Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mini-Review: Wilco 737 PIC Evolution

I have a confession to make: I honestly hate doing reviews of bad or mediocre products.  It is no fun.  I know many developers put a lot of time, money, and effort into producing their products.  I really do not enjoy trashing things that people have poured their heart and soul into.  I want to like everybody's products - I really do.  However, when a particular product leaves me less than satisfied, I have to call it as I see it.

Wilco Publishing has something of a mixed track record in flight simulator enthusiast circles.  Some of their products have been above average.  Many others, however, too often come up a bit short.  Unfortunately, their new 737 PIC Evolution falls into the latter camp.  To be fair - there are aspects of it that are quite good.  However, it also has a number of shortcomings that are downright maddening.  When the original 737 PIC was released several years ago, it was well-received as the only game in town for flying a quasi-realistic 737.  Unfortunately for Wilco, PMDG and iFly have both since appeared on the scene and upped the ante with their 737 products.  Wilco needed a home run to stay in the game with the 737 PIC Evolution, but unfortunately, they just aren't there yet.

OK, so to be fair, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison.  The 737 PIC Evolution models the 737 Classic series (737-300/400/500), while the PMDG NGX and iFly 737 NG both model the newer 737 NG series (737-600/700/800/900).  Still, I have to think that if PMDG or iFly deigned to take a crack at producing a 737 Classic, they would both produce something that tops the 737 PIC Evolution.

Before I get into why I find the 737 PIC Evolution distasteful, let's start out with a view of the exterior model.  This is a repaint of an Alaska Airlines 737-400.  Looks nice enough:

Here are some shots of the 3D VC.  I'll give Wilco some credit here for actually rendering the clickable buttons in 3D on the 737 PIC Evolution, rather than relying on flat textures as they did in the old 737 PIC:

By day, it's actually a rather nice virtual cockpit:

Although not shown here, you can optionally switch out the digital instruments in the middle of the panel with old steam-style analog versions.

Here is a view of the main 2D cockpit panel, sized adequately for widescreen monitors.  Some have described it as a bit unrealistic looking.  It's not horrible, at least...

Here is the 2D overhead panel:

Here is the INS panel:

Here are the radios, transponder, and TCAS controls in a 2D panel:

This little 2D panel allows you to change the range on the EHSI.  It is also included in the previous 2D panel above:

Here is our good friend, the FMS:

This 2D panel controls throttles, brakes, flaps, and spoilers:

And here is an action shot of the 737-400 taking off from Portland International Airport (KPDX), eventually bound for Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho (KBOI):

Cruising past Mt. Hood:

And now, we get to the aspects of the 737 PIC Evolution that really annoy me.  (This is with the v1.1 update, too.)  The taxi and turnoff lights are turned on here, but you sure wouldn't notice by the lack of reflection on the ground:

Only when you turn on the landing lights can you see any sort of reflection on the ground:

Next, the 3D VC is entirely too dark without any lights on.  Even the glass displays are abnormally dim.  Turning on the lights in the cockpit turns on the lights for the entire cabin - is this normal?  It seems to me that there should be a way to just turn on the lights that backlight the key instruments on the flight panel, but I confess I am not an expert 737 Classic driver here, so maybe this is expected.

However, what isn't expected is how strange and funky some of the night textures look when they are lit up.  The lighting just looks very unnatural - it's way off somehow:

I guess these things are mostly aesthetic, and do not affect the operation of the aircraft.  And arguably, I'm terribly spoiled by the attention to detail on the PMDG 737 NGX.  Still, you would think Wilco could have done better than this on the 737 PIC Evolution.  The whole thing just seems like they were in a big rush to get the product out the door and cash in, without paying attention to all the little details that make a product truly special.  If I'm given a choice between this and the NGX, I'm going with the NGX every single time.

So, to summarize:


- The 737 PIC Evolution flies reasonably well.  Most important functions seem to work correctly.
- Winglets are now modeled on the 737-300 series.
- No problems with crashes to desktop or similar fatal bugs.


- The lighting bugs are really glaring, and detract from the overall enjoyment of the aircraft.
- Not as realistic as other 737 products.


I went back and forth over how to rate this product - in particular, whether it should merit the very first Pretend Flyer "Recommended" rating.  The Wilco 737 PIC Evolution is functional, and generally seems to be an improvement over the original 737 PIC.  However, the 737 PIC Evolution is uninspiring, and has some substantial flaws.  It's difficult to say that this one will see a lot of time in my virtual skies when there are other, similar products that are just better.

The bottom line is that, ultimately, to whom would I recommend this product?  I honestly cannot come up with a great answer to this question.  If you are just looking for a decent 737 to add to your virtual fleet, and you do not really care whether it is a newer 737 NG versus a 737 Classic, then the iFly 737 NG is a better choice at almost the exact same price point.  If you want the ultimate in realism, then spend the extra cash on the PMDG 737 NGX.  But if you absolutely must have a 737 Classic in your fleet, then I guess the Wilco 737 PIC Evolution is your only viable choice at the moment.  However, this is a pretty tepid recommendation, given how crowded the marketplace is with various 737 products.  There just does not exist a really good reason to purchase the Wilco 737 PIC Evolution otherwise.  I suspect the number of people who insist on owning a 737 Classic is probably a very small fraction of the overall market.

Rating - Recommended (sort of)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Microsoft Flight! Due February 29

Microsoft has announced a release date for Flight! - February 29.

I am trying to work through how I feel about Flight!  The whole thing feels like it has been set up to fail from the start.  I totally get that Microsoft is trying to broaden the appeal of flight simulation by watering it down for the masses.  From a financial and marketing standpoint, that makes perfect sense.  However, Microsoft risks alienating the legions of loyal Flight Simulator fans who appreciate the technical superiority of Flight Simulator 2004 (FS9) and Flight Simulator X.  These fans may well find Flight! to be a less than satisfying experience.  In essence, Flight! seems to be a lose-lose proposition for diehard Flight Simulator fans:

  • If Flight! succeeds, then Microsoft will move flight games in the direction of casual gaming - and diehard fans who crave more realism will be left out in the cold.
  • If Flight! fails, then Microsoft can use the failure as justification to cease future development of any sort of realistic flight simulation games.
Developers like PMDG have already stated that they are very unhappy with the terms Microsoft has offered third-party developers to develop additions for Flight! - and as a result, many longtime Flight Simulator developers have passed on developing additions for Flight! at this time.  This does not portend good things for diehard flight simulation enthusiasts.  I will be watching Flight! with a wait-and-see approach for now...

One interesting related development - PMDG has admitted they have hired a developer who is experienced in X-Plane development, with a view toward porting one of their products to the X-Plane platform.  It will be interesting to see how things develop on this front.  I have not used X-Plane at all up to now, but if PMDG releases a product for X-Plane, then I will certainly have to give it serious consideration as a flight simulation platform in the future.

Revamping the Mini-Reviews

Going forward in 2012, I have decided to revamp the mini-reviews a bit.  Mainly, I will be simplifying the recommendation system for product reviews from here on out.  I am doing away with the previous five star rating system.  In practice, it seemed a bit arbitrary and perhaps even capricious at times.  In its place, I am introducing a simpler system that I think will more fairly and accurately reflect how I feel about various add-ons as I review them.  The recommendations shall be as follows:

  • Recommended - the product delivers as advertised; it offers a good value for the price.  The product merits a "Pretend Flyer Seal of Approval."
  • Not Recommended - the product falls substantially short of expectations in significant ways.  It may have significant bugs that detract from its overall enjoyment, such as frequent crashes to desktop (CTD's).  Or, the product may be decent in terms of features, but greatly overpriced in terms of value.
  • Deferred - I am withholding final judgment on the product for a while.  It may be a beta or initial release that is not ready for prime time.  I will give the developers a chance to rectify any issues with a future update before I make up my mind for good.
The upcoming mini-review of the Wilco 737 PIC Evolution will be the first one using this new system.

Wilco 737 PIC Evolution v1.1 Update Available

Wilco Publishing has released the v1.1 update to their 737 PIC Evolution product.  Customers can go log into their Wilco accounts and download the update.

Fixes include:

Exterior model:
Re-modeled wingflex effects with flaps and spoilers seamlessly following flex angles even when deployed.
Revised and improved Krueger leading edge flaps and slats. Kreugers now have correct secondary retractable segments.
Revised spoilers and ground spoilers with more details.
Revised flap animations more closely resemble the triple slotted flaps of the real 737 classics.
New "flatter" profile windows now with visible frames.
Numerous gtweaksh to shapes and profiles, all over the airframes.

The cockpit has received attention in the shape of many revised systems and improvements to
Correct TOGA switches are now present and functional on the throttle levers.
3D Engine start/fuel levers now function to match 2D popup throttles.
It is now possible to follow procedures from "Cold & Dark" state to flight entirely in the 3D cockpit mode.
Perhaps the most significant upgrade to the 3D cockpits is the ability to change out from digital to analogue instrumentation "on the fly" to match your selection of 2D panel.

I got this soon after it came out, but I was very disappointed with the initial release.  It was clear that it had been rushed out the door ahead of the holidays, and many things needed fixing.  I decided to let Wilco have a "do over" on this before I did a mini-review on it.

In other news, Wilco has posted a preliminary date of March 30, 2012 for the availability of the download version of the CRJ NextGen add-on.  I'm not holding my breath on that one yet, but maybe they will surprise us...

Monday, February 6, 2012

PMDG Unveils Secret Project #1: The DC-6

Well, this came out of nowhere!  This weekend, PMDG opened the kimono a bit on one of their secret projects they have hinted at previously.  It turns out that deep inside their virtual hangars, they have been hard at work on a classic plane: a Douglas DC-6B Cloudmaster.  See the pictures and the story from Captain Randazzo here.  The DC-6B inaugurates a new series from PMDG: the PMDG Classics.  Captain Randazzo assures the faithful that PMDG is carefully coordinating their development plans with other developers of classics - namely A2A Simulations - to avoid any duplication or overlap in product offerings.  It's as yet unclear whether the PMDG Classics will solely focus on the old piston props, or whether the line will include classic jets like the DC-8 as well.  Guess we will have to wait and see...

Release date and pricing are as yet unknown, but it looks like they are rather far along with this plane.  I would not be at all surprised to take flight in the PMDG DC-6B Cloudmaster sometime in 2012.

This is not a huge surprise - many of us have speculated that they might take on some classic planes at some point.  After all, there are only so many modern Boeing jets with glass displays and FMCs around to be made...

In other news, Captain Randazzo promised a preview of the PMDG 777 by the end of Q1 2012.  Looking forward to that one, as well.  The 737 NGX SP1c and SDK should also be out in the not-too-distant future, but no news yet on SP2 or the next NGX expansions (the -ER series?).