Microsoft Flight Simulator Review – Leaving On A Jet Plane
Microsoft Flight Simulator18th August, 2020
Back in my review of Skater XL, I pointed out the issue that it's a simulation game without the game aspect. It was something that had no objectives, no scoring system, no paths or guidance. Frankly, the game offered nothing. How does this link into Microsoft Flight Simulator? Well, one comment in response to my review had this to say: "Next up: Chris Wray reviews Flight Simulator and complains about the lack of story."
Let me be honest. Before I even started playing this game, I was tempted to put in a con it had no story. I even said that to other writers on the site. It would be a cheeky pop at the fallacious arguments some people leave. I won't be doing that though because the best argument against people saying I don't understand what a simulation game is meant to be, is simply reviewing this. Why? Because Microsoft Flight Simulator is that good, I've got a near-permanent grin on my face.
The first thing you need to do when playing Microsoft Flight Simulator is get something to listen to. This isn't to say that the game sounds bad - it doesn't. I absolutely adore the audio here, from the sounds of the plane while in the cockpit, which is even better when you're in a storm and hearing the patter of rain on the shell of the plane, the crack of thunder in the distance and the sound of the wind as it blows around. Or you can follow your plane from outside, truly hearing the engines. All the while, you're listening to air traffic control and the constant alerts as your plane tries to tell you that you're crap at flying.
The amount of detail put in here by Asobo Studios (the magnificent A Plague Tale: Innocence) is nothing short of magnificent. So why am I telling you to get something to listen to? Well, the flights can be long and travelling here is amazingly conducive to listening to a good podcast, an eBook or a great mixture of songs that include aeronautic classics like Leaving On A Jet Plane, Fly Away, Learn to Fly, Weather With You and, of course, We're Going to Ibiza! - particularly fitting if you're flying to Ibiza.
While on the subject of detail, let's talk visuals. This is a simply stunning game. I'm not going to say that every single aspect of the game is perfect when you get up close and personal to them. Fly too close to the ground and you're going to notice that it's Bing Maps as well as 3D buildings and terrain through azure cloud tech. Still, this game features all 197 million square miles (510.1m km2) of our fair planet. Except for very select few titles like No Man's Sky, you're never going to find a bigger game world. Also, let's be honest, it's a flight simulator - you want it to look great from afar.
It's this use of the massive amount of data Microsoft have in Bing Maps that makes it more than possible to follow your drive home from an airport, recognising landmarks. It's more than possible to veer off the directed route, just go flying and find where you live, work, play, shop or go watch Manchester United play football. Before I talk more about the work Asobo have placed in here, and detail, this next screenshot is where I live. I feel I need to repeat that I had a massive grin on my face simply recognising small villages I know, trails I've walked, roads I've driven along and through finding my house by following my drive home from Manchester airport. This is actually something used, it's called Visual Flight Rules.
Now, some of these structures aren't as detailed as I wish they would be (Old Trafford, as seen above, has the shape but just doesn't look as good as The Etihad), but what you will find are a large number of natural and man-made landmarks that have had an amazing amount of work placed into them. Fly over the golden gate bridge, past Mt Fuji, scrape by the Sydney Opera House or soar close enough to feel like you can touch the peak of Mr Everest, Asobo has gone to painstaking detail with what seems like thousands upon thousands of landmarks.
While we're talking about landmarks and buildings, let's talk about what's in the game. For this review, I was provided with the premium version of Microsoft Flight Simulator. With this comes forty handcrafted airports (the base version has thirty), the remaining airports - and by that I mean each and every single airport in the world, the game featuring over 37,000 places for you to take off and land - being procedurally generated with the assistance of the AI, Bing Maps, other partners and the algorithm, one that knows the difference in building types in France and England, China and Egypt, the USA and Bolivia.
Most cities and locations in the world will be formulated using this system. As well as the landmarks being hand-crafted you have a few hundred major cities in the world, some that are identical to their real-life counterparts. Particular attention being paid to the western world. At the same time, Microsoft and Asobo wanted to include several areas from other parts of the world, giving people the joy of seeing far-flung places, feeding that current need to travel (thanks COVID).
This amount of detail comes with a lot of requirements. You wouldn't be able to hold the full game on your computer if you wanted to load in everything that's cloud-based. In its current state you're looking at a minimum of 150GB of disk usage, it recommends a good 50GB above that to get the best experience, and what an experience it is. Running the game on ultra, I can't help but think it's beautiful to see the 3D clouds with realistic rain, wind, snow and other weather conditions. The focus on realism is so good that you'll even see the ice form on your wings, the windows of your plane (if looking internally) start to frost up. Now if only I could learn how to use the anti-frost options.
With this realistic weather comes significant attention to detail to the physics and the resulting feel of the flight. From the weight of your fuel and cargo to the impact that different weather conditions, your altitude and more has on the plane, so much attention to detail has been put in here to make you feel like you're genuinely flying the plane you choose. Of the planes in the game, each of them feels genuinely different. I want to say they feel like the real thing, but I'm not a pilot. I imagine they feel like the right thing, an airliner feeling sturdier and more durable than that of a propeller-based plane.
What this has made perfectly clear to me is that I sorely need to go to flight school. I keep mentioning the word detail, but there's also a painstaking amount of detail that has gone into the use of the planes. You can sit in the cockpit and manually click the buttons, turning the dials, as needed. This is fantastic for the enthusiasts out there and even though the game offers you a set of eight training scenarios, this is a steep learning curve as they're quite rushed.
Fortunately, when you get it all working it's fantastically accessible, particularly with the use of a controller. I'll talk about some issues with the controller right after this, but after some slight teething issues you'll find that you can control the game as good as could be expected through an Xbox controller. Sure, a lot of the technicalities are lost through this, but it's an experience that anybody can jump into and it gives you time to learn the intricacies.
What also doesn't help is that the game seems like it doesn't always want to work. I've found a few minor flaws here and there with the activation or deactivation of certain elements. By this, I mean that I've landed at an airport and I need to turn off my engine once I've parked up in the designated location. The game is constantly popping up the keys required to turn off the engine and no matter how much I press them, it won't bloody work. In fact, the game doesn't seem to like you using multiple input options, freaking out if you move between the keyboard to the Xbox controller.
Once I rebound some functions, it seemed to be okay, but there was a constant struggle between the two input sources. When I would be searching for a keybind option, I'd start typing in my search and it would just revert to the start of the box as if to say "Xbox controller says what?", the same when searching for one of the tens-of-thousands of airports to fly from. A minor complaint, but still one that inhibited my experiences for a short period of time.
While I'm talking about issues, let me talk about the only other two issues in the game. One of the reasons I'm a little late with this review is that I was sent the code on Thursday afternoon, so Friday when I got to play it. Friday and Saturday, I was plagued with a terrible audio issue, it was atrociously buggy, constantly breaking up, cracking, popping. I don't know why - loading the game, the opening audio on the splash screens were fine, all other audio from my rig - perfect. After a complete uninstall and reinstall, this time on my SSD, the issue remained. It was only after setting the game to launch in fullscreen, rather than windowed, and a few alt-tabs after that the game somehow started sounding as it should.
Am I going to hold it against the game? Nah. What I will hold against the game are the loading times. Even on an SSD, the loading times on Microsoft Flight Simulator are long. By long I mean they're long enough for you to go make a sandwich and a drink, finish them, perform a ritualistic dance for clear skies because you're flying using the real-time weather conditions and then come back to the PC. It may have got through three-quarters by then. I may be slightly exaggerating, but I shudder to think how it will be on the Xbox Series X when it's released for that.
Before I go back to talk about the positives, I want to return to the world itself. Yes, the mixture of the algorithm, cloud computing, streaming and everything else creates a brilliant representation of Earth, but it isn't without a few flaws. Even from afar, you'll notice a few obscurities. You'll see trees growing where they shouldn't. The water level may be a little high for some areas and, if you get close enough, the actual height of some buildings will perplex. These, and the earlier mentioned issues, all pale in comparison to the technical marvel and achievement that is the game.
What about when you’re in the game? You can jump into a plane at any airport in the world and just fly, even real-time, using real-life weather conditions. There's a brilliant bit of technology here to wonder at too. During the flight, you can simply set your co-pilot on with the job of the flying while you take in the sights. If you're not happy with the weather, it's too cloudy, maybe it's night, you can change all of this in real-time. No restarting just click what you want and you can see any part of the world at the time of day you want, in the weather conditions you want and just sightsee.
Speaking of sightseeing, let's talk about some of the little side elements of the game. Working on other locations Asobo have focused on, they have created a few activities. As the game launches, there are three bush trips, multi-stage tours through some of the world's most beautiful scenery. The three at launch take place at the Patagonian Peninsula, the Balkans and... Nevada? Okay, so you get to see Yosemite. Other activities include landing challenges, tasking you with landing during strong wind, at some of the most dangerous runways in the world and simply some famous locations.
This is what I mean when a simulation game should have parts of an actual game in it. It doesn't deviate from the simulation at all, but what it has are developer created objectives or aspects where you can create your own objectives. Do you want to test your endurance on a flight from London to Sydney - something that requires endurance as a passenger, nevermind a pilot - or do you want to simply explore the world from above? Microsoft Flight Simulator offers you objectives, freedom and the ultimate sandbox.
I've played this using my recently built rig. I have an I9 9900k CPU, 32GB of DDR4 RAM and an RX 5700XT GPU. Playing on ultra settings looks fantastic and, for the most part, I'm getting a little over 30FPS. This, however, can drop to sub-20 levels when flying over dense cities like New York, Beijing and more, particularly if using an outside-the-plane view. Even on high settings, the game looks fantastic and runs a lot better. Either way, this is going to test your system.
Asobo's current plans are to keep expanding Microsoft Flight Simulator for years on end. This will come in the form of free updates, creating more detail in the comparatively sparsely populated Africa, Asia and South American areas, as well as major updates - some paid - where you'll find even more cities getting the same attention to detail as New York, the inclusion of new aircraft and other major airports getting the real-life treatment.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a game that offers a meditative experience like no other as well as a fantastic way to explore the world where the only better way is visiting in person. The sounds and feel of the plane, combined with the algorithm and tech, make the world give you a genuine feeling that you're there. I could keep praising it, but with the exception of a few very minor niggles, this is as close to perfect as one could have hoped. If this game had a theme song, this would be it.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by the publisher
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a marvelous use of technology to create one of the most wonderful and spectacular looking games I've ever played. Never a proponent of realism, it simply works here thanks to thousands of handcrafted buildings, as well as certain exceptionally detailed cities, planes and airports, giving you something that is a sheer joy to explore. This attention to detail expands to the controls of the planes, though Asobo ensured it's accessible through easy to use Xbox controller functions. Once you're past the learning curve and the full functions of the planes are at your disposal, there's little that can be said other than this as close to perfect as could be hoped. There are some very slight issues, such as long loading times - expected due to what is being loaded - but every square inch of the Earth is accessible and it's always worth the wait, particularly thanks to the number of options at your disposal. There's no doubt in my mind that this will be a platform that will last long into the future.
- A technical marvel that brings the whole world to life and the best example of cloud-based gaming so far.
- Amazing level of detail on the planes, thousands of handcrafted landmarks as well as a select number of cities, airports and other locations.
- Even the procedurally generated aspects look great when viewed from afar - sort of the point in a plane - with the tech making every corner of the world as realistic as possible.
- Offers a fantastic sense of exploration and adventure.
- Features a good base of side activities beyond simply choosing your own departure and destination.
- The use of a controller offers a great level of accessibility.
- The learning curve may be steep, but once adapted the feeling is fantastic.
- Very long loading times, though totally understandable due to what is being loaded.
- Tutorials aren't the best, rushing through aspects and not fully teaching you, giving a steel learning curve.
- Input devices (keyboard/mouse & Xbox controller) can cause each other to bug at times, if both are used for whatever reason.