Updated: February 18, 2013
My first review of this game was a long time ago, in one of the mega compilations. I liked it, I have always liked it. For me, FlightGear Flight Simulator (FGFS) is not just a contemporary game, it's a glimpse into childhood, the unsurpassed simplicity of MS-DOS. And now that it has been several years since my original review, it's time to refresh the memory.
I tested FlightGear straight from the distribution repositories, on one of my gaming dedicated rigs, still a decent box, with two cores, 4GB RAM, and a solid Nvidia graphics card, even though it is approaching a reasonable age of three and a half summers. So let's see what gives. Delta India Mike - That's the call sign for Dedoimedo, yes, you get it, clear for takeoff on runway Alpha One. Follow me.
Setting up FlightGear Flight Simulator is not an easy thing. You can configure the basic game with low-res terrain and just a few aircraft relatively easily, however, if you want high-resolution maps of the world and additional aircraft, you will have to work somewhat. Moreover, in Linux, most official repositories are still offering the older 2.4 version, although the newer 2.8 edition has been out for some time now, and 2.10 is coming around soon. I also tried the PlayDeb source, but for some reason, the repository indexes were broken, and I could not find a newer version of the simulator yonder. So it's whatever the system has to offer, in this review, today.
This is somewhat disappointing, especially since you consider the very open-source nature of the game, as well as the fact Linux should not be lagging behind its counterpart, when the games are natively available for the platform. Well, let's walk through the different aspect of the installation.
Once you open the main interface, you can configure the game to use TerraScenery to download maps while you are playing. The alternative is to manually grab 10x10 degree chunks of the world from the official site. The entire world is also available as a massive three DVD set. Anyhow, the incremental game downloads sound like a favorable option, but you will be bleeding your bandwidth somewhat. Just make sure the target directory actually exists, or the game will fail to grab the world maps, and you will be forced to fly over RGB terrain. Sad, no?
This is the big one. By default, the games comes with only a few aircraft, and Cessna 172 is always loaded by default. I have not found a way to switch to other airplanes while inside the game, so you will have to exit and fire the simulator from the command line with the relevant plane name switch.
You can also change the list of available aircraft using the --show-aircraft flag. FGFS looks for aircraft inside its installation directory; by default, it's /usr/share/games, so you will need sudo or root permissions to shuffle new aircraft files in and out of there. The hidden game folder inside your home directory seems to be ignored.
But all this is just an aperitif. I wanted to see how cool the game really is, so I download the handsome 2.3GB torrent file, which becomes an extracted archive of 4.7GB with 376 aircraft, totaling some 46,700 files, give or take a few. This means that even before you begin playing, FlightGear will drink a handful of GB of your bandwidth. In fact, it is a very network-oriented game.
I did extract all of the files into the home directory, then copied them on demand into the game installation folder. Most of the time, I was able to figure out the string name of the aircraft and load the game. In a few cases, the exact magic word eluded me, and I was unable to test some of the downloaded models.
Before we even begin. Do not try to play FlightGear without a joystick. It is extremely difficult. Just like the original Microsoft Flight Simulator from the 80s, this game inputs do not simulate flight axes force, they simulate the flight control position. In other words, if you hit the left arrow key to sort of bank left, you are in fact shifting the virtual joystick left. If you stop pressing the button, the joystick will remain situated left, and your aircraft will continue banking and rolling or whatever it's supposed to be doing. To counter the left turn, you will have to apply force right, until you center the rudder or whatever it is you're playing with.
Of course, this is how it's supposed to be, but on a computer, where you feed a totally artificial signal to your game engine, this is entirely non-intuitive and quite frustrating. You will find yourself yo-yoing left and right, fighting your machines, until you gain some basic sense of subtlety, and even then, your flight grace will be tenuous at best.
FGFS is a serious game. Have no doubts. For example, just to take off, you will have to select the desired engines, one, two, as many as the aircraft has and then switch them on. Sort of like magnetos on in the original Flight Simulator. In some cases, you might need to lean or enrich the fuel mixture. Starting engines in midflight is far more difficult, takes longer, and at certain altitudes is virtually impossible. You will have to center the rudder before you begin taxiing to avoid sharp, unexpected turns. This is particularly true for single-engine piston and turboprops that have some amount of torque.
I must admit I had quite a bit of fun, however, most of it revolved around studying different aircraft, enjoying the external views as they zoomed over different terrain, and trying to figure out their delicate physics. For instance, with SR-71 at 1,500 knots at 80,000 feet, maneuverability is not exactly your strong side. Large transports are sluggish, the pistons are quick to stall, the jets are nimble and light and fickle, and so easy to crash.
Graphics & attention to detail
When it comes to realism, this game has no second. For instance, on Tomcat, the exhaust angle changes to match the throttle setting, as it really is. Then, you have the strobe lights, tower call signs, stalls, spins, atmosphere dilution, space effect, realistic G blackouts and redouts, and tons of other little details. You can also change the weather conditions and the time of day to make it all the more interesting and challenging.
The graphics is also very reasonable. This may not be the most dazzling game in the world, but it is very pretty and very light on resources, so you get an ultimate combination of pretty and attainable. Again, exploring your vast repository of planes and learning that every one is that much different is so much fun. You have aircraft with VTOL capabilities, you have helicopters, bi-planes, seaplanes, it's really cool. And the more you fly, the more detailed the ground will become, as TerraScenery grabs the new terrain data.
Now, there were some glitches with the game; at least version 2.4 coming in the Mint Maya repos. When my planes crashed into the ground, the game would sometimes hang, although most of the time, it was possible to recover. Sound did not always work when launching the game from the command line, and there would be a lot of warnings about this or that object, file, etc.
On top of these, there's the somewhat rigid aircraft data models. I would expect the game to allow seamless downloads from inside the game menu and loading new planes without restarting. Likewise, I would expect a more robust model when it comes to downloading maps or locating planes. It would make sense to be able to specify the full path of the downloaded aircraft rather than copy them into the game directory.
The biggest problem was that when flying the F-14, one of its wings would vanish from the screen from time to time. This only happened with this specific aircraft model, so there might be something in the configuration, but the overall feel is spoiled. It's almost like that scene in Hot Tub Time Machine, when Craig Robinson's character asks the bellboy, where's your missing arm, motherfucker? You are going to lose that wing, you will.
Official screenshots from the latest 2.8
I allowed myself the liberty of download a few press-quality images from the 2.8 gallery. As you will see, the game is quite stunning, so it's not just about flying, it's about the aesthetics of flying really.
I really like FlightGear. It's a simple, elegant, non-pretentious game. The graphics quality is lovely, at least in my lexicon, and the gameplay is spectacular. Not a game for children or someone who thinks Top Gun reflects the reality in any way. The movie, that is. That said, the game does suffer from a certain lack of streamlineness, if there's such a word. In particular, aircraft downloads and switches should be easier. Bugs ought to be polished, but they are not exclusive to any one specific game.
However, at the end of the day, FGFS is a challenging, tough, serious simulator with an engaging gameplay and a vast multitude of aircraft, airports and beautiful real-world scenery that will be as interesting to explore and test as the flight regime itself, which needs a proper joystick to enjoy fully. I do hope the game will flourish and become more accessible to less techie players, who just might be asking for some honest physics fun.
Overall, the game deserves 9/10 for graphics, 10/10 for gameplay, and 6/10 for interface.
Still, one of the keepers. See you around, merry fellows and wannabe pilots!
And I promise to test new versions soon! I promise!