Microsoft Flight Simulator is the most incredible experience I’ve ever had on a computer. The realism, the depth, the almost limitless replayability – it’s like nothing I’ve ever played before. It does so much to recreate the feeling of actual flight, at a level of accuracy never before seen, that there were times when I came in for a landing at real-life airfields I’d seen during my time in the Air Force where I was simply stunned. These are places I will likely never visit again as a civilian, and yet as I gazed out the window during my final descent into places like Jacobabad, Pakistan or Thumrait, Oman, I was seeing an approximation so close to what I remembered from all those years ago that I actually said out loud, “Holy shit, I remember this.”
The attention to detail in the plane interiors, rebuilt virtually using laser scans of the real things, manufacturing documents, and CAD drawings, is astonishingly precise. But it’s the integration with Microsoft’s real-world Bing map services that takes this incredible simulation into a whole new realm of freedom and realism. Granted, there are a few cracks in the picture-perfect facade in some of the more remote areas, and the buildings outside of major cities are built largely with a clever algorithm instead of by human hands, but it’s still absolutely wild how complete it seems. If you want to fly over your house, it’s there, in Flight Simulator, exactly where it ought to be. It might not look exactly like your house, but it’s there. I promise.
32 of Microsoft Flight Simulator’s 37,000 Airports
The base version of Microsoft Flight Simulator comes with 20 planes and 30 hand-crafted airports. That might not seem like a lot of locations, but the remaining 37,000+ of the world’s airports are generated using technology sufficiently advanced that, to my eye, it is indistinguishable from magic. My local airport on the east coast of the United States, for example, is tiny and largely unremarkable, but I was impressed by how close to the mark Flight Simulator came while I was taxiing to park my Cessna. Every building is in the right place, aside from a few of the smaller (less than 10×10′) outbuildings. It’s quite impressive.
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.
In a similar vein are the airplanes themselves – the level of detail is astounding. I can say from real-world experience the cockpit of the Cessna 172 Skyhawk is perfect. You could snap a screenshot and share it online as a photo and, unless your PC is a complete potato, it would easily fool a lot of people. (I know this because I did exactly that.) Asobo not only flawlessly recreated the look of the interiors and exteriors of the available planes, but the instruments are also fully operational. The Garmin digital instruments appear and function exactly as they do in real life because the developers built emulators for the actual software that runs them into Flight Simulator. This is the first game I’ve ever played where I downloaded a .PDF manual from a real-world piece of equipment to reference during play – and everything in the manual checks out to the virtual hardware. It excites the absolute nerdiest parts of my core.
As unbelievably realistic as the flight simulation is, it’s also accessible to just about anyone’s level of flight experience. You can turn on all the assists and enjoy Flight Simulator in a more arcade-style, or turn them all off and approach a virtual sortie in the same way you’d do the real thing, checklists and all. As someone without a pilot’s license (I was an electrician in the Air Force, not a pilot) my personal preference is playing halfway between the full simulation and the highest assist settings because it still creates a very challenging experience but removes some of the mundane steps from the process, like pre-flight checks, engine start, etc.
Better still, since Flight Simulator is coming to Xbox Series X at some as-of-yet-undetermined point in the future, it controls really well with just an Xbox One controller. The elevator controls are a little touchy on some of the planes using the analog stick, but can be adjusted to suit your needs. Overall, I have no complaints about playing with the controller. It still requires keyboard functionality to get the most out of your plane, but there’s no immediate need to rush out and buy a flight stick or yoke.
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That being said, the simulation is much more authentic and enjoyable if you do have access to a dedicated flight controller. I used Thrustmaster’s new Airbus A380 flight stick, in addition to my time with the Xbox controller, and it makes flying that much more immersive. Even planes with yokes are better with a flight stick, so if you have the means and if you can actually find one, I recommend picking up a dedicated controller for the full Flight Simulator experience. Just keep in mind it’s not a requirement, which is a great feature for those of us who’d rather dabble in flying than make a big hardware investment.
The 20 planes and 30 hand-crafted airports in the $60 base version of Microsoft Flight Simulator are already a respectable amount of content. These aircraft run the gamut from highly maneuverable stunt planes like the Aviat Pitts Special S2S biplane, to wide-bodied airliners like the “Queen of the Skies” herself, the Boeing 747-8. However, if you’re hungry for more, the $90 Deluxe Edition adds five more planes and five airports, and the $120 Premium Deluxe Edition adds another five of each, for a total of 30 different aircraft and 40 airports. The variety is excellent, although as an Air Force vet I was a little disappointed that there are no military aircraft. I was holding out hope I’d get to fly a C-130 (my favorite airplane of all), or a C-17. A military trainer like the jet-propelled T-38 would also have been an exciting addition, or even a ViperJet. If you want to fly a jet aircraft the only option right now is a passenger plane, and that’s a bit of a bummer – but certainly not a deal breaker. I’m not trying to knock the already impressive selection here, either, I’m just being greedy.
With that said, I was perfectly content with the 20 planes included with the base game, and I don’t really see the need to upgrade unless you feel you absolutely must get behind the controls of a 787-10 Dreamliner or a Cessna 152 or 172 variant.
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.
All of that gorgeous detail and accurately modeled equipment is on the inside, but the absolute genius of Microsoft Flight Simulator is actually outside the planes, enabled by its Bing Maps integration. Two petabytes (that’s 2,000 terabytes) of satellite and high-altitude photography are available to stream to your computer to accurately represent whatever part of the globe you decide to visit. The effect is absolutely mindblowing: I’ve flown places I’ve never been in my life, circling Machu Picchu or barnstorming between the Great Pyramids, and it feels like virtual sightseeing. But I’ve also flown to places I have visited just to relive the travel experience, and have been thoroughly impressed. More than once I’ve set off from my local airport and followed real-life roads through the Maine woods and into Quebec, retreading (re-winging?) the route I took last year by car. I’ve also landed on the tiny dirt airstrips in some of Maine’s remote inhabited islands, taking in the familiar scenery from 2,500 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
You can even fly in real-world weather conditions with live air traffic, all of which is adjustable with in-game menus that are easily accessible during flight. If you’ve ever wanted to take off from an airport in a driving snowstorm at night, you can set the weather and time to your liking. One of my favorite things to do when flying is to adjust the time of day to the “golden hour,” early mornings or just before dusk when the sun’s rays are at their warmest and most pleasant. It makes for some incredible sights.
The limitations of the Bing integration come in two distinct circumstances: if your internet service provider has a data cap, and when the existing aerial photography of an area happens to be low-resolution. In the case of the data cap problem, you can preinstall locations ahead of time, so you load one small chunk of data rather than opening up the data firehose. Asobo seems to be sympathetic to this hazard and offers a setting in the menus to track your data use and set an upper limit so you don’t go over your cap. After a few hours of play, including flights over San Francisco and New York City, I only used a few megabytes of data, but multiply that over a few hours a day over the course of a month (and flying over less frequently traveled areas) and it could become concerning. (Also, that comes after you install this 150GB monster of a game!)
The second limitation is with low-resolution maps, which show up in some of the more remote corners of the Earth, but it’s only really noticeable at low-altitudes. Personally, I find the thrill of flying a few feet above the Colorado river more than enough to compensate for the lack of texture details on the walls of the Grand Canyon. Also, since the data is pulled directly from Bing, low-resolution areas will improve as its database of imagery improves over time. At the moment, though, some places do look decidedly… PlayStation 1… when you’re up close and personal.
The act of flying and exploring some far-flung corner of the Earth is more than enough to keep me entertained, but Flight Simulator adds some competitive elements, including landing challenges. A rotating selection of remote and challenging airstrips become a place to showcase your landing skills, with scores being assigned to your performance in categories like accuracy on the runway, roll distance, and bounce. It’s actually a really fun way to increase your skills, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to land successfully on a mountaintop airfield in France. While I ever top the leaderboards on these challenges? Well, for now, yeah. I actually have a few of the world’s top-scores for some of the landing challenges. Will this trend hold once the game comes out? No. God no. But will I continue trying to improve my scores? My inner competitor demands that I must!
Naturally, many of those attempts will end with you damaging or even outright crashing your plane. You might think you’re making a last-ditch effort to put your plane on the ground, only to discover (like I did) the landing gear on a heavy like the Airbus A320neo isn’t designed for non-tarmac use. For obvious reasons, a crash doesn’t result in a realistic fireball, but rather a black screen and a pop-up window that alerts you to your shameful performance – as if you didn’t already know. It’s not just crashes that cause instant failure: taking a plane well beyond its physical limitations, like an over-speed scenario, will also end your flight before you actually hit the ground. I found this out while first trying to do a barrel roll in a 747 and ended up descending too fast. That’s not to say you can’t do some sick stunts: you absolutely can make that 747 execute a successful barrel roll with a little practice – I did it a LOT, actually. It’s just you can’t make a plane do more than it could do in real life.
Performance wise, Flight Simulator looks great on my PC, which is no slouch but a few years old at this point. I’m running a Core i7-7700K with a GeForce GTX 1080 GPU and 32GB of RAM. Microsoft Flight Simulator set itself to “high” when I initially started up, but I did find myself turning down some of the lighting effects to medium to improve performance. That made it steady, for the most part, except that loading into one of the larger airports near a major city slowed things down to a crawl, particularly when I tried to fly one of the bigger airplanes. However, the stuttering frame rate always mellowed out to a nice, pleasant clip after a few seconds, making for a smooth flight.
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 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.
As frustrating as the loading times can be, once you’re into an area it only takes a few seconds to restart if you crash or manually reset your flight. Personally, I didn’t mind the wait too much – it represents only a fraction of the total time I spent in the cockpit.
It also should be pointed out that, at launch, Flight Simulator doesn’t support VR, but Microsoft says it’s coming in a patch later this year. Just the thought of being able to play Flight Simulator in virtual reality has me seriously considering upgrading to a new headset. As incredible as it looks and feels on just my monitor, I really want to immerse myself in the experience as much as humanly possible.