Thursday, July 30, 2009

IL-2 Sturmovik:Birds of Prey demo impressions

IL-2 Sturmovik demo - available now on X360

I was very curious to test the demo of Birds of Prey - which promised to be the first attempt to serious flight simulation on consoles in a I downloaded it as soon as I got back home yesterday and played it for a while...

The demo consists of a brief tutorial and two missions: an air defence mission on a Spitfire over the Dover cliffs and a ground support mission on a P-51 in Germany.

The initial impression was of a huge disappointment: the demo starts in "arcade" mode and it is basically "Ace Combat WWII" (albeit more realistic in flight model and gunnery). Usual console flight-action and much disappointment.

Once you have completed the tutorials or a mission, the demo unlocks "realistic" and "simulation" modes: of course I immediately switched to "simulation" and it made huge difference. For example you cannot use external views, nor you have any kind of markers on targets or waypoints. Damage model is realistic, and its effect on maneuvering is reasonable. Much more important, the flight model is challenging: ham-fisted yoke handling will result in plenty of stall and spins - by the way, spin-recovery works in the proper way. Plane handling raises the biggest question mark on the simulation mode and it is control peripherals. Flight sticks are rare among X360 owners (and not widely available in shops) and controlling the plane with the pad does not feel right: the control scheme is weird with some good points (triggers to "zoom" the view and fire -ala Call of Duty) and some bad ones (right thumbstick controls both throttle and rudder...)
What I like:
  • Finally a serious attempt to bring a flight simulation on XBox 360.
  • Graphics: plane models, cockpit and landscapes are generally wonderful and the game is smooth.
  • Unforgiving flight models in simulation mode.
What I do not like:
  • Gamepad control is definitely not good enough for simulation mode
  • Graphics: special effects (like water reflection, gunfire or smokes) are mediocre
  • Some artistic licence in cockpits, liveries, historical accuracy and realism (e.g. no blackouts, redouts or g-loc)
All in all,being a PC-simmer I am not sold on this one. But it is a good attempt - so good that I was trying to hit the "ESC" key of the PC keyboard (sitting next to the 360 pad) to go back to the menu. Worth a second look.
Last, I understand producers wanted to underline the legacy to the "Sturmovik" series...but really does not make much sense to keep Sturmovik in the title. Aside, "Birds of Prey" reminded me of an old simulation game I used to play on Amiga. It was great...but definitely too ambitious for that time...

Monday, July 27, 2009

On the near future of flight simulation...

Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of IL-2 Sturmovik show some beautiful scenery and plane detail

Cockpit details are amazingly good

Ok, do not panic. It is hard to admit, but it is happening. Finally a console game that looks like it could be called a simulation... The Sturmovik series is heading towards several gaming devices including Nintendo DS and Sony PSP - but we don't really care about those handheld toys :-)...
The main thing for us (us meaning responsible adults who spend a considerable amount of time pretending flying airplanes) is that the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions look really good. And if the previews around the internet are to be considered a serious indicator, they are probably the closest thing to a PC-sim ever.
Sure some compromises have been done, like 100x100km "chunks" of scenery or like some deviations from historical accuracy done for the sake of balancing the difficulty (the latter point has already started some "flame wars" in several forums).
I am still skeptical - but I have to confess it is mainly because I don't like WWII warbirds too much... if we were talking about a Korean or Vietnam wars scenario I would be completely sold on this one.
How will the X360 pad work? What is the actual level of realism? How deep and dynamic will the campaign mode be? Well, as PC simmer I must be skeptical. But, we have to confess that the PC-simulation genre is becoming more an more a "niche" in the videogame world (and it wasn't like that in the good-old-times) and the only interesting things in a while have been Rise of Flight and DCS:Blackshark (both from Eastern Europe like Arma II btw).
Maybe the console user-base can give new momentum to flight simming...
Official IL-2 Sturmovik:Birds of Prey here:
PS For those wondering about the F-35...Well, it is coming very nicely but I've got the main landing gear bay completely wrong. I will remake it and then make a wip update.

Friday, July 24, 2009

On the future of Flight Simulation...

There are several uncontrolled rumors about the future of flight simulation - and Flight Simulator specifically. Well, I have no direct contact with Microsoft - so I know what everybody knows...that is Microsoft is surely working on a sequel "of some sort"...
What follows is pure speculation... and some science-fiction.

Rumors are it will be a Live based experience, possibly (also) on Xbox 360. Honestly, I don't know - but it would surprise me. On the other hand, Xbox 360 is a popular platform, that is surely powerful and easy to code for and inexpensive. And, with the exception of IL-2 Sturmovik:Birds of Prey (that seems worth a look) it is surely lacking anything can could be called a "flight simulator" - as I wrote in this older post

But, the Live based experience could be the ground of some interesting implementations... for example:
  1. Microsoft could have server with worldwide (possibly photoreal) scenery (think of it as an integrated Tileproxy), so that fixes and additions to the scenery can be done on the fly. This appears to be the only way to manage an extremely large photoreal database (thousands of Gb).
  2. In the same way, a server-based deployment of addons could be a great improvement. It could work like this: when you are compliling the flight plan, the simulator tells you that there are relevant sceneries (free and payware) that can be dowloaded if you wish (transactions for payware could be managed via Live) and it can dowload and install them automatically "on the fly".
  3. Add-on planes could be managed in the same way - you could type the plane you would like to fly and, if it is not on your computer yet, the simulator can check if it is available for download, then download and install it on your command and manage the transaction if it is payware.
  4. Note that all of the above can be managed for payware and freeware - developers should only upload to a server in the proper way. And it does not preclude third parties from managing other servers (think of the same way Vuze browses in different repositories)
  5. In case the scenery gets too big to handle for a console, it may be possible to "redesign the game" in such a way that the "action" is concentrated in "chunks" of sceneries (see H.A.W.X. or Flight Unlimited II, say 100 x 100 nautical miles). Long travels could be impossible - still, a lot of common simming activities could be perfomed.
  6. All the points above can be achieved on X360, too - the only problem I see being that the 360 has a total of 512Mb of Ram - it can be split at will between code an video ram. Not enough to handle the most complex add-ons.

Well, these were just a couple of ideas... I have really no clue on what Microsoft may be doing. But, I think there some potential in bringing realistic flight simulation to consoles. I just had a look at some previews of Sturmovik for the Xbox and it looks really interesting.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Still trying to improve the Tomcat...

Here are the new "modeled" burners... they don't look that bad IMHO, but they are not great...

The new burner flames look better from the sides rather than from the tail...

As the weather has been very nice here in Italy, I have not dedicated much time to FSX lately so most of the projects I am doing have been suffering some delays.
The tail section of the F-35 is done...and I have to confess am pretty happy with it, but the main work I am doing in these days is trying to imporve the Tomcat.
I've playing with a "modeled" afterburner effect, that is the burner is not an .fx file (2d sprites and particoles) but 3d geomtery with special materials proprieties. Results are still pictures only. As the geometry is static, the overall effects does not give the proper sense of speed....on the other hand, you may hand draw the differnet textures for zone 1-5 so thaat the diffenece is visible.
Pictures above show how the latest build looks like. As some users may not like this approach, I will probably release also an optional .mdl with no burners at all.
The new build will also bring some changes in flight dynamics.
As announced previously the new build will bring a change in the canopy texture. Now the area on which the crew names are usually painted will not be anymore "mirrored" on both sides.
Updated texture can be found here for your reference:
As result, some existing repaints may need a small adjustment - sorry for the inconvenience guys...but I really could not stand mirrored crew names on some otherwise stunning repaints :-)
The update will be released (hopefully) during the next weekend.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Update and some FAQ answers

I've been very busy in the past few days and I had no time to reply to your comments and apologies. I'll do what I can to catch up asap.

Here is a quick update of what is going on (and some answers to FAQs)

Grumman F-14D Tomcat
While I think the 0.95 was a relatively good release, I am still working on it. The planned changes are as follows:
- Change to the canopy texture so that left and right sides are separate (at least in the lower area): this is to allow repainters to write the crew names onto the canopy without having the right side "mirrored". NOTE: this will impact actual repaints
- Fix the animation glitch when opening the radome
- Improve the flight model (reduce the overpower condition at medium speeds)
- Integrate a couple of repaints (namely VF-101 by BananaBob and VF-31 by Yago9)


Q:Can I host the Tomcat on my website? Can I repack it (with an installer/repaints/missions/whatever)?
A:The current release (v0.95) has still some (minor) I'd like to keep control on the release by limiting the download sources, if possible. The next release will be probably good enough to be uploaded to other sites.
Please do not repack the Tomcat - it will make it impossible for me to keep track of the versions. It is happened on my Fs2004 Tomcat which was extensively reworked and repackaged by several individuals (often without my authorization)...I guess it is the price of the popularity, but this means that identifying the issues and improving the product becomes almost impossible.

Q: Is a repaint kit available?
A: No. The simple reason is I never did one for myself - I use the "photoreal" approach, so textures are made from actual photos "on the fly" while modeling....

Q:Is the flight model overpowered?
A: Yes. Not as much as some users believe IMHO, but the flight model should show roughly a 10% more power than the real one. I've increased the thrust so that it is possible to reach and exceed the maximum allowable speed for the given configuration (Mach 1.8 above 10000ft) as requested by some early users. In general, I think the engine behaviour at very slow and very high speeds is acceptable... but in other flight conditions it is definitely too powerful.
Some users have complained about the "spool time" (the time needed for the engine to react to a throttle change). Jet engines are known to have a slow reaction...but things have evolved from the early jet era... In doubt, I've kept the default Hornet value.

Q:What is the correct approach speed?
A:It depends on the fuel quantity: if you launch with the tanks fully loaded and then immediately try to land, you are too heavy (and in the real world you might severely damage the a/c trying to land) so you need to dump fuel before landing. With proper weight, the flight model should allow an approach speed of 125 to 130 Knots (close to the real one).

Q:Is there a manual? Or at least a checklist?
A:I never had time to write them. Writing a check list that is as close as possible to the real one and works with FSX model takes more time than you expect. I am not sure I will have the time to do it anytime soon...

Q:What is your next project?
A:Definitely the F-35 Lighting II. It is very likely to be payware. It is shaping up really nicely, and I've just completed the tails and the engine - will post some pics as soon as it makes some sense.
I am taking the "HD" approach, that is the main textures will be 4096x4096 and the smaller ones will be 1024x1024. The main subject is the AA-1 bird (the CTOL system development prototype). Possibly the BF-1 (STOVL development bird) will be modeled too, but given the FSX restriction in the STOVL dynamics it is a second priority.