Thursday, April 5, 2007

I'm a leaf on the wind. . .watch how I soar.

Ok, I admit it. I suck at video games. The last video games I was any good at were on a Commodore64, and I wasn't a wiz on those either. One of the few games I used to be ok at was "Spitfire 1940" but only if I was in the simulator "training" mode. If I actually tried to PLAY the game and someone was shooting at me, then I quickly became a casualty of war. That was the first flight sim I played with that attempted to be "realistic" in how it handled. By which I mean you had to tap a key to operate the oil pump during a steep climb or the engine would blow up, or how you'd crash at high speed with flaps, or how you'd crash if you lowered your gear too soon - or, well, I basically crashed a lot. Which was also probably realistic to what would have happened to me in a real plane, but at least with a flight sim I can walk away from them.

So recently I found "Orbiter" which is a pretty cool SPACE flight simulator. Oh, and it's FREE! I admit I only skimmed through the JPL "Basics of Space Flight" before my first take-off, and I have no clue what most of the many, MANY flight controls mean or do, but I got into space on my very first try. That might have had something to do with the ship I was using - a pretty nice "Firefly" recreation. Actually that doesn't do it justice - it's more than just a ship like the one from the "Firefly" series and "Serenity" movie. It also includes the "Cargo Mule" and some cargo platforms, plus both shuttlecraft - which can each be flown independently from the main ship. No "Alliance" ships are going to be shooting at you, and you're confined to the Earth's solar system (I read someone is building a solar system based on the planets in "Firefly" but if they've finished it I wasn't able to find it anywhere). The main ship, in addition to thrusters and the VTOL engines, also has the "Firefly Drive." Actually it has the "standard" one, and an "illegally modified Super Firefly Drive" as well - depending on which key you use to activate it. I got the sound add-on as well and pointed the playlist to my "Serenity" soundtrack MP3s, which made for a cool musical flourish once I broke the surly bonds of gravity and punched into orbit.

One disappointment is that, even with the "super" engine, and you can clearly see you're going like - well, a rocket - away from the planet, you become painfully aware of one fact: space is big. As Douglas Adams wrote: "It's mind numbingly big. You can't even begin to imagine how big it is." Granted you can speed things up with the "Timewarp" function, but it STILL takes a long time to even get from the Earth to the Moon. And once you get there, what are you going to DO there? Pretty much nothing. Maybe unload your cargo? Whoopie!

That's the downside of a "realistic" spaceflight simulator. The distances and travel times are realistic too, even with a fantasy spaceship with a fictional drive. The physics are also realistic - so if you're trying to hit a moving target like a moon, well, it's a moving target. There's also gravity - shut off your engines before you're in orbit and you WILL fall back to the surface (but at least the "damage" engine isn't very realistic - you won't have to utter "We're gonna explode? I don't wanna explode"). But cut it close to a moon and you might find yourself in a gravitational slingshot into a direction you hadn't expected - and even if you turn around with your engines at full thrust you'll run out of fuel while that moon continues to shrink into the distance ("Curse your sudden, but inevitable betrayal!"). If you're really keen to see the Solar System I'd recommend the "Scenario editor" add-on, so you can just START your flight on Mars or Europa or wherever - because you'll run out fuel or die of boredome LONG before you actually fly there from Earth. Unless, or course, there's an easy way to "Warp" places that I haven't figured out yet.

Still, if you want to learn how to REALLY pilot a Firefly (or a gazillion OTHER sci-fi ships that have been modeled), if you want to experience the realistic "excitement" of hauling crap from one planet to another, then "Orbiter" is worth a look.

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