When it was first released, Microsoft’s latest (and possibly last) title in the Flight Simulator catalogue, FSX, was much maligned for its apparent sluggish performance and lack of proper backwards compatibility. Some three years later, however, the power of modern PC’s and the skill of some developers have allowed this simulator to shine in ways previously thought impossible. One developer with a stellar reputation for pushing FSX technology to its limits is Orbx with their FTX range of products.
Today we look at what Orbx touts to be the world’s first add-on airport featuring 7cm/pixel terrain; New South Wales’ Tamworth regional airport.
Situated inland between Sydney and Brisbane, Tamworth is a city of approximately 40,000 people. The field serves as a regional gateway for several airlines including the Qantas regional subsidiary Qantaslink. Additionally, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) bases its Basic Flying Training School, run under contract by BAE Systems, at YSTW. The school provides basic flying training for the three main branches of the Australian armed forces using Pacific Aerospace CT4 Airtrainers.
Installation, Documentation and Utilities
FTX products are well known for their professional quality, and this one is no exception. Purchasable as a download via the FTX website, the YSTW scenery weighs in at a whopping 1.33 GB – a good hint at the amount of content included. The website does note that the scenery was designed to be used with the FTX Gold scenery, also available through the website.
FTX Gold is a massive terrain package covering Northern New South Wales and Southern Queensland in unbelievable detail. Furthermore, this package completes the YSTW scenery with more detailed roads, as well as some FTX specific scenery and lighting utilities. As this review is intended as a standalone review, I have not included FTX Gold, however I do strongly recommend downloading and installing the free demo of FTX Blue (also available from the FTX website). Though this demo does not cover the region that Tamworth is included in, it will install the FTX Central Control panel and provides access to some of the clever utilities that come with the FTX regional sceneries.
Lastly, having this installed in advance will make the installation process almost completely automatic. Also recommended are Orbx’s free Australian mesh and AI Traffic, both of which are easily pay ware quality.
The YSTW installer itself is a very straightforward windows installer, and asks for your purchase/registration details during the install process. Once installation is complete, I recommend having a look at the very informative PDF manual. Guiding you through the configuration process for the scenery, the manual explains the steps necessary to enable the scenery in FSX should you not have any of the FTX AU series installed.
Next up the manual shows us around the wonderful FTX Aero tool. This tool allows you to fine tune some of the airport texture options common to the FTX products. Providing several options for surface bump-mapping, runway textures, and taxiway markings, the utility shows a handy preview of each option as it is selected.
The next utility the manual covers is the airport specific YSTW control panel. This control panel allows you select from a multitude of visual features crammed into this airport. If your system can handle it, I recommend keeping them all enabled, but it’s worth experimenting if you wish to squeeze a little bit of extra performance out of FSX.
Speaking of performance, the YSTW manual has a detailed section on FSX Graphics settings, explaining exactly which settings will yield the best performance vs. image quality in the YSTW scenery. Since this product uses higher than usual texture resolutions, it’s certainly worth checking your settings against those recommended by Orbx.
Lastly, the manual is rounded out by some brief information on Tamworth city and its airport, as well as aerodrome and approach charts.
First , continued, and lasting impressions
When it comes to something as visually oriented as scenery, it can be somewhat difficult to represent it with words. On this occasion, I’m simply going to recreate my first 20 or so minutes with this product in pictorial format. There’s a reason for this, it was somewhat akin to a voyage of discovery to me, and I feel that trying to reproduce that sense of wonderment would only be fair.
I started out on runway 30R, had a quick look around, and then got airborne. It didn’t take long for my jaw to drop, and I subsequently turned back to have a closer look at all the buildings:
Having seen the incredible detail of both the ground and building textures, I thought I’d try something a little different. I wound up doing this for quite a while:
Ok. I think I’ve proven how detailed the scenery is. Let’s do some more flying and have a look around the area:
And, to round the tour off, back towards the airport:
And that concludes the pictorial tour of what to me is hands-down the most visually detailed add-on airport for FSX that I have ever seen. Hopefully the screenshots do it justice.
Observations, performance and conclusion
So my previous gushing begs the question, are there any faults to be found with this scenery? Well, no, not really anything remotely significant. There’s the odd graphical anomaly such as runway markings making a runway visible from a gazillion miles away or strange shimmering effects, but these are FSX anomalies that every other scenery I have seen suffers from as well. At some stages I also saw the static F27’s parked near the main apron shimmer in a strange green glow. I couldn’t capture it in a screenshot, and may well be a system specific issue.
Perhaps one of the only other gripes I can think of is that the trees in the car park look a bit low-fi compared to the other objects around. But I mean really, who flies around the car park? The fact that I spent 15 minutes just driving around the place attests to how highly detailed this package really is. I also should reiterate that this scenery was specifically designed to be used with the FTX AU Gold package, and the FTX website stresses that functionality is lost when it is not combined with this package. That having been said, however, ALL of my screenshots were done without FTX AU Gold installed, and I certainly didn’t feel I was missing out on much.
At the end of the day, I found that all this visual detail not only served some kind of “oh wow look what they can do these days” purpose, it also made my simulated flight more enjoyable and realistic. Even something as mundane as circuits feels much more natural when you have such a wealth of visual cues at your disposal. Low level flying gives you a real sensation of speed, and from up high the landscape is a dream to navigate by.
So how will all this insane detail affect FSX performance? Badly, I hear you guessing, but you’re wrong! Through clever design work and tweaking, FTX have managed to come out with a product that seems to affect frame rates half as much as products half its quality (try working that one out after a few beers at the Aero Club). Running a 3.6Ghz Core2 Duo, 512Mb ATI HD4870, and 4GB RAM, I was usually achieving 20+ fps in the above screenshots. That’s with scenery and autogen on very dense, 4x AA, and all FTX options on.
The most noticeable performance drop occurred when viewing the whole airport building complex from around 500’ AGL. This could drop frame rates close to the 10fps mark at times, but only momentarily. On approach to runway 30R, with almost all the airport buildings visible out the left hand side, I would hit a minimum of 18fps from a 2nm final, eventually climbing to 35+ fps once on the runway. It’s truly impressive, and makes me wonder what developers like this will be coming out with in years to come, as PC’s become even more powerful.
I find it somewhat disturbing when I’m faced with wrapping up such a lopsided review. But it’s lopsided for a reason, this is an excellent product. Anyone that is interested in seeing what visual wonderment FSX is capable of should not hesitate a second to give this scenery a try. While you’re at it, have a look at FTX’s other pay and freeware offerings. I know I’ve been convinced to make Australia my VFR and IFR playground, and that’s a big admission for a Kiwi!
What I Like About YSTW
What I Don't Like About YSTW
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