In one of my other hobbies, I work as a photographer and artist and so I know I am a very visually driven person and so when I set out on my world tour of X-Plane I quickly discovered that flying over the vast expanses of the X-Plane globe eventually caused some boredom as everything ends up looking essentially the same with the same few textures. The antidote to this for X-Plane pilots is satellite imagery. You can use a tool like Ortho4XP to generate your own or you can go for a more curated experience from Orbx’s TrueEarth series and that is what I want to talk about both for X-Plane and in the context of what’s happening in 2020 for flight simulation. This is my review of Orbx TrueEarth Washington!
Satellite imagery and autogen scenery for the state of Washington
You might ask why I picked the TrueEarth Washginton pack for my first Orbx scenery review. I have a few reasons. First, although I’ve never been to Washington state, I have been to the neighboring British Columbia and Alberta and have traveled extensively through the Rocky Mountains. I have a bit of a love-affair with the mountains and costal regions of the Pacific northwest. Second, the Washington area is, as I see it, the spiritual home of X-Plane in a way as the location of the X-Plane demo. Third, the area is incredibly scenic. Does that translate into X-Plane? It does thanks to TrueEarth!
TrueEarth Washington comes with 91,875 square miles (237,956 km²) of colour matched aerial imagery. They say its hand-corrected meaning a human had to go through and help to match the colours of different satellite images to get a seamless look – and it worked! Aside from the boundaries of the region, I’ve never seen an obvious tiled image or a cloud on the ground where it shouldn’t be as you can sometimes get with more basic Ortho imagery. Orbx really paid attention to detail here.
There’s also Orbx’s own autogen system which features appropriately themed houses, buildings and structures that are typical of the region and matched as well as possible with the satellite and road map information. It’s not perfect. There are obvious buildings out of place on the ground or some that didn’t get picked up by the autogen system. Until the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator (happening in just days from now) I don’t think there’s been anything better. The overall effect, especially once you’re up a few thousand feet, is impressive.
Additionally, there are 1,174 custom-modeled 3D points of interest. From the Space Needle and Century Link Stadium in Seattle to various custom buildings and bridges, a large number of landmarks are all present. They make VFR flying work exceptionally well and IFR all the sweeter when it’s a clear day or when you spot a known point on your ascent or descent into a specific area.
Airports are basic unless you buy extra scenery
Orbx relies on the X-Plane airport database to fill out the scenery at airports. These scenery gateway airports are cookie cutter options that look decent enough but lack visual flare of a custom made airport. These airport objects could use the kind of PBR update that Orbx put into their own points of interest as it would blend together much better but unfortunately they didn’t or weren’t able to do that.
You can solve this, to some extent, buy purchasing a half dozen other smaller scenery packages from Orbx (or other sources) that add detail to these airports and the surrounding area. Back during one of the last sales I went on a bit of a buying spree and ended up with a bunch of them to fly in and out of.
74S Anacortes airport was one of the best value when it came to airports. The airport includes added detail for the city of Anacortes, a nearby bush airstrip on Allan island, a helipad on Burrow’s island, and the port of Anacortes. With basic TE Washington these are there in basic appearance but with the added package you’ll see a seamless integration and added detail.
I also purchased nearby Skagit Regional Airport. Beautiful detailed and a wide-open regional airport, this was a perfect homebase for much of my flying in the area as it could handle any of the aircraft types that I owned. High resolution textures for the runways and buildings make this come together nicely. This package also comes with WN51 Bayview Farm Airstrip which is a farm served airport best suited for bush-plane flights. Not a bad little extra.
To add variety, I added another airport from their package. The 1S2 Darrington Municipal airport which doesn’t offer all that much except that it is a very cool GA oriented concrete strip located in the town of Darrington and sandwiched between low hills and nearby mountains.
Finally, KTIW Tacoma Narrows airport was my final purchase. This offered less value than some of the others but made up for it by being located at a very cool spot on the map. Across the Tacoma narrows from Tacoma itself, the nearby bridge makes for a beautiful VFR landmark and easy and short flights from the airport with the Cabri G2 helicopter I’ve been flying in X-Plane.
Not purchased but available are WA56 Israel’s Farm Airport, KORS Orca’s Island Airport, and SW3 Swanson’s Airport. Each of them have plenty of charm based on the screenshots but offer similar experiences to the airports I already had bought.
If you want added detail for your airports, I can easily recommend any of them. But if you end up being a bit of a nomad with your flight sim flying and don’t stay in one place very often, you may find these to be worth less value. On the other hand, if you like jumping off points with tons of detail, these airports might be for you!
Standard versus High definition
I bought TrueEarth Washington HD which gives you access to both the HD and SD versions. HD increases the satellite resolution to an impressive level and makes even low altitude flying crisp and sharp. The cost is in storage space and performance.
At 207 GB, TE Washington HD is a hefty installation and that posed me some problems. Not having 207 GB available on any of my faster solid-state drives, I had to install it to a slower conventional drive. That caused my X-Plane start-up times to take as much as 10 or even 12-minutes to load before I was able to fly. It also was a significant download at 37 GB which is then expanded to fill the space through a decompression process. Even that caused me problems as I had to redirect the Orbx Direct software to do that on the larger drive and not use my smaller boot-up drive to do. The software easily supports that fortunately, but it was a trial and error process at first.
I also ran into performance problems on X-Plane 11.41 where the sim would grind almost to a halt and a warning about simulator performance cropped up. Admittedly my system is now almost 5-years old and an upgrade is probably due, but with 60fps constant on most other sims, I feel like this was a bit of a disappointing experience (hopefully Vulkan will help here in a big way).
Then I stepped down to the SD version of TrueEarth Washington and most of the problems went away. Taking up just 58GB of total storage space for a slight decrease in resolution, the SD version of TE Washington doesn’t look quite as sharp as the HD version but it performs better and it takes up far less space on my drive. In a lot of ways, the HD version is more of a future proof option with cheaper and faster storage surely coming in the near future and even greater amounts of VRAM than the 8GB that I have along with the enhancements coming from Vulkan really helping propel X-Plane forward.
It’s all about imagery
The enormous strength of this package is in the scenery. From the corrected satellite images to the autogen objects appropriate to the region to the custom points of interest that the Orbx art team put together, the appeal here for the Orbx TrueEarth line and for Washington state scenery in particular is all about the strong visuals.
The impact on the way X-Plane looks is immediate and it makes it hard to fly anywhere else that doesn’t have the same kind of impressive treatment. TrueEarth Washington is the first in the North American scenery line (following up their TrueEarth Great Britain series) and Orbx has since gone on to do the entire west coast covering Washington in the north, Oregon, northern California and the most recently released southern California with the same attention to detail. They have also released TrueEarth Florida and are planning more for X-Plane, P3D and the Microsoft Flight Simulator alike.
The missing piece here is in the interactivity. Though Orbx doesn’t suggest otherwise, the next level for TrueEarth Washington or any of the other series would be to go to the next level in terms of making the world alive. I’ve seen trains and cars but some added detail around ship traffic is a small miss. A few boats travelling along the waterways of the map.
What I have loved about this scenery package is the sheer variety. I spent much of my time flying along the coast from the Seattle-Tacoma area, up to Mount Baker and through the islands near there over to parts of Washington state I was previously unaware of such as the whole Columbia River region and then out towards Spokane. From coast, to mountain to deep river valley and flatland all in one relatively short flight is spectacular to behold and extremely scenic.
I know some have asked me in the comments what it looks like at low altitudes and the answer is – ok-ish.
Even with the HD levels of quality you’re still too close to the ground and not yet at a high enough resolution not to be able to see jagged edges that are smoothed over by a rudimentary overlay texture. There are also some spots where the X-Plane roadmap struggles with more complex relief on the terrain and you end up with roadways sticking up at odd angles and sitting awkwardly on the side of hills.
Get up to about 3,000 feet in any given aircraft and most of that goes away or becomes so minimal as to not matter but get “down into the weeds” and it becomes pretty obvious. Orbx TrueEarth makes no mistake that this is a satellite driven orthographic based scenery package and there’s none of the hybrid texture/satellite method that we see from sims like DCS to make up for the shortcomings of satellite images. Orbx’s imagery is still the gold standard with their hand corrected colourization that ensures you don’t see the seams between photos and that is the true strength of this whole package.
Reviewing Orbx’s first TrueEarth release in 2020 comes at a weird time. My experience here has been almost entirely positive as the TrueEarth series adds so much visual fidelity to the basic X-Plane experience that it’s hard to go without. TrueEarth products are not free and are an added expense on top of the X-Plane (and P3Dv5) experience. It’s hard to talk about this scenery package without also acknowledging that we’re just a few weeks to go before Microsoft Flight Simulator comes out with it’s worldwide, satellite image streamed, and Azure AI autogen based on photogrammetry. I can’t yet compare them here but the invitation for comparison is obvious.
Despite the obvious comparisons to the experience in Flight Simulator, the TrueEarth scenery package for Washington state in X-Plane is still highly recommended. Its huge area to explore, varied and interesting terrain, and significant numbers of high quality points of interest. This is a quality package that offers an obvious enhancement to the X-Plane experience. If X-Plane is your sim, and you want an interesting place to fly, I can definitely recommend it.