Microsoft Flight Simulator Preview: Pure, unalloyed joy

Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator feels really good and is happy to meet you where you are, regardless of whether you’re a long-time fan of the series or a complete aviation novice, and that’s all you need to know. End of preview? No? I’ve still got another 1700 words to fill? Okay, no, no it’s fine, I was just trying to get out of here and get back to playing it. I can stick around.

It’s been a while since I’ve played a game and felt real joy. Like actual, moment-to-moment, shot-of-serotonin joy. That’s what the new 2020 version of Microsoft Flight Simulator has given me. The way it weaves its numerous systems together to form a nearly photorealistic aerial view of the entire world is pretty astounding.

I had a lot of questions heading into this preview: Could it ever hope to live up to the majesty of that E3 reveal trailer? Can you really locate your own house as you fly over? How does it fill in the world and how does it turn that data into photorealistic countryside? Finally, does it stand a chance of bridging the gap between the hardcore simmer crowd and a more casual, traditionally “gamer” audience?

So I’m going to devote most of this preview talking about those things.

So does it live up to the majesty of that E3 reveal trailer or what?

Yes, for the most part. That original trailer was a masterfully produced little snippet of marketing that, as most E3 trailer do, promised the world. What developer Asobo are delivering is only slightly less grand in scope but every bit as ambitious as the trailer made it seem. Where we see truly striking, photorealistic imagery in the trailer, promising all sorts of things like gorgeous ocean reefs and herds of giraffe running across the Savannah, the reality is only a little different.

When you’re down on the ground, which will only be for a short time, let’s be honest, the curtain on how the game performs its neat visual tricks is pulled back a little. Textures tend to be a bit muddy, and a bit low-fi on the ground. Buildings are blocky, as they’ve ever been, and models for ground staff are fine, if a little stiff. You may catch sight of surrounding geography, hills and mountains, from your position on the runway and they may seem a little drab at first. It’s only once you take off that things crystallise a little and the game takes on its more photorealistic look.

Depending on the time of day you choose to fly, the game’s look shifts pretty dramatically. Flying at noon on a clear day produces flat, pale lighting but does allow you to see the surrounding landscape quite clearly. Heading out at dawn is exceedingly pretty but it’s the Golden Hour, around 5 or 6pm in Australia, that really impresses. The sky turns a brilliant combination of firey yellows, reds and purples, the light gleaming off buildings and bodies of water. Doing the short run from Brisbane International to the Gold Coast as the sun went down in real time was utterly spectacular.

Pair this with flying over a truly massive city, like Sydney or Los Angeles, and you have one of the most jaw-dropping visual moments I’ve ever encountered in a video game. When the light hits just right and the map data comes together, a kind of alchemy occurs where the line between what is real and what has been created by a computer starts to blend. Flying over Downtown LA at dusk was just like being there. Truly remarkable.

 

Can I really see my house from up there? Is it really that detailed?

The answer is: maybe, depending on where you live. I was able to fly directly over my hometown of Kingscliff in far north New South Wales and could quite easily pick out individual streets, including the one I grew up on. On the second pass, I did indeed spot a house right where my mother’s home would be. There was the park right across the road, the football fields down the street and the beach a short walk away. Was the roof the right colour? Was it the right shape? Honestly, no, it wasn’t. But the AI was able to piece the broad strokes together into something I could recognise.

In areas that are more curated, more densely populated urban centres, I imagine people won’t have much trouble tracking down their own abodes.

 

So how does it create this detailed world?

It does this through the combination of artificial intelligence and a clever repurposing of real-world Bing Maps data and satellite imagery. This effectively allows it to stitch together a fairly accurate map of the real world within your view in real-time. Because the AI only really has top-down satellite and map data to work from, it occasionally has to fill in the gaps. For instance, high security or military buildings are stricken from the landscape and replaced. Military bases near Asobo’s home at the Microsoft Campus in Seattle are replaced with thick forest. Area 51 in the Nevada desert is removed and integrated into the Groom Lake salt flat that it sits against.

Where the AI gets a little squiffier is in telling certain buildings apart. For public areas and overall city maps, the game honestly gets a lot right. I was able to fly around Brisbane, the Gold Coast, my home town of Kingscliff, Melbourne and Sydney and in every area I was able to orient myself via smaller local and suburban landmarks. What it had a harder time discerning was which buildings were high rise apartments and which were not. The buildings the AI routinely got wrong were stadiums, which it would characterise as giant circles of Eastern Bloc style council housing with a huge oval of grass in the middle. Seeing both the MCG and Marvel Stadium turned into council housing was pretty funny indeed. Saw this in other cities too — the Gabba and the SCG get the same treatment.

I also noticed that a lot of landmarks in Australian cities haven’t gone in yet. In Sydney for instance, while the Opera House is in position, the Harbour Bridge is not. Extremely strange to see one and not the other. In fact, it’s mostly bridges that aren’t in yet — the Storey and Gateway Bridges in Brisbane, the Westgate and Bolte Bridges in Melbourne are also reduced to basic, flat black geometry. While most of the Brisbane and Gold Coast skylines appeared to be present, Sydney Tower and several other landmarks were missing. In Melbourne, the entire CBD is TBD. In its place is a stand-in city more representative of Melbourne in the 1980s than the present. I look forward to seeing my town properly added later.

It’s not a big surprise to see that multiple Australian cities are feeling a bit anaemic. We’re at the bottom of the world and likely low on the priority list compared to big-name American and European cities that will doubtless get more hands-on attention.

 

I’ve never played a flight sim before but the trailer looked rad. Should I play this or will I be bored af?

You should definitely play this. Flight Simulator features a wealth of solid, practical tutorials to teach you all the basics of aviation in controlled, consequence-free environments. These tutorials explain every step of the process in clear, concise terms. On top of this, the game features a huge array of playstyle options so that you can tune the level of simulation to your personal tastes. Just want to take off and enjoy seeing the world from above? Set the simulation to Simple and be on your merry way. Ready to hook up your HOTAS setup and lose yourself in a complex sim that is as complex as it is pretty? Asobo has you hardcore simmers covered too.

It takes so much care in ensuring the player understands every last part of each plane and how they work. Hovering your mouse cursor over any screen, switch, level, dial or switch in the cockpit creates a pop up box telling you what exactly what it is. There’s no staring hopelessly at the immutable bank of controls before you — just hover over each one, see what it is and you’ll start to figure them out.

 

Contact tower on 102.55

Microsoft Flight Simulator isn’t that far away now and you’ll be able to marvel at its majesty for yourself before too long. The game is currently only coming to PC at launch, though Asobo tells us that an Xbox version is in development internally. I’m very interested to see how a simulator this complex will transfer to a console, a challenge I’m sure has the team with their hands full. As it stands, Flight Simulator is a beautiful game. It’s the best kind of magic trick, one we don’t get to see very often anymore. It feels like being a gamer in the early 2000’s when ever leap forward in hardware felt like a glimpse into the future. Microsoft Flight Simulator represents a clear generational shift, a huge step up from where the industry sits in the here and now. It is a profound technical achievement and a must-play.

Asobo says they plan for it to be a product with a lifetime of a decade and I believe them. Further, I look forward to playing it every time I’m feeling down or in need of a pick-me-up.

 

Preview conducted with early access provided by the publisher. The author was provided with flight simulator hardware to aid in the creation of this preview.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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