The sixth best thing about sims like FSX is that they tend to be fully customisable through third-party add-ons. In essence, when you load up something like FSX or X-Plane, you’re effectively starting a flight OS into which you can install whatever program you see fit to make your time in the sky more rewarding. The only problem is that there’s so much out there in the way of custom planes, landscapes, editors and so on, that newcomers can be so stymied by choice that the usual response is to collapse into a foetal position and weep for a week before opting to stick with the vanilla program
To that end, what follows is our handy guide to the Best Simulator Add-Ons Known To Man™ . We’ll look at X-Plane enhancers in a few days time, but for now let’s start with the biggest hitter on the block, Microsoft Flight Simulator X.
One caveat. We say ‘best’. It’s very much relative, of course. One man’s fancy is another’s folly. These are certainly the products that we have loaded up whenever we take to the skies with FSX and they do a fine job of lifting the basic Microsoft-approved experience to something more akin to being in the air for real.
So let’s begin with probably the most important aspect of flying – the planes themselves…
Milviz Flight Simulations (www.milviz.com)
To chose a definitive ‘best plane’ for FSX would be madness. There are literally tens of thousands, some amateur-made freebies, some high-end über-simulations. Of those that are worth paying money for however, the range of highly detailed military aircraft from Milviz are far and away the best.
Milviz’ FSX range is an offshoot of their detailed 3D modelling work for film, television and games, meaning that every FSX model they produce looks gorgeous, is incredibly authentic and flies as close to the real thing as possible. This realism comes from having a team of real-world pilots that carry out beta testing on each product to look for handling flaws and write the operating manuals.
Standouts are the recent F-86 Sabre, the F-15E Strike Eagle and the bizarre S-64 Skycrane, although they’re all pretty much worth the money.
If Milviz are the gold standard when it comes to aircraft that make with the boom-boom, Carenado are the bar raisers for civilian planes. As with Milviz, the output is too large to single out any one product as ‘the best’, but certainly the HD range of aircraft, such as the C90B King Air feature some of the most incredibly detailed textures (running at a 2048×2048 pixel resolution), fully-modelled interiors and everything you could want from a virtual cockpit with added lighting effects just to make you feel truly special. Oh, and they fly pretty spot on too.
As with aircraft, there are literally so many scenery packs and add-ons – paid for and free – for FSX that picking a single best example would likely be an exercise in futility were it not for the fact that there’s one manufacturer of custom landscapes that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The Australian team at Orbx don’t so much rule the roost when it comes to making flight sim scenery, as have their own roost made out of gold with the finest hen harem money can buy at their disposal. Not sure why I’ve strayed into dubious farmyard poultry metaphors here, but the point is they’re the best. By far. Very far.
While we’re obviously tempted to make the recently released ‘England’ package our recommended pick of the impressive bunch, the actual plaudits have to go to the staggeringly detailed New Zealand packs (either North or South island, your choice). The breathtaking scenery so beloved by Lord of the Rings fans is brought to life in award-winning beauty, covering the entire country right down to locally-faithful tree types.
As good as some landscape packages are, sometimes the attention to detail given to the trees, shorelines and mountains doesn’t always translate to the actual airports you start and (hopefully) end each flight at. To that end, it can often be better to pick up a dedicated airport package, especially for any locations that you intend to fly regularly out of. Aerosoft’s line of ‘MegaAirports’ provide pilots with a level of detail – from moving ground traffic to realistic night lighting – that elevates the stock FSX airports by an almost shameful degree.
Probably the best of the bunch is the Helsinki pack which comes with seasonal snow banks for making winter flights more challenging (and beautiful), accurate photo-realistic scenery of the surrounding areas and (as with most of the MA range) a separate book of flight charts and navigation aids. Perfect for those that like to boost the immersion factor of their flights by several notches. You can also wear a peaked captain’s hat. That helps too.
Ultimate Traffic 2 (ut2.flight1.net)
No one likes to be alone. Whether it’s the warm embrace of a loved one on a cold night, the camaraderie of brothers in arms on a base raid in PlanetSide 2, or the cold, unfeeling voice of an air traffic controller handling so many arrivals and departures at a busy airport that you spend the best part of an hour sitting on the tarmac waiting for clearance to take off.
Traffic systems in FSX has always been a major part of recreating the atmosphere of true flight. Several packages replace the default randomly-filled skies with authentically scheduled flights pulled from real-world timetables, but the two that lead the way are Traffic 360 from Just Flight and Ultimate Traffic 2 from Flight1. Both fill the skies with over half a million commercial flights, but the latter probably gets the edge for including 1.3 million general aviation flights alongside, and a live status board for checking flights to recreate that stuck in the passenger lounge feeling.
On the flipside, Traffic 360 includes a host of ground detail for airports, custom sounds and slightly more in the way of aircraft liveries. So, flying horses for aerial courses.
Flight Environment X (tinyurl.com/c2jpkc3)
So, you’ve got your plane, sorted out the scenery, and filled the sky with enough other aircraft to make your flight the aerial equivalent of a funfair dodgem car ride. Next step is to get some weather all up in that mofo (to use the technical aviation terminology for it).
FEX isn’t actually a weather machine, more a way of visually enhancing the existing weather patterns to make clouds fluffier, water textures watery-er and the sky more… well, just more. More sky. That’s always good, right?
It’s a environmental-themer, basically, doing for your in-flight experience what the scenery texture packages above do for the more solid bits of the world. Cloud and water textures look incredible, with pixel resolutions of up to 4096×4096 (something of a step up from FSX’s default 256×256). Better yet, everything can be handled easily by the use of environment ‘themes’, including some especially designed ‘surreal’ themes deliberately for creating arty screenshots.
It’s a touch pricey perhaps, but the degree by which FEX boosts each flight you take is astounding. Absolutely essential.
Ideal Flight (tinyurl.com/idealflight)
All dressed up and no place to go. One of the things that often puts people off a proper flight simulator like FSX or X-Plane is the lack of any gameplay structure. The world may be your oyster, but if no one has ever shown you how to properly crack into one of those slippery little buggers, you’ll just be idly prodding at the shell, not really understanding the true depth of what’s on offer.
Ideal Flight comes to the rescue here by providing users with automatic flight planning, a structured career and even post-flight ratings showing how well you coped with it all. In other words, it puts some ‘game’ back into everything. Or, for the purists, it provides a fully comprehensive flight planning utility that makes each flight a logical progression from the last one. You know, like a game.
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