Tuesday, March 4, 2008


I can't say I enjoyed FlightGear much at all. I enjoyed it so little, actually, that I ended up booting into XP and installing it there, to see if it sucked as bad in Windows as it did in Linux. While some minor issues were a bit better, it was basically the same thing, and therefore not any more fun.

Mind you, a lot of the problem with FlightGear is just part n' parcel of what it is: it's a flight-sim that wants to be everything to everyone, and completely simulate every aspect of flying a plane. And I suspect that it's pretty gosh-darned difficult to learn to fly a plane; there are lots of manuals n' tests n' whatnot, anyway. Learning to fly in FlightGear is probably not quite as difficult as learning to fly in real life, but it's as close as they could come.

Add in the insanely un-user-friendly controls, and it might actually be harder. I don't have a flight-stick with pedals, so right off the bat I've got a less intuitive control system for the basics of flight than anyone in a real plane. Or anyone who really loves flight-sims, which is the real target audience for this game - those guys are likely to have a completely different play experience, because a.) they already know all the minuscule basics, and b.) they already have the specialized gear.

Outside of the joystick/pedal issues, which were relatively easy to make better (turn on an automatic thingy that eliminates the need for you to use pedals, making turning a bunch easier in general, if costing you a bit of realism and - presumably - control), there were the rest of the controls.

Playing FlightGear is more like playing NetHack than anything else I can compare it to. There are tons n' tons of spots where both the capital and lowercase versions of a character are mapped, so you have to remember that 'g' raises the landing gear, and 'G' lowers it - or is it the other way around?

Realism's all fine, well, and good, but if they really have two separate buttons on an air plane, one for raising the landing gear, and one for lowering it, they need to talk to their engineers. That's stupidly redundant in real life, and obnoxious in the game - the gods made toggle switches for a reason. Those reasons? A combination of ease of use and efficient use of space. Neither of which do the minds behind FlightGear know anything about.

Now that we've dealt with the fact that the keyboard is unintuitively and often ludicrously set up, on to the mouse. Surprise, it sucks too. Right clicking alternates between three different mouse modes. 'Flight control', 'Camera View', and 'Interactive'. I think the theory here was that, rather than memorizing 255 keyboard commands, you could just click on stuff on the control panel to make things happen.

The reality is a confused, jumbled mess.

Right-click once to go to camera-view mode, so you can find the starter. Press 'x' to zoom in so you can actually see the starter. Right-click again to touch the starter, and cut the plane on. Shit, now we want to push in the throttle. Right-click again, and you're in control-mode, and right-click again to get back to camera-mode. Guess what? Although you didn't notice it, you juggled the mouse just a bit while you were in control mode. Your plane is now set to go hard right. Find the throttle. Right-click to go to interactive mode and push it in.

We're moving! Shit. We're moving in circles because the flightsticks got nudged hard-right. Right-click again, to get back to control mode. Try to nudge it to the left a bit, not too much, that's right, just a bit. What happened? The sky is brown. Right-click to go back to camera mode. Find the sky. There it is, underneath the plane. You've toppled your airplane.

Now, that's what happens if you try to use just the mouse. No one would do that. Unless they had to. Why would they have to? Well, in both XP and Linux, the keyboard controls for throttle and flight-yoke would randomly just stop working. They'd come back after I quit and restarted, but since it happened virtually every time I played, I gave up on using the keyboard controls completely.

The mouse controls are actually quite responsive, compared to the keyboard, but since other random features of the keyboard would also cut out, I would have to toggle between the many modes of mousiness on a regular basis, leading to the scenario I just described. Worst-case it is, but... worst-case was pretty common. Pretty inevitable, actually.

The front-end for the Windows version let me set some parameters that were very useful before launching the game. This wasn't available in Linux, but it never is, so that's no big surprise. It still hurt the play experience - I was playing in a lower resolution because I couldn't be bothered to find the config files and/or launch it from the command line with a page full of switches.

Graphically, the control panel looked sharp, but the ground was icky, which is a shame. They appear to have the whole earth mapped out n' ready for you to fly over it, realistically simulated. Only it's so fuzzy, even at 1024x768, that San Francisco might as well be Dallas might as well be Richmond, for the most part. The sky was pretty.

Sound was pretty monotonous, but that's to be expected. Engine sound, and an occasional beeping caused by I-have-no-idea - it tended to happen whenever I was flying straight, leveled off, and not about to wreck my plane; maybe I was flying over restricted airspace? In Linux, the sound was choppy and would cut out for half a second every ten or twenty seconds. Not sure what's up with that; probably a configuration error on my part, but since the package manager configured it, not me, it's not actually my fault.

For the record, FlightGear is an amazingly ambitious project. And if you have the right equipment, and want to spend the time configuring it, it may be actually playable. If so, it's probably a lot of fun. It's got multiplayer support, the whole world with literally hundreds of airports n' airstrips (you have to download them, for the record), and tons of planes. It even has a few helicopters. I didn't want to try and resolutions higher than 1024x768, as my machine was already taking forever to load the scenery - maybe my issues with the graphics would have been eliminated, had I run it at 2048x1536. I wish the developers the best of luck, and I'll re-visit this whenever I upgrade my PC.

Their current version number is 1.0, which I think is amazingly optimistic/ridiculous. In both XP and Linux, I had technical issues and playability issues that made a mockery of the idea that the game was full-release worthy. Ignoring the fact that my play-experience may have been improved by a superior computer, I'm well within the recommended system requirements. It's so still in beta.

If you want to make the investment of cash n' time, please let me know how it works out for you. I can't recommend this game to anyone that's not obsessive about their flight-sim experience, and even then, I suspect there's better software out there. Sure, it's free, but sometimes you get what you pay for.

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