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Game review: Microsoft Flight Simulator (PC)

19 Aug 2020

After a fourteen-year hiatus, Microsoft Flight Simulator is back. This is no re-heat of a previous iteration, this is a totally new sim, for a new generation of virtual pilots.

With the release of the new 2020 edition of Microsoft Flight Simulator, simmers no longer need to make excuses for, or accept, nasty-looking flight sims. Every flight sim fan has done it, we all overlock outdated graphics, instead celebrating the attention to detail that developers have put into our favourite simulators. Who cares that the buildings look like cereal boxes glue to a paper mâché landscape? We learn to accept shonky visuals and appreciate the technical aspects of the simulation.

Microsoft, and their developer Asobo, have pulled out all the stops delivering a flight simulator experience that looks truly breath-taking. But don’t for one moment think that they have sacrificed authenticity and attention to detail in making a beautiful-looking game with broad appeal. 

Probably the most important aspect of this new Microsoft Flight Simulator is its scalability. At its heart, it is a complex, fully-featured flight simulator. It is detailed enough to satisfy all but the most critical flight sim fans. At the same time, it is very accessible to gamers that just want to have a bit of fun without following laborious procedures and checklists. 

Microsoft Flight Simulator is all things to all sorts of people. It doesn’t matter if you want to spent 15 minutes taxiing an Airbus A380 from the terminal to the runway, following all the right radio calls etc. Or you can just start on the runway, ready for take-off, open the throttle, and pull back on the yoke and head into the clouds. The choice is yours.

The game comes in three flavours. The only difference between the Standard Edition, the Deluxe Edition and the Deluxe Premium Edition is the number of handcrafted airports and planes included in the packages. The Deluxe and Deluxe Premium add five and ten of each, respectively. Hardcore simmers may want to go straight for the Deluxe Premium, whereas casual players may want to pick up the standard edition.

No matter what version you pick, there’s a good range of aircraft from bi-planes to jumbo jets. Whether you want to fly a 747, a Citation or a Cessna 150, there’s a plane for you. Each one has a unique flight model and fully functional cockpit instrumentation.  

The game eases players into the process of flying a plane quite delicately. As much as you might want to fly a 747 over your house, new pilots should start with the training sessions highlighted on the welcome page. The training, which is hands-on like real flying lessons, takes you through all the essentials of flying a plane and controlling the simulator. It’s a lot of fun and not at all dull. You also get your first look at the incredible visuals of the game. 

It's worth noting that to get the best out of Microsoft Flight Simulator, you really want to be using a proper joystick. I fly a lot of flight sims, so I invested in a Saitek X52 Pro HOTAS (hands on throttle-and-stick) setup. This give me plenty of buttons and a lot of control over the aircraft. The game supports an Xbox One controller, which isn’t too bad, as well as keyboard and mouse. You can actually use your mouse to move the cursor to physically switch the switches. 

As I write this, I’m reluctant to refer to Microsoft Flight Simulator as a game, as it is so much more. For many, though, it will be a game. It certainly can be played as a game; more so, perhaps than previous iterations due to cutting edge visuals and general accessibility. So, for ease of this review I’ll, very respectfully, refer to it as a game.

From the welcome screen players can choose to dive right in, picking a plane, a random location, or one of thousands of airports all over the world. You can start using the actual time, real world aircraft and weather, or customise your flight time, date and weather conditions. It’s all pretty intuitive. 

Naturally, the live real-world features require an Internet connection. Whilst offline play is available, the game is designed with a permanent, and preferably unmetered, Internet connection in mind. 

The game is huge, the basic files taking up 150-200GB, but the actual topographical data is accessed, as required, from Microsoft’s Azure cloud servers. You can set up the game to download a cache of an area for offline play, but this is not really the way to do it. You really need to be connected to the Internet. You can set caps on the data download and monitor Internet use via the settings. You have to appreciate that photoreal scenery comes at a cost: your Internet bandwidth. And photoreal, it certainly is. 

The developers have leveraged off of the technological leaps since 2006’s Flight Simulator X. They’ve incorporated cutting-end 3D graphics, digital mapping, LIDAR surveys, photogrammetry, broadband speeds and cloud computing and put them all into Microsoft Flight Simulator.

In building the simulator from the ground up, we have ended up with the first truly next-generation gaming and flight simulation experience. The game engine’s lighting and environmental effects have been paired with realistic topography, textured with actual aerial photography. 3D cities, built using photogrammetry, look real. Even areas build using generic models look fantastic. AI has been used to populate otherwise barren areas, accurately, with buildings and trees based on aerial photography.

The game allows players to fly anywhere on Earth, at any time of the day in the weather conditions of their choosing. You can flight in the midday summer sun in a clear sky, or battle against the elements in gale force winds, low cloud, zero visibility, snow and temperatures so cold they ice up your windows (they actually do, as well).

There are thousands of airports to fly out from. From the engineered splendour of LAX to treacherous landing strips halfway up the Andes. Even the most basic airports look realistic.  
It’s absolutely amazing.

Add in the superbly modelled aircraft, all with very high-fidelity, working, interactive cockpits and you have the definitive consumer flight simulation experience. They really have pulled out all the stops.

Also, you are not alone in the skies. As well as scheduled flights, either real-time or AI controlled, players can share airspace with other virtual pilots. You can opt to play with random people, friends or on your own. An air race among friends is nothing short of exhilarating. 

Players wanting a bit more structure to their experience, rather than randomly picking a location, can select an activity. These are split into two categories: Landing challenges and Bush trips. These challenge the player to successfully land on tricky runways or during treacherous conditions and partake in long distance trips between isolated locations. Flashy visuals, fancy weather and AI assistance aside, the game caters for virtual pilots wanting a full-on flight sim experience.

I’d say that 90% of the game’s features will be overlooked by most. Whilst the game allows you to get in a jumbo and just fly off with all the assists turned on, it can be set up as a very serious, uncompromising flight simulator.

Experienced simmers will be right at home interacting with air traffic control, setting navigation radios to VOR frequencies and flying IFR (instrument flight rules). You can file flight plans, set the autopilot and fly from Sydney to LA, terminal to terminal, in real time, if you want (you can also speed up time to avoid the wait). The sky is, quite literally, the limit.  

I’ve no idea how to fly an A380, but, whilst I’m not a licenced pilot, I’ve taken a Cessna 152 out a few times, under instruction. The single-engine plane is easy to fly compared to most, that’s why it is the most popular trainer in the world. I’m a bit rusty, but I was able to follow the drills and navigation exercises from my pilot training workbook in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

The game isn’t perfect, but it’s not far off. The most notable absence is the lack of any helicopters in the game. To be fair, though, I’ve found the choppers in previous releases to be neigh-on impossible to fly, so perhaps the devs are doing us all a favour. Another possibility is that even though the cityscapes look pretty amazing from 1000 feet, the technique used to recreate them looks pretty rough up-close. The last thing Microsoft probably wants right now is a load of screenshots from a helicopter showing potato buildings. Hopefully, we will see choppers later on.

There is a marketplace in the game were pilots can purchase the additional content included in the Deluxe and Premium Deluxe packs. I’d imagine that 3rd-party developers will also be able to sell upgrades and mods here, as well. If Microsoft doesn’t add helicopters, I expect an enterprising modder to add them! 

I played the game using a Windows Store copy supplied to me for review purposes by Microsoft. The initial client download was only 1GB, but with a content update of 100GB. By default, the client software wanted to install all this downloaded data on my C: drive, which would have just about filled it up. 

It didn’t help that I lost my default setting for my flight stick, which was annoying, as I had to manually re-enter the controls. I had no idea where the configuration files are stored as, with the rather secretive way Windows Store games install, the program files are not as accessible as in previous versions of Flight Simulator

The only real disappointment that I have with Microsoft Flight Simulator is the lack of virtual reality support at launch. Anyone that’s used sims like Digital Combat Simulator or X-Plane 11 in VR will be very aware of the incredible realism that VR brings to flight sims. Apparently, it is planned but I can see it being, especially the Windows Store version, Windows Mixed Reality focused as opposed to the move commonly used SteamVR. 

Very minor niggles aside, Microsoft Flight Simulator is absolutely breathtaking. It’s also a technical achievement like none other.  For a flight sim to look as good, and be as feature-rich, out of the box, is fantastic. Whilst a complete experience in its own right, it’s also a very strong foundation for 3rd-party developers and modders to enhance and expand.

If you’ve never tried a flight simulator before, now’s your chance with this very accessible game. If you are a serious simmer, Microsoft Flight Simulator is just about everything you could wish for.

Verdict: 9/10