Flight Unlimited III
|Flight Unlimited III|
|Developer(s)||Looking Glass Studios|
|Release date(s)||September 17, 1999|
Flight Unlimited III is a 1999 flight simulator video game developed Looking Glass Studios and published by Electronic Arts. It allows players to pilot reproductions of real-world commercial and civilian aircraft in and around Seattle, Washington. Like Flight Unlimited II, it eschews the aerobatics focus of Flight Unlimited in favor of general aviation. It features ten planes, five of which first appeared in Flight Unlimited II. The player may fly freely or engage in "Challenge" missions, such as thwarting a theft or locating Bigfoot.
Flight Unlimited III began development after the completion of its predecessor in 1997. Roughly half of the Flight Unlimited II team moved to Flight Combat: Thunder Over Europe rather than staying for its sequel, and so the Flight Unlimited III team was in part composed of new hires. Their goal was to build on the foundation of Flight Unlimited II, with more detailed physics and terrain, more planes, and a real-time weather system. Lead designer Peter James described the game's development as a struggle, thanks to a lack of interest from Electronic Arts and from Looking Glass's management. Much of the Flight Unlimited III development team left Looking Glass after the game's completion.
The game was placed in direct competition with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 and Fly!. It failed to capture market share and became one of Looking Glass's biggest commercial flops, with only 20,600 units sold in the United States during 1999. This contributed to the company's closure in May 2000. However, the game was well received by critics. Praise went to its terrain rendering and dynamic weather, and several reviewers lauded its flight physics. Certain critics commented that the physics lacked precision, and that the game's system requirements were extremely high.
Flight Unlimited III is a three-dimensional (3D) flight simulator video game, in which the player pilots virtual reproductions of real-world planes. Players may control ten aircraft: five that first appeared in Flight Unlimited II, and the newly added Lake Turbo Renegade, Stemme S10, Mooney Bravo, Fokker Dr.I and Beechjet 400A. The player flies over nine Western states, with the area around Seattle, Washington rendered in high resolution and the others in lower resolution. The California scenery from Flight Unlimited II may be imported to expand the flying area. The player shares the game's airspace with artificially intelligent (AI) planes. Real-time, interactive air traffic control monitors the player's actions and tries to prevent mid-air collisions. Weather conditions such as cold fronts and thunderstorms develop in real-time, and the player may select which weather to encounter before a flight.
In addition to the default "Quick Flight" mode, the player may play tutorial and "Challenge" missions. The game's tutorial mode features 26 lessons, which demonstrate basic and advanced flying techniques and then allow the player to perform them. Challenge missions test the player's flying ability with objectives such as locating Bigfoot, rescuing a stranded hiker, stopping a theft, and flying through hoops. The game includes the level editor ("FLED") used to develop the game, which allows players to create airports, AI flight paths, and edited landscapes, and to share them online. All of the in-house objects are available for use.
Following the release of Flight Unlimited II in 1997, certain members of that game's team wanted to move on to Flight Unlimited III, while others wanted to create Flight Combat. Looking Glass split the team into two and expanded both with new hires, so that the games could be developed simultaneously. The company then created a customer survey to decide such things as where Flight Unlimited III would take place. In May 1998, it was announced that Flight Unlimited III would be published by Electronic Arts, as part of a multi-title contract that also included System Shock 2. Under the terms of the agreement, Electronic Arts was to be responsible for the marketing and distribution of both products. The contract also stipulated that any advances provided by Electronic Arts were to be paid back from the royalties of both games. The team's goal was to build on the foundation of Flight Unlimited II, and to provide what project leader Tom Sperry called "the true joy and sensation of flight in the most realistic environment available". The company first showed Flight Unlimited III at the MicroWINGS Conference in August 1998, where it was revealed that the game would take place in and around Seattle, because of the varied landscape of Puget Sound. New planes, moving objects on the ground and a real-time, physics-based weather system were discussed as well.
Former flight instructor Peter James, who had worked on Flight Unlimited II, assumed the role of lead designer. He was largely responsible for Flight Unlimited III's lessons, planes and simulated flight instruments, and he co-designed the weather system. At the time, James described his desire to create a flight simulator that filled in the genre's "missing parts". The 3D plane models were created by lead artist Duncan Hsu, a former car modeler at Papyrus Design Group. The flight physics were coded by Kevin Wasserman and involve real-time calculations of force vectors, such as those acting against a plane's yaw, pitch and roll. This system was more advanced than that of Flight Unlimited II, which was also based on force calculations. Kemal Amarasingham recorded the sound effects for the planes, which he said involved "risking his life" by standing near jet engines and under wings. The game's terrain textures were made with satellite images rendered at four square meters per pixel, the highest resolution used in a flight simulator up to that time. Karen Wolff designed the terrain by combining large topographic maps into a "mosaic", which recreated the elevations and depressions of the Seattle area. The satellite imagery was layered over the resulting polygonal mesh. The 3D objects that move across the terrain were created by Yoosun Cho, who used numerous photography books for inspiration. The object editor allowed her to set these objects to "move once along the path, back and forth or cycle".
Visiting Looking Glass during the game's development, Dan Linton of Flightsim.com praised the team management of Tom Sperry, producer Sandra Smith and vice president of marketing Michael Malizola. He wrote that they employed "suggestion and encouragement" instead of "demands", and he believed that their work was in large part responsible for the game "setting a new standard in the industry". Peter James later accused the wider company's management of being lukewarm toward Flight Unlimited III, because their biggest sellers were action-oriented games like Thief: The Dark Project. He claimed that their lack of interest gradually turned the optimistic team into a "grumbling group of depressed and sometimes angry [people]". Although he, Smith and Perry petitioned the company's managers to plan for future add-ons and third-party development on the game, James claimed that they ignored them. His concept work for Flight Unlimited IV was shelved to wait for Flight Unlimited III's sales figures, which, according to James, the company's management believed had to beat those of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 to warrant a sequel. James claimed that this was "foolish", in particular because he thought that the game was undermarketed by Electronic Arts, as a result of that company's waning interest in the genre. He believed that Flight Unlimited III's marketing manager had "great plans" but that his "hands seem[ed] tied as well".
Flight Unlimited III's official site was opened in March 1999, and the game was shown alongside Flight Combat: Thunder Over Europe at E3 in May. Tal Blevins of IGN wrote that the game had "come a long way" since he had seen it earlier in the year, and that it was almost complete, with the team finalizing the real-time weather system. Full Throttle noted the game's "impressive clouds" and "slick looking" HUD, while MicroWINGS praised the use of 16-bit color and the high resolution of the terrain textures. Flight Unlimited III was shown again at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in July, at which point James said that the game was "90% done and beta testing was very well into its final stages". He wrote that the public reaction was "great", which energized the team for a short time. The game went gold that August, nine months behind schedule. James wrote that the team celebrated with a small dinner party, and that "the next few days were spent finding out how many people [were] quitting." He left after the game's completion to join Flightsim.com. The game was released on September 17, 1999.
Flight Unlimited III was placed in direct competition with flight simulators such as Fly! and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000. The game failed to capture market share and became one of Looking Glass's biggest commercial flops, with sales around 20,000 copies in the United States during 1999. Together with the costly development of Flight Combat, the game's low sales used up Looking Glass's earnings from Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2, which had helped them recover from the failures of British Open Championship Golf and Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri. This contributed to the company's bankruptcy and closure in May 2000. However, the game was positively received by critics, with an aggregate review score of 88.50% on GameRankings.
Josh Nolan of Computer Gaming World wrote, "FU3 is experience-oriented: it's user-friendly, graphically glamorous, and lots of fun." While he praised its visuals and air traffic control, he considered the game to be simpler than Flight Simulator 2000, because of its less detailed lessons, interfaces and flight physics. Writing for Computer Games Magazine, Denny Atkin stated that the use of turbulence "really sets FU3 apart from the competition", and that the game's simulation of air traffic was "like no other sim". He praised its graphics and dynamic weather, and he found the flight physics "good" in general but "overly gentle" for aerobatic maneuvers. He concluded, "It's not only an excellent simulation of general aviation flying, [...] it's even a good game." PC Gamer UK's Dean Evans wrote that the game had "a poetic grandeur", as well as an "astonishing attention to detail" greater than that of its predecessors. He praised its flight lessons and weather, and he considered the graphics to be "unbelievably delicious". Evans summarized the game as "the most breathtaking flying experience you can get for a PC." 
Simon Bradley of PC Zone wrote, "FUIII has atmosphere in a way that MS Combat Flight Sim can't even dream of." He praised its graphics, flight physics, and detailed flight environment. However, he complained of "unflyably slow frame rates" and warned that the game could not be played on older computers. Tony Lopez of GameSpot called the game's environmental modeling "simply breathtaking" and noted that elevations were rendered more smoothly than in Fly! or Microsoft Flight Simulator. He wrote that the game's flight physics and weather simulation were superior to those of any other flight simulator, and that the "powerful, easy-to-use" FLED editing tool could popularize the game. IGN writer Marc Saltzman commented that the game features "absolutely stunning terrain at all altitudes, realistic weather and lighting effects, and highly-detailed planes". Saltzman praised Flight Unlimited III's "incredibly accurate" physics but remarked that the game's frame rate was "noticeably slower" than that of its rivals.
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