FlightSim.Com Review: FScene 2004

FScene Texture Packs

By Andrew Herd

Once, long ago, in a far off time when FS5 was a cutting edge simulation, a guy called Ruud Faber released a freeware set of Dutch polder textures. In 1998, the Internet as we know it was young and Flight Simulator was graced with a single set of ground textures which served to cover everywhere from Barbados to Byelorus, the result being ever so slightly monotonous. The package R_TEXTS.ZIP was downloaded no less than 287 times, which wasn't bad going in the days when getting connected to the Internet meant a long distance call for most of us. Two years later came something of a bonanza for FS freeware texture fans, with the release of two world texture sets, Lennart Arvidsson narrowly beating Ruud to the draw with a set of 'world' summer textures NEWSUBT1.ZIP inspiring something of a competition between the two designers, lasting the lifetime of FS2000 and delighting a great many people including this reviewer.

FS2002 marked something of a watershed for Flight Simulator developers. The Internet had enough bandwidth to allow reasonably large downloads and the rise of the ISPs meant that many people had access to local call connections, with the result that the majority of developers were forced to take stock of where they were at. It was becoming clear that the wonderful freeware ethos of the 'net was coming to an end, partly because developers were collapsing under the weight of supporting thousands, rather than hundreds of users; but also because it was becoming realistic to sell downloadable products and to make some kind of a living out of what once had been a hobby (OK, obsession). As is usual with change, there were some gains and some losses: on the debit side, the drift to payware meant that we had to pay more for our entertainment; on the credit side, the payware market absolutely exploded. Where at one time I could list all the good FS addons in the space of a single breath, it isn't unusual these days to find several high class simulations of a single aircraft and I decline to estimate how many scenery products are available out there.

Ruud was one of the developers who went down the payware path and never looked back. FScene.02 was typical of how former freeware developers' horizons tended to expand once they had the cash to justify concentrating on development, rather than taking time away from the family for no justifiable reason. The downside of the task Ruud faced was that it was an order of magnitude bigger than it once had been, thanks to the much more sophisticated management of ground textures in the new version of Flight Simulator, but undaunted, he set to work and painted a completely new set.

Many of you will already know this, but the ground in Flight Simulator is covered by a mesh, lying like a blanket over a digital elevation model and overlaid with a network of roads, rivers, railroads and lakes. Each square of mesh is approximately a kilometer on a side and has four properties:

  1. A texture with which it would be covered if it were a lowland plain, dependent on what time of day it is and which season and which continent the square is in.
  2. A texture to be used if the slope of the square exceeds a certain angle (which is why sloping lakes don't usually occur on the default mesh).
  3. The Autogen type to be used, chosen from around a dozen different possibilities. Autogen in FS2002 was in more or less the same state of development in FS2002 as textures were in FS2000, which is why the Autogen looked the same the world over.
  4. The Autogen to be used if the slope of the square exceeds a certain angle.

So anyone who wants to know why there isn't a rush of people hurrying to release freeware ground textures onto the market, and why there are so few payware sets can reflect on the fact that a complete FS2004 package needs to include nearly 4000 individual texture tiles - and that most of these have to be able to line up well enough with their neighbors that you can't see the join. The catalyst that set the replacement texture market alight was Microsoft's introduction of different texture sets for each continent, which removed the main objection to 'custom' textures, namely that when one set had to do for the whole world, painting it to look right for Europe inevitably meant that it looked wrong for the US and vice versa. Now there was a whole new world to texture, but as it happened, Microsoft had also left a good deal of room for third party painters to maneuver, because some of the default texture sets were better than others and all of them showed room for improvement. But painting a complete set of new textures is a formidable task - in Ruud's case, getting this far has taken him a decade of hard work.

Earlier versions of FScene had a slightly complicated installation routine, because the textures had to be copied into the ...Scenedb\World\Texture folder and a backup of the original textures made. I commented in the review that it would be nice to see an automatic procedure built into the package to get around the problem and this appeared in boxed texture sets, although it does not feature in the single season packs available in the Pilot Shop. This isn't a problem, because full instructions on how to install the sets are included with the single seasons and users who are reasonably competent at Windows file management shouldn't have any problems carrying them out. A new feature is that the packages include new .agn files which ensure that FScene Autogen lines up the way default FS2004 Autogen does, with trees along the edges of fields and houses beside the roads, rather than having the Autogen appear randomly as it did in FS2002 and in earlier versions of FScene - it is difficult to stress just how big an improvement this makes, even using Microsoft's Autogen, which FScene does not replace. Take a look at the screenshots to see what I mean.

Needless to say, with FScene installed, Flight Simulator is transformed and few users will willingly go back to the originals after they have flown over the intricate and almost 3D world that Ruud's textures conjure up. Ruud's endless patience means that texture sets are available for every season for every continent and just about the only criticisms I can make of FScene is that it does not replace the ground textures inside the default airports, with the result that they remain as easy to spot from the air as they do in a virgin FS installation. A minor point is that you will still experience occasions when some fluke of FS texture tile management makes similar textures line up and repeat into the distance - the default tiles do this, but they are so boring that few simmers spend any time looking at them and the effect usually goes unnoticed.

Replacing the default textures is all very well, but are the FScene tiles compatible with other FS addons? The answer depends to a certain extent about what kind of addon you are talking about. There is no need to worry about 'road and rail' packages like Ultimate Terrain, because ground textures are independent of roads, railroads and rivers, and much the same is true of mesh packages, as the texture tiles will sit happily on whatever elevation model you favor. Where you may run into trouble is addon airport packages, which are normally designed to blend into the default terrain tiles and consequently are likely to stand out against the FScene replacements; and needless to say, installing FScene doesn't cushion the blow when you fly off the edge of an area of photographic textures, but then what does?

Uninstalling the FScene season packs is about as easy as it can get, as long as you remembered to follow the installation instructions and backed up the default textures, as all you have to do is to copy the default files back into ...Scenery\World\Texture and you are back to the world according to Microsoft. Somehow, I don't think many people are going to make the journey and the main problem most purchasers will face is that having bought a single season, they will want to buy another... and another...

This last decision has recently been made easier, by the release of the FScene Mega Pack. The Mega Pack includes the entire FScene collection in one add-on at a much lower price than the original pieces were originally available for. If you want to improve your entire sim world all at once, the Mega Pack offers an easy way to do so.

Andrew Herd

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