Real Environment Extreme
That’s what it is really… If you are a veteran of the flight sim world, you will know that REX has been the go to for texture replacement packs. Their old Essentials + Overdrive, and Texture Direct 4 have been widely regarded as a “must have” for anyone running the FSX/ESP platforms. How it basically worked was, you choose which clouds, sky, water, ground, and other textures you want, and it installs it into your simulator of choice. Then REX came out with the Soft Clouds add-on and that really changed how clouds looked in the sim. Despite this though, the clouds still seemed off. The same repeating cumulus clouds became extremely repetitive and boring to look at.
Looking at those screenshots, you can see exactly what I mean. Every cloud looks the same and the first picture shows clouds that just don’t look quite right. Don’t get me wrong! REX did an amazing job with Texture Direct 4 + Soft Clouds, making the clouds significantly better than default. But if you fly in real life like me, you know that it’s just not the same. You get the feeling that something is just missing. Something is out of place…
REX Sky Force 3D
Now, however, there’s a new version! REX Sky Force 3D was released as a complete replacement to Texture Direct and Soft Clouds. Not only that, it has it’s own weather system, and flight sim’s first truly 3D clouds! It took them a whole 2 years to re-design everything, from individual cloud models to whole weather systems. All of this to achieve the result every flight-simmer has been yearning for: Diverse and Realistic Weather Systems.
Sky Force 3D has been packed with many features that make it a huge upgrade over Texture Direct 4 + Soft Clouds. For just 2 years of work, they have far surpassed my expectations in the amount of features in the program! Let’s take a closer look at what Sky Force has to offer.
One of Sky Force 3D’s main features is the 3D Cloud system. The old weather system was very limited in their representation of cloud formations. Simply put, most weather systems simply place 2D images of clouds randomly around the sky. In order to give a diverse look as well as making the user believe they are 3D, the pictures always rotate to face the user. This makes for some entertaining videos when looking straight down! Now, the REX team has claimed put actual 3D models of clouds in the simulator. However, if you look closely, they are still 2D pictures. Despite this, they have done a better job making it look 3D, despite the marketing trick.
In addition to this fix, they also have many new clouds with names that honestly make no sense. For example, cumulus humilis, mediocris, congestus, calvus, blah, blah, and blah. The point is, we can now actually see clouds that appear in the real world in our simulator.
One key difference between Sky Force and Texture Direct (TD4), is that Sky Force now includes a weather engine. This is extremely beneficial since it is able to synthesize cloud layers, and determine which cloud types need to be displayed, based on several parameters. However, even if you don’t use the weather system that REX provides, you can still enjoy the cloud type diversity. This is highly useful for those of us that require the use Active Sky for a weather radar.
Real Time Sync
Another new feature that was previously seen in Active Sky Cloud Art is real time syncing of cloud changes. The software will automatically sync the weather engine to the clouds in your simulator, allowing you to get dynamic updates without even leaving the simulator. Now, instead of being forced to choose between various types of clouds, we can have them all!
The last really new feature is PTA Integration built into the program! If you aren’t aware of what PTA is, it’s a payware tool made by SimTweaks which tweaks your shaders to make P3D look simply amazing! PTA presets can be configured directly from the program and are automatically matched with sky textures. So basically, you don’t have to do anything!
Download and Install
Sky Force 3D (SF3D) can be obtained from most online flight sim stores for around $45. After this, you can download the product immediately, choosing between a 32-bit or 64-bit file. Basically, if you are using P3D v4, download the 64-bit version. Otherwise, get the 32-bit version. Note: Both versions CAN be installed simultaneously on your machine, so +1 to REX for this!
The download is pretty quick, only taking about 15 minutes to download 5 gbs. The file is a bit large, but
I wouldn’t expect anything less from a large environment texture package. After downloading it, you simply extract the zip file and run the installer. Installation is simple and easy and completes in just a few minutes.
Once you fire up the program, you are presented with the loudest noise I’ve ever heard! That thunder was something I didn’t expect in any REX product because it was so characteristic of HiFi’s Active Sky programs. Personally, I think it’s kinda nice, and makes you certain that you are using a weather engine, but I proceeded to turn it off anyways so I don’t jump off my seat every time! Once you get in the actual software itself, you go through a nice simple set-up wizard to help you get started.
The User Interface
REX has done a fantastic job with their interface. It’s clean, modern, easy to use for the user, but also customizable for more advanced users. A clean dashboard allows you to configure and set up Sky Force for your flight, and the configuration is easy to follow and use. One thing I would like is if the menu on the left side had text to describe it. Although you can use the hamburger menu (3 bars) at the top left corner to get the text, it simply overlays the program, and you can’t click on anything under it. However, this is not that big of an issue, and I think it’s a significant improvement over TD4 and has the edge over Active Sky. Much of it is pretty self explanatory, so I’ll just include some shots of the UI.
The User Interface has options for the weather engine, cloud settings, PTA Integration, and more! Overall, a very nice job on the User Interface!
Well, now lets get onto the stuff you really came here to see! How does REX Sky Force’s 3D clouds compare to other addons such as ASCA, EnvTex, and even TD4 + Soft Clouds? Well, I am happy to report that the 3D clouds in Sky Force have really put it in a class of it’s own. That, combined with the dynamic cloud types makes it far superior to any of the addons listed previously. Even though Active Sky Cloud Art has the same function of placing dynamic clouds, Sky Force 3D does a much better job and has much better looking clouds. With both REX’s weather engine and Active Sky, Sky Force 3D was able to replicate the cloud coverage near Dulles pretty accurately.
My only complaint about the cloud models is the cumulonimbus clouds. Sky Force seems to use the same model for cumulonimbus clouds which looks very boring and plain. In real life, cumulonimbus clouds look like huge puffy cumulus clouds which grow and develop. Despite this, REX has done an extremely good job with their cloud models and textures!
REX ships with it’s own package of environment textures but can also be used in conjunction with other programs such as 3rd party sky textures and EnvTex. I think REX does a better job with environment textures in general, but not much in that respect has changed from Texture Direct 4. Sky Force has lost items such as taxiway and runway markings, terminal textures, and etc that they moved over to their Worldwide Airports package. However, if you want to still have your old water textures and other stuff, you will still need to use Texture Direct 4.
Let’s move onto the sky textures though, and man have they done a good job! The 10 day cycle option allows for a different experience each day! This, combined with the fact that the sky textures look very realistic, allows Sky Force 3D to trump the competitors.
One thing I will say though, is that I don’t like the sun textures. It could be just me, but I prefer the sun mod from the Ultimate Realism Package since it looks more natural as opposed to cinematic. However, this is really just down to preference, and you can always disable the sun mod in the Sky Force settings.
Now weather has two aspects to it: The visual and the physical. Weather engines need to be able to replicate how the weather looks by injecting clouds and modifying visibility. This not only makes it look good, but makes it look realistic. Weather engines also need to be able to inject turbulence, wind, and other performance affecting variables to make the weather feel real. This includes windshear, winds aloft, etc. So, how does REX Sky Force 3D compare to the leading competitor: Active Sky?
Visual Weather Injection
REX takes this at lower altitudes. It’s ability to make seamless overcast skies as well as perfect fog puts it way ahead of Active Sky for P3D v4 (ASP4)’s inability to put the correct clouds into the simulator. SF3D also has control over the clouds and is able to dynamically inject different types of clouds where it needs to, making the weather look truly realistic. Active Sky falls behind in this respect, and although it comes closer with ASCA integration, it still doesn’t match up with Sky Force 3D.
However, and this is a big one: Sky Force 3D is sometimes not as accurate as ASP4. This is immediately apparent when looking at the following pictures at KJFK, KIAD, and EHAM. When you compare the images and look at the METAR reports, you immediately see a problem.
KIAD METAR: KIAD 171552Z 33015KT 10SM SCT060 BKN090 M06/M12 A3042 RMK AO2 SLP302 T10561122 (10mi Visibility, 6000AGL Scattered, 9000AGL Broken)
KJFK METAR: KJFK 171626Z 32009KT 2SM -SN BR BKN007 OVC025 02/01 A3025 RMK AO2 SFC VIS 3 P0001 T00170011 (2mi Visibility, 700AGL Broken, 2500AGL Overcast, Light Snow, Mist)
EHAM METAR: EHAM 171625Z 27021KT 9999 FEW030 05/01 Q1003 NOSIG (Fair Weather with a few clouds at 3000AGL)
You can see that ASP4 is sometimes able to render weather more accurately than Sky Force, especially when looking at Kennedy. Despite this, visibility in real life does vary quite frequently, and I will have to say that in most of those pictures, Sky Force 3D does look better than ASP4. So the winner of the low level cloud weather generation goes to Sky Force 3D.
But if you were looking at those pictures, you would’ve noticed a problem at higher altitudes. Sky Force 3D seems to just copy and paste it’s clouds. This makes the overcast skies look really bad from cruising altitude, and for this main reason, Active Sky takes the prize here.
Physical Weather Injection
Although looks may be nice, it’s how the weather affects the airplane that matters most. And here, ASP4 does a better job than Sky Force 3D. It’s simulation of turbulence and stormy weather puts it above that of Sky Force. Additionally, ASP4 is required for many add-on aircraft for weather radars and windshear alert systems, which makes ASP4 the clear winner.
Conclusion on Weather
If you are someone who strives for maximum realism, I would recommend turning off the Sky Force 3D weather engine and using Active Sky instead. However, if you are someone who likes visuals, then REX Sky Force provides much better graphics than ASP4.
There’s not really much to say here other than the performance hit is minimal. In overcast conditions REX tends to perform better than Active Sky, but the cloud models and textures themselves don’t have much of an impact. REX also includes a performance tuner which allows you to customize Sky Force for your computer.
REX has truly done an amazing job revamping the way clouds are depicted in P3D. Although the cost is a bit high, it is worth every penny for the major cloud overhaul that you get. They have optimized the performance, and made weather look beautiful. Although the weather engine is lacking, I am sure that REX will release Service Packs and updates to remedy various issues. In the mean time, the best combination is to use Sky Force 3D for cloud models and textures, while using Active Sky for the weather engine.
In true tradition, I think that REX Sky Force 3D is a must-have for anyone using FSX or P3D, and it deserves an ADX rating of 4.5 stars!