In late 2016, the Drone Racing League released their own FPV simulator.  At the low price of free, and with a lineup of tracks from the 2016 DRL season, this is a hard deal to pass up!  So, how well does the DRL Simulator match up to other sims on the market?  Let’s find out!

Note: DRL Simulator is still in beta, so aspects of the game are still being worked on and very well may change. We will work to keep this review up to date as new content is released.  Be sure to check back for more information later!

 

DRL Simulator initial impressions

Before stepping up to the race line, we need to jump through a few hoops to get everything setup.  First, download the sim from DRL’s site.  After getting everything installed, you will need to create a DRL account to use the sim.  While I am sure the official reasoning is for in-game stat tracking (more on that in a second), I am sure the unofficial reason is to subscribe to the DRL mailing list for future events.  Part of the cost of a free sim I suppose – use a spam friendly email as desired.

First thing I noticed on initial startup is how much polish has been given to keeping the DRL aesthetics very similar to the video content.  The DRL dev team did a great job making everything feel very professional and consistent within the simulator.  Similarly, their help guide is well written and up to date.

DRL ran a competition for a spot on the 2017 series using their sim.

Transmitter binding was easy, as we’ll discuss in the next section.  After testing my transmitter, I booted up the new “Gates of Hell” level and got flying.

Wow, this level is gigantic!  Seriously, here is a clip of a quick tour around “Gates of Hell” – sped up to capture the different areas.

This feels like three levels in one!  There are a ton of caves, tunnels, and random areas to explore.  Awesome if you are into the freestyle exploration style of flying!

How does it fly?

Speaking of flying, let’s talk a bit about the feeling of flight.  I hate talking about flight physics in sims, especially using the word “feeling”, as there are so many variables happening behind the scenes.  However, I would be remiss to not mention how the flying felt within a sim that is supposed to replicate real flying.

I could pull off stunts in the sim that I would not be able to perform in real life.  That was an instant red flag that something was a bit off.  I see “floaty” get tossed around quite a bit, but I think a better description here is “arcadey”.  DRL simulator feels more like an FPV game than a true sim.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!  I had a blast flying around and trying new tricks.  Similarly, the race tracks are challenging and use the full 3D space well, and put your stick control to the test.  However, I do feel that a beginner might feel a false sense of skill sink in much earlier than other sims.  It is very easy to pull off complex rolls, dives, and loops in freestyle that are much more difficult to do in reality.  Thus, I did mess with the freestyle physics to get things closer to what I experience when flying.

A DRL fan’s dream

Outside of the massive “Gates of Hell” level, most of the other maps are track replicas from the DRL 2016 season.  If you are a fan of the series, you will absolutely get a kick out of flying these tracks.  In my opinion, the “Miami Lights” level is a true standout and matches up to the original course really well!

I will say on some of the more vertical tracks, the race lines can get very distracting.  I do wish there was a way to modify the track lines, as I found myself following the wrong path and hitting incorrect gates way too often

The looping blue lines can get very confusing on certain levels when you are going quick!

 

The replay feature and leaderboard

One unique aspect of the DRL simulator is the ability to watch replays from players around the world.  You can browse the leaderboard for pilots or tracks and watch replays of the best times.  Even better, the replay overlays the pilot’s transmitter movements.  I think this is a great resource for beginners starting out to see how pilots control their drone and navigate through these twisty courses.

Check out this crazy run by Robogenesis, one of the best pilots on the global leaderboard.

I really dig features like this, as it can help teach the correct lines for a track, show stick movements and how they translate on screen, and completely humble you.  Good stuff!

 

Control Options

DRL Simulator’s transmitter binding couldn’t be easier.  I was pleasantly surprised at how I could setup multiple transmitters without issue.

Simply select the transmitter type and follow the on-screen prompts.  I was able to setup Futaba and Taranis binds in less than a minute.

A ton of controller presets are available to use!

Simple binding initialization!

No setting custom axes. DRL saw each transmitter axes on everything we threw at it no problem!

However, do pay attention to the end screen.  If you need to invert axes on your transmitter (such as with Futaba setups), you must do it here.  Unfortunately, there is no apparent option for fine tuning your transmitter binding after you exit the setup.  If you run into issues, delete, and create another transmitter build if you want to change anything.  Sloppy, but 90% of the way there for facilitating a great binding process!

 

DRL Simulator Levels

DRL simulator offers seven levels, and we have to say we are impressed at the scope of some of these maps!  The ‘Gates of Hell’ map is one of the largest, most exploration friendly levels we have seen in an FPV simulator to date.  Most of the other tracks are recreations of the different “levels” the pilots in the 2016 series competed on.

It may be a bit confusing to new users, but you need to download additional levels before they are available to fly.  To do so, select ‘Maps’ in the main menu and press the download arrow on any map you want to download.  A little cumbersome, but likely done to keep the base install footprint smaller.

Track Picture Track Name Summary
  Gates of Hell A massive cityscape littered with warehouses, shipyard, skyscrapers and more.  There are tunnels and subways to explore, as well as a variety of race layouts.
  Miami Lights A faithful recreation of the classic DRL stadium track.  Rip through a huge football stadium and see how you stack up against the original YouTube race.
  L.A. Pocalypse Race through a destroyed underground L.A. tunnel system.  Tight quarters that require a significant deal of throttle control!
  Project Manhattan Rip through the interior of a multilevel office building!  Lots of walkway gaps and tight turns!
  Ohio Crash Site A tight race through an abandoned warehouse.  Lots of small doors, beams to dodge, and a crashed UFO to fly through!
  Championship See how you compare to the best on this recreation of the 2016 DRL championship course!
  DRL Sandbox A blueprint level with scattered assets from the other tracks.  A large level with some great freestyle spots

 

 

Possible improvements for DRL Simulator

While DRL does a lot of things right, there are a few areas that could be improved:

Flight physics don’t feel quite locked in

The bane of all simulators – amateur reviewers calling out the physics.  In this case though, DRL Simulator flight definitely feels very “arcadey” compared to near everything else we have tried out.  Many tricks and rolls feel all too easy to pull off in DRL compared to real life.

Similarly, crash detection is very hit or miss.  While frontal crashes register with relative accuracy, we found it very easy to pinball off the walls from the sides without causing a crash.  This isn’t a huge deal for experienced pilots looking to have a bit of fun or test out new tricks, but for new pilots looking to learn, it might give a false sense of skill early on.

Multiplayer games are hard to find

Similar to early revisions of Liftoff, multiplayer games are very hard to find.  We tried multiple times to look for lobbies to join, but couldn’t find anything.  We hoped to see a budding race community within the biggest name in the sport, but were disappointed to find the multiplayer scene empty.

This was the only screen we saw when looking for multiplayer games.

We loved the amount of customization available for setting up multiplayer games: you can create race or freestyle lobbies, choose visibility, number of players, etc.  However, there were never any lobbies available to join, and we never saw anyone join our game when we hosted.  Bummer.

We can’t really say, “make multiplayer better,” but we do think it would be nice if DRL tried to grow the multiplayer scene.  We hoped to at least find a few people playing, but again, found nothing.  It would be cool if DRL tried to create some event weekends, or publicize the multiplayer a bit better.  Flying with other pilots is always fun, and it is a shame such a great feature feels underutilized.

Recently, DRL announced Drone Racing League: High Voltage for Steam.  This may eventually help multiplayer issues, allowing the DRL team to take advantage of the large Steam community.

Race restart / reset needs a little love

For the most part, DRL has a very easy to use and well laid out user interface.  However, there are a few odds and ends we would like to see cleaned up or customizable.  Most of these changes relate to the aftermath of crashing.

Most frontal collisions will start a slow-motion cinematic of your quad falling into pieces.  While this is fun to watch the first few times, repeat viewings can get tedious.  The sequence of watching the crash, going to a results page, and restarting the race again is a bit frustrating.  I would be nice to have an option to auto restart a race after a crash rather than having additional downtime.  In our experience, pushing the reset / restart button did nothing to skip this.

For non-quad destroying crashes, such as flipping upside down or pinging off a wall, you can easily restart from the last checkpoint (or point of crash in freestyle).  Great!  However, this system is rough at best.  It seems to start you from the location where you passed through the checkpoint, rather than on the ground.  This can make for some interesting restarts where you hit the reset button and try and throttle up before your quadcopter crashes.

Workable after most crashes, but some resets required a full level restart.

 

Overall thoughts

DRL Simulator offers a huge amount of content at an unbeatable price.  This free FPV simulator has an amazing assortment of levels ranging from explorable cities to familiar DRL tracks.  Additional features such as leaderboard and personal race replay with transmitter overlay are great for new pilots looking to watch and learn from seasoned pilots.

However, we found the flight physics very different from most other simulators on the market.  Similarly, crash detection is sketchy, and may give beginner pilots a false sense of skill during the early stages of learning.  Multiplayer lobbies are nowhere to be found, and it will be up to you to organize your own sessions with friends.  Finally, race and crash restart is cumbersome and can be slow.

If you are looking for a graphically polished simulator at zero cost, give DRL simulator a shot.  Exploration of the “Gates of Hell” level alone will entertain most pilots for a few hours, and the “Miami Lights” course is fun to run after watching the original YouTube race.   For more experienced pilots, we do recommend customizing the physics to your liking in non-competitive modes.  For beginners, we recommend running the tutorials and watching some replays of leaderboard pilots for great lessons on stick control.

 

Quick Stats

Price: Free

Levels: 7, with multiple race layouts and start points in most maps.

Transmitter binding difficulty:  Extremely easy.  We used three different transmitters with no issues.  Re-customizing controls is a little sloppy and requires running the binding process again.

Multiplayer: Yes, but we were unable to find any active games.

Recommended for:  Fans of DRL wanting to race replica courses.  Seasoned pilots looking to hone their skills and aren’t afraid to adjust the settings to their liking.  Beginners looking to watch replays from amazing pilots.  Pilots that want to explore the nooks and crannies of huge maps.

Props:  Free.  Great assortment of levels that are fun for exploring or reliving past DRL races.  Easy transmitter binding.  Leaderboards and excellent replay feature for watching / reviewing past races.

Slops:  Arcade like feel to flight – experienced pilots might feel the physics don’t quite match real life.  Crash detection and reset features need work.  Multiplayer lobbies nowhere to be found.  Internet connection required for play.  Race lines can be hectic and confusing to follow.

 

Looking for more FPV simulators to hone your skills?  To help you out, you can check out our comprehensive list of FPV simulators here.

 

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