselves usually look better against the photographs. (Looking back at my screenshots of the default scenery in FSX, I notice that the larger monuments often clash with the scenery tiles under them, because the background tiles are generic and weren’t designed with the models in mind.) One of the new objects that I did notice is a large broadcast tower, tethered with guy-lines, near Potsdam.
Even with the default scenery, Berlin has a variety of water features and monuments. With this product, the water features are more nuanced and, with the photographic ground textures, you get a better sense of the city’s green spaces: its parks, playing fields, and gardens.
The new scenery also lays down a thick layer of autogen. My screenshots show the “Dense” setting -- which (on my rig) isn’t good for frame rates. I compensated by setting AI traffic to zero. I say autogen, but while the objects may be generic, the placement of them is obviously not automated. Notice, in the screenshots, how the buildings are aligned to conform to the water and road system. I don’t know how long this took, but I’m guessing days.
I know that some people don’t care about autogen, and turn it off to save frame rates. But if you fly low enough to want this kind of product in the first place -- and especially if you fly helicopters -- then you want three-dimensional objects, such as trees and buildings, to complete the illusion of depth. I notice this when I’m on the ground at an airport as well. If it’s not a desert and there are no trees on the horizon, the emptiness feels odd.
This series has its own custom objects, such as houses and apartment buildings that look more German than their default counterparts. The real trick, however, is how they’re distributed. With generic scenery, you can place all of the trees and buildings by hand, because there are a limited number of permutations. But with photo-based scenery, there’s no repeatable pattern; every tile is unique.
Aerosoft’s solution is to place buildings using an existing database of real-world structures. Provided that the underlying photographs are arranged using the same coordinate system -- and they are, by an impressive feat of computation -- autogen buildings will sit on top of photographed houses, and autogen towns will form the same grid patterns that they do in real life.
To my knowledge, Aerosoft is still the only scenery maker that uses this technique. There is one drawback, which is spelled out in the manual: “Large cities do not look as impressive in this method and can only be manually done as much of the data files are not available. As this takes several years and buckets of money that is a limitation we have to accept at this moment.”
Reviewing volume 1, I complained that airport runways were sometimes obstructed by rogue autogen. That didn’t happen in volume 3, which I reviewed this spring, and I’m pleased to report that it doesn’t occur in volume 4 either.
If you push your slider all the way to the right, you will see a lot of autogen houses and trees. In practice, you can’t quite do a house-to-house search: even at maximum density, there are still more photographs of buildings than actual buildings. This, I assume, is for the sake of performance. It used to be that photo scenery always yielded better frame rates than generic scenery, because it didn’t have to draw roads and rivers; and because, usually, it didn’t have autogen. Put autogen back, and your efficiency gains disappear.
What does this mean in practice? Expect to get about the same frame rates as the default scenery -- with, of course, much better visuals. If you want better performance, do the same thing you would do with the default scenery: move your autogen slider to the left. Again, I like having a quad core, because it reduces blurries; but it won’t help your frame rates.
As of this writing, the download version of VFR Germany 4: East sells for 48 Euros and 50 Euros for the boxed version on DVD. Those prices include VAT, so if you don’t live in the euro zone, expect to pay about fifteen percent less.
To my knowledge, this is the largest project of its kind so far. There are photo sceneries that cover more area, but not in as much detail, and not with autogen, water features, or VFR reference points (though you might get night lighting).
When I reviewed the first volume of VFR Germany, I compared the old Scenery Germany series for FS2004 with a model railroad, which is built up piece-by-piece. Photo scenery, I ventured, is more like realistic painting. “Sure, you can tell it’s not real. But you can keep looking at it, for hours even, and notice new things. There is a limit on this, because in a painting there is nothing on the canvas that an artist did not put there. But with a photograph, there is no such limit. Instead of hours, you can fly for days, even weeks, and not exhaust everything there is to see.” Two years and three volumes later, that is still true.
What I Like About VFR Germany 4: East
What I Don't Like About VFR Germany 4: East
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