Merging newfound accessibility with revolutionary graphics and stupefying depth, Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2002 is a program of monolithic proportions. Like its immediate predecessor, 1999's daunting Flight Simulator 2000, FS 2002 invites its guests to experience virtually every conceivable parameter of civilian piloting while exploring virtually every conceivable corner of this planet. Yet any further comparison between the two is not unlike comparing a typical fastball with a Randy Johnson fastball. Microsoft has simply blown the top off the civilian flight simulation genre with its latest iteration and, in so doing, proven that dearly departed competitors like Flight Unlimited III never really stood a chance. Whether you're a nervous tenderfoot or hardened devotee of desktop flying, this is the Flight Simulator you've been waiting for.
The statistics alone are staggering. For FS 2002, Microsoft has added more than 1,000 operative airports to FS 2000's already astounding 20,000--for a mind-numbing grand total of more than 21,000. It has upped the number of flyable aircraft from 10 to 12, including series newcomers such as the humungous Boeing 747-400, the Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP, and the largest single-engine floatplane currently available, Cessna's $1.5 million amphibious Caravan. Returning from past editions are the Boeing 777-300 and 737-400, Cessna 182S Skylane and Skylane RG, Bell 206B JetRanger III chopper, Learjet 45 business jet, Extra 300S stunt plane, Schweizer 2-32 glider, and the ancient Sopwith Camel. Users may also import aircraft from previous and current versions of Flight Simulator and Combat Flight Simulator, although substantial tweaking is required before said aircraft are fully recognized and operational. Even the game's system requirements are colossal, ranging from a 650MB minimum to a full install of 1.5GB.
But it's unquestionably FS 2002's surprisingly glorious and massively modified visual presentation that makes this the finest civilian flight simulation ever to appear. Critics and customers alike have long heaped scorn upon the Microsoft franchise--and rightly so--for its painfully sluggish frame rate and often bland incidental scenery, particularly when judging it against the smaller yet markedly more attractive and smoother world of competitors like the aforementioned Flight Unlimited. Suffice it to say that such disapproval is no longer warranted.
Not only does FS 2002 paint as pretty a picture as did Flight Unlimited III, but it also does so on a quasi-global scale. Of its 21,000-plus airstrips, more than 60 are paired with partially and fully realized cityscapes that put to shame the detailed cities of prior editions. In fact, the structural scenery in prime centers such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong is so dense, so authentic, and so smartly blended into the landscape that you'll swear you're flying over the real thing. Less-populous locations like Las Vegas are no longer a sparse assemblage of area-specific buildings plopped in the midst of a vast wasteland. Now, a quick tour over the strip reveals more than a dozen finely crafted casinos and such detail as the Luxor skylight, the Mirage volcano, numerous legible billboards, and a Bellagio fountain that actually gushes water as you approach. That the entire gambling district is surrounded by what looks like a real city is indicative of what's in store throughout the game.
Depending on their location and importance, even small urban zones bear resemblance to their real-world counterparts. Midsize towns such as Bullhead City, Arizona, and Redding, California, have been upgraded from generic blotches and one or two haphazardly positioned structures to the thriving communities they really are. Bullhead City is noticeably larger and bordered on the west by the Colorado River, which bends and curves almost precisely where it should. The downtown Redding core is a bit underdeveloped, yet its buildings are faithfully low-level and the surrounding countryside authentically treed. Interstate 5 bisects the town, and alternate byways sprawl in all directions to nearby Whiskeytown and Shasta Lakes and further northward to majestic, snow-capped Mount Shasta.
The visual disparity between this product and its predecessor is just as evident in unsettled areas, where the developers have clearly taken great pains to ensure the environment isn't just an endless sea of featureless land. In most locations, the game automatically generates terrain, vegetation, shading, and textures to match that of the real world. Water features are particularly convincing, moving and reflecting and often forming waves that break against the shoreline. Major geographical elements like the Swiss Alps or Grand Canyon and landmarks like Mount Rushmore are nothing less than awesome. Some elements, like the Great Pyramids of Egypt, are far less memorable than one might think, and certain isolated locations like Tanquary Fiord in Canada's arctic display strange anomalies like floating trees, but the overall impression is stunning.
Spectacular weather visuals, such as multishaded translucent clouds and bleeding rain droplets, only add to the dynamics, as do incidental special effects, such as touchdown wheel smoke and jet contrails. Some aircraft provide smooth-scrolling virtual 3D cockpits--a feature sadly absent in FS 2000--complete with operational gauges and zoom/unzoom capability. Pilots are offered a generous allotment of environmental variables, including cloud elevation and type, precipitation strength and form, and a wonderfully authentic portrayal of real-time weather as provided through Jeppesen flight information services. Parameters such as aircraft type, time of day, and weather may be adjusted on the fly from within the cockpit, although the latter doesn't always turn out as expected.
Environmental conditions aside, series veterans will absolutely love what Microsoft has done with the Flight Simulator frame rate. This time around, the game flows effortlessly on mid- to high-end systems and thus renders obsolete the crawling slide show of prior editions. With most graphic options cranked wide open, screen resolution set to 1024x768x32, and visibility toggled to 150 miles, the test machine's 1000MHz Athlon processor and GeForce 2 video card seemed at ease throughout. Even traditional system killers, like snap cockpit side views, were fluid and uninterrupted. There are, however, several minor caveats. The graphics engine does tend to jump momentarily when initially drawing an approaching urban area or high-density chunk of scenery. Flight load-up times are substantially longer than ever before, and computers barely meeting the minimum 300MHz processor and 8MB video card requirements will in all likelihood continue to experience slowdowns and delayed rendering. Yet these are small trade-offs considering the game's otherwise high level of performance.
As has always been the case for this series, the act of operating a Flight Simulator aircraft may be as ridiculously easy or as challenging as you wish. Fans of quick action will undoubtedly reduce some or all of the realism options to their minimums and skip any groundwork altogether by slewing their plane from the outset to 5,000 feet. They may conduct a flight entirely of their own creation or avail themselves of the game's 50-plus prearranged flights, half of which require advanced skills. Alternately, they can log onto Microsoft's Gaming Zone for airborne antics that can theoretically support up to 300 of their best friends.
Ultra-hard-core enthusiasts can just as easily file and follow complex flight plans, introduce the potential of equipment failures, fly at night or with low visibility via their instruments, and, for the very first time in the history of the game, interact with Flight Simulator's optional air traffic control (ATC) system. ATC communication adds a whole new dimension to the Flight Simulator environment, filling the previously quiet skies with chatter and forcing you to adhere to the rules of the aerial road. Fortunately, Microsoft's translation of ATC seems to behave intelligently, recognizing your presence, position, and behavior and attempting to deal with it in a reasonable manner. Be prepared to join the back of the queue before you take off or land and otherwise tackle many of the stresses and delays facing real pilots as they hop to and from busy airports. Certainly the quality of the game's ATC justifies the many hours you'll spend learning all about its functions and unique lingo.
FS 2002 is also the first installment to offer truly enjoyable tutorials. Granted, Microsoft has traditionally furnished each version of the game with oodles of reading material, but it has never offered this level of user-friendliness. New pilots will want to begin with the "getting started" videos, wherein licensed pilots and obvious John Boy Walton fans John and Martha King take their pupils on a golly-gee preparatory tour of the absolute basics. Once indoctrinated, players will then turn to any of the massive online guidebooks, gain hands-on experience through a series of 27 beautifully composed and fully narrated interactive training sessions, or jump back and forth from one to another. Experienced pros will want to continue the interactive sessions as they make their way from private pilot to instrument-rated veteran through to commercial and airline transport captain. Flight instructor/motivational speaker Ron Machado returns to once again lead the instructional segments, and his breezy style tends to take some of the sting from what is clearly a ton of information.
In keeping with the game's new ATC verbiage, FS 2002's in-flight audio is dang near perfect. Each aircraft packs distinctive engine, electronic, and mechanical sounds, all of which vary in accordance to the current camera and viewing perspective. The wind howls around smaller craft, severe rainstorms pound on the fuselage, and ominous thunder growls in the distance. The whir and clunk of landing gear and flaps sound far different in a 747 than they do in a Skylane, and most equipment failures are accompanied by their own unique effect.
Potential players with an extra $20 burning a hole in their pockets may want to opt for the additional goodies found in the Flight Simulator 2002 Professional Edition. Here, they may fly four additional aircraft, including two that are completely new to the franchise (the Cessna 208 Grand Caravan and Raytheon BE58) and a pair of veteran performers (the Raytheon/Beech King 350 and Mooney Bravo). They're also permitted to take on the role of teacher or student in the multiplayer "instructor's station," wherein they'll partner with another player to either issue or attempt a sequence of fully customizable assignment parameters. The Pro Edition includes several other perks that only a true fanatic could love, including the high-end, highly detailed 3D modeling tool gMax, through which aspiring world builders can design, construct, and assign dynamic attributes to virtually any Flight Simulator-supported object. And certainly anyone who wishes to import Combat Flight Sim and earlier Flight Sim airplanes should give the Pro Edition some deliberation, as it seriously simplifies what is otherwise a difficult process. We had an A6M5 Zero imported and flying over Paris within five minutes.
With Flight Simulator 2002, Microsoft has not opted for the easy road. Instead of taking advantage of a suddenly inactive genre by rehashing old programming, it has delivered the most complete civilian flying experience that the PC world has yet to see. Considering its immense scale and wholesale upgrades, it is a bargain at $54.95.