I used to be absolutely terrified of flying. The idea of being trapped in a giant metal tube hurtling through the sky at hundreds of miles per hour was one my brain couldn’t quite reconcile, despite all the statistics that quite rightly show it’s technically the safest way to travel. As my full-time job now has me travelling all over the world, I was forced to get over that fear rather quickly, but to this day, I still get nervous before a flight.
The World at your Fingertips
In a year where the majority of us have been trapped at home however, Microsoft Flight Simulator feels like a liberation. The whole world (literally) in stunning detail, entirely at your fingertips. It is not only a technical marvel but also a terrifyingly deep simulator, but with none of that real-world anxiety of actually being in a plane. Instead, there’s a different kind of anxiousness at play here, but I’ll get into that.
Microsoft Flight Simulator as a franchise is 38 years old, (it’s older than me!) but has been for the most part left on the shelf since its last lacklustre release in 2012 with Microsoft Flight, a free-to-play version that was arguably universally disliked. This latest release has been developed in partnership with French studio Asobo, and is frankly, a staggering achievement of technology.
A Visual Delight
Of course, the visuals have certainly been a ‘wow’ moment since the initial reveal trailer at E3 2019, and while Flight Simulator isn’t the first game to utilise satellite imagery, weather pattern data and photogrammetry, the combination of these tricks is staggeringly realistic. There are real, jaw dropping moments to be had here, from flying over the well known cities and landmarks, powering through all-encompassing storms to seeing your home town recreated in a game.
From a gameplay perspective, I have to be very clear here (and this where that different kind of anxiousness sets in!) Flying in this game is incredibly detailed, just like the world they’ve created. But make no mistake, this is a simulator. While they’ve provided numerous assists to make the game relatively easy to pick up, be warned that this game is incredibly deep. The closest I’ve got to this sort of title was Elite Dangerous, but Flight Simulator had me crashing my plane into the ground shortly after take off regularly on the ‘normal’ difficulty. If you’re not into simulators or planes in anyway, you may find the complexity and depth Flight Simulator offers off-putting. But if you can get the hang of things enough to get off the ground, there’s a lot to enjoy here.
For the hardcore sim pilots out there, the game really does go all out. The game is frighteningly realistic at times, with lists to check, taxi to the runway before takeoff, detailed flight plans – the works – all before you even get up into the air. Once you’re up there, the whole world awaits, meaning you can really go through that long haul 10+ plus flight from the comfort of your desk. The game supports a myriad of control schemes, from my ageing X52 HOTAS, My Elite Series 2 or just a mouse and keyboard. If you really do want the full experience, a flight stick is absolutely the way to go.
In order to make the game more approachable, you can automate a lot of the realities of flight, delegating them to your invisible but always helpful co-pilot. This allows the more casual among us to pick a place, and just go there, soaking in the sights. I found myself creating lists of places I’ve been to in real life, just to see what they look like in game.
If you’re new to the genre, and really want to learn the ropes, the game offers a detailed training section, with individual sections separated out into things like general flight, taking off, landing, cruising and so on. There’s also some excellent landing challenges and trials to complete, taking you to some challenging runways. There’s even leaderboards to fight for supremacy on, for those of us who have to be the best. Bush runs are another activity that provide a little structure for the newcomer. These involve some remote locations and flying by compass and landmarks to get to a specific destination.
There are a decent number of real-world planes to choose from, from single engine propeller planes to terrifyingly complex passenger jets. You can fly from thousands of real world airports, to anywhere you want, and can choose the route, time of day and weather for your journey, be it real time or, if you fancy a challenge, a massive simulated storm.
The Power of Nature
Can I talk about the weather for a moment? As a brit, this is second nature, but the real time weather in this game is an achievement all of its own. Snow, rain, sun, tremendous thunderstorms – it’s all here, and even more amazingly, can be turned on or off with a click of a button, mid flight. It’s the kind of moment that’ll have you calling for someone, anyone to just come and witness what’s on the screen.
However, those of you looking for more ‘game’ here will be left wanting. This is, frankly, the biggest sandbox in the world – by virtue of being, well – the world – and the best moments can be had by picking a departure and arrival point, picking a plane and just going there. Ever wanted to fly next to the pyramids or through the grand canyon? (You can!) If you’re looking for more structure or a campaign of sorts, outside of some landing challenges and the bush trials, you will be left wanting.
Not only does the game pull in real world weather data to simulate, it also pulls in all the real planes out there, meaning you’re not alone in the skies. There’s also a well thought multiplayer element that creates one shared world, meaning that not only you and the real world simulated traffic are up there, but everyone else is up there too. You can lock yourself away via Groups, so the whole planet only has you and your friends up there. Very cool.
This is not a particularly forgiving game, and for folks out there that want to see just how good it can look on your screen at home, you may find yourself unable to penetrate the heart of the simulation that lies under this beautifully crafted fuselage. And that’s okay – not every game can be made for every player out there.
There’s an enormous amount of enjoyment to be had in just exploring, and that speaks to me in a way not a lot of games have over the years. Cruising at 30,000 feet with the hum of the engine, the rattle of turbulence and the world below me, available in a way it never has been is absolutely worth sending a postcard home about.
A copy of the game was provided to XboxEra for review purposes by Microsoft.