While some people may look at Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) and call it a video game, it is much more than that to a large swath of people. It’s right there in the name: “simulator”. I know a handful of lifelong aviation enthusiasts that can attribute their fascination with flight to Microsoft Flight Simulator. When Microsoft shelved the series and licensed out the code, that was presumed to be the end of the series.
While 2020 has taken so very much from the world, it has finally given us a new entrant into the coveted flight series. I’ll get right to it, though: MSFS is imperfect. In fact, in its initial release, it is far from perfect. The bones of the simulator, however, are setting the stage for something very special…eventually. And I am very excited for what likely will be coming soon.
At launch, MS Flight Simulator is only available on PC and that means that many will need to put money into their machines… the more you spend, the better performing your computer will be, and the more likely your experience will be improved. To be blunt; MSFS is a pig. The gaming community has compared it to Crysis, a 2007 game that was legendary for its hardware requirements. Even the highest end consumer gaming PC hardware struggles to run MSFS well, so playing MSFS may require a steep investment. There are ways around this, however, and I’ll touch on that a bit later.
The world created by the MSFS team is stunning; it’s quite literally the entire world. Using satellite imagery from Bing Maps (remember Bing!?), combined with artificial intelligence from Blackshark, MSFS recreated the entire world in a level of detail never before seen. So, even if most people won’t have computers that can run at the highest resolution, it won’t stop us from sharing some pretty good photos of the potential!
The MSFS developers handcrafted dozens of airports from around the world, and the results truly are amazing — strolling around JFK looks just like the real thing. The base level of MS Flight Simulator includes 30 detailed airports, while the Deluxe version bumps it up to 35 and Premium to 40. Airports throughout the rest of the world are dynamically generated, but taxiways and runways were manually plotted for accuracy. It’s fun to put the game into drone mode and just explore the world without having to worry about actually flying an aircraft.
Just above the world created in MSFS is, of course, weather. This aspect is a bit of a standout feature. While prior iterations of the simulator let users tinker with the weather, the 2020 version cranks it up to a whole new level. Really, they could have created another simulator called MSWS: Microsoft Weather Simulator, with no planes — it is that good (for our #wxGeek friends). Users can create their own layered weather systems or turn on the real-time weather service.
The base version offers 20 aircraft, including the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 747-8I. The Deluxe version adds practically nothing, while the Premium version adds in the Boeing 787-10. While the aircraft look as amazing as you would expect, the actual simulation is on the weak side. Most of the aircraft do not handle as I would expect… at all.
I often find myself fighting the aircraft as it makes inexplicable movements. No matter how many times I calibrate my controller, aircraft simply refuse to fly in a straight line and small movements on the controller’s analog stick often result in unrealistically dramatic aircraft movements.
Even though the base level includes 30 aircraft, it includes training for just one — the Cessna 152. If you want to fly the A320neo, or any of the other aircraft, you need to figure it out yourself, and depending on the complexity of the aircraft, that might not be so easy. There are checklists to guide you, but I’ve never gotten MSFS to display a checklist beyond engine start. So takeoff, after takeoff, level flight, and landing procedures are all on you. Don’t forget to lower the landing gear.
The autopilot for the majority of the aircraft, at least in my experience, does not work properly or at all. Stable flight, for the most part, just isn’t something I have been able to reliably produce using autopilot. The “AI” pilot is supposed to be able to take over control and fly the aircraft, kind of like a super autopilot, but that will often result in the aircraft flying upside down or into a mountain. At least it seems to be able to handle ATC communications without trouble, just like a real first officer (the latter part, not the former).
While I often spent hours at a time playing Flight Simulator X back in the day, the 2020 version isn’t keeping my attention. Maybe it’s the extended loading times between flights. Maybe it’s the lack of simulated challenges. Perhaps it is all the bugs… or maybe I just have more to do these days (Haha, I doubt that Jason -Editor). I just haven’t been able to sit in front of the sim for more than an hour at a time and that is disappointing.
The bones of a great entry to the Microsoft Flight Simulator series are there, and the framework to get it to greatness is present. Third-party support was, and still is, a massive business for Flight Simulator X, and the 2020 release of MSFS aims to keep that support alive. I am excited to see what aircraft become available to purchase as add-ons, and to see how they up the ante in terms of realism. There is already an effort to improve the A320neo flight mechanics and systems, so the development community is definitely ready.
Microsoft has said that support for MSFS will last for a decade, so don’t feel like you need to rush out today to buy a gaming PC — it might actually be best to wait a year or two for the ecosystem to fully blossom. If you must play now, and don’t want to drop a few grand on hardware, you can wait for the Xbox console port or try something called Shadow. Shadow is a gaming service that puts all of the expensive hardware in the cloud and runs locally on your device, ranging from a Mac to an Android phone. Simply put, the service is pretty damn amazing (and no, I get no kick backs). Granted, you need a fast internet connection for it to work, but it has enabled me to run MSFS without having to buy anything except for the $5 monthly Xbox Game Pass for PC subscription, which includes the base version of MSFS.
Happy flying… eventually.
All images are from Microsoft