Many people reading this will be long time flight simmers who knows the ins and outs of their simulators and their favourite aircraft. If you’re in this group, you’re not really part of the target audience for Dovetail Games Flight School. But for the sake of those who are in the target audience, or those just curious, let’s take a look anyway.
In July 2014, Dovetail Games announced that it had acquired the rights to develop and publish products based on the Microsoft Flight Simulator technology, with the first release scheduled to hit the market in 2015. Reactions to this news in the flight simulator community were, as always, mixed. Some feared the end of real flight simulators based around the Microsoft Flight Simulator Technology, because of the ‘games’ branded as simulators being available from Dovetail before. Others were overjoyed that at least someone was thinking about the next Microsoft Flight Simulator, even if it wouldn’t be called Microsoft Flight Simulator anymore. Of course, both sides of this argument have merits here. As usual, the proof of the pudding will eventually be in the eating.
(Just some extra clarification here: Microsoft Flight Simulator X Steam Edition is not part of this deal, but another one entirely where Dovetail is just the publisher, but Microsoft retains the intellectual property rights.)
That being said, Dovetail Games Flight School is not that next big simulator, and it also missed the 2015 goal by several months, finally being released at the end of May, 2016. So, if it’s not that next big sim, then what is it? Let’s talk about that next.
But first, a short note about screenshots. I normally use nicely cropped screenshots to get rid of annoying menu’s, text and borders… For this review, I opted to always show you the entire screen, only cutting of the Windows taskbar in some shots. I hope this gives a more complete impression on the simulator.
Goal and target audience:
Many people who are interested in getting started with flight simulators, quickly get lost in the sheer amount of options, choices and possibilities. Someone new to the hobby just wants to run the sim and do some stuff that leaves him or her with a sense of accomplishment. They don’t want to spend days learning how to tweak something they have no emotional investment in. They don’t want to spend weeks learning the theory of flight before they can finish a short hop successfully. And they sure as hell don’t want to be spoken down to for asking basic questions, where the answers might seem like basic knowledge to old hands. (Fortunately, most people are friendly and helpful towards each other in our hobby. But exceptions exist.)
Of course, the resources to get started with any simulator are out there, by the hundreds. But finding them, and finding the good and current among the bad and outdated can be a challenge all in itself.
This is where Dovetail Games Flight School enters the fray. The goal of this new simulator is to get new people started with the flight simulator hobby in a quick and easy way. Teach them the very basics of handling an aircraft, and get them in the air quickly, without them turning away frustrated and disappointed. Hence, the target audience are people who are interested in flight and/or flight simulators, but are new to the genre.
If nothing else, I applaud the goal Dovetail Games has set out to accomplish here. New people entering the community can only be a good thing. Whether they did it right with Flight School, at least in my opinion, is something I’ll talk about later in this article.
Dovetail Games Flight School (let’s use ‘FSc’ as the abbreviation for this long name) uses Steam as its distribution platform. So it comes with all the pro’s and con’s that platform has to offer. If the goal is accessibility and attracting new people, I think Steam is a great choice. It’s just so convenient. No hassle with serials, activation keys, download files and stuff like that. Just click buy and click install, all the work is done for you.
The price for FSc is a very reasonable €14,99. The download is slightly over 10GB with a final installed size on the disk of about 22GB.
What’s in there:
The first thing to note is that FSc comes with an entirely new user interface. Before actually starting a flight, little of its Microsoft Flight Simulator Heritage is showing.
The sim ships with 2 aircraft, a Piper PA-18 Super Cub and a Piper PA-28 Cherokee 180. A third aircraft, the twin-engine Diamond DA-42 Twin Star will be added in a couple of weeks from the time of writing this. Customers who pre-ordered already have this aircraft.
The whole world is available for flight, with about 24000 airports being covered.
On the aspect of getting you in the air, Flight School has a Free Flight mode as well as several missions of varying length and difficulty. But most importantly, it comes with 2 (3 if you have the DA-42) series of lessons. The first using the Piper Super Cub teaches you some (very) basic flying skills, and grants you a virtual ‘Light Aircraft Pilot License’ upon completion of the 5 lessons and the ‘skills test’. The second uses the Cherokee and gives you a virtual ‘Private Pilot License’ after 8 lessons and a checkride.
The third series of lessons uses the DA-42 Twin Star to grant you a Multi-Engine Rating after 3 lessons and a skills test.
Did it do what it set out to do?
I have some thoughts about how Dovetail Games Flight School presents itself as a simulator. But let’s take a look first at how it handles its mission of being an easy way to start flying for new players.
So then, is it easy to get started with FSc, no knowledge assumed? I think the answer is ‘mostly yes’. If you read the manual, the answer becomes even more positive. The manual is important because it has some info on where to find the training missions in the User Interface (not that you wouldn’t find them on your own), but more importantly, it has a list of important keyboard shortcuts and some information on how to set up your controls, either joystick or game controller.
The lessons, especially the first several ones, assume little to no knowledge, while still getting you up in the air very quickly. The ‘Light Aircraft Pilot License’ lessons are very basic. You take off, learn to fly straight and level, followed by climbs and descends and then turns. Finally, you land.
During the PPL lessons the learning curve is steeper, but also more rewarding. You run into some challenging situations here, like an emergency landing, slow flight or steep turns. I’m also very pleased to see a lesson on VOR navigation here too.
Finally, the Multi Engine lessons are focussed on single engine flying in a twin engine aircraft, in all phases of flight. It also introduces the concept of a rejected take-off.
So, I’m quite pleased with the lessens that come with FSc at this time. They start easy, while also getting more challenging further on. It is not perfect though. For example, the first time you hear about ‘flaps’ is when the instructor tells you to lower them during the landing lessons. Similarly, you’re sometimes left wondering what to do, if the instructions aren’t very clear. This latter problem is exacerbated by the fact that there is no preflight briefing in any of the lessons or missions. You’ll just have to hope that the in-lesson instructions are clear enough. I find this lack of briefing one of the main shortcomings in FSc.
Finally, there are some items that I wish were in the lessons, but aren’t. Rudder use in flight, for example, and coordinating turns, is missing. Engine starting, correct use of mixture, use of aircraft lights… None of them are taught. To be fair, sometimes quite advanced or even ambiguous topics, but still… And then there’s that one aspect so inherent to flying that’s completely missing as well: checklists! Not even mentioned!
So, to recap: I’m quite pleased with what Flight School has to offer, and how it gets new pilots in the air. It’s accessible, offers a low starting threshold and doesn’t get tedious. I just think that a follow-on course, with ‘Advanced topics’ would be a nice addition.
Overall thoughts on the sims:
Many people reading this will already be able to handle their aircraft. So, as a flight school, Dovetail Games Flight School might not appeal to them. But they are interested in what direction Dovetail Games is moving with our beloved simulator. Let’s take a look at the different aspects: user interface, aircraft, scenery and the visual ‘engine’.
Dovetail has shipped Flight School with an entirely overhauled Graphical User Interface. It’s more modern and has much, much fewer buttons, tabs and pages. I’m not entirely sold on it though. First of all, it’s easy to use and quite intuitive for the most part, which certainly is a good point.
I’m also quite fond of the new flight planner. It’s very easy to use, while still delivering good results.
On the other hand, some aspects of the UI are simplified to the point that you’re missing out. In my opinion the most glaring omissions: no option for custom weather (only the presets are available), and it’s also not possible to start a free flight from a parking position. You start with the engine running on the runway, every time. I’m fine with that being the default, it always has been, but at least give your aspiring pilots the option to start from the apron.
I’m also not fond of the ‘designed for touch’ feel of the UI. I know this is modern and ‘in’ and all that. It’s just not something I want on my desktop PC. This is just my personal opinion though, and yours might be different.
So far, Dovetail Games Flight School has 3 aircraft available. I find the PA-18 quite fun to fly, but even so, all 3 aircraft are decidedly underwhelming in my book. Visually, they’re quite alright, considering they’re ‘stock’ aircraft. The modelling is good and the textures are sharp. But sharp textures alone don’t mean much. The textures hardly show a difference between different materials. Metal, glass, leather, textile… It all looks pretty much the same.
The aircraft lighting is horrible in all respects, with perhaps an exception for the DA-42’s cockpit flood lights. The exterior lights are huge, indistinct blobs, and badly positioned at that. And landing lights don’t do anything. Nothing is lit up with them on.
Aircraft handling, even with the highest realism settings, never manages to convince. Not in either of the 3 aircraft. The PA-18 Super Cub might be the best of the bunch on this regards, but even then, the feeling of it being solidly on invisible rails in the sky is unshakeable.
The sound is about what you’d expect from a ‘stock’ aircraft in FS. It has sound… That’s about all there is to say about it.
When we look at the ‘systems’ in the aircraft, the story remains bleak. The default aircraft in FSX were better in this regards. Very little actually works. You’ll have to look hard to find a switch that can be toggled in the Super Cub, for example. The PA-28 and DA-42 do better in this regard, but it sill could be better. Additionally, click spots are lacking in accuracy and usability. Sometimes the mouse wheel can be used, sometimes not, and sometimes just in one direction.
On this aspect, the story is different than on the aircraft. I’m quite impressed with the scenery shipped with FSc. Certainly considering it’s just autogen (procedurally, or automatically generated scenery, hence ‘autogen’), covering the entire planet. The ground textures are much improved compared to FSX, as are the auto-generated trees and buildings. There’s now a lot more variation in the style of buildings, finally making autogen cities look like cities. The placement of trees is also much improved, making it look quite realistic most of the time. There are still some aspects that could do with improvement (some industrial areas, for example), but generally speaking, it’s quite the improvement over the simulators we had before (without add-ons or mods, of course).
It’s immediately clear that Dovetail did a lot of tinkering and tweaking on the visual engine behind the simulator. The ‘look and feel’ of Flight School is radically different than any other MSFS based sim.
Let’s start with performance. Of course, extremely hard to compare to anything else. But with all settings maxed out, the sim still runs between 50 and 70 frames per second on my system. Alright, it’s a very new and powerful system, but neither FSX or P3Dv3 get anywhere near these performance figures. But then again, it’s impossible to compare the settings between these simulators, so it’s not possible to compare apples to apples.
When we look at what light does in the sim, it’s also clear to see the reflections system was overhauled. The result is at times very convincing and good looking, but at other times not so much. But generally, there’s a lot more believable ‘action’ in the what the light does in this simulator compared to it’s predecessors.
These reflections are let down by the shadowing system though. The two just don’t look well suited to each other.
I’m not a fan of the aircraft self shadowing system in FSc. Especially cockpit shadows look bad. They’re just very dark blocks moving through the flight deck, with little relevance towards the geometry actually casting the shadows. If I have to choose between no cockpit shadows in FSX, or what FSc does, I’d prefer FSX. Of course, P3D does it very well, so…
Another issue I have with the visual engine, is aliasing. Even with anti-aliasing turned on in the settings, the aliasing is terrible. Jagged lines everywhere! I don’t know who at Dovetail Games thought this was acceptable, but he/she was wrong.
To top it off, the entire scene is badly ‘lit’. Contrast is way too high, looking completely unrealistic. For the record, I use a colour-calibrated IPS display, so that’s not the problem. But when using FSc, I constantly have the feeling some idiot applied a crappy and stupid photo-filter over my display. That ‘high contrast’ look might be fashionable in some circles, to me it just looks stupid.
Finally, a word about the atmospherics: weather and visibility. Again, FSc fails to impress. The most glaring issue is the horizon. No matter what visibility settings or even what time of day, the horizon is ever present, incredibly visible, and stands out like a sore thumb. The clouds also suffer from that very-high-contrast look.
There are 2 different conclusions I want to make when looking at Dovetail Games Flight School. First of all, as a learning and training tool meant to get new blood into the simulation community, FSc gets a pass from me. The lessons are short and easily accessible, and require no prior knowledge apart from that learned in the previous training missions. At the same time, the learning curve gets steeper the further in you go, having new pilots a first look at some challenging but very rewarding flying. It’s not perfect (yet) though. Preflight briefings are sorely missing, and a follow-on course with more advanced topics would be nice.
As a new simulator, something many will interpret as a glimpse of what’s to come with Dovetail Flight Simulator, I’d say Dovetail gets a fail. Too often, Flight School looks like a badly set-up FSX with a crappy filter over it. The improvements over previous generations of the MSFS technology rarely stand out, and it misses the ball on some things that even vanilla FSX did better. It has some features that promise of good things to come. But at this time, there’s too many signs that things are being rushed with too little attention to detail. In my opinion, this is not the way for Dovetail Games to prove the naysayers wrong.
So finally, should you go ahead and buy this? For experienced virtual pilots: definitely not. Save your money for another airport add-on for FSX or P3D or something. For aspiring virtual pilots who want to learn the basics, there definitely is merit in Flight School. I think the value-for-money in FSX Steam Edition (or even Lockheed-Martin Prepar3D v3) is a lot better, but getting started with those can be a daunting experience. The price for Dovetail Games Flight School is low enough for me to say: give it a go! You never know where you might end up…
Intel Core i7-6700K @ 4x4GHz (stock speed)
32GB DDR4 RAM
MSI GTX 960 Gaming 2G
Windows 10 64 bit