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Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002 Professional Edition

by Bob "Groucho" Marks

Article Type: Review
Article Date: November 13, 2001

OK, I’ve heard it all, so bring it on.

“Civilian flight sims are boring.

“Why would anybody want to pretend to fly a general aviation airplane?”

“What kind of fun is flying if nobody shoots at me, or I can’t return fire?”

“Are you my Daddy? If so, my Mommy says you owe her big.

Um, scratch that last one.

Long Live The Emperor

Microsoft is the established God-Emperor of civilian flight sims, and some of those who have disagreed in the past have become unpersons. After years of producing civsim bloatware with unnecessarily high system-chewing overhead and a pair of uninspired combat flight sims, The Big Guys have finally produced a sim worthy of praise. Yes, folks, it’s true. Grande Fromage of software empires has coughed up a no kidding, not-in-immediate-need-of-a-patch winner.

Really. Flight Sim 2002 Professional is very, very good. You can search the back of my neck for an implant if you want. You won’t find one.

Kick the Tires, Light the Fires

The first thing you will notice when grasping the FS2002 box in your sweaty little hands is how light it is. Yes, in accordance with current practice, Microsoft has chosen not to include a paper manual with this complex simulation. In both the Standard and Professional versions of FS2002, all in-depth documentation is now only available electronically. This is a trend that is hated by the simulation masses, but with so many other publishers following this lame practice it seems whining about it will do little good. This is an obvious cost-cutting measure, so don’t give me that “They’re saving the forests” crap. There is a flimsy little pamphlet outlining where the online handbooks are, as well as an abbreviated key-command chart. Luckily, most checklists and other stuff you really need to know on the fly are available as pop-up windows.

Relax, that is the biggest gripe I have with the entire sim…it feels good to get that out of my system.

Installation is painless, if time consuming. After all, there are three CDs of stuff to load up. Considering the sheer volume of data involved, you’ve got to appreciate the ease of loading. The initial setup is likewise simple.

A word on system requirements: It seems that the performance of FS2002 is very dependent on what video card and amount of RAM you have, much more so than CPU clock speed. My father, who runs a 700MHz PIII, was finally able to run FS2002 with no stuttering and settings turned up after upgrading his PC133 memory up to 512MB and swapping out his TNT2 video card for a GeForce2 64MB. Likewise, a friend who has a 1.5GHz P4 / 256MB PC133 RAM got over his initial disappointment in frame rates by replacing his GeForceMX card with a GeForce3.

A decent video card is needed to appreciate theview, such as this shot of the Vegas strip.

My 1.7GHz P4 / 384MB RAMBUS RAM / GeForce3 64DDR runs FS2002 in all its high-res glory with all the options to the right with nary a complaint. This is big news, as FS2K would start to bog down even this particular rig. It’s very obvious that Microsoft took their stated mission to trim some of the fat off of the code when producing FS2002 very seriously. They’ve done a great job, as FS2002 introduces several new features without driving the hardware requirements into a ballistic trajectory.

New Stuff

FS2002 introduces several new features in the new release. How many of these features you actually get depends on which version of FS2002 you buy—standard or professional.

There are several new aircraft. In addition to the old favorites from FS2K (with the glaring exception of the Concorde), the standard edition now offers a Cessna 208 Caravan turboprop single on amphibious floats, the Boeing 747-400, and the Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP, a new spiffied-up variant of the ubiquitous 172. Spending the extra $20.00 for the professional version nets you all these plus the Beech Raytheon BE58 Baron and Cessna 208 Grand Caravan on wheels. The Mooney Bravo from FS2K also makes a reappearance in the pro version.

Tut, tut! Buzz the antiquities like this and they'll bust your Cheops!

Some new graphical enhancements have taken place in FS2002. Lighting effects and chrome reflections are beautifully done, and clouds are much improved. Jets at altitude now leave contrails behind. The reflection effects in windows are wonderfully realistic, although windows that are that clean and scratch-free do not exist in the wild.

Both versions offer the new interactive air traffic control. By choosing from a pop-up list of options in a transparent window, the sim pilot interacts with ATC. It is somewhat similar similar in operation to the ATC as implemented in X-Plane, if much more polished. Unlike X-Plane, the voices actually sound like human speech transmitted over a radio, complete with passable inflections. Several user-selectable voices are available, ensuring that female pilots can have feminine voices, for example.

One slick and realistic feature of the ATC in FS2002 is the simulated radio traffic that is a function of the amount of dynamic scenery aircraft selected by the sim user. If you’ve cranked up the number of dynamic aircraft, prepare to hear a lot of chatter on the air. This is a great aid to immersion, and also creates a true-to-life challenge all its own. With more traffic on the air, you’ll have to wait your turn to speak. Stepping on another’s transmission negates your radio call. If you didn’t understand part of the controller’s instruction, you’ll have to wait your turn to ask them to repeat.

There are a few minor inconsistencies with certain IFR clearance and other procedures, but dwelling on these would verge on being too damn picky. In all, Microsoft got the ATC right, adding realism and immersion by increasing the sim pilot’s workload substantially.

This dynamic traffic isn’t just randomly scattered around the world. Traffic is hairiest where you’d expect it the most. Busy airports like O’Hare, LAX, Heathrow, and Atlanta is where the action is. Unlike some of the airport add-ons to FS2002’s predecessor, this traffic does have collision detection. That 737 on approach will hit you, and you will know it.

Automatically generated scenery also adds much to the realism. Buildings, farms, trees, all are details now filling the landscape below. This does much to eliminate the sterility of the older versions. Like the dynamic scenery, each of these generated features set off collision detection, so those trees at the end of the runway are now something you must contend with. On a hot day at a high-altitude strip, you may have to unload some of your fuel!

Also like the dynamic scenery, the buildings and trees are not randomly scattered about. Buildings and factories are located in groups where actual towns are. Several landmarks are precisely where they should be. I was pleasantly shocked, for example, to see the Kahuku Sugar Mill located in its proper location on the Hawaiian island of O'ahu. This is a well-known landmark used by VFR aircraft flying along the North Shore coastline.

A Baron salutes Ground Zero, site of the 9/11 atrocity. Note the bare area in Manhattan.

Of historical interest is what scenery Microsoft—not to mention scumbag terrorists—has chosen to remove. The World Trade Center towers are no longer a part of the Manhattan skyline. There is now a “hole” in the jungle of skyscrapers where the WTC used to stand. I’d like to see a patch generated that portrays a hand with a protruding middle finger to drop in the WTC’s place.

Another slick new feature in both versions is the inclusion of seaplane flying. The impressive Cessna Caravan on amphibious floats is included, and the newfound ability to land and take off on oceans, lakes, and rivers adds a great challenge to the Microsoft flight sim line.

Touring the island of O'ahu in the comfort of a Baron 58. Aaaah.

The enhanced virtual cockpit view is also a treat. While FS2K sported a virtual cockpit that was fuzzy, crude, and populated with static instruments, the new version offers up a virtual cockpit that is actually usable. Instruments are active and easily readable. The ability to naturally swivel your head around (and back and forth) within the cockpit is great for VFR flying.

The Jeppesen FliteMap-looking flight planner

The new graphical flight planner, obviously influenced by Microsoft’s partner Jeppesen’s FlightMap/FliteStar software, is included. This printable, graphical flight plan is a welcome addition to planning cross-country flights.

The professional version offers up several other goodies unavailable in the standard version. Included with pro is Discreet's gmax 3D object editor. Those of an artistic bent can now create aircraft and structures. I’ve screwed around with it a bit, and was slightly surprised by how intuitive it is. Look for some very cool aircraft to come out of this particular add-on.

The gmax 3D object rendering program, included in FS2002 Pro

Another module in the pro version is the Instructor Station. This offers the ability to turn into a virtual-flying sadist by inflicting a willing victim’s aircraft with such gremlins as system failures and nasty weather via the Internet. Is the pro version worth the extra twenty bucks? I would say yes, with the tools and more advanced IFR-panel equipped aircraft included. If you are only a casual civsim pilot, however, the standard version is probably good enough.

Up in the Air

All of these new features add much to FS2002, but the true proof is in taking these birds up into the air. Do all these new goodies add to the illusion of flight?

You bet your sweet E6B they do. With the inclusion of the auto-gen scenery, the rush of low-level flight is better than in any other civsim, for example. The enhanced smoke and cloud effects make flying the Extra 300 in aerobatic routines seem far more realistic. The largest contribution, in my opinion, is the new virtual cockpit mode. The freedom of movement within the cockpit makes for a much more enjoyable flight, offering the ability to take in the scenery while still allowing a glance at your RPMs or fuel state.

The flight models seem somewhat tweaked, allowing a more fluid, organic feeling of flight. It’s really hard to put an absolute “ah-ha!” on what is different, but all of the aircraft seem to handle more realistically than before. Taking the 172S around the pattern just feels much more like the real thing. Flying the Bell 206B JetRanger helo now seems much less of a chore, while still remaining extremely challenging.

As a reality check, I took in the flight briefing of Chuck Coleman, an Extra 300 owner and operator. Chuck is a regular airshow performer who had brought his beautiful bird to my workplace to teach our test pilots about unusual attitude flight. He once worked for Patty Wagstaff Airshows, which served in a technical advisory role and whose Extra is rendered in the FS series. Chuck was familiar with the Extra as presented in FS2K. “Yeah, that’s a pretty neat program,” he said, obviously not totally impressed with the Extra as presented in FS2002’s predecessor.

Just like the real thing, it's a Lomcevak in an Extra 300

As I sat in on the briefing, I took several notes. That night, I came home and fired up FS2002, and performed several of the maneuvers, taking screenshots as I did. The Extra 300 in the sim seemed to do each and every spew-inducing move exactly as its real-life counterpart would do. When I got back to work the next day, I projected my screenshots on the screen in our briefing/conference room.

Upon seeing the screencaps of my previous night’s virtual flight, Chucks jaw almost literally hit the floor. “That’s amazing!” he exclaimed. “That is exactly how it looks. I have got to get me a copy of that to help practice my routines!”

And that, my friends, is one of the purest recommendations any sim can get. Boring? Not hardly. Challenging? Big time. Just spring for that zoot new video card, and welcome to the FS2002 fan club.

Flight Simulator 2002 Professional Edition

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