2014 wasn't exactly a bumper year for standalone flight sim releases. Apart from the flak-nibbled IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad, and eccentric WWI curios like ILYA Muromets and Canvas Knights simulated clouds had simulated skies almost all to themselves. Fortunately the add-on sector was as vigorous and ambitious as ever. Today in The Flare Path I catch up with five top flight sim supplementers, all of whom have worked their windsocks off this past twelve months. Recently discovered the delights of DCS World or purchased the A380-sized bargain that is FSX Steam Edition? Beware! What follows may pluck at your purse strings.
Looking back on a “busy and productive” 2014, Eagle Dynamics producer Matt Wagner was struck by DCS World's burgeoning diversity. The WW2 side of the sim expanded enticingly this year with the appearance of two deeply modelled Luftwaffe warbirds, the Fw 190 D-9 Dora and the Bf 109 K-4 Kurfürst.
Appropriately, the narrow undercarriage and potent powerplant of the latter makes it a wingtip-grazing brow beader during take-offs and landings. As gallant Galland impersonator 504smudge graphically demonstrates in this informative 'first impressions' vid.
At some point next year, the Doras and Kurfürsts should find themselves tangling with Spitfire IXs and P-47Ds in addition to the now-familiar P-51D Mustangs. There's also a fair chance they'll be able to swap contemporary Georgian skies for 1944 Normandy ones.
Definitely on the cards in the coming months is the preliminary release of the long awaited Nevada Test and Training Range map together with the promising 'DCS World 2' engine update it depends upon.
Collaborations were another significant feature of Eagle Dynamics' 2014. Matt drew attention to well-received third-party add-ons like Belsimtek's F-86F, Leatherneck's MiG-21bis (like the Bf 109, a bit of a bowel loosener) and VEAO's Hawk, and future partner-produced projects like AvioDev's C-101 and Belsimtek's MiG-15bis. If you can watch the following without yearning for a MiG Alley 2 then you're a jolly cold fishbed.
Predictably, A2A Simulations seem to have spent 2014 in much the same way they spent 2013 - engaged in lots of unbelievably forensic research, painstaking aircraft construction, and polite award accepting. Their two major releases - the Cherokee and Skylane - both scooped prestigious PC Pilot platinum gongs making it an unequalled ten top ratings in a row for the perfectionists behind the FSX-stretching Accu-Sim concept.
The studio's love of aviation and approach to simulation is perfectly communicated in the Skylane promo film below. More powerful, rugged, and streamlined than previous A2A GA aircraft, the C-182 comes with a new hand towing facility that, along with familiar Accu-Sim attributes like persistent engine wear, pre-flight inspection simulation, and superb sound effects, is designed to encourage acceptance of the machine as a physical entity rather than a Cessna-shaped soap bubble.
As studio boss Scott Gentile puts it:
“Pull your airplane into the maintenance hangar and let your mechanic inspect and give you a report on the condition of all the systems. Walk around the aircraft, wiggle the flaps, visually checking the fuel, tires, and oil. Start it up and experience a symphony of sensations, all generated from a living and breathing machine. The engine bucks, the panel shakes, the tires screech, and the prop slices through the air. Apply full power and hold your airplane on the centerline, as it builds up a head of steam. Pull back on the yoke and let the wings lift your entire and amazing machine into the sky.”
Asked to reflect on Aerosoft's 2014, Mathijs Kok talked mainly of Tomcats and Airbuses.
“For Aerosoft the biggest and most important FS add-on release were the Airbuses without a doubt. Not only because they are big expensive projects but also because they taught us that we should continue on exactly the same path, providing high end simulations of all the systems pilots use day to day while more or less ignoring systems that are almost never used. Some of our competitors [PMDG? Speculation Ed] have modelled systems that have not been used one single time in millions of flight hours. We simply do not see the need for that and would much rather keep the price of a product down.”
"Next to the Airbuses I think the F-14 was an important release as it was our first serious military aircraft in many years. Personally I love fighters and my first experiences with this aircraft and TacPack really made me fall in love with flight simulations again."
Mathijs also mentioned the company's recent airport output (Heathrow Xtended, Berlin-Brandenburg... ) and - via an X-Plane observation (“Releasing X-Plane 10 on STEAM added many thousands of new customers and made releasing X-Plane add-ons a far better option for many developers. We saw our own sales of X-Plane add-ons grow fast this year”) hinted at the 'Steam dividend' heading the way of the MSFS add-on industry in the wake of Dovetail's FSX relaunch.
Another big player in the world of sim add-ons excited by a possible MSFS renaissance is British outfit Just Flight. They picked out the well-reviewed Canberra PR9 (the first creation from their in-house development team), the DC8 Series 50 to 70, and the Tristar Professional package, as their stand-out releases of 2014.
The chaps that made the Canberra are now busy bolting together a Tornado GR1.
“We were able to secure access to one of the RAF’s hardest working aircraft – Gulf War veteran ZA465 ‘Foxy Killer”, now on static display at IWM Duxford and this will be the basis for our simulation. We will be building upon the strengths of the Canberra, namely outstanding visuals and very deep systems simulation to hopefully push the bar even higher this time. We are already working on some exciting features for the Tornado, including a Terrain Following Radar and we are looking forward to a release sometime in the new year.”
For scenery magicians Orbx Simulations, 2014 was a year of macro and micro focus. Alongside a bevy of high-detail single airport and single region/country releases, they wheeled out FTX Global openLC Europe, the first of seven planned expansion packs intended to transform all of Flight Simulator's (and Prepar3D's) landscapes.
Building on foundations laid by 2013's FTX Global (basically a re-skin of the entire FSX/P3D globe) and FTX Global Vector (roads, rivers, coastlines etc reworked for greater realism) openLC will, one continent at time, overhaul MSFS's all important 'land class' layer. The land class layer is what the sim consults when it's deciding which ground textures to unroll and which autogen objects to scatter. Its crudeness is at the root of many of vanilla FSX's least convincing vistas.
The combined effects of the various FTX products - which include vastly improved street lighting effects - can be experienced first hand via the Icelandic demo available here
With Europe's land class shortcomings addressed, Orbx are now moving on to North America. The coming year will also see a steady stream of HD airports, plus photoreal depictions of the French Riviera and Monument Valley.
The Flare Path Foxer
If it was up to me All is Well, foop, Guvornator, phlebas, MartinWisse, Gothnak, Shiloh, and Rorschach617 would all have been showered with Flair Points for their efforts last week. Was the 'émigrés' theme they flushed out, the theme Roman had carefully concealed? No. Was it close to the intended theme? No. But overlook a rather frail 'Z' link and the failure to address an easily missed eighth clue, and the furnished solution was perfectly serviceable.
Of all the people I know, no-one loves Christmas more than Roman. At about this time every year, my chief foxer fabricator puts on his heavily patched telogreika jacket, collects his sledge and axe from the woodshed, and heads out in search of Jeremy Paul, Leslie Stewart, and Keith Strachan. Sadly, thus far he's always returned empty-handed, but one day - he assures me - those three holes behind the old mushroom sheds will be filled.