Review: VRS F/A 18E “Superbug”

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vrs_fa18esimFlight Networks forum member “Skinny Puppy” has been occupying himself with the Vertical Reality Simulations (VRS) Superbug these past few weeks and has found it such a challenging and interesting addon aircraft that he felt moved to write a review about it.

Readers thinking about adding this plane to their hangars will find this review very useful in the ‘decide to buy’ process. Thank you Skinny Puppy for your time and this good read.

Introduction

There have been a quite a few aircraft released during the previous six months in addition to a staggering array of scenery and utilities programs for both FS9 and FSX. As simmers it’s difficult for us to keep pace with all of these releases and occasionally a unique product can slip through the radar.  This is more often the case when a new developer releases its first product. As a new company they face a huge challenge. They have yet to build a reputation to give us an indication of what to expect from their product and there isn’t the usual ‘buzz’ or excitement that normally accompanies a new release from the well-known and established publishers. If a new product is exceptional, then word-of-mouth will help the product’s launch, but even that has its limitations and reviews offer a more detailed explanation of what you can expect from a new company and its first product.

I’m going to review Virtual Reality Simulations’ (VRS) first release, the F/A 18E Superbug. Currently it’s only available for FS9, but an FSX version is in the works and should be released later this year.

fully-loaded

I won’t go into any of the F-18’s history, it’s already covered in the manuals (although you don’t have access to them at this time), but more importantly, there’s a wealth of information on the Internet and I’d only be repeating it.

Virtual Reality Simulations is a small team of developers that are also engineers. They’ve spent over 4 years designing the Superbug and have produced what is perhaps the most realistic aircraft that’s ever been released for FS9. In addition to utilizing the talents of aeronautical engineers, VRS has also enlisted the aid of F-18 pilots (both active and retired) to ensure that the Superbug will fly as true-to-life as is possible within the confines of FS9 and that its instrumentation is accurate. Utilizing their aeronautical engineering expertise, they’ve also met the demands of producing an accurate flight model, highly functional gauges and a true-to-life replica of the cockpit. Delving under the hood, they’ve also ensured the aircraft performs accurately along the 3 axes of flight, which are; longitudinal, vertical and horizontal. Any external or internal change along one of the 3-axes will affect the aircraft’s aerodynamic profile. For example, it you were to drop an ordnance from the left wing, but not an equal one from the right, the aircraft (in real life) will tend to roll slightly along its lateral axis (in the opposite direction to the dropped ordnance) since there is now a weight imbalance along that axis. This effect (and more) is modeled in the superbug and gives the end-user an extremely high degree of realism while flying. As a sim pilot you need to be aware that anything you do with regards to the aeronautical profile of the Superbug, will have consequences and you’ll have to react to its changing aerodynamic configuration.

Practically every segment of the FS community has been considered during the design phase. As an example, the current trend is for developers to release an aircraft with only a 3D cockpit. While this is probably the most popular option, there are still many that like to fly from the 2D cockpit. VRS has provided both the 2D and 3D versions and you can load either one of them or both, depending upon your preferred way of flying.

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So much emphasis has been placed on accurate modeling and flight dynamics that even the most demanding end-user will have an aircraft that’s as fully-functional as he/she would ever hope to fly. Obviously it has a steep learning curve, but to help you to become acquainted with its systems, there’s an 87-page tutorial flight that will ‘hold your hand’ and walk you through many of the systems and procedures and will get you going with your first flight. Like most simmers though, we all want to try what we’ve just purchased without going through a lot of hoops and hurdles first. Later in the tutorial I’ll show you how to get airborne using only a few keystrokes and you’ll be able to take her for a test flight and get a feel for how she handles in the air.

Because of the complexity of the aircraft, coupled with the user’s ability to configure it in so many different ways, I had to exclude some of the features in order to keep this review to a manageable length. It literally set me back when I took my first flight. It’s rare to see such attention to detail, so many working systems; crystal-clarity in the cockpit and excellent handling abilities in a fighter jet. The Superbug is so feature-rich that I knew I’d also have to gloss-over some of its capabilities and let the buyer find them on their own. That’s not just idle talk on my part. The Aircraft Configuration Manager or ACM, which allows you to customization many of its features and use the aircraft for a variety of purposes and situations, could easily have been a separate review in itself. The cockpit is so highly detailed that it has well over 90% functionality. There are so many switches, display screens, menus and sub-menus to use, I could easily write a review just to do them justice and I haven’t even mentioned the animations, its carrier role or its weapons capabilities yet. When I first loaded the aircraft and panned through the VC, it was a pleasure to find almost everything I ran my mouse over to be an active switch or a functioning system. Only rarely did I see the mouse pointer not change to a ‘hand’ symbol. This means you’re getting a complete aircraft cockpit and not just some pretty panels that have been placed there only for the sake of completeness. This level of quality in the cockpit is also evident throughout the entire aircraft.

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Normally a reviewer walks you through the features of a product, weighs the pros and cons and finally recaps the review and gives you a final verdict with the aim of helping you to make an informed buying decision. I’m dispensing with that method simply because this product exudes quality right down to the smallest of details. There’s literally nothing (in my opinion) that’s been overlooked in the Superbug and it truly is an all-encompassing, complete product. Now it’s my job to convince you that this aircraft is a ‘must have’ if you’re seriously into fighters.

First of all, I’d like you to watch a short video courtesy of Jaggyroad Films which is an excellent introduction to the Superbug. You can stream it or it can be downloaded if you’d prefer.

(Editor’s note: I have linked the “YouTube” video here, but if you visit the VRS Site you can see a higher definition version)

INSTALLATION

This is fairly straight-forward, but with one caveat. You initially download a 1½MB file and that will install the Aircraft Configuration Manager (ACM). This must go into the aircraft folder of your FS9 installation. Once you’ve registered and have the ACM installed, the ACM will then download the main file which is around 80MB in size. The ACM will then offer to install this file, but at this point don’t do that just yet. Currently the installer will delete that 80MB file once the aircraft is installed. So go to the ‘VRS_FA-18E’ folder and make a backup of the ‘update.exe’ file. If you’re on dial-up or have a slow Internet connection, this will save you from having to re-download that file if you experience a system crash. The developers have assured me that this method will be changed (soon) and the ACM will offer you the option of backing-up that file prior to installation.

A still from the Jaggyroad movie

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You need to be online to activate the program, but once you’ve done that, you can freely use the F-18 offline. When you launch the ACM it will try to connect to the Internet if you’re offline, but just cancel it and the ACM will load and operate normally. The Internet check is done to ensure that you get any updates as soon as they become available. There’s no need for you to be continually checking the site for updates since the ACM will do that automatically. The activation system is quite passive. Once you’re registered, there won’t be any more checking, so you won’t experience any slowdown on your system. Incidentally, the ACM doesn’t have to be run every time you wish to fly the Superbug, it’s used to make changes so you’d only run it if you wish to modify something. One point that I wish to stress is that you’ll always be able to use what you’ve paid for. Regardless of how many times you need to reinstall because of computer problems, VRS will reset your key (after every 5 consecutive reinstalls) by simply sending them an e-mail. In addition, they’ve made provisions for you to transfer your license to a non-Internet computer.

The Superbug’s Key Commands

The superbug uses its own set of key commands, and as I’ve already indicated, it’s an extremely complex piece of machinery, so it has its own set of key commands in order to give you control over its many detailed and complex systems. The Superbug’s key commands are a no-brainer. You don’t have to change anything that you’ve previously assigned. Its ‘command mode’ will intercept your key presses before they go to FS9 and even if there are double assignments, it won’t make any difference. You simply leave your current key assignment ‘as is’ and the Superbug’s system will override them. It can also be easily toggled off and on if you wish to access some of your own special key assignments. There are 4 pages of commands and they are used to control every aspect of the aircraft. Don’t be put off by that however, it doesn’t take long before many of the commands become intuitive and learning them really isn’t a chore. When you’re not using the Superbug, the command mode is totally inactive and will not interfere with using other aircraft or scenery programs. Additionally the mouse wheel can be used to toggle switches off and on. This prevents superfluous ‘hit and miss’ clicking in the cockpit. If you don’t have a mouse wheel then the standard L/R mouse clicks also work.

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Now this is important! You MUST read the ‘Getting Started’ guide which is included in the download. There are a few things that you need to do in order for the Superbug’s systems to be able to interact with FS9. I won’t repeat the process; it’s detailed (extensively) in the manual, but it is very important that you follow the guide’s instructions. In a nutshell, it only took me 5 minutes to set-up my system and then I was flying. It’s really painless and easy to do. If you should have any problems whatsoever, you can ask for (and you’ll receive) help from the team on their forum. Their forum incidentally, is a very friendly and helpful place and even if you ask questions that are already covered in the manual, they’ll still help you and you won’t be told to RTM! They literally go the extra mile to help you to enjoy your new purchase.

First Impression

I selected the 2D/VC option (in the ACM) and loaded the Bug at KSEA. I went into the VC to check for texture quality and the degree of functionality of the switches, gauges and various display screens.

The VC is simply stunning! There are absolutely no blurry textures to be found and the entire cockpit is so crystal-clear and life-like that it’s an absolute work of art. You literally will believe that you are sitting in an F-18’s cockpit. I then checked all of the switches and display screens to determine how many of the Superbug’s system were actually modeled. Well over 90% of the switches are fully functional. Even zooming in on the displays didn’t cause any distortions or blurriness. The switches are rendered in true 3D fashion and the gauges are very fluid and easy to read. They exhibit no jerkiness or pauses while they change and update values. The Superbug’s 2D and 3D cockpits are unparalleled in quality, workmanship, attention to detail and in giving the end-user as much functionality as is possible within the limitations of FS9. Here’s a quote from their site.

“Flying a tactical jet is probably the next best thing to flying with angel’s wings, which most of us will never earn. The new VRS F/A-18E is the best military plane ever designed for Microsoft Flight Simulator. It’s so close to the real deal that you’d better wear a seatbelt when flying it.”

–Stephen Coonts
Author of Flight of the Intruder and many other best-selling adventure novels.

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I’ll give you just two examples of the attention to detail that is evident throughout the entire aircraft. These are just two of the many examples where VRS has gone the extra mile to ensure that you’re getting as realistic an aircraft as possible.

-    One of the major failings that I’ve found in other fighter jets that I’ve purchased is that the HUD’s color and/or brightness level is pre-set by the developer. That’s irritating because depending upon where you’re flying, it can easily become invisible or very hard to read at the very least. The Superbug’s HUD is fully adjustable. You can increase/decrease its brightness level, and in addition, its color can be changed to contrast with the outside view. It will cycle through a variable degree of colors (adjustable hue values from 1 to 8) ranging from red to green. For night flying, there’s a day/night switch to automatically lower its brightness level. As in real life, the HUD can fail (you’d set the HUD to fail via the ACM) however, the Superbug can also display the HUD on either (or both simultaneously) of the DDI displays.

-    The HUD has been collimated for users of TrackIR. If you don’t happen to have it, the HUD will still retain its clarity when moving your seat up or down in the VC.

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A Quick Test Flight

As I mentioned earlier, the Superbug is an extremely complicated piece of machinery and will require that you spend some time getting familiar with its many detailed systems. Most simmers simply want to get the aircraft into the air and see how it will perform. Here’s how to get airborne without any prior knowledge of the aircraft and without reading the manuals except for the ‘Getting Started’ section which tells you how to set-up your system.

1 — Start at any location. (The default set-up will have the engines running for you.)
2 — Press CTRL+S (This arms the seat)
3 — Press CTRL+F (This sets your flaps to the T/O position)
4 — Press CTRL+T (This sets your takeoff trim)
5 — Release the parking brake
6 — Push the throttle full forward
7 — Lift-off at around 145 knots

That’s it; you’ll now be airborne. If you’re an experienced simmer you can naturally start with a ‘cold and dark’ cockpit (set via the ACM) and work through all of the checklists. Now that you’ve completed your test flight, I’d highly recommend that you spend some time on their forum. At the very least you should read the FAQ section.

taking-off

The Manuals

At the time of this writing they’re a work in progress, however VRS has indicated that they will be completed soon. A few sections haven’t been completed yet and a few of the sections which are included still have to have more pages added to them. Regardless though, there’s more than ample information to get you familiar with the aircraft and there’s an excellent tutorial that will acquaint you with many of the cockpit systems and weapon systems. Currently there are 277 pages broken down into 12 sections. All of the vital information that you need to fly the aircraft is already included. The manuals incidentally, are some of the finest examples that I’ve seen in any FS program. They’re well-written, informative, designed to be easy-to-read for a novice and they have state-of-the-art diagrams contained within their pages. Whether you’re a newbie or a pro, you’ll find the manuals to be indispensible.

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Panel Navigator

The panel navigator is used to display the various sub-panels. It can be used in both the 2D and VD cockpits, but is most useful in the 2D. It’s very easy to use so I’ll only mention a few of its features. All of the sub-panel names can be toggled off and on to aid you in gaining familiarity with them. In addition it can be lit for night use. One feature that I found to be very useful is when you select a panel; the corresponding graphic on the panel navigator is lit so you’ll be able to remember which particular sub-panel you’ve just selected. That makes it easy to know where to click on the panel navigator to remove it. It can be dragged to any position on the screen if you don’t care for the default location. It can also be removed completely (and brought back) to clear your screen.

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The Aircraft Configuration Manager (ACM)

The ACM is used to set your payload, fuel, preferences, failures and much more. There are simply too many screens and features available to the user for me to even begin to mention them all, so I’ll only high-light a few of them.

The first screen you’ll see is the ‘Payload’ screen. This is unique because you use this screen to determine how the aircraft will be loaded with external stores. The choices are quite numerous and you can equip the Bug as a fighter, or if you prefer, you can use it in a passive role and only load external fuel tanks. I should mention that the liveries that come with the Superbug are not pre-modeled with weapons or fuel tanks already added to them. They actually have no external stores at all. You add them (as objects) to the aircraft and your choice will appear on whatever livery you decide to fly. The advantage of this method is two-fold;

-    You aren’t restricted to using only a few liveries that may or may not have the type of load-out that you’d prefer to use.

-    As ‘objects’ they can be animated, which allows them to be jettisoned, fired as weapons, and in addition, they will affect the aerodynamic forces that act upon the three flight axes.

When you select the weapons or fuel tanks on the ACM screen then that particular load-out you have chosen will now be added to each livery. If you’re not sure what to add, VRS have included 17 pre-set configurations that you can choose from. You can also customize any type of load-out and save it for future use. Basically, you can mix and match a large number of variations of fuel tank and weapon types. When you select a weapon or a fuel tank you’ll get a brief description of its use and you’ll see the weight added to the aircraft.

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Within the pages of the ACM there are numerous areas where you can customize the Bug to suit your own preferences. There are too many to list, but I do want to mention a few.

-    You can change the aspect ratio of the graphic display to ensure that the cockpit will display properly on your monitor.

-    You can set the degree of reliability and/or the severity of failures from zero to one hundred percent.

-    You can add or remove some of the superfluous items in the cockpit such as canopy mirrors in order to gain a slight FPS boost or if you simply don’t care to have them displayed.

-    You can choose between a 2D cockpit only, 3D cockpit only or both cockpit views.

-    You can change the fuel levels in the external and internal tanks at will.

-    There are 5 pages of failures with each item/system accompanied with a graphic display so you can not only see the effect on the system that you’ll be setting to fail, but also its location in the aircraft.

-    The cockpit and HUD have been optimized for users of TrackIR.

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Carrier Operations

VRS’ Superbug comes equipped with its own built-in catapult and trap system.  This will allow you to use the Superbug on any freeware or payware carriers that you have. In addition, you can assign arrestor and catapult zones using the ACM to any carrier that isn’t already equipped with them. This feature isn’t restricted to only carriers; you can add a catapult and trap to any location at all. The process is easy to set-up and is detailed in the manual. There is one limitation however; you can’t use 2 systems simultaneously. For example, if you have one of Abacus’ carrier packages, then you’d have to turn off the VRS system. That’s easily done within the ACM. This actually isn’t a limitation on the part of the Superbug; it would be the same if you had 2 scenery programs for KSEA as an example. If you tried to use them simultaneously, they’d clash with each other.

VRS has programmed the coordinates for a number of freeware carrier packages into the ACM for you and if you own the AlphaSim carriers, then all of the carriers’ coordinates have already been added. The AlphaSim package is payware, but I’d highly recommend it if you’re looking for some excellent carriers to add to your sim. In fact, during testing I bought them since I was only using freeware carriers and wanted some high-tech carriers to use with the Superbug.

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Animations

Animations add immensely to the fun element of any aircraft. VRS has provided as many as FS9 will allow. In addition to having a moving pilot, which is almost the norm now with most high-tech aircraft, he’ll also ‘salute’, which is a nice added touch.

A still from the Jaggyroad movie

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The nose radar panel opens; the side access panels (port and starboard of the pilot) open, the canopy opens and the pilot’s ladder extends and retracts. You can also jettison the canopy, and in an emergency, the pilot will eject from the plane. In addition, you can jettison any of the external stores. Naturally the standard ones are included such as the launch bar, tail hook, in-flight refueling probe and so on. One time-saving feature that VRS added is the ability to re-arm the AC in-flight after you’ve depleted the weapons. It’s a ‘cheat’, but it’s a handy feature when you wish to practice your targeting skills. In addition to all of this, the Superbug is also capable of air-to-air refueling. All of the animations are well executed and greatly enhance the sense of realism and emersion.

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Weapon Systems

Since the weapons are objects they can be controlled. They are animated with both visual and sound effects. You can also target an AI aircraft using an A/A (air-to-air) missile or you can target ground installations using A/G (air-to-ground) bombs. The armament systems themselves are quite complex and realistic; they only fall short of actually inflicting any visible damage since (rightly so) this is a flight sim and not a combat sim. The aerodynamics (weight and drag) of the external stores has been programmed into the Bug and firing any weapon will affect the flying characteristics (the center of gravity) of the aircraft. Naturally if you’re using external fuel tanks and jettison them, the same criteria will apply. To enhance the realism, you can receive damage to your aircraft when flying through hostility zones. These zones are set in the ACM where you can set the degree of damage (system failures) that you wish to receive. The weapons and hostility zones are completely optional and if you’d prefer to fly the Superbug in a passive role, they can be turned off in the ACM. Another fine touch that they’ve added is ‘time to detonation’. I intentionally dropped quite a few GBU-31 JDAM bombs from many different altitudes and timed how long it took to hear the explosion on the ground. The time was short when close to the ground and quite lengthy from high altitudes. At the risk of sounding repetitious, it’s these little touches that VRS has added to so many aspects of the Superbug that make it an absolute joy to fly.

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Flight Dynamics

Obviously I’ve never flown a Superbug so anything I’d have to say from a technical point of view would be pointless. The developer’s however have enlisted engineers and real-life pilots to ensure that the Superbug flies as true-to-life as its real-world counterparts within the limitations of FS9. From a simmer’s point of view, it handles superbly and the fly-by-wire system makes it extremely easy to maneuver in the air. The aircraft is 100% flyable from the VC for those that prefer to fly just using the virtual cockpit alone. If you prefer the 2D cockpit, as I do, then the ‘panel navigator’ (or the SHIFT 1-9 keys) will bring-up any panel that you need. Naturally the panel navigator is also available in the VC should you wish to utilize it.

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Liveries

The basic package comes with over 30 liveries and more will be added as they become available. The ‘Blue Angels’ colors are also included, and while the Blue Angels don’t use this version of the F-18, it’s been added since it is one of the most popular (and well-known) liveries. A paintkit will also be made available soon if you wish to make and share your own creations.

blue-angels-livery

In Conclusion

I veered way off course with this review and didn’t follow the normal conventions of leading you through its features and then giving you my final verdict. The first day that I flew this aircraft I realized that the Superbug was totally unique in the history of FS9 fighter aircraft. It literally sets a new (and so far unmatched) level of realism and performance that has never been achieved in FS9 before. The only thing missing from VRS’s Superbug is a lot of excuses. What I mean by that is they don’t tell you why something couldn’t be done, they simply do it! This is by far the best fighter on the market today… period.

If you’re a systems junkie, this plane is for you. The complexity of its systems will keep you flying it for years to come. I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed with it and since I’ve only covered some of its many features, there’ll be a lot for you to discover on your own.

If you’re new to fighters, don’t be put-off by its high-tech systems. As I indicated earlier, you can easily get the Bug into the air and then slowly work your way through its systems. Now I won’t pull any punches. The LDDI, RDDI, UFCD, MPCD and HUD aren’t easy to learn. A good analogy would be your first introduction to an FMC. At first you’ll be totally confused, but as you work with it, everything will slowly come together and it will no longer be an imposing and scary instrument. The Superbug’s instruments are complicated (as in real-life) and you’ll have to spend some time with them as they have a steep learning curve. However, having said that, you can begin by just using very basic display screens. You’ll already be familiar with an ADI so you can set that on the RDDI and use the LDDI for weapons and go out and have a blast trying-out the incredible weapon firing systems. The carrier landings and in-flight refueling can be done at a later date and you can use the Bug as a land-based aircraft until you hone your skills and gain proficiency with it. Just to reiterate, VRS has included an 87-page tutorial to get you going. It’s a ‘hold your hand’ tutorial, so if your skills with fighters are lacking, the tutorial will walk you through many of the systems and if you do the tutorial a few times, the learning curve will be substantially reduced. I’ll be frank with you here. I originally didn’t bother reading the manuals. I took the Bug into the air and used the time-tested method of just ‘hitting buttons’. I set the LDDI to SMS (weapons) mode, the RDDI to ADI and just using trial and error, I had the weapons firing within a very short period of time. There’s no doubt about it, it really is a fun aircraft to fly!

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And one final note. I’ve been extremely positive throughout this review simply because the product delivers on all fronts. The Superbug is literally everything that I’ve said it is and more. I’m a sim pilot just like you and when I spend my money on an add-on I want to know that my money was well-spent and that I’ll receive courteous and prompt support on the company’s forum. If you’re already proficient with complicated aircraft then the Superbug will find a permanent place in your hanger. If you’re relatively new to fighter jets, then the Superbug is an ideal aircraft to aid you in your learning experience. The manuals will guide you through its systems and before too long… you’ll be taking off and landing on carriers.

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Obviously, VRS’s Superbug easily gets a 5 star rating; fighter aircraft simply don’t get any better than this!

The Superbug can be purchased here (on the VRS shop page).

The test system:

Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 @1.88 GHz
FSB speed: 1068 MHz L2 Cache 2MB
Ram: 2GB Samsung DDR2 SDRAM @533MHz
Graphics Card: nVidea GeForce 7900 GS
HD: WDC 500GB Sata PCIe 16MB Cache
HD: WDC 250GB USB
Sound: SB Audigy 2
Speakers: Bose
OS: Windows XP with SP3

Who is “Skinny Puppy”?:

Skinny Puppy (Larry Mudge) has been a simmer since late 2003, having started with FS2002. He flies mostly heavies and fighters, but also enjoys using a few payware GA, especially for online flying. He’s slowly building a library of flight related books to add to his library of cosmology, quantum mechanics and relativity books which now number in the 100s. His most notable flight achievements were learning how to program an FMC after many painful months of confusion, and two months of online training with friends, in order to finally master the art of carrier landings.

Addendum to the review:

Pros and Cons

Basically I liked everything about the Superbug and didn’t find anything wanting. It’s the type of aircraft that I’d build if I had the technical expertise to do it myself. It virtually has every feature that I’ve ever wanted to have in a fighter, all rolled into one aircraft.

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Griffin

Do you have a more specific release date? I am waiting for the FSX version.

That’s a very detailed review, how well does is run under FS2004?

David Pike

I’m really interested, but I’m worried about the complexity of the sim killing my frame rates. How did it compare to the default aircraft or the FS KBT Super Hornet?

Skinny Puppy

The Superbug’s HUD is fully culminated. In fact, here’s a bit of trivia about the horizon bar. ***It’s not about keeping the horizon bar on the “horizon.” As altitude increases, the perceived horizon shifts lower with respect to the waterline of the aircraft. This is due to the fact that the earth is a globe. The higher you go, the lower the visual horizon will appear. The Horizon bar in any HUD is a reference for the flight patch marker, nothing more. It will only appear on the “horizon” at sea level, as with any real HUD.*** Here’s a video… Read more »

Terry

I’m still looking for information about the Superbug’s HUD. The Aerosoft F-16’s HUD is properly collimated and the horizon line STAYS on the horizon when using TrackIR, regardless of your position in the cockpit. I have not see another add-on that doesn this. I’m hoping Superbug does!

Thanks!