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Flight Unlimited II
by Neil Mouneinme

Test System:

  • P225 Classic at 75Mhz
  • Canopus Pure3D 3d accelerator
  • Sound Blaster AWE64
  • 80M RAM

Flight Unlimited 2 isn't a combat simulator, but competition in the civil aviation genre is so scarce that anything innovative is of interest, and Flight Unlimited 2 certainly qualifies on that count.

The most important thing to remember about Flight Unlimited 2 is that it really is a completely different kind of game from its predecessor. The original Flight Unlimited, while a very entertaining game, really didn't fit into any known type of simulation at all. This one squarely goes after the popular civil aviation genre that has always done very well, but has suffered for a lack of anything but the most incremental of improvements over the years.

The planes available out of the box give a pretty good cross-section of light-duty civil aviation. You get a classic example for each of the categories of high-wing, low-wing, twin-engine, and amphibious planes - represented by the "Trainer" 172, Piper Arrow, Beechcraft Baron, and the DeHaviland Beaver. Additionally, a P-51 Mustang is in there for some wilder joyriding.

To use an analogy FU2 tries to do for aviation simulations what Battlespire did after Daggerfall. That is, rather than trying to cover virtually everything imagineable and end up sacrificing detail, FU2 concentrates on a more limited scope, but far more thoroughly. In this case, it's one big chunk of California: the Bay Area and much of the surrounding countryside, brought together in a level of detail that is simply unmatched. All the various undulations of the terrain are faithfully reproduced. Urban sprawl, suburban neighborhoods nestled in the hills, fire roads, lakes, rivers, all are replicated with photographic quality in this game. We're not talking about repeated textures, either. The entire landscape is basically one humongous texture, covering every street and virtually every building there is (although technically only the larger structures actually have 3d models).

The feature of Flight Unlimited 2 that stands out the most among the competition - not counting graphics - is the extensive communication system. The communications are truly stellar. Way too many past sims have been guilty of making you feel utterly alone. Flying with some other aircraft in the sky helps a little, but doesn't really make the difference. But crank up the traffic density for Christmas, schedule a departure from San Francisco International, tune your radio into the ground control frequency, and look both ways before crossing the runway, because this game really makes you feel like you are participating in a carefully orchestrated traffic control system. All kinds of radio chatter is going on if you're on the right frequency. This chatter isn't faked or randomized, either. It's coming from flying aircraft actually following a flight plan and communicating with various ATC stations as necessary. In some cases some of the aircraft making calls may be even making references to yourself. You are, after all, part of the traffic now.

At many airports, before you even get moving, you need to get in contact with ground control and request taxi directions to an available runway. You'll be given a destination runway assignment and a letter code representing which taxiways you are to use to get there. Just in case you're having trouble finding your way around or are getting lost, you can call up a "cheat" to display an overlay line that shows the proper direction or call the ground controller again for help. During your taxiing, you may be instructed to stop short at an intersection for cross-traffic, be instructed to give way to other traffic in the same taxiway, or conversely hear other traffic being halted or delayed for you!

Once in the air you may find yourself challenged on GUARD frequency to contact the ATC for the airspace you're in. After achieving positive radar contact, the ATC will vector you around other traffic, vector other traffic around you, and - if requested - will verbally direct you all the way to visual range of your destination airport. About eight different pilot's voices help you distinguish each of the aircraft that may be in your area at any given time, and generally add to the suspension of disbelief - just don't let all the female airliner captains phase you.

It's important to be patient and not call in for help as you're waiting at your destination for further instructions, as the ground ATC sometimes gets a little confused by this and gives round-trip directions to take you back where you already are. The best solution is to wait patiently for the runway to become available, or just ignore everything and take off. It's only a game, the FAA should forgive you 8^).

The weather modeling in FU2 deserves special accolade. It is unquestionably the best weather simulation ever put into a flight simulation to date. Wind and turbulence can knock the fragile aircraft around, really making foul weather flight an unpleasant prospect. You really learn the fine art of crabbing into the wind on a landing approach, or you end up drifting far off-center, or worse, caught off guard in a gust. The importance of knowing how to handle IFR flight takes on new meaning when you see how difficult night flying in bad weather gets.

The rain is really incredible, and is a testament to the kind of attention to detail that is the hallmark for this game. Starting a flight in the rain, you hear the hollow sound of raindrops echoing off the metal fuselage. Droplets create miniature lens distortions at first, then gradually slide off of the canopy. Even the direction the droplets move is dependent on the airflow on the windshield. Again, we're talking about some serious attention to detail. It not only looks right, it really sets the mood.

Lightning effects are very impressive. They come complete with brilliant flashes of light, jagged bolts of electricity, and time-delayed sound effects - another nice touch. Occasionally you can see flashes among the clouds as smaller bolts will threaten to come down. The only down side here is that it seems too often that it virtually hits the plane. A minor detail perhaps, but it's a bit unnerving to have taxiway signs getting blasted right next to you as you try to make it to your assigned runway.

Night time flight is quite a challenge. VFR at night is basically impossible, since there are very few lights at night. Certainly not the million pinpoints we'd expect from San Francisco. This is a little odd. Buildings have anticollision lights, though, and airports are reasonably well lit with appropriate marker and runway lighting. Some kind of "landing light" would be nice to have on the aircraft to help judge height when doing a water or "rogue" landing. Just plan for IFR travel at night and leave the Beaver in the hangar -it doesn't have IFR gear, anyhow. Aside from this, the game models the PCL remote-control lighting system used on some uncontrolled airports. It has some very bright navigation lights both on the player's and all other aircraft. Finally worth noting, unlike many other sims, nighttime is indeed dark. Keep the map and some VOR frequencies handy, because you're going to need them.

The physics in Microsoft Flight Simulator has always felt a little... strange. Microsoft's simulation seems to stick to it's old-fashioned force-based simulation strategy with unnerving regularity. This has always created a weird, artificial sensation during flight. FU2, on the other hand, builds on the ground breaking physics model standard created in the first Flight Unlimited, and it really shows in any kind of flight other than straight and level cruising. As you can imagine, though, the modelling has been extended to allow for the amphibious nature of the Beaver seaplane, where it's performance feels very convincing. The game's physics modeling even takes into account the huge turbulent jetwash left behind by commercial airliners! Perhaps the biggest downer of having such a sophisticated flight model is that the available planes - even the P51 - just can't take the vicious pounding that the acrobatic prodigies of the original game were designed for, and so you can't fly with the same reckless fervor that was the centerpiece of its predecessor.

Rather than merely just pick a couple of arbitrary airports and fly around without any real purpose, Flight Unlimited 2 supports "missions". This adds some interesting twists to an otherwise mellow civil aviation career. These can vary from "Land your plane safely under some nasty weather conditions" to "Drop off the rock band at their concert". It's a great idea, and lots of fun to be a "man with a mission" rather than just toodling around, but be forewarned that the game doesn't give you much in the way of cues to let you know if you're on the right track or not, so you really have to be self-sufficient in running the missions.

Just in case finding the exact spot you're supposed to go gets to be frustrating, Constantine Hantzopoulos - Flight Unlimited 2's Project Director - has been kind enough to reveal a "cheat" to display the "trigger zones" where you are expected to stop or go through in some scenarios. Just hit Shift-Alt-A while in flight and a bounding box will be displayed on the terrain if you're within visual range.

Frame rates are a bit of a mixed bag. The game generally runs anywhere from extremely smooth to pretty jerky - roughly between 10 to 30 fps. The slowest speeds usually coming from an external view when flying over a dense urban area. On the one hand, it's actually possible to get decent frame rates even without a 3d card . On the other hand, even with a Pure 3d on the test system the frame rate can drop to very low levels, especially in polygon-dense areas. Is this a condemnation or a victory for Direct 3D? That's not easy to answer. In fact, under particular conditions, the non-accelerated version runs faster, although the accelerated version has a far superior colors pallette. The fact that the Pure 3d isn't completely outdoing the software renderer is almost definitely due to the fact that the textures the game uses are very large compared to the tiny texture cache that 3d cards usually use.

In all fairness, it's amazing how well the rendering is working. Consider that the size of the textures are absolutely huge to cover the terrain with unrepeating textures, and to have terrain with correct elevation information requires a considerable number of polygons even before you display the other objects, calculate physics, update all the air traffic, and so on. Nevertheless, players are strongly urged to use the fastest hardware possible, and perhaps reduce the resolution, traffic density, and some of the effects to keep the frame rate up.

Gamers would be well advised to turn the graphics settings way down and use the best hardware possible. Flight Unlimited 1 and Longbow 2 were known for being graphically stunning even at very low detail, and Flight Unlimited 2 is even more so. It just takes a bit of faith to be willing to turn the settings low enough and believe that everything will still look and run well.

Sounds are in the game are extremely well done and quite appropriate. Each plane has its own unique sounds for everything from engine start, stall, idle, and cruise - including very different sounds from inside and outside the plane. The sounds of the engine at cruise speed seem a little flat from inside the cockpit, but they sound quite hearty at idle speed. The Beaver's radial engine has quite the boomy rumble to it. The Baron's twin engines buzz merrily in sync. If you're in the water with the Beaver, you can kick back and just listen to the water lapping against the pontoons. Pick up speed and you'll hear the pontoons crashing through the wavelets. Flaps and landing gear have their own unique sounds for deployment, and of course, there are the various disturbing sounds of metal groaning and shrieking as the airframe gets overloaded - your best cue to take it easier on those acrobatic pretensions.

Overall, Flight Unlimited 2 is an excellent package. I can't claim to having any personal private piloting experience to compare it against, but you can just feel it when you've made a jump closer to the mark. Flight Unlimited 2 definitely gives me that feeling. It brings the look, sound, physics, and dare I say - ambience of civil aviation to the home computer. It may have a few minor flaws, but these are easily forgiven in light of how effective the game is at both ignoring traditional civil aviation examples and still being just great fun in its own right.


  • Gameplay: 90
  • Graphics: 95
  • Sound: 85
  • Intelligence: 85
  • Interface: 80
  • Learning Curve: 6 hours
  • Overall: 90

So what's in store for the future on Flight Unlimited 2? A free "drop-in" airplane will be made available sometime around February. Expansion packs that may contain some combination of more flyable area, more planes, more adventures, and enhanced ATC communications. As far as Flight Unlimited 3 goes, current plans call for dynamic weather, multiplayer support(!), and more powerful adventure play support, some of which is designed specifically with multiplayer play in mind.

Download the patch : Looking Glass Technologies


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Last Updated December 19th, 1997

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