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(Pocket-lint) - The good points: Pure non-combat flight, best graphics yet
The bad points: Price; as usual if you’ve got last year’s, is this worth it?
Verdict: Only Microsoft seem to continually support non-combat flight nowadays, though there are now a wealth of mods and it should be less than £45 on the street.

To get one thing straight at the beginning - I bought my computer to play FS2002! Now don’t get me wrong, to my mind there is nothing enticing about a flight simulator unless you get to ripple bombs onto Nazi tank columns whilst dodging AAA and surface to air missiles. You see, getting into an aeroplane simulator and flying straight and level for 6 hours just doesn’t rock my boat; I would rather sit through the HollyOaks omnibus on a Sunday morning.

The reason I bought FS2002 was very specific; I am a real life private pilot who was, at the time, training to do my instrument rating. The problem with real life is simple, £120 per hour fees - i.e. if you are crap at anything and have to retake it, you don’t eat.

When I first played FS2002 I thought it was great for learning instruments. Everything was in the right place; the airfields all had the correct equipment, the beacons were in the proper location and everything was on the right frequency. The aircraft also had virtually all the buttons the real one did. Within two days I could put it down on the numbers in severe weather using a limited panel (when all your good instruments go the shape of pears) whilst eating a bacon roll. I also passed my flight test back in the real world. Beautiful.

So it was with a combination of Christmas-like excitement mixed with a sense of Matrix reloaded style dread, that I looked forward to the release of FS2004 - A Century of Flight.

At first glance it looks very similar to FS2002. The menus are virtually the same, but have been given a more contemporary feel. You can select the usual options, either a set scenario (like the Wright Brothers’ first flight) or design your own. You have an extended range of aircraft to pick from and can then set the weather/ location etc. No real changes so far.

After picking a flight, the sense of déjà vu struck me once more. The ground looks a touch more detailed, the clouds are a bit fluffier and the whole thing runs a lot less smoothly. In one final attempt to work out the differences, I had to look at the box. Apparently there are:

1. New historic aircraft and airfields.
2. New GPS.
3. Dynamic weather.
4. Upgraded Air traffic.

The new aircraft include the Beechcraft Baron, the R22 death-trap, Beechcraft King Air 350, Curtis Jenny, Piper J3, Wrights flyer and a few more. For FS2002, I’ve downloaded an SR 71 Blackbird, F4 Phantom, Hawk T1, Spitfire and a B52. Much more fun. Why buy a new package when you can get these and more interesting aircraft for free? And what’s the point of modelling the Wright’s flyer? Spend 5 hours winding up the rubber band and fly 20m. Why would you want to do it? And how do they know how to model it anyway? Answer: They don’t, they made it up. If it isn’t even authentic what’s the point? I guarantee you’ll only fly this aircraft once and then gravitate to the Boeing, Cessna or Beechcraft.

The New GPS perfectly models a Garmin set. It has more features, particularly showing airways, danger areas and control zones etc. The fact it is more realistic is good, but it isn’t functionally that different from the FS2002 set. I don’t like GPS anyway - it’s for wimps.

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The dynamic weather is a big improvement. One of the most important aspects of learning to fly is learning when not to fly. In the real world the weather comprises 20% of the ground school syllabus. In FS2002 the weather was glossed over and offered no surprises. You either set a clear day or a pea soup and off you went. The dynamic weather system introduces an element of uncertainty and gives the pilot the prospect of simulated diversions, instrument recoveries and that sense of achievement having passed through an instrument sector on track and on time. This will ultimately make a better pilot and will reinforce the importance of planning.

Less can be said about the new Air traffic system. On the box it says it models precision and non-precision approaches and offers more interactivity than before. This it does, but it is still way short of the mark. The system is frustrating and offers a poor representation of the real world. Parts of it are just wrong (like not reading back pressure settings). Ultimately, the system is tedious enough not to use it. Having said that it is better than FS2002 and so we look forward to FS2010 for an accurate version!

There are also some of the major problems with FS2002 that haven’t yet been resolved. Firstly, flying is all about navigation, 50% of which means looking out of the window, following rivers and roads etc. FS2004 still doesn’t have accurate ground features to fly by and so an overemphasis is placed on the instruments. This means 50% of the experience is lost. Secondly, pilots fly aircraft by visual reference. Because you have such a large instrument panel in front of you, you tend to focus on the instruments and not the horizon. This encourages bad airmanship.

To recap

Only Microsoft seem to continually support non-combat flight nowadays, though there are now a wealth of mods and it should be less than £45 on the street.

Writing by Andy Smith.