Microsoft Flight Simulator 5. (Software Review) (Entertainment Choice) (Evaluation)
by Bob Eller
Photorealistic graphics, digitized sound, and gradient hues make this a radical and satisfying upgrade of the most realistic flight simulator for home use.
It's hard to describe the feeling you get soaring through the sky. Sitting alone at 10,000 feet puts a whole new perspective on the world and your place in it. Indeed, flying brings you as close as you can get to how it must feel to be a bird and climb through the sky on outstretched wings. It's a wonderful feeling and, once experienced, very addictive.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 5 gives you that feeling like no other flight simulator. When I first heard of Flight Simulator in the early 1980s, I knew I had to try it. After moving through the first three versions of the program, I went out and began work on my private pilot's license. If I'd owned flight Simulator 5, I might have stayed at home and saved enough money to buy a new Pentium computer. As Microsoft advertises, FS5 is as real as it gets.
In many ways, FS5 is the most radical upgrade of the Flight Simulator series. Taking advantage of the faster processor and graphics cards now available, FS5 brings you graphics that will make you swear you're sitting in the pilot's seat high above the ground.
FS5 replaces the two-dimensional graphics found in previous versions with lifelike three-dimensional graphics. The sky, instead of being solid blue, now looks like a real sky with gradient hues of color that reflect the time of day. The computer-drawn instrument panel is replaced with photorealistic instrumentation digitized from real aircraft instruments. The panel array still includes the instruments required to fly under either visual flight rule (VFR) or instrument flight rule (IFR), as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The scenery include with FS5 is also a step-up from that of previous versions. In addition to adding photorealistic ground scenes, buildings with texture and lights, and airports with active runway lighting systems, FS5's scenery world covers the entire globe. Instead of being confined to the 10,000 x 10,000 square miles contained in Flight Simulator 4, you can now extend your journey to Europe and beyond.
Flight sectionals, directories, and runway maps are included in the manual for a number of airports located in the Paris and Munich areas. And FS5 adds significantly to the number of airports that you may access directly via the program's menu system. As with previous versions, you can move your aircraft to anywhere in FS5's world by setting the location's coordinates from the menu.
One of the nicest additions will help new aviators with the most difficult task to master when flying either a real or a simulated aircraft: landing. The task is so hard that most folks, including seasoned pilots, have found themselves crashing in the Flight Simulator programs until they get the hang of it. FS5's Land Me command puts the aircraft under the control of an instructor who takes you to the nearest airport and, using onscreen scrolling text, talks you through the landing. you may never again hear the sound of bending metal during your landing.
If you do hear that wince-inducing sound and you have a sound card installed in your PC, the tones will take on a new reality with FS5. This is the first version of the program to use digitized sound and to support the Microsoft Windows Sound System, Creative Labs' Sound Blaster and Sound Blaster Pro, Media Vision's Pro AudioSpectrum and Thunder Board, ATI's Stereo FX, and the Ad Lib and Ad Lib with COVOX. If you don't have a sound card, nondigitized sounds are played through your PC's internal speaker.
Most of the valued features found in previous versions of Flight Simulator are included in FS5. These include a choice of aircraft, flight instruction, a log of your flights, and several entertainment flight options. The only feature from FS4 not included in theis version is the aircraft designer. This feature has been replaced by the stand-alone Aircraft and Scenery Designer program available separately from Microsoft.
FS5 come equipped with four aircraft: a Cessna Skylane RG, a Learjet 35A, a Schweizer 2-32 sailplane, and a Sopwith Camel. The Cessna Skylane RC is an excellent aircraft for pilot training and general aviation. According to the manual, this aircraft's simulation is designed for realism, both in what you see and how you feel behind the controls. The Learjet is designed for fun and speed. You can cruise at 460 knots at an altitude of 41,000 feet. The sailplane allows you to experience the joys of soaring on a thermal and gaining altitude by circling upward on the currents of a friendly ridge, and the Sopwith Camel is a venerable biwing that is great for low and slow sightseeing.
If you're new to flying, you'll get a fast start with FS5. The packages's manual, in addition to describing the program's operation and aircraft, contains an excellent section called Flight School. Like its counterpart in real flying, Flight School provides the information you need to understand the basics of flight. It moves from there to many of the flight maneuvers you'll need to learn if you want to earn your private pilot's license. When you're ready, FS5 contains a flight instruction section that walks you through the basic flight skills via an onscreen instructor and postmaneuver briefing.
For entertainment, you can play FS5 with a friend via modem, try your hand at the crop-dusting game, or test your skills with formation flying and electronic flight instructment system scenarios.
Microsoft has raised the minimum requirements needed to run FS5 from those of previous versions (see the list of requirements, right). Althopugh the minimum system will run the program, in order to get the best performance, you need an 80486 running at 33 MHz with at least 4MB of memory, 2MB of which is configured as expanded memory. The faster the computer, the better the video performance. In fact, it wouldn't hurt to have a local-bus graphics adapter in your system. I found that with 4MB of memory I was unable to get my 486 system properly configured. Expanding my PC up to 8MB of memory solved this problem.
A number of expansion products are available for use with FS5. In addition to Aircraft and Scenery Designer Microsoft has released scenery packs covering New York and Paris, which let you take an aerial tour of the Statute of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. Mallard Software offers extremely lifelike ray-traced scenery for San Francisco and Washington, DC. Derived from actual satellite photos, this package further enhances the feeling of being there.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 5 is the best flight simulator I've seen for home use. In fact, the only flight simulator that comes close to its realism is one I saw running on a Silicon Graphics computer several years ago. According to the salesman, I could've taken home a copy for only $30,000--not including the required high-tech computer, of course. So if you want an extremely realistic flight experience that doesn't cost the price of a good used aircraft, you just can't beat Flight Simulator 5.