Microsoft Flight Simulator is a triumphantly ambitious venture which pushes the boundaries of photorealism in the gaming medium. It requires a lot of horsepower and the support of Azure technology to accomplish such a feat, but these barriers are washed away when you're staring down at endless cities and thick jungles from thousands of feet in the air. It's breathtaking, and I hope it brings such simulators further into the mainstream.
- Sets a new benchmark for photorealistic visuals
- Arguably the series' most approachable chapter yet
- Seeking out landmarks across the globe is genuinely thrilling
- Easy to play with a controller, keyboard and other methods
- A few technical problems spoil the experience at times
- Initial loading times are fairly horrendous
- Review Price: £39.99
- Developer: Asobo Studios
- Genre: Simulation
- Release Date: August 18, 2020
- Platforms: PC (version tested), Xbox One
There’s a strange sense of relaxation at the centre of Microsoft Flight Simulator. I’m precariously controlling a delicate aircraft through the skies, watching over all of its instruments with the utmost scrutiny to ensure I don’t accidentally crash into the nearest building.
Stressful piloting aside, when you’re soaring across the snowy Himalayan mountains and looking down at the sprawling streets of Tokyo, Microsoft Flight Simulator expresses an almost unparalleled level of awe. Asobo Studios has created a visually stunning marvel here, and perhaps most amazingly, is how it is grounded firmly within reality.
While you’ll need a tremendously powerful machine to see what it is truly capable of, it’s arguably worth the investment to see what the next generation of visual fidelity could deliver. The scope, scale and execution of destinations in this simulator are on another level at times, especially once you master the finer elements of its demanding control scheme.
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As someone who hasn’t dabbled in the genre outside of Euro Truck Simulator 2, this new effort from Asobo Studio is an uncompromising beast at first glance. But after glancing over the menu options and grounding myself, it’s clear some excellent steps have been taken to ensure Microsoft Flight Simulator is accessible to all manner of players.
Upon booting the game up for the first time and dealing with its colossal install process, you’ll be asked to adjust your graphical settings alongside the assists you wish to enable, curating an experience which works for newcomers and veterans alike. I immediately threw everything on the easiest settings and jumped into the tutorial. From here, I’m taught about all the flaps, dials and scarily realistic physics that pin down each flight.
What will be required of you on an average flight depends on the assist settings you’ve opted for. On easy, you only really need to concern yourself about the speed, angle and height of your aircraft, with the settings taking care of everything else. Those wanting a more robust simulator experience can increase things to their liking until the experience resembles that of a real plane.
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It’s extraordinary, and you can see why people use software like this to learn before embarking on the real thing. Starting on the runway of Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in the early hours of the evening before slowly ascending into the sky, watching as the city shrinks into a mixture of stunning lights beneath you is awe-inspiring, and moments like this procedurally emerge constantly in Microsoft Flight Simulator.
You’ll often have to conjure up instances like this on your own terms, since there are no scripted sequences outside of a handful of missions, challenges and tutorials. Even then, you’re free to venture outside of the established rules and do your own thing. Those looking for a more comprehensive sense of progression outside of enhancing a lethargic flight profile might be underwhelmed here, but I feel such a strict definition would dilute what makes this game so special.
The real brilliance comes from your own drive to see the world, building up a virtual reputation as you willingly embark on long-haul flights which surprise in the most minute yet fascinating ways. If you don’t fancy spending literal hours travelling between the dozens of airports in Microsoft Flight Simulator, it’s easy to load into a city, take off and search out landmarks you’d love to see in reality. Just be ready for some viciously long loading times.
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I made a habit of visiting cities I’d been to over the years like Tokyo, Stockholm and San Francisco. You can dynamically pinpoint the location of landmarks while flying over each respective city, heading towards them and seeing how the life-like visuals help them come alive. Asobo Studios has utilised over two petabytes of map data from Bing alongside photogrammetry to generate realistic environments which are strikingly gorgeous.
Aside from setting generic graphical settings, Microsoft Flight Simulator also uses Azure technology to stream satellite imagery and terrain data from the cloud as you play. This builds upon what your native hardware is capable of in some obscene ways. It echoes the feeling you get staring out of the window during a flight, expressing the uncompromising scale of our planet and how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.
Flight patterns and weather cycles are also drawn from reality, with Microsoft Flight Simulator dynamically updating such facets of the game’s world as you play. So if you decide to embark from Dubai, everything will be accurate to its real-life counterpart. If you want to select specific conditions, you can turn this feature off and go your own way.
I personally loved the idea of seeking out storms as they happen, being a part of the natural world is a strange, detached way. If you’re after specific numbers surrounding the game, it includes 5 billion buildings, 2 trillion trees, and 37,000 real-world airports. Obviously, some of these have been curated with more attention than others, as you can only land at a certain number of airports scattered across the globe.
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You can choose from a selection of different aircraft, ranging from humble propellor planes to daunting passenger jets. They all control differently, and you’ll need to take into account various important nuances whether you’re playing with or without assists. I learned my lesson the hard way after accidentally taking a jumbo jet into the packed streets of downtown Tokyo. After that, I was more careful with my choices.
Aside from traditional flights you can also take on specific routes, landing challenges and regular events posed by the game itself, so there’s always something fresh for budding pilots to jump into. I must admit the menu navigation is a little clumsy right now, especially if you’re using a controller. It should feel smoother, coming across as oddly archaic given I was using an Nvidia RTX 2080Ti and AMD Ryzen 5 1500, although it’s possible my CPU was compromising the experience.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is rendering the entire globe, so performance issues ahead of launch are understandable, but I was shocked that such a high-tier GPU was struggling to meet a sustainable level of performance at medium and high settings, although I imagine this will improve as further optimisations are made. Right now, it’s a noticeable blemish on an otherwise wonderful package.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a triumphantly ambitious venture which pushes the boundaries of photorealism in the gaming medium. It requires a lot of horsepower and the support of Azure technology to accomplish such a feat, but these barriers are washed away when you’re staring down at endless cities and thick jungles from thousands of feet in the air. It’s breathtaking, and I hope it brings such simulators further into the mainstream.
Despite its technical tests, there are some notable teething issues here I hope are ironed out over time, since they bring down what is an otherwise brilliant journey into the natural world. As someone with zero knowledge of aviation and a simulator novice, being able to switch on the assists and lose myself was wonderful. That is, until the inevitable crashing and burning.