What is FTX NA Blue? Aside from being a mouthful to say, Orbx’s latest scenery is a big patch of the Pacific Northwest, stretching from the California/Oregon border in the south, up into British Columbia to the north, and from the Cascade mountain range in the east to the Pacific Ocean. That’s a lot of ground, people. Flying in a GA craft, it’d take you many hours to go from top to bottom. Even in a fast jet, you could have a nice long flight without ever leaving the NA Blue boundaries.
Yesterday, pre-paying customers got the first crack at downloading the scenery. Were there problems? You betcha. By the way, who didn’t see that coming? I’ve seen virtually no releases of this massive size whose download has been flawless from the get-go. It’s just the nature of the internet. One of these days, we’ll have fat enough pipes to dump huge files into the world with ease (yeah, right), but for now it’s often a challenge. The good news is that things are going much, much better now. In fact, I was able to download the whole 4-gig-plus package mid-day today in about an hour, which I thought was pretty great.
But I digress…
I’ve been trawling the various FS forums, just taking the pulse of how users are accepting this new offering. By and large, as was expected, the reviews are glowing. This thing is such a step up from any other regional scenery available that it’s hardly surprising that the raves are rising. But with raves, there are always rants—usually from predictable quarters. My favorite complaint so far is that somehow FTX NA Blue is nothing new, that you can get the same result by running a third-party mesh, some replacement ground tiles, and Ultimate Terrain X. I’m a pretty live-and-let-live kinda guy. I tend to let people have their opinions, and good for them. But in this case, I’ve got to call that charge what it is: rubbish. Here’s why:
First of all, let me say that I have nothing whatsoever against Ultimate Terrain X. It’s one of the first add-ons I load whenever I have to do a fresh reinstall of FSX, and I wouldn’t want to fly without it. The question here isn’t whether FTX is “better” than UTX, because that’s a case of apples and oranges. UTX does an incredible job of taking refined coastline, landclass, and other polygonal data and refining the look of many scenery elements in the US and elsewhere. But because of its nationwide scope, there’s simply no way the developers can lavish the kind of detail that Holger and his crew have on the Pacific Northwest in FTX.
Let’s compare, shall we?
Case in point. Let’s take a specific area that I think FTX has improved dramatically, Bonneville Dam. This is the first dam you come to on the Columbia River if you follow it east a few miles from Portland, Oregon.
Here’s how it looks by default in FSX:
The shoreline of the Columbia is pretty decent, so in all fairness I’m not even sure that my UTX water bodies were correctly disabled. For the sake of argument, however, let’s say this is default. Not bad, but way too tan (this was a summer shot, btw).
Now, let’s enable Ultimate Terrain X USA and see what happens.
There’s a difference, but it’s not dramatic. The landclasses have been redrawn to include settlements, and clearly there’s something enhanced about the mesh from the cliffs you can see in the bottom right. Also, Interstate 84, seen on the right edge of the shot, is more detailed in terms of the on/off ramps and so forth. In addition, if you look at the upper middle of the shot, you can make out one part of the dam, which is now a solid earthwork that protrudes above the river as opposed to a flat bridge of land.
Now, let’s look at what happens when we apply FTX NA Blue atop the previous stuff:
Whoa! Here’s the proof I was talking about. What you’re seeing now is a bunch of FTX features all working together. The hand-crafted landclass is working, having removed the non-existant town from the left bank. The ground tiles have been reworked to be more realistic for this setting. The road data is more refined, with I-84 looking more as it does in real life. On top of all that, the dam area itself is now photo-realistic, including the churning water at the base of the dam’s spillway. It’s hard to see in a still, but there’s also a custom-coded spray effect where the water cascades down the downriver side of it. See how the “holgermesh” is so refined that you can easily make out the difference in the river levels above and below the dam? And oh yeah, the dam goes all the way across the river now, as most respectable dams do. 😉
I can’t stress this enough – I’m NOT picking on UTX. Allen has done a fine job on it, and it’s brilliant for what it does. But FTX has taken a different approach to their scenery. By limiting the coverage to a smaller region and putting a whole team of expert developers on various aspects of the rendering, they’ve been able to lavish care and attention to every nook and cranny of the area. The result is an amazing hybrid that is large enough to get lost in, and detailed enough to convince even the most discerning native.
No landclass-only product is going to give you this level of detail, because none of them have been built from scratch by hand instead of just processing available datasets. No texture replacement pack can come near it, because they don’t address this area specifically, with all its geographic quirks, and they don’t include custom 5-seasons photoreal areas for places like Bonneville. And no aerial photo-based product can touch it, because of the seasonal variants, night lighting, custom mesh… and on, and on, and on.
Did I mention that Holger also rejiggered the seasons configuration so that there’s snow on the mountains in January, but not down in the valleys? That was one of my pet peeves, because we lowlanders in Portland see maybe two or three snow days in your average winter. And up where it snows a lot, you can land your wheeled planes on the lakes in the winter, because they freeze over. That’s right.
So there you have it, my defense of FTX. When you see someone tossing off the “looks like a glorified UTX or GEX or whatever” on the forums, send them over here. I’d love to hear from them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to exploring the area.