Microsoft Flight Simulator is the surprise hit of 2020.
A genre usually the sole domain of the dedicated enthusiast, flight simulators are renowned for technical details over their visual prowess. Compared to contemporary computer games, flight simulators usually require a fair bit of suspension of disbelieve to get around the lackluster graphics. Previous versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator were effectively built upon the same engine going back some 20 years.
The new Microsoft Flight Simulator seems to have been completely overhauled for a new audience that consists of everyone from the casual gamer to the hardcore flight simmer. It’s a marvel of gaming tech and the surprising first glimpse of what a next-gen game should look like.
In a word, Microsoft Flight Simulator is breathtaking. The game utilises high-end technology developers for far more serious applications and brings them together to create an incredible digital twin of our planet earth.
Using advanced mapping technology and AI, the topography, textures and even a decent 3D representation of buildings can be stitched together. Rather than have us fill our hard drives with data, the landscapes are streamed to our PCs as required. Add to this real-world weather, air traffic and very realistic lighting to finish things off and you have the most impressive consumer flight simulator ever published.
The game is scaled to suit the type of player. If you just want to enjoy visiting faraway places (places made even further away of late), the game’s simplified controls will get you there. If, however you want to experience a nail-biting cross-wind landing in a 747, you can do that as well.
The game has probably more features under the hood than most players will actually use. All the aircraft cockpits are interactive. Radios can be tuned, both to comms channels and VORs etc. for the nav radios.
You can, very easily, play the game using just an Xbox One controller, and yet have not enough buttons on a HOTAS flight stick. This is testament to the game’s wide appeal and depth of simulation settings.
So, I’ve been playing Microsoft Flight Simulator for a few weeks now. Post-launch, I’ve even picked up some of the DLC packs, granting me access to an improved London Skyline and a very detailed London City airport.
To be honest, both London, itself, and the London City Airport should have been sorted out in the game, itself, considering the iconic nature of the city. But, when you think, that the developers added a nice model of Sydney Oprah house, but left out the Harbour Bridge, it’s not so surprising. And poor old Auckland doesn’t have a Skytower or a proper Harbour Bridge.
I did, however, get a couple of free fixes that added both the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Tower into the scenery. As with the previous versions of MSFS, it’ll be third-party and freeware addons that really propel it. Never has a flight sim looks so good and offer such a robust platform for others to build upon.
The game comes in three flavours each offering a bit more content than the last. All three allow players to fly anywhere in the world using photoreal landscapes and buildings. The more you pay, however, the more planes and detailed airports you get. Casual users will probably be satisfied with the basic version, whilst enthusiasts may want to go all the way with the Premium Deluxe version.
After a lengthy download (the game weighs in at around 100GB), getting into the air is easy. Newcomers may want to start with the training sessions that mimic actual flying lessons and serve as an introduction to the controls. There are also set challenges pitting players against difficult runways and inclement weather to see if they can get the plane on the ground in one piece.
The most fun, however, comes from picking your departing airport, selecting the time of day and weather, choosing your plane – from a single engine Cessna 152 to an Airbus 380 and just flying. You can opt to experience real world time and weather, or your own custom settings. You can choose if you want to join the global virtual pilots in a shared world or fly alone.
Multiplayer is easy and automatic. You can choose to fly with friends, but the game automatically creates an “instance” with a number of pilots flying in a similar area joining you. I took a sightseeing flight from Orlando to Disneyworld and along the way was join by a number of other players with the same idea to visit the happiest place on Earth. The same thing happened on a trip to Niagara Falls.
The breathtaking atmospheric effects make for some dramatically lit visuals that are effectively photo-real. The game has a wealth of camera setting that can be used to pause the game and set it up to capture images that could pass for the real thing. I’ve spent hours just framing and taking in-game photos.
Running the game on a system far in excess of the recommended specs- Core i9 10900K, 32GB RAM and an RTX 2080 Ti – occasionally the machine still struggled a bit. Whilst I had the settings graphics turned up, things like ambient vehicles and air traffic were nowhere near maxed out. This is game that scales well beyond today’s PC performance.
My only real disappointment with the game is the lack of any scripted missions- something that I hope comes later. I enjoyed the missions in the previous version, FSX, like the VIP flight over Edwards Airforce Base with the surprise shuttle landing at the end and the Janet flight from Las Vegas to Area 51. Still, there’s more than enough in the package to be getting on with for now.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a robust platform that exceeds expectations. A few years ago, no one would have thought that Microsoft would invest so heavily in what has previously been just a niche genre. This is a game that blows all the competition out of the water. It’s a technological marvel that will form the basis of a versatile and scalable flight simulator for years to come.
Released: August 2020
Platforms: Xbox One, PC (Windows 10)
Developer: Asobo Studio