Several weeks ago Lookheed Martin released the version 2 of their simulation platform, Prepar3D.
For those who are not familiarized with this product, I can give a short introduction and… a telling off. You should know what Prepar3D is. Many many people have been complaining that Microsoft had discontinued the Flight Simulator series. Especially after the release of Microsoft Flight, there were many enthusiasts moaning on having to flight in a simulator like FSX. But in the meantime, Prepar3D was there and not much people was paying attention to that. Until now.
That’s the end of the telling off. Now the short introduction. In 2009, Lookheed Martin bought the intellectual property of Microsoft ESP, including its source code. That means all the Microsoft’s flight simulator technology belongs to Lookheed Martin since then. In 2010 they released the first version of Prepar3D, the name of the new product based on that codebase. Not much impressive, to be honest. The most significant new feature was the night vision for military simulation, something useless for the majority of users. The rest of the product was very closed to what FSX was.
But in November 2013 the version 2 has been released. And now everybody is talking about it. The most significant differente respect version 1 is that they reimplemented the render engine moving from DirectX 9 to DirectX 11. And that’s a bunch of new amazing features that makes every of the 69 US$ of the academic license worthy.
First of all, the performance boost is spectacular. One of the most drawbacks of FSX and Prepar3D v1 was that it was coded for DirectX 9. The modern GPUs and the drivers they are shipped with are designed and optimized for modern software written for DirectX 11. That makes a high-end ATI Radeon HD 7850 with 2GB of DDR5 memory give the ridiculous 8 frames-per-second with Aerosoft Airbus X Extended on ground in a very complex airport like Aerosoft Madrid Bajaras X. You may imagine how much frustrating that is for the user (me).
With Prepar3D v2, using the same aircraft in the same airport with the same graphics card you may obtain 20 FPS. That’s not even close to the 3D standards of some cutting edge games that expect around 60 FPS or even more. I know. But 20 FPS are fair enough to have a fluent simulation. And we should take into account the new features like cockpit shadows or volumetric clouds that are more GPU demanding.
Yes, cockpit shadows. Prepar3D implements this feature that makes the cockpit surfaces to project shadows on itself. As you are flying and turning, you can appreciate that the shadows are alive, and their projection moves as the aircraft turns. I couldn’t image how realistic is that until I try it.
And yes, volumetric clouds and fog. In previous versions, the clouds were just plain textures in front of the point of view (POV). That makes a terrible efect when you fly through them. You can notice how some grey polygons appears as the aircraft cross them in an effect that recalls a night club rather than a cloud. The simulation of fog was even worse. The flog was an horizontal flat grey plane with some transparency. The things below it were seen foggy, until you descend across that plane. Again, the same polygons smashed against the aircraft nose. Even while flying above the fog, the effect is terrible if there are hills or mountains around. The fog plane crosses the hills causing the polygon joins to vibrate as the POV moves. Fortunately, all that stuff is history. Prepar3D implements volumetric clouds and flog. That means they are seen as real concentration of water particles using the GPU to render them.
There are some other graphic enhancements like the reflection of the sky in the water. The moon looks pretty nice reflected on the peaceful waters of Mediterranean Sea as you flight over Valencia heading Mallorca island.
Well. Prepar3D v2 is a great advance respect its previous version and FSX, but… unfortunately, it’s not perfect after all. The changes on the render engine are massive and causes some incompatibilities with some scenarios. In particular, the Aerosoft Madrid Barajas X doesn’t work very well. As the POV moves on the taxiways, there are some phantasmagorical buildings that appear and disappear, some polygons of the fingers that are missing, etc. Also, the addon installation is still not trivial. Prepar3D v2 can be installed in your computer along v1, so it is installed in a different location. It means that any addon designed to work with Prepar3D v1 is not able to detect v2 until a new installer for that addon is shipped. You’ll have to copy files and edit config properties in order to Prepar3D v2 to use the aircrafts, scenarios, and other addons you were using with Prepar3D v1 or FSX.
In spite of these issues, Prepar3D v2 is a great product that make the difference respect its predecesors. It is the living proof that the classical Flight Simulator saga is not over as many people thought. Now we can expect more and more hours sitting on the cockpit with realistic shadows, clouds, fog, sky, water, all combined into a smooth and fluent rendering. Long live to Prepar3D!