Did you know that Microsoft Flight Simulator is even older than Windows itself?
It’s true. The grizzled veteran of PC gaming has lived through (and been shaped by) virtually every major shift in the medium across almost 40 years. Its latest iteration goes back to the original naming convention of “Microsoft Flight Simulator,” but pretty much everything else about it is shiny and new.
The 2020 edition – which is also the first new one since 2014 – gives virtual pilots access to a full planet’s worth of skyways. And thanks to satellite imagery working hand-in-hand with Microsoft’s Azure cloud technology, it’s built to be a graphical powerhouse.
At some point, this Microsoft Flight Simulator will also become the first in the series to release on a console (Xbox, obviously). That version isn’t launching alongside the PC release on Aug. 18, but stay tuned.
For now, you can see how things are shaping up ahead of release as the first reviews roll in.
Lots to be said about the level of detail
What an incredible achievement. Harnessing the power of Bing Maps, Azure AI and photogrammetry data, developer Asobo has built an open world to rule them all, and the sheer implausibility of that fully explorable virtual earth gives this a much broader appeal than a flight simulator should, by rights, possess. Just as much as it’s a learning tool for enthusiasts and pilots in training, it’s also a game, and one for people who couldn’t give a toss about ILS vectors. It should please both crowds enough to become a stalwart of the PC gaming landscape for years to come.
The hand-crafted airports, built from scans and real-world blueprints, are even more technically awe-inspiring – I’ve never seen anything close to this level of accuracy in a flight simulation before. What I really like is how developer Asobo Studios expanded the selection of “hand crafted” recreations beyond just the major airports. Sure, major hubs like JFK, Seattle-Tacoma, and Heathrow are lovingly recreated in the base game, but smaller airports are also here. There’s even one in South America that’s no more than a strip of dirt cutting a swath through the thick rainforest. I wasn’t expecting to find such accuracy for these tiny, more challenging destinations, but I loved discovering them.
On the other hand, in a lot of places, Flight Simulator looks like exactly what you’d expect from a game built on satellite imagery: smears of flat, poorly differentiated terrain carved up by thin lines of road, or slamming into narrow strips of beach. More surprising is the way even well-known landmarks are sometimes mangled in the game’s rendering. Flight Simulator has a way of making every single city look like the end of Inception.
This is the type of stuff that jumps out at you when you start really looking for the seams in Flight Simulator’s world, cruising just a few hundred feet off the deck at seventy or eighty knots. It gets a lot more impressive once you stop worrying quite so much about what’s on the ground and enjoy the experience of being in the air.
It’s a game of wandering, really
This game releasing in the midst of pandemic lockdown with vastly reduced travel options is actually perfect, in a twisted way. It underlines the power of this game as digital tourism – you can sit back and relax, cruising at lower altitudes over places that interest you, taking in architecture and geography. The sprawl of mankind is visible in minute detail beneath you – and in this Flight Simulator feels like at last a delivery on the promises of the ‘power of the cloud’ touted at the start of this console generation.
There’s a heady sense of exploration here, and a pleasure in pursuing your own path. I’ve taken a tour of the world’s great race tracks, heading out from Biggin Hill to Brands Hatch over the lavender fields I cycle to most weekends, from La Sauvenière to the skies above Spa-Francorchamps, conjuring showers along the way to give it that extra authenticity. I’ve a friend who’s about to embark on some of Pablo Escobar’s early drug-running routes, from Colombia to Miami and criss-crossing the Caribbean. Last night I had a sudden pang to see LA again, so I toured it from the seat of a Cessna to witness the city’s sprawl slowly light up under the hazy perfection of a California sunset.
The first thing I did after I finished the game’s lovely, hassle-free tutorials was try and find my home. I took off from Logan airport in Boston, flew north to the Merrimack river, and traced it west. The game was pulling live local time and weather, and so when I banked left near Lawrence, Massachusetts, I was greeted by a very similar sunset to the one I could see outside my window, glinting off the river below. I followed it for a few minutes until I spotted the UMass Lowell campus, then slowly cruised over the town until I spotted the spire of City Hall and the acres of old mill buildings and canals that surround it. It wasn’t perfect but it was, recognizably, home.
There are some problems, though
It’s a crushing shame … that the loading times of my review build so accurately simulate the tedium of waiting for a delayed flight to begin. They’re excruciating – around 5m 30s from desktop to main menu by my watch, and then maybe another minute or four before you’re actually sat on a runway. And that’s on a good day. Things get a little better if you swallow your pride and plump for graphics settings a notch or two down from ultra, but you’re still going to have time to make a cup of tea, finish it, and then make another one.
In sleepy rural landscapes I can get frame rates approaching 60 at ultra settings with my RTX 2080 Ti, I7 9700K and 16GB RAM, but once the buildings enter the screen I’m often down below 20. In fact there are certain places in the world I simply can’t fly—New York is off limits, even at the lowest graphical preset, struggling to produce even 20fps. Same goes for Toronto. Crashes (the game, not the plane) are common in these areas, and it’s also crashed to desktop for me whenever I plugged in or unplugged a device. We all want our game to look like that trailer, but even with top-end hardware it seems a pipe dream at the moment.
Where my PC really struggles with Microsoft Flight Simulator, and I suspect this will be a problem for most people, is loading times. Big airports take a long time, sometimes as much four minutes in the case of Chicago O’Hare. Even remote airports with far less going on take at least a minute. I’m certain it’s not my PC’s fault, because I installed Microsoft [Flight] Simulator on a 1TB WD Blue M.2 NVMe SSD, and it’s hard to get a lot faster than that right now. It’s not surprising given the staggering amount of data Microsoft Flight Simulator has to load, but it’s still impossible to ignore all that time you spend twiddling your thumbs.
It’s not just for simulation nerds
You can spawn on the runway, or in the air, and hand off the ATC chatter to an AI co-pilot. That same AI copilot might also have completed your checklist for you, or guided you through the process. You can skip forward to any point of the flight you want to experience, be that take-off, ascent, approach or landing, and have as much or as little automated for you. You can even switch off the live weather that pulls in real-world data – another touch of authenticity that can be quite staggering in practice – and play God, summoning thunderstorms or making the sun dance from one horizon to another with the flick of a cursor.
The control choices mirror the in-game options and assists, too. You can use a keyboard and mouse, of course, but the basic flight controls are just as accessible with an Xbox controller – vital for a later console release. Both are great, but I ended up going deeper, primarily playing with a Thrustmaster TPR Rudder, Honeycomb Alpha Yoke & Switch Panel and a Logitech Pro Flight Throttle. If you want to keep things simple but go beyond a controller, something like the Thrustmaster TCA Sidestick is also instantly compatible while having a reduced footprint and more affordable price.
Even with medium assists turned on, getting off the ground and back again in one piece requires a lot of planning, careful maneuvering, and tons of practice. There is a built-in “flight school” that puts you in the pilot seat of the Cessna 172, and it’s great. It helped me a lot with terminology, best flight practices, and getting used to handling the aircraft. By the time I finished all the flight lessons, I felt completely confident in my abilities controlling the Cessna and its maneuvers. The other planes operate under the same basic principles, but some of them, particularly the airliners like the A320neo and the 747, require a lot of familiarizing if you even want to attempt a landing without a disaster. I wish there was more aircraft-specific training available for the other planes in the fleet, but there is a pretty smart AI you can hand the controls to at any time during your flight. I was able to learn a lot about the proper approach angle and landing speeds just from watching my AI pilot take over. (I expect YouTube tutorials will become a thriving genre as well.) And besides, if just flying for the sake of flying is your goal, you can always turn on the assists to make it easier.
Fortunately, Microsoft Flight Simulator will benefit from what’s been an increasingly standard approach in modern game development. Developer Asobo Studios has a multi-year plan for building out the game, which includes both additional content and performance improvements. So the technical issues that spring up now will hopefully be addressed in the coming months.
It’s clear, too, from reading the reviews that this latest take on Flight Simulator is trying to deliver a little more on the graphical front than most affordable gaming PCs (and even some high-end builds) can really manage in 2020. It goes back to Asobo’s development plan and the game being built as much for the future as it is for the present.
This definitely isn’t the kind of game for people who want something with points to chase or action to revel in. Flight Simulator has always been more of an experiential thing, rewarding patience and time investment with something that feels like an escape.
Based on early reports, this 2020 entry in the series nails it even after you account for any technical issues. Look for it on PC starting Aug. 18 and on Xbox systems at some TBD point after that.