About three years ago, MSGames were kind enough to send across preview code for then soon to be released Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight. In my preview, I confessed my newbie-ness towards flight sims, but I came away impressed with the beta and I basically concluded that I may just become a flight sim fan yet.
Well, you see, it didn't really turn out that way. Nothing against FS 2004 - it was a very cool flight sim from my perspective, and I did play it on and off between now and then (mostly then), but I'm a pretty lazy guy, and I sit here today more or less just as flight sim newbie-ish as I was three years ago. Is it too late for me? Not if MSGames can help it, as they were kind enough to again send preview code of their latest in flight simulators, this time in the form of Flight Simulator X - the 10th addition to the Flight Simulator series that is due late October 2006 on Australian shelves.
First of all, it should come as no surprise that rather than redefining the series, FSX builds on what was already there - a darn good flight simulating game. This means for those familiar with the series, FSX will feel more or less right at home. As expected, a few new planes have been added - the AirCreation 582SL Ultralight and Maule M7-260C Orion being notable here - and also expected, you will see more of other stuff, like airports. FSX's official airport count is "more than 24,000". If I recall correctly, FS 2004's was "more than 23,000", so if your favorite airport wasn't included before, maybe it will be this time around (although I'd be inclined to get a new favourite airport just in case).
With expected enhancements aside, FSX does tout some more significant additions. One of the new major features to the Flight Simulator series with FSX is the presence of mission based gameplay. While FS 2004 had some element of missions, FSX takes mission based gameplay to the next level with flight sims, and offers some really impressive variety. For instance, in one mission, you're tasked with racing a jet powered truck in a plane in front of a crowd, while in another mission you're tasked with taking off over Hawaii with a seasoned expert on the Islands to act as your guide for the landmarks you fly over. Each mission has requirements (not crashing is a good start), and you are graded on how well you went after completion, earning 'Pilot Records' in the process. All in all, there are 51 missions to be played in the FSX beta I had access to, ranging from beginner to expert difficulty. There may be more in the final code, but the current amount of missions is more than enough to experience all that FSX has to offer.
Another major addition to the series with FSX is the integration of online components in the gameplay. Using the power of Gamespy, FSX allows games to connect to a central hub where they can pilot or co-pilot with other gamers via the Internet or LAN. If piloting doesn't take your fancy, you can also act as an air traffic controller. Unfortunately, during my time playing FSX, I didn't find much in the way of other gamers online so I couldn't test much of the online features for myself, but as long as the netcode is done efficiently, I can only presume the gameplay found online is just as solid as the gameplay offline - which is very solid. I can see this part of the game taking off (*ahem*), because by all accounts it appears to give gamers complete control in a living world.
However, do be aware that FSX will come in two flavours - standard and deluxe - and that the standard version will feature slightly fewer missions, planes, highly detailed airports and cities, as well as the inability to act as air traffic controller. The preview code I got to play around with was based on the deluxe game, but the gameplay is going to be the same - just without a few of the bells and whistles. According to the fact sheet supplied with the preview copy, standard and deluxe users can play online together, so there's not going to be any favouritism when it comes to online accessibility. One thing that both versions share is that they come on two DVD's - in fact, the preview copy I installed turned out to use 13.6GB in hard drive space.
Visually, FSX looks stunning to say the least, but you're definitely going to need a stellar PC to take full advantage of the visuals. For instance, I used an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600, 2GB, X1900XTX PC on the preview code and frame rate was a little jittery at times, although I was playing on absolute max details and MSGames insist frame rate optimization is still being tweaked before retail release. Even if some optimization issues remain, there is a massive amount of visual options you can tweak to lower quality and increase performance, so don't worry if your gaming PC isn't top of the line, there should be more than enough options to increase performance. One such option you can tweak is the activity rendered in the environment around you - at full settings, you can see vehicles, wildlife, and of course other aircraft going about their business in pretty amazing detail.
Another big part of FSX's visuals is its menu system, and I like what I see here. When you navigate through the menus in FSX, you feel as if you're rummaging through a tightly and efficiently designed intranet website your place of employment just paid $25,000 for. This is probably because the menu's are in fact coded on what appears to be XHTML or some other HTML variant. Also, the fact the menu system is in windowed mode and not full screen mode adds to the professional feel of the UI - if you wanted to access files or other programs while FSX was running, it's as easy as clicking the Windows start menu.
When it comes to flight sims, obviously a huge aspect is the controls, and like Flight Simulator's before it, FSX features the usual array of aircraft specific control functions, which cover just about everything you can possibly think of from flap positions to radio tuning. Luckily, for the more casual gamers, just like the game features some modes and missions aimed at the flight sim newbie, FSX natively supports the USB Xbox 360 controller, and by that I mean you should be able to do the basic functions without any configuration whatsoever - plug 'n play baby. Of course, for the hundreds of other control functions beyond simple movement and thrust, the keyboard will be needed, but it felt good picking up my XB360 controller and learning how to take off in FSX in under 5 minutes.
FSX is definitely looking and feeling sharp. The visuals are great, the user interface is snazzy and very easy to navigate, and the realism on offer in the gameplay is as good as ever. If I somehow failed to get this message across before, I'm not a big flight sim guy, but even so it is great to see the Flight Simulator series expanding both its accessibility to beginners, and enhancements for the enthusiasts. Even though FSX seems to be mainly just an extension to what made FS 2004 a good product, there's little use fixing what isn't broken, so I have a pretty strong feeling that FSX won't disappoint many in the flight sim fanbase.