Pro Pilot '99
In the vile, treacherous, back-stabbing world of civil aviation flight sims, there are two camps. No, let's be clearer than that: there are two flight sims. It isn't exactly the most competitive of genres. At one end you have Microsoft's Flight Simulator 98 - big, bold, brash, and covering the world in fairly basic detail. It's a veteran. It's seen the war and lived through it to tell its tale. At the other end there's Flight Unlimited II (nee... well just you try and guess, eh?) - young, cocky, filled with flair, looks and style, making up for a lack of geography with an astonishing level of local knowledge and atmosphere.
Where's The Detail?
The best way to describe Pro Pilot '99, therefore, is to go for straight comparisons. It's better than Microsoft's effort in the areas of non-urban graphics, interface and ease of use. Creating flight plans, tracking navigational beacons and communicating with ATCs are all much better here. What it lacks is Flight Sints sense of authority and its expandability. Although Microsoft's graphics may be spartan to begin with, download a few scenery files from the Net and things can easily be transformed; with Pro Pilot you're stuck with what you've got. Some of the airport layouts are astonishingly bad, for example, comprised of little more than a runway and a tower stuck on top of the grass. No taxiways, no buildings, no structure at all.
While we're on the subject, a word about the scenery graphics. "They used to think the world was flat, that's because they never had Pro Pilot 99..." says the press kit that we were provided with. Ha ha. Funny Americans. Unfortunately the urban areas of Pro Pilot '99 do look flat - very flat. It's the same story as in every other civil flight sim - large cities are simply a generic flat texture map with a few notable 3D landmarks thrown on top. And it doesn't work, plain and simple. This isn't essentially Pro Pilots fault, as no one else seems to have solved this problem yet (at least not in the civil flight sim world. Military flight sims, on the other hand, never seem to suffer from this. Surely lessons can be learned?). But it does mean that the required 'real-world' atmosphere is never really created.
On the plus side, Pro Pilot does clouds exceptionally well - really fluffy, really packed. These are the finest clouds I've yet come across in a flight sim of any genre. It may sound a trivial point, but it really does add a lot to the experience. That said, FUII has far better overall weather effects.
In fact, compared to Flight Unlimited II, Pro Pilot really suffers. It can't hold a candle to FUlls graphic quality. And although it boasts the whole of America and Western Europe instead of just San Francisco, it doesn't feel as real or as alive a world as Eidos's baby. The radio communication is minimal to say the least, and not easily accessible from the flight screen. And to say the world feels empty is an understatement. Even Microsoft's title provides a fair amount of dynamic scenery to admire.
What Dynamix needed to do was create a realistic world, not just a good flight model. Something that kept you interested, and gave you something different from the other two titles rather than more of the same. What they've done instead is to create a middle ground that no one really needs to visit. There's a lot of emphasis on the training side of the game and, to be fair, elements such as the on-screen handbooks and checklists and the tutorial videos provide a lot of information that's easy to grasp for novices.
But the same can be said of the rival software, and there's just so much more to recommend over there.
A Ask Pc Owners What They Think Of flight sims, and you'll discover that most think they're pretty snoozeville. There is a significant minority however, for whom flight sims are the only reason for owning a PC, and this has been the case since the first PCs were invented.
What's more, flight sims are arguably responsible for making PCs the excellent games platforms they are now. All those lovely 3D graphics were first developed to make the view from the cockpit of a Cessna flying over New York look prettier, and have since been adapted for other games that use a first person perspective.
The granddaddy of all flight sims, Microsoft's Flight Simulator, has always differed from the rest of the genre in that it features only civilian planes. While this has meant a distinct lack of hi-tech weaponry, Microsoft has compensated for this by making the experience as realistic as possible -with accurate cockpits and flight characteristics, and loads of locations to choose from. With the exception of Flight Unlimited, which concentrates more on nippy little aerobatic planes, there haven't been any recent sims that can compete with MS Flight Sim in this area. Except Pro Pilot, maybe.
Lots of planes
Pro Pilot has been developed by Sierra, and it's designed to out-do Microsoft's baby in the realism stakes. Better-known for their top historical war sims. Red Baron and Aces Over The Pacific and Aces Over Europe, Sierra have turned their hand to creating the definitive flying experience on your PC. Pro Pilot puts you at the controls of one of five different planes, the Cessna 172, Cessna Citation Jet, Beach Baron B58, Bonanza V35 or the King Air B2OO. This choice of jets, light prop planes and sailplanes means that you've got plenty of ways of exploring the in-game scenery.
The scenery in Pro Pilot is most impressive. One of the biggest criticisms of Flight Sim '98 is that everything's pretty flat. Sierra's clever 3Space technology means that the world of Pro Pilot contains 27 million elevation points across North America, which translates into many mountains and other bumps. Of course, hills are one thing, but Pro Pilot covers everything in lovely texture maps as well.
What everyone wants, though, is to see their house featured, which means that they can buzz their hated neighbours all night long. Pro Pilot can't promise this, but there are 29 photo-realistic cities, so if you live in one of these you can at least fly over the general area. There are also more than 3,000 airports and 60,000 'obstacles' or buildings and pylons and other 'things' to crash into when you get tired of being Mr.Sensible. If the North American bias sounds a bit off-putting, don't worry, as Sierra plan add-on scenery disks, with Europe at the top of their list.
Part of the 'fun' of flying is trying to land in the pissing rain with visibility down to about two feet. Pro Pilots got the full range of weather, from bright Californian sunshine to scary Canadian blizzards. Unlike the competition, which usually turn all adverse weather into varying amounts of fog, Pro Pilot has actual snowflakes and raindrops, so if your windscreen wipers pack up at 5,000 feet, you're knackered.
Unless you're deaf, visuals are only one part of the realism equation, as Sierra's sim has plenty of chat from the control tower, your co-pilot and other planes in the area. There's also the usual engine noises and tyre squeaks on touchdown.
As you'd expect, though, all this realism comes at the price of needing a pretty speedy PC to get things going at a decent frame rate. The pre-release copy we looked at was just about playable on a P166MMX, but you'll get much better results with something a lot faster. The final version should be considerably optimised though, putting it in reach of more average PCs. There are plenty of detail settings that can be turned down, too. One disappointment is the lack of support for 3D cards. While most people still don't have decent cards, the difference they can make is enormous, as anyone who's seen the accelerated versions of games like EF2000, Flying Corps and FS98 will testify. A hundred quid's worth of 3Dfx card is still the best upgrade that can be made to the average PC, often at least doubling the frame rate as well as improving image quality.
This whingeing aside, the gameplay looks to be first-rate, and realism has been taken to another level. The cockpits are incredibly detailed and every switch and dial is completely functional. I sat on the runway trying to get the engine started for ages, stalling it every time until I realised that you have to activate the fuel tank switch. Obvious really, but not modelled on other sims, so full marks to Sierra. The range of scenery and weather options are stunning too, and there's a very handy on-line map that contains the radio frequencies for the different navigation beacons spread across the whole North American continent. A note to military sim pilots - civil planes don't have nice pre-set way points that a trained monkey could follow. You've got to plan your route, tune your radios and lots of other hard stuff if you don't want to end up over the Rockies with an empty fuel tank.
While not as big in scope as FS98, the areas that Pro Pilot cover are more detailed. As I've never flown a real plane, I can't say which game has got the most realistic flight model, but the greater detail in Pro Pilot might make it more attractive to the hardened propeller head. Whether this makes it a better game depends on what you're looking for, and the lack of 3D card support might put off the less-than-ninja PC owner. Still, entry-level PCs are all at least P2OOs these days, and if any game's worth upgrading for, Pro Pilot looks like it could be it.
Download Pro Pilot '99
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
Pro Pilot '99 Screenshots and Media
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