The Complete Guide to Computer Aviation
by Steve Smith
HOW TO EVALUATE A FLIGHT SIMULATION
So how do you know what's a good sim and what's not? How do you evaluate a sim? The point of this book is to examine the top dozen or so flight sims—describe them and review them in individual chapters—and then rate them in a head-to-head appendix toward the end. I will attempt to compare intangible attributes like concept, playability, and longevity, but for now the three things that will bear the closest scrutiny are the realism of the graphics, the fidelity of the flight model, and the intelligence—real or artificial—behind the game play.
When you first launch a flight sim, most of them begin with an animated title sequence, like a trailer for a movie. This scene is supposed to show off the game (particularly at computer shows and in-store displays) at its best, but it's often a snare and a delusion—the "clip" is much better than the real game play: the graphics resolution is higher, the action is more complex and detailed, the animation smoother, even the sound is often tweaked for this brief (typically less than thirty seconds) curtain raiser.
Don't be fooled.
Get into the game play and check out the instrument panel, the view of the other planes in the air around you, and the detail level on the ground.
The instrument panel is usually no problem; the only things that move are the needles of the instruments (plus, in modern-era sims, digital readouts, HUDs, radar screens, and cathode-ray displays, that is, nothing too graphically taxing).
The other aircraft you see from your cockpit can be more of a challenge for the "bit-twiddlers" (programmers), who may not be able to design a seamless segue as the planes fly past, for example—they might snap from a side view to a seven-eighths view to a three-quarters view to a front view in awkward jumps. Or other planes might suddenly change direction or position or heading. Or they may not get continuously larger in your windscreen as you fly toward them; they may step-zoom into view. Or they may not be readily identifiable at a reasonable proximity, and when they disappear, they may just pop off the screen instead of fading into the distance.
But this is duck soup compared to rendering ground detail. Most sims still eschew photorealistic ground views in favor of blatantly schematic topographical features and plane-geometry objects. That is, the terrain is impossibly smooth and featureless; mountains are simple pyramids; roads are ruler-straight; and hangars, towers, tanks, trucks, and trains are virtually indistinguishable oblong boxes.
THE ALL-IMPORTANT FLIGHT MODEL
Eventually—believe it or not—the quality of the graphics will go unnoticed as you become more and more enmeshed in the game play. What you will continue to respond to—and continue to pass judgment upon—is the so-called physics (or flight) model.
The flight model (one for each aircraft) is a set of algorithms embedded in the program code which defines the dynamic behavior of the aircraft—its flight "envelope." Yachties talk about the way a boat "swims," that is, how it behaves under way. Does it bob like a cork in the ocean or is it awash up to the gunnels? Does it slice cleanly through the waves or crash over them? How responsive is it to the helm? Does it wallow in a calm sea or "porpoise" in a rough one?
Same thing with aircraft.
Aircraft have mass and momentum. They obey the laws of physics—fluid dynamics and gravity, in particular. They cannot make instantaneous turns in midair. They handle differently flat out than at low speeds, loaded than empty, wheels down than "clean," upside down than rightside up, in a stall than in a dive. Some aircraft, like light planes, are easy to fly. Some, like jumbo jets, exhibit rocklike stability but respond like molasses. Some, like stunt planes, are difficult to fly, but fun. Some, like military jets, are demanding, but exhilarating.
The best flight models are not necessarily those that make the aircraft the easiest for you to fly; they are the ones that most closely mimic the real flight envelope. An F-15 Eagle doesn't handle just like a Cessna 182 Skylane only ten times faster; they are altogether different propositions, even if the underlying principles are the same.
The interface is simply the connecting links between you—the pilot—and the flight model. Some of it is purely mechanical, like the response to the joystick. Most sims will let you calibrate the joystick (or the mouse, but not the keyboard). Some will let you adjust the response, and a few will allow you to store different response curves for different pilots' preferences—to be recalled at will.
The remainder of the interface is a combination of ergonomics and logic. Are commands mnemonic ("L" for Landing gear, for example)? Do you have to take your hand off the stick to hit a two-key command on the keyboard ("Shift" + "F7," say)? Can you point and click the mouse at on-screen switchware? Are rudder pedals supported? Are readouts legible and readily apparent (do you find yourself confusing the altitude and KIA tapes)? A well-thought-out interface can spell the difference between feeling in control of a sim and making constant errors.
There are other criteria in sizing up a sim. How is the sound support? Is there a help key for befuddled customers? Is the experience diminished by niggling copy-protection schemes? Are there ongoing upgrades, add-on disks, and new releases? I'll try to keep a running tally in each chapter and sum it all up in the end.
What's all this going to cost? The "suggested" retail prices for the main programs vary from about $35 to $70, which means that the price you pay will be about $25 to $60. Of course, if you get hooked on one program, you're going to want to buy all the add-on disks that come later, and that could cost anywhere from $25 (MSRP; say $20 "street price") to hundreds of dollars if you buy everything there is for Flight Simulator. Still, not bad for something that will keep you as busy and happy as if you'd bought a $150,000 Ferrari. Besides, you'll never bend a fender, have to tip a feckless valet, or suffer an insurance adjustment as a result of a speeding ticket.
The last point is what kind of resources each sim requires: how fast a CPU, how many megabytes of RAM, how fancy a video setup, how much room on your hard disk, etc. For that, we'll head on over to the Sugar Shack for a hardware briefing (in Chapter Two).