Monday, July 20, 2009

Vehicle Simulator Review

Vehicle Simulator, developed and published by Quality Simulations.
The Good: Ability to create and control ground, air, and naval vehicles with lots of add-on content ready to be downloaded, straightforward controls perfect for beginners, online multiplayer
The Not So Good: Small disparate scenery areas, little emphasis on driving, few included missions
What say you? A sandbox flight, boating, and driving simulation stressing custom content creation: 6/8

“All-inclusive” is the buzzword for modern PC gaming, with developers attempting to cram in as much content as they can and combine genres to produce the most complete products possible. The latest entry into this combination extravaganza is Vehicle Simulator, which unites previous efforts Virtual Sailor and Micro Flight into one cohesive package. Now, we get both flight simulation and naval adventures, with a sporty car thrown in for good measure. Does Vehicle Simulator successfully combine several kinds of simulations, or do too many sims spoil the pot?

The graphics in Vehicle Simulator are really designed for distant viewing, either from an airplane or from sea. That's not to say that the game doesn't look good, as it does for an independent product. The textures are OK, though repetitive and blocky when viewed form ground-level, but the terrain is quite detailed and the developer has chosen interesting areas in which to fly and drive. You can clearly tell the trees and other foliage are 2-D bitmaps, as they rotate to always point towards you. While this works well from a distance, it looks pretty hokey and archaic up close. Mountains in the far distance have some sort of fuzzy, hazy pixel effect that detracts from the game; I'm not sure if this is fog or draw distance or what, but I don't like it. The weather and time of day effects are pleasing, and the ocean kicks up scary looking waves during inclement conditions. The vehicles have nice designs as well. While Vehicle Simulator won't compete with X-Plane or the now defunct Flight Simulator, the graphics are fine enough. The sound design is generic, with the usual appropriate effects for each vehicle. The game uses the default Windows computerized voices in the rare instances where they are used, and the music seemed out of place and was turned off in short order. If you have played one of the previous games in this series, you know what to expect with Vehicle Simulator in terms of graphics and sound design: moments of excitement but average overall.

Vehicle Simulator simulates vehicles. Didn't see what one coming, did you? The default content is a bit underwhelming: only ten “situations” (missions) in one setting (the island of Corsica). Each mission starts you in a vehicle in specific weather conditions and gives you a couple of waypoints and some other planes that fly around automatically: not that exciting. Vehicle Simulator is really more of a sandbox title rather than one that features structured play. Lucky for all of us, content created for any previous Quality Simulations title can be imported, so new players can start by grabbing four additional locations in exotic settings. This still falls short of offering around-the-world coverage like the more mainstream flight simulators offer, so there are no long-distance flights in truly custom locations. You can make your own scenery files using height maps downloaded from the Internet, though, so the truly dedicated can venture into the world of custom content. You cannot, however, make your own missions yet, as this is a planned feature for later in the year.

A lot of vehicles have been produced throughout the years of Virtual Sailor and Micro Flight; I was able to download around fifty. The game places more emphasis on aircraft, featuring a nice variety of gliders, airplanes, helicopters, balloons, and more exotic creations like auto-gyros and microlight trikes. Boats and submarines are brought over from Virtual Sailor, from large container ships to small personal yachts. Disappointing is the ground-based vehicle selection: you get a Porsche, and that's it. I suppose this part of the game warranted the most work, since cars weren't in any previous product, but the lack of interesting and varied automobiles is troubling. I mean, where's my tank? Of course, since you can edit your own, it shouldn't be long until they crop up (get on it, modders!). Also included in Vehicle Simulator are various animals to populate the landscapes, mostly fish for the oceans but also cows and cats (complete with semi-realistic animations). Finally, a range of weather conditions can make life outdoors more exciting, with settings for precipitation, wind, waves, visibility, clouds, time of day, and thermals readily available and adjustable in real-time.

Vehicle Simulator is not a hardcore, authentic game with tons of vehicle-specific controls. You still get keys for landing gear and flaps, but there's no thirty-step process to start up a plane. While the more realism-oriented people might scoff at such shortcomings, I like the simplification as it makes Vehicle Simulator much more approachable to novices. Most of the planes handle stiffly and are greatly affected by wind direction, especially up- and down-drafts (something not noticeably simulated in other games). Boats handle as you would expect, and cars are a superficial add-on with arcade performance. You do get technology to mess with: GPS, maps, radar, auto-pilot, towing (mainly for gliders), and weapons. Also, Vehicle Simulator features online play with up to twenty people, and finding people is easy with the in-game server list.

Vehicle Simulator is exactly what I expected: a mostly successful combination of Virtual Sailor and Micro Flight. These two aspects of the game (boating and flying) perform almost identically to their predecessors, which is not a bad thing. The arcade tilt means that Vehicle Simulator is great for beginners, and jumping online in the sandbox mode of the game is inviting. The game's lineage means lots of custom content is already created, waiting to be downloaded, which expands the basic game's scope. There is much room to grow, however. The textures could use more variety and detail and even more scenery locations (with more missions) would be appreciated. The automobile aspect of the game is quite limited: I'd like to see some military vehicles and racing modes (the waypoints are in place already: how about some checkpoint races?). The planned additions of a mission editor and sailboats should complete the package more thoroughly. Vehicle Simulator is not quite on the same level as big-budget flight sims, but considering the custom content angle of the game, I suspect Vehicle Simulator will grow into a more complete product as time goes on.