Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004:
A Century of Flight - Part 1

by Jim "Hornit" Campisi


The Wright FlyerMicrosoft's next step in the line of flight sim evolution is coming soon. A Century of Flight will build on Microsoft's legendary line of flight simulator. Every two years Microsoft releases a new version of Flight Simulator This years variant is appropriately named "A Century of Flight", commemorating 100 years of powered manned flight since the Wright brothers fateful day at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

A Century of flight concentrates more on the historical aspect giving us new aircraft all with rich backgrounds in aviation history. Many small enhancements(and some large!) have been made to the simulation and one could actually consider this almost as a patch to what we have with Flight Simulator 2002, but the scope and breadth of changes along with advances in our hardware technology dictate that it will be a new and standalone title. In this set of previews I will touch on some of the things which have evolved rather nicely giving us a much more realistic and sometimes even challenging aviation experience.

Before starting I would like to spend a few moments on some technical details. Please keep in mind this is an official beta copy obtained very recently while at E3. It is more than likely not what one would consider final software so some of the things mentioned (or seen in screenshots) may be already changed or fixed by the time this goes gold. The sim comes as a set of four, that's right four! CD's and ends up on the hard drive with a whopping 3.2 Gigs after a full install. You better make some room for this baby!! Startup requires the number 4 CD to remain in the drive and after the initial scenery configs and facilities files are installed you are ready to go! Fans of the Microsoft series will feel right at home on the User interface. Its not the same but mostly some color changes and better organized placement for options and choices. Navigating is a breeze and I had no trouble finding what I needed and using the interface.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of FlightNow to the meat of the sim. Most of us are aware of the improvements to FS2002 and this is where I will focus my previews. Microsoft took great leaps by adding Air Traffic control and communications to Flight Simulator in their last version. While a great addition, it lacked any flexibility and was very limited in its ability to handle traffic in a realistic fashion. We will look closely at this and the enhanced environmental effects available. I will also take a good look at the improved training and the resources available for this module.

After firing up the sim I was eager to see what my low to midrange PC could do with ACOF. I currently run an Athlon T-bird at 1.4 Ghz on a Windows 98SE based system with 512MB DDR and a GeForce 4 Ti4200 with 128mb RAM. This rig runs most everything I have thrown at it fairly well. I cant run some sims at super high detail levels but I can run with most of the important settings allowing nice graphics and smooth frame rates most of the time. Those who know about the frame rate slider in FS2002 will understand what I mean here. Flight Simulator allows you to set the frame rate or "lock" it to a set number. This lets the CPU do other work rather than trying to pump out pure speed. It goes a long way to making things like scenery and autogen appear in crisp detail. I run at about 27-30 fps in FS2002 and it does very well except with aftermarket high detail add-ons and scenery. ACOF has all these sliders and tweaks allowing it to be very configurable for a wide range of systems. I run with medium to high detail settings and midrange clouds and scenery coupled with about 60-70% mesh details. ACOF appears to allow even more fine tuning with cloud cover percentages and detail settings for the clouds themselves. I am very happy with barely midrange cloud detail and 3D settings at this point. So what's the bottom line?? I have my frame rate slider set to 22-25 in this sim and it will do more, but I'm seeing very close to the performance I did in FS2002 I am very surprised at this! If you load her up though the performance will plummet with a full load of AI and high cloud settings at the nicely rendered high detail scenery's. Just be smart about your system and what it can handle. Even though there is more here, my bet is your performance will be fine as long as you don't try to do it all. The nice thing about ACOF is you don't need to have it all to have improvements in what your used to with FS2002 Things have been improved nicely in this regard.

Cockpit 1 Cockpit 2 Cockpit 3

The weather is one area which has seen huge improvements. We now have a full blown realistic looking 3D type cloudscape as you do in real life. No more cumulus turning into stratus layers after you climb a few thousand feet above them. They stay nice and puffy as long as you can see them. The haze and visibility look more realistic also. It appears there is some variation to the haze which looks very good. One of the best improvements is the dynamic nature of the color of the sky. FS2002 was OK but the colors were too generic and did not change with the time of day and sun angle. Now we have glorious sunsets and sunrises. Viewed in conjunction with the new clouds yields nothing short of what I would call breathtaking. Its truly a pleasure to take a nice evening flight around your favorite airpark just to enjoy the sunset now. Another noticeable difference is how the zenith is depicted in darker shades, and as you approach the horizon the sky brightens noticeably just as it does in real life. The attached screens show this to good effect. It reminds me a good bit of IL-2 and some of the recent screenshots of LOMAC. This color and lighting issue has a huge visual impact, it goes right to the heart of putting you inside what looks like a realistic sky. I should know having spent several thousands of hours in all kinds of skies!

Lighting 1 Lighting 2 Lighting 3
Lighting 4 Lighting 5 Lighting 6
Lighting 7 Lighting 8 Lighting 9

Precipitation appears to have had a small makeover and rain and snow effects are definitely better and more realistic looking. This includes what looks like a bit better animation of rain on your windshield too. The visibility settings work about the same, but with the new clouds and tweaked vis you can finally overcome that annoying ring of blue sky with overcasts we saw in FS2002 ACOF allows very realistic looking low visibility and bad weather. The lightning is spectacular. The bolts are thicker and actually light up the clouds they flash near. You can see cloud to cloud and cloud to ground lighting going off all around you. Thunderstorms are a much more realistic sight now. Wind and turbulence seem unchanged since FS2002 It would be nice to see a gust or downburst system applied to simulate really nasty weather, but honestly you shouldn't be flying in weather that bad!

Weather menu 1Weather menu 2Another really nice addition is the ability to have different weather at different reporting stations without downloading realtime weather or maintaining an Internet connection to play. On one of the screenshots you can see that the mapview is used (with terrain!) and you can individually pick a reporting station and set up whatever kind of weather you want for that specific station. You also have the choice of how fast the weather will change with a slider controlling the rate. This is a huge improvement and it works fairly well too. I set up a flight from Keene, NH to Nashua, NH with decent weather at the start and low ceilings and visibility at Nashua As I flew along the skies clouded up and I ended up on vectors to an ILS with about 1 mile visibility and 400 foot overcast. I didn't have to change a thing after I set it up! Really nice and much more realistic.

That's enough for this preview, more to come as I get more time with the sim, enjoy the screenshots! Next we will look at overall improvements in scenery and aircraft.

The Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight official web site is here.

Video downloads showing different aspects of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight are available here.

The Microsoft Flight Simulator Insider web site is located here.


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