Flight Unlimited II Preview

Looking Glass gears up for the sequel to one of the most acclaimed simulations ever


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When you create a critically acclaimed, cutting-edge product like Flight Unlimited, you can do one of two things for the sequel: create more of the same, only better, or take the same core features in a totally new direction. With Flight Unlimited II (affectionately known as FU2), Looking Glass and Project Director/Lead Designer Constantine Hantzopoulos opted for a new direction, and the result should be a special kind of sim.

Flight Unlimited is known for two major things: its incredible graphics and its extraordinary reproduction of the feel and physics of aerobatic flying. FU2 has changed direction completely, offering a general aviation sim (rather than an aerobatic sim) that will be closer to Microsoft Flight Simulation or Sierra's forthcoming Pro Pilot. The focus is on civilian flying, rather than stunts (though you can still do some stunt maneuvers...if your plane can handle it). Instrument modeling and the rules of flight will be more prominent features in FU2, and the entire game has been rewritten from the ground up.

The first element of this rewrite is the rendering technology, "ZOAR" (it means nothing), developed by Jaemz Fleming which renders all the way out to the horizon. As Hantzopoulos says: "The rendering engine uses a complex mip-mapping system that removes polygons from terrain features on the fly as they get farther away, so rather than removing textures, we remove polygons that don't need to display immediate height detail. This means that haze is used as haze, not as a way to hide or clip terrain. Runways and taxiways are also complete 3-D models, so there is no 'bending' either." Because of the detail of the rendering, only the San Francisco Bay Area will be modeled in the initial release (with scenery add-ons to follow). The world size itself is about 300 times larger than that of original, resulting in 11,000 square miles of photo-realistic terrain rendered at four meters-per-pixel (the original was a 5x7 kilometer area that wrapped around in about two minutes). It will take about an hour and a half to fly from one end of the map to the other.

The amount of detail in this world allows for an important feature: This is the first time a sim will allow you to do true visual flight reference (VFR) flying. That is, you can fly point to point based on reference to ground objects alone. "You can not only follow main roads," Hantzopoulos observes, "but secondary and tertiary ones as well. You can make out individual building textures, like the CostCo by my friend's house. Our aerial photography was shot at 9:30 in the morning, so the shadows give a real 3-D feel to the 2-D terrain texture maps." Every building in this region that is ten stories or more is done in full 3-D. Major landmarks, including Alcatraz (all eight buildings), the Windmill parks, Point Reyes lighthouse, Apple Computer, NASA Ames, as well as the three major airports (SFO, Oakland, and San Jose) are all reproduced in full 3-D. Unfortunately, the team found real-time day-to-night transitions too hard to make look right. So, while you can fly in dawn, daylight, dusk, twilight, or night, you won't see the transitions from one time to another. Altogether there are 48 real airports in the game, ranging from the majors down to small strips like Bonny Doon and Delta, all done in full detail, with correct width, length, and runway texture information. Runways will even be lit accurately for night flying, and fields with Pilot Controlled Lighting (PCL) are supported as well. With PCL, a pilot can set his radio to a certain frequency, click the mike, and turn on the runway lights. Cross-country flying to all these airports will be made even more realistic through a complex and detailed recreation of air traffic. There are over two dozen secondary aircraft, with different texture sets for many. Passenger jets, military aircraft, blimps, and choppers all go about their daily business as you fly. They've even come up with textures and logos for parody airlines: Ignited, Aeroflop, Paradox, and Excalibur.

An AI system, dubbed AtacS (Air Traffic and Control System), handles all ground, tower, radar, and UNICOM air traffic and radio messaging, as well as over 400 objects in the game world. "All ground traffic observe the actual traffic rules used at airports," Hantzopoulos says. "Planes will stop short, hold, get taxi instructions, and you'll actually hear all this happening over the radio via a sophisticated audio splicing system that puts snippets of phrases together to form sentences in real time. Tower traffic is handled in a similar way, except that the rules of tower traffic are observed. That means that when you hear tower call out a 747 behind you and a Cessna to your left, there really is a 747 behind you and a Cessna to your left! The same goes for Radar and Unicom. "Player interaction with the controllers is handled through a simple menu system where you build appropriate requests. Menu prompts are intelligent and react to the situation you're in, so you'll generally only need a few key presses to request entry into a pattern, get takeoff clearance, make a position report, or ask to get vectored to a particular airfield in foul weather. We've also used real air traffic controllers to provide the ground and tower voices, and also help ensure the accuracy of the voice communication and inflections." All this makes the world active and entertaining to explore. Controllers and other pilots react angrily if radio calls and directives are ignored. Drift into a military "No Fly Zone," and some F16s will "escort you out." In a botched water landing you can watch your plane sink. You can fly in extreme weather conditions, including rain and lightning, strong cross winds, and heavy turbulence, and smash into other buildings or aircraft. Not only is there plenty to do, but there are a whole new mix of planes to do it in. Planes were chosen, as Hantzopoulos says, "because they represented a solid mix of civilian aircraft that we think represents the 'everyman' kind of aesthetic of civilian aviation flying." The planes are the familiar Cessna 172, a 1948 DeHaviland Beaver seaplane (yes, sea landings are possible), a Piper Arrow, a Beech Baron twin-engine, and a vintage P51D just for fun. Hantzopoulos readily admits these planes were also partly chosen because of accessibility: "We can and do take them all up (we've even taken a real P51D up once) whenever we need to check roll rates, acceleration, stalls, spin recovery, etc. We've also sampled every engine sound from each plane. The P51D original Rolls Royce Merlin start-up/shutdown sound is one of the coolest samples that I have ever heard."

All these planes required new flight models, and the team had to start from scratch since the departure of flight physics whiz Seamus Blackley. "Seamus impressed upon me the importance of that visceral feel of actually flying," Hantzopoulos recalls, "and it really showed in Flight Unlimited. Man, the crazy stunts I've pulled in that game make almost every other flight model I've flown pale in comparison: You know, the kind of wooden, flying on glass feeling that you get with most sims. "That said, there was no way we were going to be able to do CFD (computational fluid dynamics) again - that was all black box spaghetti code from Seamus. Since our planes are also a bit more forgiving, we opted for a force-based flight model, coded up by industry vet Jim Berry, who worked with Andy Hollis and Sid at MicroProse ages ago and later at Spectrum HoloByte on both Top Gun and Falcon 4. Jim's really done a fantastic job of conveying that visceral feeling - the planes fly wonderfully and true to life. As I mentioned above, when we have questions about a particular behavior, we grab Ed Tatro (codesigner on the game, former F16 and current A10 pilot) or Mike Goulian (1996 US Aerobatic Champ), get the plane in question and perform the maneuver or situation. Needless to say, we've pulled some pretty extreme and hairy stuff. But Jim and I feel totally safe going up with these guys. Really, it's a blast trying to snap roll a Cessna!" Unlike the generic cockpits of FU, FU2 will feature unique, interactive cockpits for each plane, including basic TSCAN instruments, radio head with Omni Bearing Indicators (OBI), support for ILS approaches, fuel flow indicators, flaps, gear, TRIM, manifold pressure gauges, carb heat, and so on. Since cockpits are fully interactive, clicking on a switch, rotating an OBI, or sliding a throttle/mixture control is intuitive and easy. Key strokes can also be used to perform these functions.

Technically, expect fairly high system requirements: a P-133 or above. The team is working on 3-D card support for both Voodoo and Rendition right out of the box, and Direct3D and OpenGL are also being considered. Online play was part of the original design, but got cut due to time constraints. Within the next year, a new terrain area, new planes, and multiplayer features will be added. Then, the team gets down and dirty to bring their technology into the realm of the World War II combat sims and online combat. With all that on the horizon, it looks like the boys at the Looking Glass Flying Circus will be putting in a lot of extra time doing test flights of the real planes. Poor guys.

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