A new expansion pack revs up Microsoft’s Flight Simulator.
Perhaps an evaluation of an airplane is less about the plane than it is about its maturation. No aircraft is perfect out of the gate. The Chance Vought F4U Corsair, the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark and the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet are but a few examples of designs that suffered teething problems before refinements helped them reach their true potential.
Flight simulations lack the longevity of a production aircraft, and therefore are unlikely to see the revisions that can keep them on a path of improvement. Their lives are ephemeral, and only rare exceptions live multiple years. The leading exception is Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. The title is approaching 27 years as a successful software product, longer even than Windows, the company’s flagship offering. Flight Simulator continues to see improvements to its core features of graphics, flight modeling and world modeling. The tenth version, Flight Simulator X (FSX), brings the usual incremental enhancements to all the product’s features, but is most notable for the work put into improving scripted missions. The latest revision does more for the intangibles of simulation than previous revisions. Things like mission awards add excitement and give the virtual pilot incentives to play.
Like the aforementioned aircraft, FSX has seen revisions since its 2006 release. The first was a service pack. This patch, available free from Microsoft (at www.fsinsider.com), fixes some bugs and improves performance, although FSX is still a hog and needs a lot of computing power to run smoothly. The second is the simulation’s new expansion pack, titled Acceleration ($30, requires Microsoft Windows XP/Vista and an installed copy of Flight Simulator X, 2Ghz processor, 1GB RAM, 4GB hard drive space, 128MB DirectX 9–compliant video card, DVD-ROM drive, Microsoft, www.microsoft.com/games).
Speaking of Hornets, the U.S. Navy’s multirole fighter is the headlining aircraft in Acceleration. Sim fans could always add the F/A-18 to Flight Simulator through third party add-ons, and Flight Simulator has typically come with an aircraft carrier you could practice landing on, but Acceleration puts them both together natively for the first time in the product.
Microsoft has generally done an excellent job of rendering the basic aircraft included in each release of Flight Simulator, and the planes in this expansion pack uphold that tradition. Joining the Hornet is the North American P-51D Mustang and the Augusta-Westland EH-101 helicopter. All look and fly well in Acceleration, and each comes with some historical background in the informative online reference material.
The new aircraft are a hoot to fly, but the missions are what help FSX bring the adventure of flying to life. Acceleration comes with more than 30 new ones to put the new aircraft through their paces. The Hornet, of course, comes with several carrier takeoff and landing scenarios to practice and even some fun intercept missions. The Mustang gets to flex its high-speed muscle and agility in simulations of real air races. The EH-101 performs honorably in rescue and transport and also gets to work in a customs enforcement mission. Better yet, Acceleration gives players a decent competitive challenge through multiplayer support. FSX doesn’t support combat, so there’s no dogfighting in the F/A-18, but you can try to out-fly real players in online air races. The expansion also includes updated detail for such exotic locales as Istanbul. Years ago, cities like that were represented by a smattering of small ground objects, but now they’re densely packed with buildings of all dimensions and teeming with activity.
Some users report that the Acceleration installation utility would not recognize existing installations of FSX, but that they were able to load the software after doing a clean reinstall of FSX, and this worked for me. There are other signs of rushed work. Some users report that Acceleration actually slowed down the simulation’s performance, and there are references in the documentation to online lessons that don’t exist, such as the lesson on formation flying supposedly in the Hornet section. Nevertheless, if you are one of the lucky ones with a machine capable of running FSX smoothly, Acceleration brings a fair amount of added play to an established title.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.