x + sim + reviews + airport scenery review + KTTF Custer

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It is perhaps only fitting that our first review on restarting this site is for the first airport scenery file to take full advantage of the light and texture enhancements in the latest generation of X-plane, AND let’s just ignore the irony that this file was developed by a team new to X-plane.

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You’ll notice, right off the bat, what this airport is all about. It’s a GA (general aviation) playground, an airport where you’ll find endless hours of interest and fun just shooting touch and goes all morning long. There are no 737s breathing down your neck here, hardly any traffic at all, for that matter…just a pleasant spot to learn the ins-and-outs of flying a single-engine Cessna or Piper (or a Quest Kodiak) around the pattern.

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If this place feels somewhat idyllic, like there’s something almost Arcadian about the whole thing, maybe that was the point of the exercise. If you want a high-pressure boilermaker experience there are endless places for that – in X-plane – and in “other SIMS”, too, but that’s not what this scenery file is all about, and you’ll be sorely disappointed if you buy this one hoping to fly your 737 or F-35 here. This airport is all about Sunday afternoons under the sun, flying for the sheer joy of flying.

Joy? Did he say joy? In a flight simulator?

Well, yeah.

I say joy, because, you see, the airport is only the tip of the iceberg here.

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Because the towns – and farms – surrounding this airport are modeled with equal parts passion and exactitude. You can almost smell the freshly mown hay on the far side of the runway, and flying around the riverine estuaries and lakefront industrial areas the simulation feels so immersive it leaves you scratching your head – because it simply feels so…real. If you’ve been flying in FsX or P3D a lot over the years this may all be lost on you, yet if you’ve done all your sim flying in X-plane this kind of experience is, again, simply new to you.

Because this level of realism is a first for X-plane, and this file’s release marks a paradigm shift. This is the first scenery file for XP that literally pulls you in and holds you tight.

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Night or day…it matters not one bit…the details are all around you, and when combined with XP’s native HDR rendering, the nightscapes are unnervingly realistic.

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We used to make the point here at the blog – years ago – that the success or failure of any file (aircraft or scenery) rests on the slightest imperfection. Call it “suspension of disbelief” if you will, but one little glitch can lay waste to all the effort a developer has put into a file. The trick, as far as we’re concerned, is that a file developer has to perfect the ability to look over a scene and play “spot the glitch,” look for the one little snag that stands out like a sore thumb – and ruins your effort. You find them in most every file, usually in aircraft files…simple things like a manipulator that doesn’t work well, or the line of a cockpit element that’s not perfectly drawn…and when you, the customer, spot these things the immersive nature of the file is diminished, perhaps ruined.

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And so far, I just haven’t found any such unforced errors at this airport. The textures on the hangers and buildings are perfect…that is to say they look real. Weathered and distressed in places, new in others, while elements like concrete aprons and the asphalt runway/taxiway look as convincing as anything you’ve seen out there in that other thing…called real life. If you look close in the image below you can see multiple layers of asphalt along the edges of the runway.

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And that has not been the case in X-plane very often, and never to this degree. What we’re seeing here is a tour de force hiding in plain sight. It’s artistry that comes from developing that practiced eye.

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Yet, once again, this is a tiny airport, so the developers didn’t have to contend with fleshing out all the details in a hundred thousand square foot airport terminal. What they had to pull off was far simpler, yet perhaps more difficult, and in the extreme. To me, it’s hard not to look at the image above and say: “My, what an interesting photograph…look at the subtle pools of light on the walls of the buildings and on the concrete apron.” I find myself near the point where I can almost hear bugs and frogs singing to the night…and that reflects an attention to detail that did not come about by accident.

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Yet…there’s a simple point, and a practical one at that, to include this level of detail in a scenery file. Look at the image above and take note of the four baseball fields just beyond the airport buildings. Now, take a look at the image below:

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See the baseball fields? Just below the nose gear? Now, using those lights as a reference to orient yourself, can you see the airport’s runway lights?

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See the relationship now? On final approach, as in the image above, the relationship between the ball fields and the runway is clear. In fact, ‘X’ marks the spot, so to speak, for one axis of the ‘X’ (dividing the four fields) is also lined up with the runway…so from altitude it, in effect, points to the relationship.

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But there are more aids to navigation in the area, too.

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Most striking, the cooling towers of the Fermi II nuclear power plant north of the airport, along the shoreline. To the south, the towers the Detroit Edison coal-fired power plant:

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Together, the Fermi II cooling towers and the Edison power plant smoke-stacks, along with the airport, form a nice triangle, and once you’ve got the relationship between the three down it becomes a snap to figure out where you are. It’s old school navigation, but it works. Then, especially in the evening or at night, you can use these landmarks, along with the lights from the ball fields, to find your way home. Check out the sequence below, and try to spot the ball fields:

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What this little exercise reveals about earlier versions of X-plane is interesting, to say the least. Earlier versions were literally underwhelmed by XPs generic landscapes – everywhere – so much so that these types of landmarks were often impossible to use – because they just weren’t in the Sim. It’s taken developers in FsX years to get this level of realism built up, and the point, again, is that’s finally coming to XP.

A word about this file’s performance is in order right about now, too.

This level of realism comes at a price, and I’d not recommend this file to anyone using an older computer, or one with less than 2Gb Vram. You might be able to run the file with a simple aircraft file like the default Cessna 172, but you’ll do so with XPs rendering options turned down, and at some point you’re going to realize you’re just not going to get what you paid for. Files like this one need power, brute processing power, in order to reveal their true depth, and when you add in files like the Carenado Beech 1900D you’re asking for real trouble when you run a scenery file like this on top of that. With current top of the line video cards now sporting 11Gb Vram, you can see where this trend is headed. A few years ago a video card with a Gig of Vram felt enormously powerful…and yet now that level of processing power is considered puny. In other words, your five-year-old PC – that hasn’t been upgraded – is obsolete. Assuming you want to run files like this one, anyway.

That said, I’ve been using a few months old MacBook Pro with an i7 processor, 16Gb system ram and 5.5Gb total Vram. I fiddled with settings until a happy compromise between smooth framerates and pleasing graphics was arrived at, but it’s all trial and error to a degree, as one configuration of clouds might be too much while turning on the instrument lighting in the Carenado Beech 1900D can drop framerates by several points. That said, I hit 19FPS more than once with the Beech 1900D, a notorious framerate heavy hitting file, while the Carenado C208 puttered along at 35FPS. Here’s an average set point:

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Keep in mind the visual effects setting top left. It has to be set fairly high for XPs new HDR effects to make a real impact, so night ops really benefit here – yet the cost in FPS can be quite high. BUT – cut back on World Objects (you can hardly see much at night, right?) and the impact is lessened. Tit for tat, compromise to get where you want.

Setting texture quality makes a huge impact too, yet produces real beauty mainly outside the cockpit, so just how much is that eye-candy really worth to you? In the end, we all make different choices based on what’s most important to us, but XP is a FLIGHT SIMULATOR, not a sightseeing venue, so I tend to go for smoother performance over pretty trees.

So, I guess all I want for Christmas is a huge GPU – with tons of Vram, but, to summarize…

This is the first of a new generation of scenery files for X-plane, one that brings new levels of immersive detail to a flight simulator that has often been at pains to attract new developers. A lot is riding on how the XP community takes to this release, too, because, simply put, new development won’t take place in this environment unless developers can make a profit.

This $24.95 USD, 2.1Gb  file is available from X-Aviation, and here’s what they have to say about the release: “Attitude Simulations brings you a level of detail never before seen in X-Plane with this new regionalized scenery pack! This pack will later be able to be coupled with packs for Ann Arbor Municipal Airport (KARB), Erie International Airport (KERI), Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (KDTW), and Mackinac Island Airport (KMCD), making for an amazing experience all around the Great Lakes!”

Well, with that said, who’s this file for? You spend most of your time in XP in GA singles and twins, and you’re serious about the hobby, serious enough to shoot IFR approaches and not break a sweat. You appreciate the complexities of files like this and have the hardware to handle it.

Who might not get their money’s worth? Someone new to the Flight Sim experience, or perhaps to flying in general, or someone with an older PC with limited performance.

If your interest lies more with things like 737s, we’ll take a look at several new files just for you in our next edition of x + sim + reviews, so thanks for coming along, and we’ll see you again next time.

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