It should be noted that I received the product approximately 1 week before the public release to assist with testing of the product. The purpose of this period was to test any bugs that would be show-stoppers for releasing the product. I did report some quality issues discussed in the review prior to release.
When GSX launched back in 2013, it revolutionised how flight simulator handled the ground operation side of things. Although there were other tools out there that did similar things, they all required specific files to be designed with it so that it would work for those key airport. Furthermore, it also cost per airport (in the form of credits). However, GSX changed the game by offering these types of services in a one-off flat rate cost, which covered every single airport within flight sim. Yes, it did require a few edits here and there to be perfect, but on the whole, it worked for most situations.
Despite being released 5 years ago, GSX has been supported continuously since. Small bug updates here and there and also larger, feature-adding updates meant that GSX has become one of the most popular and used tools in our sims. A common question the team always faced was “when can I get 3D passengers to board my plane?” It was said at the time that PCs weren’t ready to handle the intensity of hundreds of animated passengers board the plane. Then it was a case of the simulators not able to support that many objects on screen without it running out of memory.
Fast-forward to 2018, and GSX developer, FSDreamTeam, announced at Flight Sim Expo that a new product has been developed to finally add those virtual passengers to the sim. It’s been a long time coming, so let’s see how GSX Level 2 fares after all this time.
The most important thing to note straight away is that GSX Level 2 is a add-on for an add-on. You must have GSX already owned and installed to take advantage of GSX Level 2. It’s an unusual option for a developer to take, but as explained by the developers, the idea is to bring more of these expansions in the future so people can be flexible on what features they want in the sim. I personally think the naming choice chosen will start to become confusing as more of these modules are released, but that doesn’t really impact the quality of the product – but I do think it may add to some confusion later down the line. I’ll come back to overall value at the end of the review, but when reading, keep this fact in mind.
So what exactly does GSX Level 2 actually do? It does two key operations:
- Add fully 3D character models for passengers and crew.
- Add SODE jetways with the ability to have them added to airports worldwide (replacing default or non-SODE jetways)
For those who may not know what SODE is, let me briefly explain. SODE, Sim Object Display Engine was created by 12bPilot to add more details and effects that weren’t possible with the current FSX/P3D SDK (PDK for P3Dv4). Many people assume SODE is just for jetways, which isn’t true. SODE actually enables developers to include other effects for their scenery including moving wind-socks (based on actual wind values), change textures based on weather and other dynamic details. The tool is free for developers to use in their projects, but some developers are cautious about using SODE in their products as it is closed-source – meaning if 12bPilot abandons the project and the simulator sees an update that breaks SODE, then there’s very little anyone can do about it. Unless otherwise proven, only 12bPilot has access to the source code only, despite multiple developers attempting to buy it in the past. I have attempted to contact the developers at FSDreamTeam to clarify, but to no response. This information isn’t pertinent to the review, but worth acknowledging later on.
Back to GSX Level 2.
GSX Level 2 has poised itself as an expansion to the original GSX, but providing animated passengers and as a SODE jetway replacement tool for every airport. It’s a product of two halves, so I’ll go into the detail for both.
It’s been a long requested feature from the community to have animated passengers within the flight simulator. For whatever reason, users really wanted to simulate the effect of seeing virtual families, business people and the elderly climb up the metal steps next to the plane and walk through the door. I must admit, seeing this feature for the first time was pretty cool, and when flying the plane, my mind did think back to the hundreds of people who poured into the plane. It was pretty immersive to think I was now responsible for all those people.
It’s not just the passengers that are animated either. Both pilots and crew make an appearance from a specific crew bus. Again, it’s pretty cool to watch them climb the steps and walk their separate ways. Whilst cool, it would be nice to see a more dynamic range in models used for the pilots and crew – for example female pilots / male cabin crew and even more culturally diverse models. I’m not trying to turn this into a political debate, or anything of the sort, but from a feature point of view – it’s still important in my eyes.
I could say the same for the passenger models too. There’s of course a lot more variation in how they look, but there’s simply not enough variety to make it a believable scene. You’ll see the same grandmother at least 7 times when boarding a pretty busy flight. I counted around 20 unique models. Something as simple as changing the colour of their outfits would help me become more immersed in this.
Even in this shot you can see the same models multiple times (see the grandma)
When it comes down to the modelling, there’s a lot of work which can be done to improve the passengers boarding and disembarking. Texture quality is pretty low, with model quality even worse. See the screenshots below to see what I mean. Furthermore, the animation varies from okay to not great. Watching the passengers scurry from the bus to the steps is like watching an episode of The Walking Dead, in the way they have zero control over their arms, legs or other stiff movements. Models would also clip through one another more often than not. Despite how good the animations are for their other ground ops people, this is a real disappointment.
Maybe this is outside the scope of the project, but I would love to see the passengers actually react to things like outside weather or destination. E.g. Cold and wet weather means people with coats and other non-summery objects. Other annoyances to me also include how the passengers board the plane single file with zero delay. Any rampie or crew member will tell you that plane aisles block frequently and often. Yet GSX Level 2 boards everyone swiftly and promptly in around 2 minutes.
Clipping is a common problem for GSX Level 2
SODE Jetway Replacement
“We will replace all default jetways with SODE ones at airports” – that was the message received at FlightSimExpo and also during product release. I feel like GSX Level 2 over-promised and under-delivered on this aspect. Let me explain.
When GSX was released, it used a similar tag-line to suggest that pushback would be made available at all airports. To a modest extent, this was pretty true. It took either the default BGL or the add-on scenery BGL file and the push-back would follow that to a reasonable path. For the most part, it works fine with little to no editing. This was the approach I had assumed would be taken with the SODE jetways. However, upon using the product, it’s actually far from that reality. There’s three possible situations:
- Default Airport with no SODE jetways
- Add-on Airport with no SODE jetways
- Add-on Airport with SODE jetways
Default Airports with no SODE jetways is an area where the product shines surprisingly well. It will take the default jetways from those airports and replace them with SODE ones. Furthermore, it does a decent job at guessing the style of the jetway and any banners / gate numbers associated.
However, things get a bit complicated with the others. Let’s take FlyTampa Amsterdam for example. It’s a huge airport with many gates, jetways and parking stands. Sadly, FlyTampa didn’t integrate SODE jetways into the airport itself. As a result, users of GSX Level 2 who want to have SODE jetways, will need to implement the jetway at each gate if they want to use it. Of course, you could just do a single gate and fly in and out of that every time, but that’s not really the point. Although there are videos showing the process can take just a few minutes, that’s a few minutes per airport in your library and not something I feel like doing each time – especially if I have to reinstall a scenery.
The final situation is pretty easy for GSX as the software doesn’t touch them at all, and works just fine.
What is very interesting is how much detail and customisation you can have with the jetways. There’s over 80 jetway types included which are incredibly detailed and extremely well modelled. You can also customise whether there’s a GPU attached, air cooling, ground markings which ads are on the jetway and more. It’s all done in real time within the sim so you can see exactly what changes you’re making as you do them. Using the power of DX11, you will also be able to edit the text and colour pretty easily with absolute minimal impact on the frame rate. You can even customise the bridge from the terminal to the jetway – along with the type of bridge and what walls surround it (e.g. glass, plastic, etc). And if it’s glass, you will see the virtual passengers walk down the jetways.
There’s just a lot to work with and the editor itself for moving objects I don’t feel is the most user friendly. It’s quite cumbersome, as you then also have to use another tool (external to the sim) to then change the BGL and save it. It took me a long time to change one or two jetways and after that, I gave up. You can apply jetways to gates generically to whole airports relatively quickly, but again, if you have a large library, it sucks up a lot of time. I would hardly say this is a SODE jetway replacement worldwide.
In general, the SODE jetways work well and are a lot better than the default ones within the sim. We’re also fortunate enough to have a community who are willing to create these profiles and share them online. I think it’s worth FSDreamTeam creating some kind of community system which easily allows users to download these config files quickly and easily – even the installation instructions of these files aren’t the clearest. The manual itself is pretty confusing and has been merged with the original GSX one, which doesn’t really help people identify what section relates to which quickly and visually.
How it interacts with aircraft
Although not a feature of the product itself, it’s important to discuss how it interacts with the aircraft itself. In general, I’ve always found things like re-fuelling to be a bit temperamental. Never really understanding when to press “refuel”, where to refuel the plane from or when to do it. It seems to change its mind often. I feel this is similar for boarding passengers.
The tutorials released on how this works defines it pretty simply: select how many passengers you want to board, load up GSX and request boarding. However, this then starts to be a bit buggy if you’re, for example, attempting to do a turn-around. If you disembark you load, want to spin it around and select the boxes to run, you may end up seeing no passengers board as the system things nothing needs to be loaded. I’ve had it happen on multiple occasions and the only way to ‘reset’ it is by simply restarting GSX.
Speaking of turnarounds, there’s no possible way to simulate this right now. Every disembarkation means the pilots and crew will leave the plane, meaning a new set will need to board. Furthermore, passengers always have to board via a bus in the world of GSX, compared to maybe a ‘custom’ defined point on the apron. It all feels very barebones right now with limited options on how the product interacts with the plane.
The performance of GSX Level 2 is certainly the highlight of the product. Because of the poor animation and low resolution and polygon count of the models, it does mean that there’s little to no performance impact on the simulator. Even with a hundred character models walking towards the bus or down the jetway, things still run smooth. There’s still the occasional frame jump when a new action is taking place (e.g. first passenger bus unloads), but it’s micro-seconds and not really impactful to the experience itself.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, GSX Level 2 is an additional piece of software that must be purchased alongside the original GSX. That means the overall cost of the product is approximately $60 USD. That’s a lot of money for a new person investing into the simulator looking to get the most from it. I’m surprised we didn’t see some kind of discount bundle for those who were looking to invest in both – that would’ve made the initial blow a lot easier to handle.
Even if we took the cost of GSX Level 2 on its own, I still think $30 is a lot of money for an add-on to the original add-on. For something that still has missing features, a few bug issues here and there and requires a -lot- of tinkering by the end user, I feel it’s not really value for money.
What does get more concerning is thinking back to what if SODE developer 12bPilot decides to walk away. A few updates from Lockheed Martin later and suddenly our $30 (or $60) investment becomes even harder to swallow. Of course, that’s a bit of speculation on my part, but it could happen. Obviously this is the case with any product that relies on SODE in some way, but GSX Level 2 has over 50% of its features locked in by SODE, meaning a huge chunk of the product may break compared to a scenery which means only the jetways may not work.
FSDreamTeam have proven to be reliable when it comes to frequent updates to their GSX platform, so I see no reason why GSX Level 2 will be any different. We’ve already seen a few minor updates since launch, so hopefully more ideas and features will be implemented to make this a much more desirable product.