Confoederatio Helvetica, a.k.a. Switzerland, looks better with every new version of Flight Simulator. In the default scenery this is due to better data, in the form of terrain elevations, road vectors, and water boundaries. What you’re seeing, though, is generated by a formula.
Switzerland Professional X (which I will shorten here to “CH Pro X”) takes a more direct approach to the whole country. For generic ground textures it substitutes aerial photographs, then populates them with autogen trees and buildings. Generic roadways have been replaced with photos of the real thing. Lakes and waterways have been customized to fit the photographs, and a new terrain mesh is provided that has four times as much detail (19m) as the FSX default (76m), so that mountains and valleys are more clearly defined.
Finally, 784 so-called landmark objects have been custom-placed for use in VFR navigation. The one thing that is not updated in this product are the airports. Where necessary, these have been adjusted to blend in with the photographic ground textures, but the objects placed there are the same as you’d find in the default scenery.
Two versions are included, one for FS2004 and FSX. It is a big package, and it comes with a big price: 130 euros, or 50 euros if you are upgrading.
Installation and Documentation
The product comes on five DVDs. One of these is for FS2004, the other four are for FSX. Installation is automatic and went off on my system without a hitch. If you install for FS2004, it will take up 4.3 gigabytes on your hard disk; if you install for FSX, it will take up 16; and if you install for both, it will take up a little over 20.
Documentation is minimal: between 7 and 10 pages, depending on language, including the title page and table of contents. On disk, there is also a list of landmark objects and a map showing where to look for them. (There is another manual, left-over from the previous version of this product, but some of the information in it is obsolete.)
Anyone who goes to the expense of purchasing this is going to want a proper chart. Ideally, the product would have shipped with a real-world ICAO chart (the European equivalent of a U.S. sectional). If someone knows of a U.S. distributor for European charts, please send me an email. In the meantime, I’m making due with a Tactical Pilotage Chart, TPC F-2A, that I purchased from Sportys.com for US$12 with shipping.
On the plus side, you do get about 20 saved flight situations, including weather. These have titles like “Approaching Samedan,” “City flight over Berne,” “Maljoa Wind,” and “Jura Challenge.”
Photographic Ground Textures
The basis of this package is a series of real-world aerial photographs that has been color corrected and then broken up into scenery tiles. Aerial photos are more detailed than satellite photos, but also more expensive. This particular series was shot about ten years ago, in 1997, and licensed from Endoxon, a Swiss company that is now owned by Google. According to the developer, these are the most recent photos available.
How detailed are the photographs? In Flight Simulator, tile resolution is measured in meters per pixel, and smaller numbers are better. The CH Pro X tiles have a resolution of 1.2. That’s about four times the maximum resolution of FS2004, which was 4.75, so if you’re using the FS2004 version, everything will look as sharp as it can be.
In FSX, which I used to make the screenshots for this review, the maximum resolution is 30 centimeters per pixel -- which almost no one actually uses. The maximum resolution for default scenery is 1.1 meters per pixel, which is still quite high. In theory, the photographic ground textures in CH Pro X ought to be almost as crisp as the default textures. In practice, they’re not: the default textures may be generic, but each and every tile has been Photoshopped to look as good as possible. That level of fine-tuning probably isn’t practical for a product on the scale of CH Pro X, where every tile is unique. On the other hand, every tile is unique.
If you’re used to the default scenery, and you’re running it at maximum resolution, you’ll notice that the default tiles are slightly sharper. The way to fix this, I’m guessing, would be to start with more detailed (more expensive?) source photographs. As things stand now, the difference in clarity between the generic default textures and the real-world aerial photographs is small enough that I don’t notice it unless I’m switching back and forth, and only then when I’m flying under 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL).
That right’s: flying under 1,000 feet AGL. In my view, this has turned out to be one of the most important changes between FS2004 and FSX. Because the resolutions can be higher, ground textures in FSX can -- and usually do -- look much better at low altitudes.
In FS2004, the recommended altitude for most photosceneries was between 3,000 and 6,000 feet AGL; below 3,000, the textures started to look blocky, and below 1,000 even the best photosceneries looked worse than the default scenery. With FSX, that’s no longer the case. Making screenshots for this review, I did quite a bit of low-altitude flying, sometimes only a few hundred feet above ground level. At that altitude, objects in the photograph do start to look flat, but they still look like themselves. Trees, for example, are still recognizable as trees, even if autogen is turned all the way down. (I’ll say more about autogen in a minute.)
Scenery based on photographs has been available for some time, and there are some common complaints. One is that it looks horrible close to the ground; with FSX, that’s no longer the rule, and it’s certainly not the case with this product (if you are running the FSX version). Another complaint is colors that look artificial. This was apparently a problem with the previous incarnation of CH Pro, which was for compatible with FS2002 and FS2004, and was criticized for having colors that were too saturated.
This product (both the FS2004 and the FSX versions) seems to be different. I don’t know whether it’s due to better processing or better source photographs, but to my eye the colors in CH Pro X look very well balanced, and I have heard the same report from other reviewers. (The FlyLogic website has links to several reviews, in German and French; if you’re thinking about buying, these are worth reading.) Compared with other photosceneries that I have reviewed, I would rate the colors in CH Pro X as equal to Just Flight’s VFR Real Scenery product (which I praised as “rich, not gaudy”), and slightly better than Aerosoft’s VFR Germany 1 (which, to my eye, sometimes looks under saturated).
A third issue with photo-based scenery is texture stretching. This occurs in mountainous areas (such as the Swiss Alps), where the image of a mountain as photographed from above is stretched over a mountain’s vertical face and then viewed from the side. The problem is discussed, and some solutions offered, in the blog “Scenari Alpini per FSX”.
On the other hand, photographs are the only way that I know of to make peaks look spiky and ridges look sharp. Even good terrain mesh looks blunt at the edges, but photographs can give the illusion of sharp edges by means of shadow. That is is the effect produced here.
A fourth complaint about scenery based on photographs is banding. This results when you juxtapose photographs from two different sessions (for example, one cloudy the other bright) or two different stocks of film. I haven’t flown (yet) over every square kilometer of CH Pro X, so I can’t say there is no banding in the whole product; but I didn’t notice any.
On the whole, I rate the ground textures in CH Pro X very good.
I know that not everyone cares about autogen; and when FSX came out a lot of people turned it off to get higher frame rates. The higher you fly, the less it matters. As someone who flies low, I like autogen a lot. On the ground, trees around the rim of an airport make the whole field seem more real. In the air, trees lining a river or houses lining a road create the illusion, not just of three dimensions, but of a layered ecosystem, in which things (like trees) depend on other things (like water).
Autogen, in my opinion, is a big part of the sim. To be automatic, though, it needs to be placed in predictable places. With generic scenery tiles, that’s possible, because the location of everything is known ahead of time. With photoscenery, it’s much harder, because every tile is unique.
For this reason, many such products omit autogen altogether. (A recent example, which I like in other respects, is VFR Real Scenery.) Again, this matters less the higher you fly. But with FSX, where it’s possible to fly quite close to the ground without the textures turning into complete mush, I want both: I want high-resolution ground textures, and I want 3D trees, houses, buildings, and bridges.
How can you get them? One way is to place the autogen manually; last I checked, this was how VFR France did it, but it’s expensive on a large scale. A second way is to place the houses using a GPS database of real-world buildings; this is how VFR Germany does it. A third way is to analyze your aerial photographs and look for objects that look like houses; this is how CH Pro X does it.
Of the three methods, this is probably the least reliable, because not everything that looks like a house is a house, and some things that look like a tree aren’t. And yet the results for this third method seem to be just as good as the other two. The autogen in CH Pro X blends in with the ground textures very convincingly.
Times and Seasons
So far, CH Pro X seems to be avoiding the usual pitfalls of photo-based scenery products. What about times and seasons? VFR Germany 1, which I reviewed last December, has just as much autogen and uses higher-quality source photographs. But at night the landscape goes black and in winter there is no snow. Nothing’s impossible: there a few products, such as MegaScenery: Pacific Northwest for FS2004, that have both night scenery and winter now. But they’re a lot of work to produce, and they can take up a lot of disk space.
The old version of CH Pro didn’t have either one. The new version has both.
I’m not in love with the night scenery. Look at the generic scenery sometime, and you’ll notice that a lot of care has gone into making it. The color of everything has been repainted; in cities, the streets look as if they were being viewed under streetlights. It’s an illusion, of course, but effective.
CH Pro X takes a different approach. Instead of creating a separate sheet of night textures for the whole landscape, it illuminates the daytime textures with little points of light, which represent street lamps. In theory, this ought to be perfect, but in practice there are two drawbacks. First, there aren’t enough streetlights. (I’m guessing this is to increase frame rates., but I don’t know.) Second, the street lamps. don’t shine their light down on the ground; they glow (which is a nice effect in itself) but they don’t illuminate the streets below.
Am I being too severe? I would be, if I said the effect is bad. It’s not. But the default effect is better.
The package’s winter textures are more successful. Ideally, these would be created using a fresh round of aerial photography. Again, however, that would make the product more expensive. Instead, the original photos have been reprocessed in a way that convincingly simulates winter conditions, including snow. Combine this with winter autogen, and the effect is very satisfying.
There is one more step to making premium photoscenery, and that is carving lakes and waterways out of the aerial photograph so that they reflect light. In this product, the carving is done carefully, so as to match everything with the photographs, even to the extent of rendering individual boat docks. As mentioned before, rivers are lined with autogen trees and lakeshores are rimmed with bright blue edges to indicate shallow water.
One of my favorite features of FSX is moving road vehicles and boats. Unfortunately, there is something about photoscenery that seems to suppress inland water traffic. I don’t know why, but that does not happen with this product; there are boats moving on the lakes the same as you would see in the default scenery.
The one problem is bridges. There are a lot of these in CH Pro X. A few, such as the Kirchenfeld Bridge in Bern, are custom-built, but most of them are objects from the default scenery library. That’s not a flaw, in and of itself, but underneath many of the bridge objects there is also often a photograph of the bridge as seen from the air.
If the bridge photos were dark, you could tell yourself they were shadows but, alas, no. The manual mentions this as a “known problem” and says that such bridges are scattered (vereinzelte). That’s true, in sense: they are scattered far and wide. This is my only complaint, though, about the handling of water features in the whole product.
What we’ve described so far -- ground textures based on aerial photographs, cunningly placed autogen, night lighting, winter snow, and water -- is largely the work of one man, Jeffrey Stähli. In addition, CH Pro X also includes 784 three-dimensional structures, mostly created by Mich Röthlisberger, which it calls “landmarks.” A better name for these might be “hand-placed objects.” More than a third of them (283) are small buildings in the Old Town section of Bern. Two thirds of the remaining objects (324) are industrial structures, especially holding tanks, which clustered in seven different plants.
The next largest group consists of ships and docks at Biel and Genf (70), followed by broadcast towers (52) and wind turbines (35), including a farm of eight turbines at Mont Croison. Rounding out the total are an assortment of churches, castles, high-rises in Zurich, the covered bridge in Lucerne, at least one soccer stadium, and five nuclear reactors (which emit steam from their cooling towers).
With most scenery based on photographs, performance is excellent. This is because almost everything you see is prerendered; the work of drawing roads, for example, was already done when the photograph was taken. What can lower frame rates. is autogen. Since this is one of the main features of the product, I don’t like to turn it off, but in Zurich I do turn it down. Bern, for some reason, seems to be easier on frame rates, even though it has more custom objects. As a rule, major cities have lower frame rates than mountain valleys; but that is true of FSX in general.
The other issues are load time and texture blurring. Photographic textures take longer to load than default textures, and if you fly too fast, the textures around you will start to blur. These problems are typical of photoscenery as a genre; they are not particular to this product, and it is not the developer’s fault when they occur.
The good news (and, like the bad news, it has nothing to do with this product in particular) is that a quad core CPU really does help. This summer I upgraded from a Core2Duo E6600 to a Core2Quad Q6600, which has the same clock speed. Frame rates. didn’t budge, but scenery loads faster now and blurries are much less troublesome. With the E6600, I had to keep my ground speed down to about 160 knots when flying over photoscenery. With the Q6600, I am able to zip over the same scenery at about double my old speed, and still have good image quality.
High prices generate high expectations. Switzerland Professional X is expensive, by almost any standard, but premium does not mean perfect. First-class is not the same as flawless.
What sets this product apart is the accumulation of features, each of which is either expensive to license or labor-intensive to create: aerial photographs, plus snow in winter, plus night lighting, plus autogen, plus custom lakes and rivers, plus customized structures. There are other products -- good ones -- that have some of these features, but none that have all of them in combination. And, of course, no one else covers Switzerland in this much detail.
What I Like About Switzerland Professional X
What I Don't Like About Switzerland Professional X
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