Ground Environment X Europe
with Ultimate Terrain X Europe Overview
For FSX Published by Flight 1
Reviewed by Jack Whaley-Baldwin
After the release of FS2004, the Microsoft subdivision previously known as ACES Studios had a mammoth task to achieve. They had only three years to completely refurbish their current simulator, and produce a better product that would ultimately convert FS2004 users to what would (unknowingly) be their final release of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise, Flight Simulator X.
FSX was designed to be more visually attractive that its predecessor; offering new higher resolution clouds, highly reflective surfaces, never-before-seen animations and all new environment effects.
Furthermore, Microsoft promised to render more of the world than had ever been seen before in previous versions. 25,000+ Airports were now included as standard, islands that were missed out in earlier editions were now visible in the FSX world, and cities were greatly expanded in size.
However, all this extra scenery content meant that compromises had to be made. Performance, for example, is one compromise that has steered FSX users back towards previous Flight Simulator offerings.
Frequent appearances of blotchy texture spots and black squares are common in most flight simulator set-ups too; especially in barren or normally neglected areas of the world.
In addition, the default FSX scenery leaves much to be desired. Whilst nobody can deny that the standard textures do their job, users are often left crying out for more. Detail, that is.
Flight1 Limited, a software publisher and developer from the USA & Europe, have pledged to fix this problem in one of their most popular products, adequately named Ground Environment X.
Ground Environment X is designed to completely replace the
default renders with an enhanced texture suite. FSX has pre-set
textures for urban, rural, suburban, and other categorical
areas, which it applies whenever you fly over a respective
region. GEX overhauls these pre-defined sets by
applying a texture-package which is far superior in both resolution and realism.
Unlike default FSX, GEX includes season-adaptive textures. This means that whatever the virtual season, whether it be Spring, Summer, Autumn or (Hard) Winter, your ground textures will always accurately reflect characteristics of their real-world counterparts.
Specialist autogen annotation, which addresses some of the tree placement problems with the standard scenery
has also been bundled within this software.
It gets better. Not only does GEX provide you with a feast of new textures, but the product has been designed in such a way that users will receive performance readings better than or equal to the default FSX scenery.
This performance benefit is gained by drawing the textures in the default 1024x1024 format. This means that although the GEX textures will be much more detailed, they are still extremely similar to the default FSX environment in terms of file size.
GEX is frequently seen alongside Ultimate Terrain X, commonly abbreviated to UTX. UTX is another product published by Flight1 Limited which implements correctly placed rivers, roads, coastlines, and much more.
Advanced night-lighting, custom-placed autogen objects, and
quad-differential water-class colourings are further examples of
UTX product offerings.
One can almost think of UTX as the bricklayer, and GEX as the decorator.
So, does the GEX brand outwit its competitors?
Lets find out.
Advertised Features (What you get)
Complete coverage of Europe, extending from the Arctic Circle through to Southern Greece
Enhanced textures, that will appear crisp as low as 250-500ft in many places
1m/pixel 1024x1024 textures
High volume autogen positioning
Structured texture layout designed to work with many European scenery add-ons
All-season texture coverage
Special included features for Ultimate Terrain X (see above) users
2D Enhancements produce simulated threedimensional depth
Specialist textures derived from Arial and Satellite imagery
Default FSX autogen tree issues corrected
Upgraded FSX road-lighting
Realistic, custom-designed night-textures
Natural seasonal blending
Purchase and Installation
Presently, there are both boxed and download versions of GEX that can be purchased directly from Flight1. Either version will set you back £33.30, although the boxed edition will of course be subject to a further shipping cost.
Installation is very simple. Assuming the boxed edition is within the user's possession, simply pop the CD into your disc-drive.
After inserting the CD, the installation will begin to run.
On-screen prompts will guide you through the course of this simple process.
A license/registration key must be entered at some point of the installation. This key can be found within the casing (boxed version), or through your account page (download).
Once complete, the installation can be closed and you can proceed with the next step of installation; downloading update v1.025.
Updates and Support
Flight1 recommends that the v1.025 update should be run immediately after the installation of GEX.
Planting this update on your system is a bit of a tricky process though. Firstly, via the GEX interface, I was given a link to the Flight1 Gateway area.
The Gateway is a network location that requires you to enter a valid email address before proceeding. Please note, this email address must be registered with Flight1. If you do not have a registered address, a link with instructions is provided on the Gateway page.
Similar to the rest of the update process, registration is needlessly complicated. After typing in your email address, a valid registration key/order number must be entered, alongside a selection from a drop-down menu.
The next step, once your email address has been accepted, is to yet again supply the Gateway interface with more details. This time, a password, email address, and product confirmation questions will be asked.
A long-waited grin will appear on most user's faces after they jump the final hurdle in the Flight1 update system. A page emblazoned with GEX update(s) will flash upon one's screen, from which your reward can be obtained from.
I, for one, am completely against piracy and do support modern software security systems... However surely Flight1 can develop a new, much simpler update interface which circumvents these issues of entering keys, registering and so forth? Maybe a direct download link obtainable from a customer's unique account would be easier.
Wipe the sweat off your brow, treat your hard-drive to a de-fragmentation and get ready to start FSX It's time to launch Ground Environment X.
Please Note, all screenshots featured in this review are with both GEX and UTX installed
The custom-designed, hand-crafted environment textures created by GEX's developers have been executed with extremely convincing effect. Trying to compare the default textures to Flight1's masterpiece is, in essence, similar to analysing the differences between a packet of crisps and a Lobster Thermidor... There simply is NO comparison.
To really highlight the difference GEX makes to your flightsimulation experience, I thought I'd try something a little different from my usual review palate. Prior to the installation of GEX, I took many screen-shots of the default FS10 scenery offerings. Then, in true “before-and-after”
fashion, I revisited these locations with the freshly installed GEX and UTX files.
To see the difference between FSX and GEX, take a peek at the screen-shots; most have been labelled in accordance with their relevant status, weather that be with or without GEX.
side-by-side in what looks like a hectic arrangement from above.
City centres also contain rather distinguishable colouring features. Whilst still containing some trees, grass or other rural features, city centres are heavily masked with the sort of grey, metallic, concrete shadings that you'd expect to see in real life.
In fact, it's these small patches of countryside life within the GEX cities that really provide an intense sense of depth. The differential colours make the ground look twenty times more interesting than it ever has done in the past.
One can also observe rock formations, grass blending, footpath merging, and ploughed fields. The way all these little details are pulled together is excellent; alongside the roads, houses and other buildings these finer additions help secure a lively ground environment for your FSX virtual world.
These rock formations and grass blending supply a beautiful middle-ground for other textures to sit in between. Visible in some of my screen-shots, this extremely convincing set of rock and grass environments really tend to put “the icing on the cake” as it were.
Another, and possibly my favourite feature of GEX, is the blend-shading that the Flight1 team have done. All of the elements listed above have been amalgamated using what looks like extremely convincing shading techniques. The resulting image is outstanding, especially when viewed from certain perspectives (look at screen-shots!).
Civil recreational areas, such as golf courses and soccer/football pitches, are some of the more prominent and more noticeable features included with GEX. You will spy them in most areas you visit, and you'll be glad that they're there. Once again, the detail is superb. The white boundary constraints of the football field are so crisp clear that you can almost hear the pushy-parents yelling; “Should've gone to Specsavers Ref!”
Additional texture variation is supplied within the form of
agricultural fields. Unlike the standard FSX fields, which
come in a series of only about five simple colours, GEX
contains a much broader selection of grassland. Not only are
there hundreds more field colours to observe, but, a
“ploughed” texture rough seems to have been added to some
areas. The fields themselves also feature more of this
expert shading previous mentioned within this review. Flying
over the FSX countryside just got a little more interesting.
Whilst textures are very important, there becomes a point where you simply cannot receive more of a 3D experience without accurately placed Autogen.
Luckily, GEX inhibits much more accurately placed Autogen than FSX alone. The generated objects now correctly align and work with the surrounding texture environment, rather than just filling in the gaps as standard FSX does.
Forests, parks, and fields have had their autogen alignments enhanced from their original state to provide increased realism and accuracy when being placed. For example, fields now have trees perfectly aligned along the edges, forests now have some sort of densely populated shape to them, and parks feature trees dotted in varying amounts across their width.
Buildings are perfectly aligned with roads. Within cities, it is very clear to notice the effort that has been put into this particular aspect of the product. Constructions seamlessly lie alongside roads, and even manage to fit perfectly inbetween roundabouts and other conjunctions.
Other autogen objects, such as radio masts, power pylons, landmarks, and much more appear quite frequently within GEX.
Seasonal Variation, or the tendency for the ground to change colour and feel according to the season, has found its way into the already long list of features that GEX offers.
In Summer, the ground will look very colourful and outstanding. Fields will mostly be green or yellow, buildings will assume their natural dry colours, roads will appear a hot black; everything you can see is engulfed in that Summer fever.
In Winter, this pattern is obviously inverted. About 80% of what's below you is represented in a strong, white, snowy texture. Although a very dominant and almost overpowering colour, this snow does actually blend rather well with the GEX textures.
Autumn and Spring seasons provide intermediate relief between the two extremes of weather. Crimson brown, leafy textures weave their way into Autumn whilst a more fresh-looking ground awaits the Spring-spotter.
These seasons can easily be configured within the standard FSX interfaces. Just set your time, date, and season and you're ready to go. Once your flight has loaded, the correct seasonal textures relevant to your selections will be loaded.
Comparing these new seasons with FSX default, it is not overly difficult to notice GEX comes top every time. The annoying snow-blanketing issue with default FSX (where almost absolutely everything is sheeted with white) has been rectified, whilst other seasonal issues (like missing field boundaries) have vanished.
Personally, I don't fly too much at night, but, for those who do, GEX promises not to disappoint. Beautiful bloom lighting, lampposts aligning streets, and individual house lighting are just a few of the wide variety of night-lighting features.
A much more convincing 3D simulation is provided by the differential brightness of the night-lighting. We now have lights that contain their own, individual unique brightness, depending on which angle, altitude and direction they are viewed from.
The actual light “buds” themselves appear much more realistic. Increased bloom, brightness, and colour are just a few of the improvements.
Football pitches, parks, and so forth have also been given a special identity for night flying. The grass upon which these venues lie is now fully illuminated; likewise is their surroundings.
Lights now perfectly align with their respective ground objects too – something that has been largely lacking in default FS offerings.
Cities look absolutely stunning at night; whilst smaller villages and towns make less of an impact but still look far better than default FSX.
It is now possible to navigate properly at twilight using the GEX and UTX duo. Navigational landmarks are illuminated, so the seasoned pilot should face no issues reaching their post-daytime destination.
Much like other scenery additions for FSX, GEX is not completely compatible with products from other developers. Luckily, compatibility information is available in both the manual and the GEX forums.
Flight1 state that although GEX can be used alongside Orbx's FTX, it is recommended that it is switched off for installation and use anyway.
Very short compatibility guides for free ware scenery makeovers and other payware products like FScene have been provided within the manual too.
Blending in with the default FSX scenery is no problem.
As a whole, GEX is a very flexible and malleable addition to FSX, and, as such, compatibility isn't usually a problem.
In the aforementioned “Advertised Features” section, you may notice that GEX textures are produced in the 1024x1024 format. Since this is the same size as default FSX, GEX is extremely unlikely to detract from CPU or GPU performance.
In most cases, GEX actually offers a performance boost. Since autogen is much more accurately positioned, unnecessary objects are not modelled and thus will not task your computer with rendering them.
The highest frames-per-second rates I saw were around 70+, but 38 locked (as I lock my FPS counter at 38). This meant that, for the most, my FPS didn't drop below 38.
The lowest FPS I recorded was 18 at Heathrow Intl (EGLL), however this was with REX2 (multiple HD cloud layers), Level-D 767, Autogen slider on “Dense”, Scenery Complexity on “Extremely Dense”, and also whilst running many external programs such as Nico Kaan's Lekseecon and Opencockpits' SIOC Software.
If you're worried about performance, definitely do not hesitate to use GEX + UTX.
A short, but informative 11-page manual is included with the GEX installation. Whilst the manual does not include an overly-advanced Lexis or extraordinarily in-depth information, it does cover everything you need to know about using GEX, and, if you have purchased it, running it alongside UTX.
Compatibility instructions, interface guides, installation pointers and a maintenance section are all included within the documentation.
Blending in with the default FSX scenery is no problem. As a whole, GEX is a very flexible and malleable addition to FSX, and, as such, compatibility isn't usually a problem.
UTX, or Ultimate Terrain X, is a scenery product designed to issue very accurately placed roads, rivers, coastlines, lakes, and many other key geographical features for FSX.
UTX also includes many man-made autogen features such as coastal breakers, tunnels, and advanced bridging. This product is usually used in tandem with GEX, in order to supply the user with not only accurate ground textures, but accurate ground layouts too.
Road and River Placements
Bridging and Coast-Breaker Placements
One of the most outstanding features of UTX has to be bridging placements. Bridges frequently line up almost perfectly with river banks and their surroundings.
Please look at the screen-shots for more visual details on UTX bridging.
Furthermore, whenever a road crosses a terrain subject such as a hill or ridge, a bridge is attached to the relevant section of the road.
Coastal breakers, which reduce velocity of sea waves in order to mitigate the effects of damage, have, like bridges, been dotted realistically within Flight Simulator.
Similarly to roads, rail-roads run across FSX according to the latest commercial land-class data.
3D bridges are also placed wherever a rail-road crosses water or a terrain obstacle.
Shadowed tunnel entrances, enhanced rail-yards, highresolution track textures and encasement textures are included.
UTX Configuration Interface
Flight1 have co-issued a very powerful configuration program for the UTX software. This interface allows for control over almost everything, from road width and railroad size, to water-class options and night lighting settings.
This interface is a very advanced, complex and powerful yet easy to use configurator. The endless list of adjustable features means that users have literally millions of configuration combinations to work with.
For UTX users who wish to configure their Sim but don't want to spend too much time meddling with countless options, Nick Needham has provided a pre-defined list of recommended settings for users to utilize.
Another fantastic feature of the UTX Interface is the performance hit counter, which presents the user with an approximate frames-per-second impact whenever ANY setting is adjusted. This very easy to understand feature allows the user to decide if a specific feature is suitable for their computer or not.
Similarly to GEX, a manual has been written that covers areas from installation to using the advanced user interface.
This manual is helpful and should course you through everything necessary to get up-and-running with Ultimate Terrain X.
How GEX and UTX work together
Ultimate Terrain X is the perfect accompaniment if using Ground environment Xtreme. GEX will publish fine ground details into FSX whilst UTX masters the placement of roads, rivers, and so forth.
In a nutshell, the GEX and UTX partnership is an absolute glorious one. Whatever altitude you fly at, Europe looks really stunning now that it has been given a dual-powered makeover by Flight1.
VFR navigation is now possible without having to spend (in some cases) hundreds of Pounds in exchange for photographic scenery makeovers, and, whilst the UTX + GEX combination won't deliver photo-real results, they will deliver a very much post-satisfactory alternative.
However, there is one issue that I'm not too keen on. A common sight in UTX + GEX is the overlapping of roads over GEX features, such as parks, stadiums, etc.
In some cases, this road overlapping extends to some
airports. After loading a flight at Kastrup, Copenhagen
(EKCH), I noticed that halfway down runway 21 a busy highway
seemed to have constructed itself upon the tarmac. After
concluding that this was not down to erroneous planning
permission, it was clear to me that in some places UTX and
GEX do clash, albeit very subtly.
Despite this issue, GEX and UTX work together seamlessly to provide currently unparalleled results. The extent of both visual and object accuracy stretches far beyond most other products on the market.
The sheer amount of time and effort encompassed within this product is easily visible. Despite the fact that GEX and UTX Europe about 10 million square kilometers, the details are still very precise and crisp. Perfect autogen balancing can be witnessed throughout this product. Autogen volume is tweaked to within a fine margin of what it should be - great news for people that rely on their autogen slider for performance adjustment.
Using a simple money versus coverage equation, GEX and UTX are extremely good value-for-money products that anyone can use.
With the exception of (hopefully) an easy-to-fix problem there is no doubt within my mind that GEX and UTX will become the ultimate scenery solution; for Europe at least.
Ground Environment X:
Fantastic texture quality and variety
Accurate seasonal variation
Very large area coverage
Re-mastered autogen annotation
Zero performance impact
Slightly tricky update process
Ultimate Terrain X:
Detailed and complex road, river and coastline definitions
Accurate real-world data
Blends with GEX almost perfectly
Very large area coverage
Many other features, such as rail-roads, coastbreakersand more included
Wonderful configuration interfaces
Occasional clashing of roads over GEX textures
My Score: 9/10 A very well done to the Flight1 development
team for two all-round polished products.
Review machine Spec: Core i7 920 OC @ 3.8 Ghz | 6Gb Tri-Channel DDR3 Ram |GTX285 Graphics |Windows 7 64bit Home Premium