Microsoft Flight Simulator Review: Wings of liberty

Flight Simulator

I knew from the first that Microsoft Flight Simulator was something special. More than just a graphical showpiece, it had a clear goal in mind — to instill the joy and wonder of flight in anyone who decides to install it. It worked. From the earliest trailers, it captured the industry’s attention, an industry that has never particularly cared for flight simulations. Racing sims get a lot of play. European job sims like Farming Simulator and Truck Driver have come into their own as relaxing, turn-your-brain-off wind-down games. Despite a large and dedicated community, the humble flight sim has been left out in the cold for a long time, with only a handful of independent devs picking up the mantle. Now, thanks to Asobo Studios, the biggest name in flight sims has returned.

A momentary intrusion of real life

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to briefly talk about my own relationship with flight sims. This will help you understand the position I’m basing my review on.

I was in my late twenties when I began to develop a fear of flying. I don’t remember when it began, but it grew quickly. I was fine with takeoff, and being in the air. What freaked me out was landing. The fact that I was sitting in one of the safest, most over-engineered objects on earth didn’t enter into it. Nothing about landing felt right — a giant steel tube sinking out of the sky onto the hard, hard ground at 200 kilometers an hour put some sector of my reptile brain on high alert. A fight or flight response is useless on a plane. All I could do was grip the seat in front of me, sweaty and white-knuckled. I learned how to quietly suffer through the panic attack so as not to alarm the passengers sat next to me. This was happening every single time I flew.

Flying is a significant component in my work as a games writer. In the Before Times, prior to the pandemic, I was flying a lot. Trips to Sydney for game previews and media opportunities were very common. I couldn’t be suffering two panic attacks every time I had to go to Sydney. I had to get to the bottom of the phobia and overcome it.

At first I wondered if I was overthinking it. Maybe it was the cowboys that fly for Jetstar and couldn’t butter a landing if their lives depended on it that had made me wary. But when I sat with the fear and asked it point-blank what its motivator was, the answer was clear: the absence of control. Presenting a lifetime of video games as evidence, my mind had taken an optimistic view of its ability to land a Qantas Airbus A330-200. My feeling, however irrational, was that if they were to hand me a Wii remote, I could probably bring this baby in more safely than two pilots with 100,000 hours of experience between them.

So the question became: How DO you actually land one of these planes? For answers, I turned to YouTube channels like High-Pressure Aviation and Aviation 101, channels that make the process of taking off and landing in passenger aircraft quite clear. I watched hours of video, slowly learning the terminology and the mechanics. And with a decent amount of theory behind me, I wanted to see if I could do it. I do not have a pilots license, nor the time or resources to secure one, but I do have the next best thing: video games.

I turned to the only flight sim program I had available to me, a copy of Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition I’d bought in a sale years ago. While the visuals hadn’t aged terribly well, its simulation was still of a very high quality. I did the work. I ran the landings. I understood now what was happening in the cockpit. The time I flew to Syndey, my anxiety was eased substantially. I recognised all the sounds the plane was making on approach. The sound of the flaps moving. The landing gear descending. I never broke a sweat again.

To my surprise, learning the basics in FSX had turned some kind of key in my mind. I had fallen in love with flying. I had fallen in love with the simulation.

Half a decade later, Xbox Game Studios would announce a successor.

Home in the clouds

For the simmer community, Microsoft Flight Simulator will feel like something of a miracle. The last iteration of the venerable series was 2006’s Flight Simulator X. Though it has been rigorously supported over its 14-year lifespan, it’s now quite long in the tooth.

Due to overall software age and budget restrictions, aesthetics are something simmers have learned to live without. For years, the best-looking sim on the market was X-Plane, which offered a simple, if drab, visual style. MFS goes above and beyond in this regard, leveraging true technical wizardry to produce a game that feels like our first steps into a new hardware generation. You truly can go anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Flying out of Rome at sunset is a beautiful, majestic thing. Flying over Beijing in the kind of clear weather it rarely sees gives you a sense of the city’s truly dizzying scale. Even small regional airports are represented — Murwillumbah Airport, a grass airstrip close to where my grandparents lived in far north NSW, came right up in the search window. I couldn’t believe it.

For the average player, this will be Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s main draw. It is astoundingly beautiful to be sure, but the ability to fly anywhere in the world, at any time of day, in any kind of weather is remarkable. It accomplishes this feat through the canny use of high-resolution satellite data, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence.

Essentially, the game stores its most data-heavy assets on a Microsoft Azure server remotely. It downloads the assets its requires to fill in the world beneath you in real-time. It uses an AI to interpret map data and draw a detailed approximation of what it sees. If I can use a different mode of transport as a metaphor, it’s laying the proverbial tracks in front of a moving train. Real-time volumetric clouds, lighting, and weather effects add the finishing touches, and the illusion is complete. It will fool your brain into thinking what it sees as real, for just a second here and there. Digital alchemy.

It isn’t perfect though; the AI isn’t foolproof. From time to time, the game will get something wrong — like interpreting stadiums as large unit blocks with a grass oval in the centre — and it will stick out like a sore thumb. These moments are few and far between, however, and aren’t likely to diminish the overall joy of flight.

What’s going to be much more testing is your computer’s ability to actually run the game. Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s highest settings provide a steep challenge to all but the most high-end hardware. Even my own high-end rig was brought to its knees in larger cities while assets loaded in. Just because your plane has spawned on the runway does not necessarily mean you are ready to take off. If you can look around and still see the game chunking and shuddering, give it another minute or two to finish loading in. Once it does, things tend to run a great deal more smoothly.

The only time things began to chunk for me again was when I would veer sharply from my established path. At that point, the game must have had to load more assets in the background and the frames dropped sharply again. It doesn’t happen very often but, if you’re quick enough, you can catch the game off-guard by breaking from the invisible tracks it has laid in front of you.

Hard simulation

Microsoft Flight Simulator can be tweaked to provide whatever level of simulation you like. For most players looking to take a scenic flight or two, the lowest level of simulation will be more than adequate. This mode basically reduces inputs down to Throttle, Yaw, Rudder, Flaps, and Landing Gear. It lets you fly the plane without worrying about the myriad other functions of the aircraft. The AI will handle everything else, from radio readback to stabilisation.

You can ratchet these settings all the way up to hard realism if you’re looking to turn it into a true sim. This is obviously most effective with proper flight sim hardware. Xbox ANZ was kind enough to send over a full HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) setup when I played the game for preview coverage and so I leveraged it here. Flight in every plane feels great, from the nimble movements of smaller planes like the Cessna 152, right up to beefy airliners like the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental. The Daher TBM 930 turboprop became my weapon of choice, a nimble plane with a high top speed that sits a complexity sweet spot — harder to manage than a Cub, but not as overwhelming as a Dreamliner. While I’m by no means a pilot in real life, I have been enjoying slowly increasing the complexity of the sim as I get comfortable with each new system. The game also features numerous real-world checklists that give you objectives through performing the rituals of aircraft operation.

It also hosts one of the few fully functional, 1:1 virtual cockpits I’ve encountered in quite a while. Every plane featured in the game has a fully mapped set of control panels. Every switch and knob fulfills its real-world function, and that attention to detail can be found almost everywhere. There are so many, and they all have their own keybinds. Veteran simmers already know that flight sims rarely ship with an optimal set of keybinds. I fully expect to see community .cfg files appearing online to save players rebinding every control themselves.

Hardcore simmers will always have their favourite programs but, taken in aggregate, I think Microsoft Flight Simulator makes a strong case for itself beyond being a visual smokeshow.

What are your flight intentions today?

One of the things that FSX was really good at was giving the player a lot to do. It had a long suite of Missions, pre-planned flights with a specific goal in mind. Beyond a very informative tutorial mission, Microsoft Flight Simulator is much more devoted to being a sandbox. There are landing challenges, which are quite cool. They’re updated weekly, along with a few navigation challenges that require pilots to fly IFR (flying only using your instruments). But beyond these, it’s largely up to you to make your own fun.

This is perfectly fine for players like me. I’m more than happy to set a course from Boston to Washington D.C. and enjoy the view. I love taking off from cities I’ve never visited and having a look around. I love the feeling of getting a clearer picture of places I’ve never been to.  That may not be enough for everybody. Those who prefer a little more direction in their games may be left wanting, at least for the time being. I’d understand that completely. Asobo has made it clear that it intends to support the game for as much as a decade after launch so I fully expect to see the game expand in this regard. Once the mod community gets its hands on this one, we’ll see an exponential increase in content.

Final thoughts

Microsoft Flight Simulator feels like our first taste of what the next hardware generation in games can be. It’s a dazzling technical achievement and the most impressive thing to come out of Xbox Game Studios in years. Developer Asobo should wear their wing pin as a badge of honour. This is the work of a talented team with an ambitious vision, who have had the time, access, and funding to make it a reality.

If you have the PC to handle it, this is a must-play.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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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