Where do you go after creating some of the most detailed and lush scenery ever for a flight simulator? How about a few hundred miles up the coast?
Flight Unlimited III continues the tradition of Flight II with a little bit more of everything. It's not a huge leap beyond the previous installment, but since Flight II was pretty far ahead of the technology curve, this works out just fine. The menus, graphics engine, and features are fairly similar, with just enough added to make it feel like more than a big scenery pack.
Flight III shifts the scene to the Pacific Northwest, which has been rendered in as much lavish detail as the Bay Area was in Flight II. The scenery is simply breathtaking, with nary a seam to be seen. Textures look as good at 100 feet as they do at 1,000 and buildings look like they're part of the scenery rather than simply sitting on top of it. Most impressive of all is the way rolling terrain is handled. Elevation models take you from the peak of Mount Rainier to the valleys of Olympic National Park. Unlike Terminal Reality's Fly and Microsoft Flight Simulator, which handle elevations abruptly and whose landscapes are often flat, the elevations in Flight Unlimited III are smooth and state of the art.
Matching the quality of this visual cornucopia are the object models themselves, ranging from the ten flyable planes to the buildings and moving objects. Weather and lighting are remarkably effective; rain beads on the window and lightning flashes in the distance. But most astonishing of all is the inclusion of FLED, the Flight Unlimited world-editing tool. This powerful, easy-to-use utility lets you choose any object in the game from a list and place it anywhere in the gameworld. It's simple drag-and-drop, and the items appear in the world when you next fly. These files are small enough to be traded, so you can share modified landscapes with friends. You can also place and define moving objects, such as other aircraft, and create whole airports (complete with beacons and landing lights) from scratch. It is so easy to use and so powerful that it may become one of the major selling points for this game. You can even load the landscape from Flight II into III and fly continuously from San Francisco to Seattle.
But no matter how pretty the scenery may be, the deciding factor in a flight sim is always the performance of the aircraft themselves. In this regard, Looking Glass stands at the top of the field. The ten flyable aircraft each have unique handling characteristics and cockpits. These planes encompass the entire range of the civil-aviation experience: the Stemme S10-VT Motorglider, Beechjet 400A, Mooney TLS Bravo, Lake Renegade 270 Seaplane, Cessna 172, Piper Arrow, Muskrat Seaplane, Windhawk Twin, and Fokker triplane. What other sim offers fighters, Sunday fliers, jets, seaplanes, and a vintage prop plane? Each craft handles accurately, with the right feel in the stick and proper envelopes for stall speeds, turning radii, and other important flight-model features.
Equally impressive is the way these planes behave in the environment. Flight Unlimited III offers a complex weather generator that lets you create any weather situation to any degree and then fly in it. No other sim does weather this well. It really conveys the impression of heavy-weather flight in wind, rain, and snow. You see it through the cockpit and feel it in the force-feedback effects. Complex modeling captures the effects of temperature changes, turbulence, wake, pressure fronts, and altitude. Systems failures and icing are added so you never know just what the environment may throw your way.
The simple menus make it easy to fly any plane anywhere at any time and in any conditions. Quick flights and specific point-to-point junkets can be created instantly. By simply choosing an airport or point on the map, a situation (on the ground or at various altitudes), and a weather state, you can be flying or preparing to take off in about thirty seconds. Enough area landmarks are included on the map to provide interesting tours: Downtown Seattle, the Space Needle, Microsoft, and the home of William Gates are all in here. Canned scenarios, complete with mission goals and narration, offer specific challenges, like Bigfoot hunting and crime interdiction. Finally, a thorough tutorial explains every element of flight in detail and then provides both a narrated training fly-through and a chance to practice the lesson itself. It's a very effective introduction to flight.
Enough has been improved upon and added to make Flight Unlimited III a worthy successor to a classic series. Sure, Fly has better cockpits and Microsoft has more airports, but neither has this level of environmental and modeling detail, and neither offers the amount of pure flying fun found here.