Orbx FTX Global openLC NA Alaska/Canada

[By Kenneth Kerr] 


Get ready for a Flight Simulation article the likes of which you’ve never seen before! You are about to embark on a photographic and descriptive tour of the second largest country in the world – Canada. We’ll fly from coast to coast, stopping in multiple locations to take a screenshot or two, while also giving brief notes about the city or area we’re in. We’ll use more than forty different aircraft types, fly in all weathers, and take in all four seasons. We’ll even pop over to Greenland, and then conclude our tour in Alaska, USA.

How is this possible? It’s due to the recently-released “ORBX FTX openLC NA Alaska/Canada” product. It’s all part of the expanding ORBX Global range of products, and together, this suite has completely transformed the Canadian flight sim experience. If you are Canadian you’re going to love this. If you’ve never been to Canada before, after reading this article you’ll want to explore the massive country for yourself.

This article will split into three distinct sections. We’ll start with a detailed explanation of the ORBX Global product philosophy. There will be very few screenshots in this section, but if you intend to go Global, you better know something about how it is all put together. We’ll talk about the money factor, the knowledge factor, and the time factor. Ignore any of these at your peril if you intend to adopt the ORBX Global approach.

The second section will be an expansive tour of the geographical area covered by the product. This section is lavishly-illustrated with more than 50 screenshots, and represents literally weeks of flying in the simulator, countless hours of research, and even more countless hours pouring over hundreds and hundreds of carefully-taken screen captures. I’m a professional journalist and author in real life, and I’ve had to use many of the skills from my work life in the creation of this section. I hope you’ll really enjoy reading it.

The third section will bring some conclusions about the product, based upon more than 200 hours of using it. Within this section we’ll note a few anomalies discovered during the testing, and of course will give recommendations as to whether you should buy it or not.

So, lads and lassies, get ready for adventure… Welcome to Canada!


ORBX means big news

ORBX is a company that seems to continually regale us with “big news!” It might be the release of another gorgeously-detailed airport, a new FTX Region, better trees, or even a new aircraft now and again. But, there can be no bigger news than their intention to transform the entire FS planet, and yet that’s the news they continually disseminate with every new release in their FTX Global product range.

While I’d not tried the Global range prior to researching and writing this report, I have to admit to having been an ORBX-o-holic for years, especially when it comes to their “full fat” FTX Regions. I’ve got England, Scotland and Wales for my “old country” flying. I’ve got Pacific North West, Central Rockies, Northern Rockies, and Pacific Fjords for my North American experiences. And, although I rarely venture “down under”, I also have the South Island of New Zealand just for the sake of variety.

It’s safe to say that ORBX FTX Regions are so good that they’ve spoiled me from flying anywhere else. Sure, I’ll occasionally dip into the Caribbean because I love that area, especially Fly Tampa’s gorgeous St. Maarten. I’ll also sometimes venture over photographic scenery, either from PC Aviator or Horizon. But, by and large, I ignore anything that does not come with the ORBX brand name on it, especially anything that is default Microsoft.

And that’s where I found myself in a tough spot. In real life I live right in the heart of the Canadian prairies, and for years I’ve wanted to fly the simulated skies above this Canadian heartland and everything east of it. However, ORBX FTX Regions only cover the west. While those FTX Regions make the Canadian west a delight to fly over, the default scenery of the rest of the country is a disaster by comparison.

That’s why I was excited when ORBX announced the release of the product under review today. While many customers bemoaned the fact that they’d have to wait a while longer for the USA, I rejoiced in the novelty that Canadian flight simmers were actually being catered to first. However, that rejoicing also came at a price, for getting into the ORBX Global environment for the first time is no simple task.

So let’s get into ORBX Global!

Right off the bat you have got to appreciate the following points.
1.Getting into ORBX Global is going to cost a fair bit of money
2.Getting into ORBX Global is going to demand some learning
3.Getting into ORBX Global is going to take some serious download times and serious installation times

The money factor

If you are starting out from scratch in flight sim these days, you can buy the entire FSX program in its gold edition for around $50, or go for the steam edition and probably find it for half as much. The Prepared (P3D) alternative is also available of course, and while professional licenses are pricey, typical users over the years have gravitated to the academic license for around $60. These are all base products of course, and while the long-term simmers among us get tired of the bland, tile-repeating scenery, for the newcomers these base products are both brilliant and economical.

So, if it takes around $60 to get the entire FS program, what does it take to transform the scenery in that program into the ORBX Global version? Starting from scratch again, and with the intention of seeing the world the way that ORBX wants you to see it, you are looking at spending an additional $230 approximately. Not every simmer is ready or able to make such a purchase, and there are some who baulk at the idea of spending four times as much as the program itself cost, just to transform it into something better.  This economic reality must be taken into account before embarking on the ORBX Global journey.

The knowledge factor

The reason for the $230 cost only becomes apparent when you begin to understand how FTX Global is applied to the flight simulator world. And that presents us with another key element in getting the best out of this product range. You’ve got to take time to do some reading about it, you’ve got to take time to understand the basics.

While many of us like to jump right in and never read a product manual, ORBX Global is not a product series to be so cavalier with. If you want to use it, then start off by learning about it. It’s as simple as that. When I look through the ORBX forums, there are many requests for assistance that would have been rendered unnecessary had people taken time to read the product manuals first. That’s not to say that every issue is covered in the manuals, but many are.

So let’s take a moment to provide a product primer as it were. Let’s see how ORBX Global fits into the flight sim environment.

The flight simulator world, whether FSX or P3D, is designed in what ORBX refers to as layers. These layers all blend together to give you and I the virtual world that we fly our simulated aircraft over. These layers include:-
1.Terrain Mesh – This is the elevation data that FS uses to build the hills, plains, valleys and mountains in your FS world.
2.Landclass – This is the data that FS uses to put “types” of scenery in appropriate places. This includes classes such as high density urban, arid scrub land, pine forest, crops, etc. The mechanism used to place this landclass can be further divided into the standard approach or the vector approach. Standard produces a more blocky look than vector which has a greater ability to shape the landclass into smoother detail.
3.Textures – Textures are the visible blocks of scenery tiles that cover the landscape. These tiles are called up by the landclass data, and placed in appropriate places to make up the patchwork quilt of the FS world.
4.Autogen – These are the automatically-placed 3d objects such as all those buildings and trees that you see across the FS landscape. Autogen stands for “Automatically Generated” which means there will be compromise in the process. Do not expect to see your house accurately placed on an accurate street in an autogen landscape.
5.Vector Data – This is the information that allows objects in the FS world to follow a shape, for example a coastline, a road, a lake, or a railway. If the vector data is detailed enough, it will also influence the shape of golf courses, parks, city limits, etc.
6.Custom scenery – This is the detailed stuff which is individually-placed. It can include the superbly-detailed airports, bridges, city buildings, etc. This scenery element goes beyond the autogen, it is custom created.

When you and I fly over an area in flight sim, we typically don’t think about all of this layering going on beneath our virtual wings, but it is taking place. The virtual world we see is the result of all these ingredients coming together to give us the perfect cake.

Like any cake, the final taste is dependent on the quality of the ingredients. For many flight simmers the “out of the box” flight sim products represent “plain vanilla” whereas the ORBX Global improvements bring us a black forest cake with cream and cherries on top. In short, ORBX Global products provide better individual ingredients, resulting in a better cake.

However, the workload in creating those ingredients is significant, and they are purchased individually, and that’s why they are expensive in comparison to the vanilla cake of the basic flight sim products.

To enjoy the full ORBX Global experience as it currently stands, you will need…
1.FTX Global Base (new worldwide textures) for around $70
2.FTX Global Vector (the “shaped” data) for around $50
3.PILOTS Global Mesh 2010 (the elevation data) for around $67
4.FTX openLC Europe (better placement of the textures) for around $28
5.FTX openLC NA Alaska/Canada (better placement of textures) for around $14 (This is what we’re reviewing here)
6.Orbx freeware airports – Yes a growing and free collection made just for the Global range.
7.FTX highly-detailed airports, individually priced. These are not covered in this report, and are not included in the $230 price estimate.

Do you need it all at once? Well, that depends where you fly. At the very least if you are flying Europe you want 1,2,3, and 4. If you are flying North America (the current product under review) you want 1,2,3, and 5. Whether or not you add any detailed airports (#7) is up to you, but I do highly recommend that you download and use the freeware airports (#6), whether you are flying in Europe or North America.

In my case, for this review I got 1,2,5 and 6. I did NOT get the mesh (#3) because I really wanted to fly in the Canadian prairies and figured they were pretty much flat. That was a big mistake on my part, I should have got the mesh right from the start, for without it there are some localized problems across the North American continent.

As you can see, a basic understanding of this blended product concept really does help before you get started!

The time factor

If you are starting out from scratch with the Global approach, (having learned about the product range and taken into account the cost), then you must also be  prepared for a long download process, and a somewhat complicated installation process.

Do not make the mistake of starting a download late at night and expecting to fly it before bed. Ain’t gonna’ happen! On so-called high speed internet, it took many, many, many hours for me to download the products I wanted. I looked at my watch a LOT of times, drank a “gallon or two” of coffee, and swore more than a few times as I wondered when the heck it would be over! But, if you are prepared for that beforehand, you will be better off than I was.

Similarly, be prepared for a long and involved process of installation. In my case I installed Base, then Vector, and then openLC NA all in one weekend, and it took a long time. I also made sure that I had updated ORBX libraries, gotten the latest version of the ORBX Central program, and downloaded the free airports that ORBX makes available for the Global series. To be honest if I was to do it again, I’d install each piece one at a time, and then fly the sim after each installation in order to appreciate what each element had done to the sim environment.

Bottom line… Getting into the ORBX Global experience is somewhat involved. Do not underestimate it in terms of financial expenditure, amount of study required, or the extended time constraints of downloading and installing.  If you do underestimate these aspects, you might get pretty frustrated and blame ORBX when it is not their fault. A word to the wise!

What difference does it make?

Before we take our tour, I want to present some “before and after” screenshots to show you the amazing difference that ORBX Global makes. These were taken around the city of Regina, in the province of Saskatchewan. I live about two hours away from Regina in real life, so CYQR just had to be my starting point for this adventure, and I was anxious to see how big the improvement would be.

In a word, the improvement is massive. What was supposed to be a brief flight for comparison screenshots ended up lasting hours, I was that blown away by the difference ORBX Global made. Take a look at these screenshots and see for yourself!