Introduction to Orbx FTX
In the past, it was rare that I'd get too excited about scenery add-ons for flight simulator. An exciting add-on for me almost always meant a complex procedural airliner simulation - this was the area in which my passion for the hobby lay.
I say 'was' because things have changed somewhat since the release of FSX. At first I hated FSX because even after well over a year following it's release, there still weren't many true complex airliner sims released; developers were struggling with the platform, in a similar way that users were struggling to get acceptable performance from it.
Of course, things slowly started to change; Dual Core and Quad Core processors became cheaper and more available. True FSX-native products started to be released, which offered stunning visuals and much better performance than products 'ported' from FS2004.
But for me, FSX is still my VFR, General Aviation platform, and FS2004 is still my airliner, on-line flying, heavy hauling platform. I do own the FSX versions of the LDS 767, PMDG747, Flight 1 Super 80 Pro, and PMDG MD-11, but although frame rates are starting to look better, stuttering issues when flying these complex beasts in FSX still spoils the fun for me - and I still greatly prefer flying these aircraft in FS2004.
Anyway, as I've said above - all is not lost with FSX for me - because I have developed an otherwise untapped interest and passion in small general aviation aircraft, from the likes of Carenado and Eaglesoft, used in conjunction with FSX's very nice default scenery, as well as some of the beautiful scenery add-ons that are appearing for FSX.
Some time ago, I purchased the "AU Blue" add-ons from Orbx. This is a wide-area scenery add-on for FSX that gives truly stunning, photo-like scenery, without the problems associated with photo-scenery products. In other words, you can still enjoy wonderful custom autogen, and sensible loading times. "AU Blue" changed the face of VFR flying for me, and very soon after, I purchased the remaining add-ons in Orbx's "FTX" (full terrain experience) range; "AU Green" and "AU Gold". (The final product, AU Red, is due for release very shortly).
Once "AU Red" is released, these products together give full FTX quality coverage to all of Australia. One striking thing has happened to my VFR flying in FSX since buying the FTX add-ons; I now NEVER fly anywhere other than Australia. I am not Australian and to be honest, I've never previously held an interest in Australia or flying there.
But FTX changes everything. It feels a little like having 'FS Eleven' years before anyone else. Everything is improved and of stunning quality; roads, traffic, landclass, textures - it just lifts flight simulation up in terms of immersion and realism by a nautical mile. One thing I would say is that screen shots of FTX just do not reflect how it looks in the sim. I put off buying the FTX packs for 6 months because, to be brutally honest, I was not blown away by screen shots. However, when I finally bought the first product my jaw dropped ........ and I've not managed to escape from Down Under since !
Introduction to Coffs Harbour
As well as the FTX region packs, Orbx also sells high quality airfields that generally fall under the general aviation banner (they also sell YMML Melbourne, recently reviewed here at AVSIM). Coffs Harbour is the latest product offered by Orbx.
Ok, so we know that the FTX region packs transform the sim - they offer wide areas of scenery to fly around - it could easily take you 3+ hours to fly a C152 from one end of the AU Blue region to the other. Can we really expect to get that excited about a small, airfield on the west coast of Australia? To be frank, have many people outside of New South Wales even heard of Coffs Harbour ?? ........the answer may surprise you.
First a little bit about the place: Coffs Harbour is a small coastal city located on the north coast of New South Wales about 540 km north of Sydney and 440 km south of Brisbane. 70,000 Australians call this place home, although the holiday season raises this to over 100,000. The harbour has a long jetty and is a hub of activity. YSCH, Coffs Harbour airport sees a number of flights per day from operators including QuantasLink and Virgin Blue. Of course, the airport is primarily a focus for general aviation around this highly temperate and strikingly beautiful part of Oz.
As part of my review research, I had a number of email conversations with Orbx's CEO, John Venema. John is a veteran of flight simulation. For years he contributed many freeware projects, usually major, and planned and produced with the accuracy and dedication more commonly seen in a commercial add-on venture.
With Orbx, John has gathered a team of the world's most talented designers and programmers. Their commercial work is truly not just about scenery for FSX - it is about raising the bar, then raising it again. Each Orbx release usually exceeds the previous one in at least one regard - either the beauty of the visuals, the performance, or perhaps the value of the product. It's also worth saying that Orbx develop and release free scenery products which are, in my opinion, of better quality than some commercial scenery add-ons.
I asked John about the background of the Coffs Harbour add-on, and he told me: “For Coffs Harbour we approached the local city council to see if they had any aerial photography available, since none of our usual data providers had coverage. To our surprise, they had a dedicated GIS department who not only had recent (2007) aerial photography available, but were also really excited about the project and extremely supportive and willing to license their data to us. As a bonus, they also had very high resolution 5m DEM (digital elevation mesh) data available, which we also licensed”.
“From a technical aspect we converted their source GeoTIFFs from 22.5cm/pixel to LOD17 (30cm/pixel) for FSX. This made it easier for use to do the conversion, but we still managed to preserve the wonderful details from their photography. The most difficult part of the process was ensuring that we recoloured the data to match the FTX AU GOLD seasons; I think we managed to pull that off”.
When I first installed Coffs Harbour I was blown away by the visual feast. This is the most stunning scenery area I have ever seen, in any version of the sim to date. What is also immediately apparent is that, although with Coffs Harbour you appear to be getting a very small regional airfield, the actual area covered is considerably larger.
As well as the airfield (which is actually quite large for an airfield in it's category, spreading over a significant area), there are the built up areas of the city, and the jaw dropping harbour area. As well as the visuals of the buildings and built up areas, the natural ground textures are like nothing I have seen before. When investigating this area for the first time, it is essential that you fly in the FSX Ultralite so that you get maximum visibility. There is so much to see, and the unprecedented level of accuracy, detail and realism, adds to the feeling of being 1500 feet in the air.
I asked John Venema for some information on how Orbx had managed to achieve something that looks like nothing before, in terms of visual quality: “30cm/pixel is about 16 times the detail of the default FSX textures, and it certainly shows when flying over Coffs, with a lot of small details coming out in the area. We also converted the council’s 5m DEM data into FSX format terrain mesh, which when combined with the 30cm photoreal ground coverage create a greatly authentic experience. One area I'm particularly pleased with are the sand dunes along the beach where you can make out the walking tracks imbedded into the sand; quite remarkable really”.
Sixteen times the detail of the default FSX textures - The specifications are impressive but the visual results are even more impressive. No-one can govern what the screen shots below will look like on your PC, but I hope you are able to catch a glimpse of the beauty of this area.
Let's jump back down to Earth and ask an important question; does all this stunning beauty have an effect on frame rates. Well, there is no such thing as a free lunch so the honest answer is yes, of course it does. The cost however, is not as great as you may think. I have a very modest system by today's standard, probably below average compared to what most simmers have; An E6700 core2due at standard 2.6Ghz, 2Gb RAM, and a 8800 GTS 320Mb graphics card. The suggested settings from Orbx initially proved a little too ambitious for my system but only because I am not one of these people that see 15 FPS as 'acceptable'. For what I deem as fluid and flyable, I require a minimum 22 FPS from FSX, so I tune my system to achieve that minimum.
When flying in the most dense area of Coffs Harbour, with Scenery and Autogen settings both on max, I had around 19 FPS, with just occasional stutters - not half bad I would say, and perhaps acceptable for many people. I personally found my Nirvana with a scenery complexity setting on 'Very Dense', and Autogen set to 'Normal'. This gave me an average of around 24 FPS around Coffs, and just the occasional stutter when bringing some of the large, main airport buildings into view. It's also worth noting that Orbx give an unprecedented amount of advice in the excellent documentation, with regards to tweaks and settings that can be made to get the best balance of visual feast and performance.
It could be easy to miss out on just how stunning this airport and surrounding area scenery is, because the area itself is not well known to the majority of flight simmers. If someone had developed a state of the art scenery for Heathrow or Frankfurt, then chances are more people would be talking about it. That factor in itself is the only potential negative that Orbx Coffs Harbour has against it; potential apathy from simmer; "why would I want to fly there?". Trust me, the quality of the area and thus the flying, makes it essential to fly there once you've experienced it!
You should also consider the fact that the pleasure gained from Orbx's Australian add-ons is incremental; Coffs on it's own is wonderful, Coffs with the FTX region packs is even better, Coffs with all of Australia covered by FTX terrain is an area of the FSX world that you will find it hard to leave.
I asked John to give us a final comment about this product: “I think the reason why Coffs has been so popular is that it's a very pretty area to fly around, and the township itself is such a beautiful location, with the airport nestled along the beach. From my perspective, it's now my favourite airport in the sim, but of course I am biased!”.
From every angle, this product deserves the highest accolade; quality, attention to detail, performance, value, support. This is state of the art scenery creation that we are just not seeing from any other developers at present. This is how we felt when we first saw FlyTampa's later generation products, but arguably even more so.
I would not have any hesitation in recommending this product, in fact I would say it is essential for every simmer that enjoys realism and immersion. If you have not checked out www.ftxnow.com yet, you need to be asking yourself why not?
What I Like About Coffs Harbour
What I Don't Like About Coffs Harbour
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