uud Faber's FScene packages are well known to the flight simulation community and hardly need any introduction from me, but a lot of paint has flowed from his brush since the last time we looked at replacement textures and I guess it is time for a round up of where Ruud is at.
If you cast your mind back to the good old days of FS98 you will remember how the only way it was possible to identify which continent you were on was by the and FS2004 boast continent specific sets. No longer do Nepal and North Dakota look alike - which adds to the fun of visiting exotic destinations, but there is just on problem. For some reason, Microsoft have chosen the most tired looking color palette you can imagine for the default landscape sets, with the result that the FS world looks like it could do with a good clean. You can see this in the composite shot on the right, which shows the default textures in the left pane and Ruud's replacements in the right pane. The impact the new sets make depends a good deal on where you like to fly - but one thing is for sure, once you have used them, the old world looks dull to the point of depression.
Ruud's work originally saw the light of day in the form of the extremely popular PH_WORLD and EU_WORLD freeware collections, which were particularly welcome to European simmers, because they did the great service of recreating the patchwork agriculture we know so well. European field boundaries are often centuries old and unless all the hedges have been pulled out to let modern farm machinery work, they tend to be small and all kinds of crazy shapes. If you compare the fields in the bottom of the paired shots above, you will see how Ruud's textures reflect African agricultural practices
When those first texture sets for FS2000 were released, they highlighted a significant problem, which was that the effect was world-wide - there was a limited set of field textures and though the replacements were a big improvement, they appeared everywhere you went, just like the ones they replaced. Nepal and North Dakota sure looked different, but once you got over the new graphics, you still couldn't work out which continent you were flying over. Nonetheless, the textures were popular, because they were so much better than putting up with the Microsoft's default world and given that many users only fly on a single continent, they weren't a bad solution.
FS2002 and FS2004 are endowed with a vastly greater range of textures than their predecessors, which allows variation between landscapes on different continents. In fact this is a gross simplification of the lengths that the development team went to in order to create a more realistic world and it is worth understanding how it all works before we take a look at Ruud's textures.
I am sure that most readers are well aware that in Flight Simulator, the surface of the world is represented by a mesh, which is divided into squares around a kilometre square for the purposes of texture coverage. Each of these squares has four properties:
1. a texture type with which it would be covered if it were a lowland plain.
2. a texture to be used if the slope of the square exceeds a certain angle (which accounts for why sloping lakes don't occur on the default mesh).
3. the sort of Autogen which should appear on its surface, chosen from around a dozen different possibilities. Incidentally, Autogen in FS2002 looks the same the world over, while FS2004 has continent specific Autogen.
4. the Autogen to be used if the slope of the square exceeds a certain angle.
According to Burkhard Renk, the creator of the superb FSLandClass package, there are about 112 different texture types in FS2002, many of which superficially look alike, but on closer inspection have subtle differences that only show up when the textures are viewed en masse - it is this property which causes the variation between landscapes in different continents. If you browse through the Flight Simulator texture folder (e.g. ...\flight simulator 9\scenery\world\texture), the similarities between many of the textures is quite striking; part of the problem being that the tiles are only 256 pixels on a side, which doesn't allow a lot of scope for simulating a square kilometer of ground. Now bear in mind that from a plane flying at say 5000 feet, any view will contain multiple copies of the same texture, which not only has to blend seamlessly with all its different neighbors, but also be unubtrusive enough not to stand out like a sore thumb and you will have some idea of how much thought has to go into designing the things. Fanfare, step forward Mr. Faber, grandfather of seven, owner of two gold fish, a thousand cc BMW bike and a rare talent for painting in miniature.
So far, Ruud has released complete four season sets of replacement textures for Europe, the USA & Canada. South America, Australia & New Zealand and Africa are under way; and the first Asian set is expected soon. Each package costs €19.00, with a discount for purchases of all four seasons for a single continent - a complete European set costs €62, for example. Somehow, I guess there aren't going to be many takers for the complete, four season world set, but when you bear in mind that each set contains around 300 different hand painted textures, Ruud isn't exactly overcharging for his time.
Ruud's packages are a development from his previous work and feature even better cities, villages, farms and night scenery than before. The overall effect changes the entire look of FS and banishes what Ruud describes as the "typical USA" effect which still dominates Europe in FS2004 despite Microsoft's best efforts. Like the defaults, Ruud's textures look best at typical VFR altitudes of 2500 to 5000 feet.
Installation is very simple, involving the ubiquitous Clickteam program; although all this does is install the textures into a folder on your hard disk, rather than into Flight Simulator, so you can't just run the install routine, start the sim and go flying - there is an extra step involved. - a readme file installed with the files gives instructions on how to proceed.
Getting the new textures into Flight Simulator requires a certain amount of knowledge of Windows file management, so I am will briefly describe what has to be done, so you can judge for yourself whether you can cope with it. The textures need to be copied into the ...\flight simulator 9\scenery\world\texture (or the ...\FS2002\Scenedb\World\Texture folder, if you are still using the old version) while Flight Simulator is shut down - Ruud advises making a backup of the original textures before doing this and I can't reinforce the need for doing that too much. Most people should breeze through this, but if you are new to Windows, it may be a obstacle that you don't want to cross - it would be nice to see an automatic procedure built into the package to get around this problem. Other developers do it, so why not FScene?
I have played around some with the screen shots. Up top is Mount Kilamanjaro, second shot down shows the famous 02 Ranch in Texas, and the third shot shows the area around Wellington, New Zealand. In the second and third shots I have blended two screen shots together so that Ruud's textures are visible at bottom right and the default textures top left. In the screen shot just above, the edge of the blend runs from the horizon top right to bottom left, skirting just below the 441. As you can see, the difference can be very subtle - and yet at other times, it is really striking - if you take a look at the second down, where the bottom third of the shot is 'default' tile and the middle third is Ruud's textures, you will see what I mean. The contrast between Ruud's vibrant tones and the sadder colors of Microsoft's Texas might be the more obvious of the two, but if you click on the New Zealand shot and carefully compare the lower right and left corners of the enlargement, you will see that Ruud has completely reworked the street grid into something much more believable than the original. The temptation to go for in your face effects so that users would know they were getting something different from the word go must have been overwhelming, but having used FScene for a couple of years I am glad Ruud held his nerve.
Screen shots are one thing, but you have to use these textures for a while to realise how smart Ruud has been. One of the most cleverest things is the 3D effect he has built in, which makes hedges and farmhouses look remarkably real as long as you don't get too low down. The textures work very well with Autogen, and features like autogen buildings, rivers and roads fit in without any problems at all.
When I reviewed FScene a couple of years back, the one improvement I wanted to see was softer winter effects in Europe. Call it global warming or whatever, but we have had a succession of really mild winters and countries with maritime climates are lucky to see more than a light dusting of snow nowadays - for example, last year the north of England had snow lying for less than a week. Ruud seems to have fixed this, so that January in England looks dank, while a quick transfer to Innsbruck finds the place snowbound. One problem that remains is that in areas where there is continuous coverage with a single tile type, the FScene textures occasionally line up in a pattern which repeats into the distance, but to be fair, the default textures do exactly the same thing, it just isn't quite as obvious.
If you have a lot of addon packages installed, one potential issue is mismatches between airport scenery and the FScene textures, particularly where developers have used custom texture packs which they expect to blend into the default textures. The GeoRender sceneries marketed by Lago are a good example of this, but I got used to the effect pretty quick and I have a fairly critical eye for that sort of thing. Some of the default airports do tend to stand out more against the FScene tiles than they do against the default set; again, this isn't too much of a problem unless you really like your airports to hide the way real ones do.
Last time I reviewed FScene, I couldn't help wondering why Microsoft didn't just go out and hire Ruud to do the FS2004 textures for them. Now I have the luxury of going back and taking a second look at them, I find I still think that way, so I guess these textures from the flying Dutchman deserve their Armchair Aviator Award. Unlike so many addons, Ruud's textures have made a permanent home on my hard disk.Andrew Herd