So often, Microsoft Flight Simulator feels like the future. I’ve been playing daily for pretty much a month now, and I still struggle on occasion to believe it’s real; dozens of hours logged in the skies and the sight of the sun dipping over the horizon, some troublesome weather bubbling over a city or the hazy dawn seen from five miles high will still have me catching my breath, fumbling for the capture button or hurriedly getting out my phone to take a picture of the screen. As a technical achievement, what lead developer Asobo has conjured here is remarkable – in a year when we’re seeing the introduction of powerful new consoles, I’d be surprised if either can yet produce a spectacle as eye-catching and awe-inspiring as something that can run without much grumbling on an aging and moderately specced PC.
Microsoft Flight Simulator can feel perfectly next-gen, but its greatest asset – and I think the smartest move Microsoft has made with this long-awaited comeback – is how it’s so firmly rooted in the past. This is the eleventh instalment in a series that’s not far off hitting 40, and it’s approaching the landmark with style; rather than some messy reinvention, Microsoft Flight Simulator leans into middle age by doubling down on the nerdy detail that’s always been at the heart of the series’ appeal. It simply serves it all up with a bit more grace.
And it is never anything other than a sim. It’s a loaded term, that, which means many different things to many different people, so let’s just say that Microsoft Flight Simulator is concerned first and foremost with authenticity. It is as accurate a representation as Asobo can muster of airplanes, airstrips and airspace, and of the act of flying. And flying, you might recall, can be dreary and monotonous – it can be about wrestling with arcane bureaucracy and calling upon vast reserves of patience with little to do but watch the scenery roll by. The tedium of travel is something that Microsoft Flight Simulator can offer you, if you so desire. Indeed, it has it in spades.
If you want the full fifteen minutes taxi from stand to runway, it’s all there for you. If you want to learn the lingo of the skies and converse with air traffic control, requesting pushback, takeoff clearance and so much more besides in an act of near-endless dialogue, go for it. If you want to manually run through the long, intricate checklist then be my guest. Maybe even think about printing off all three sheets of A4 dense with everything you’ll need to do to get a 747 up in the air. Draw up a detailed flight plan and see through its execution over the hours – and when you get to your destination, if you want the full fifteen minutes taxi from runway to stand, well you’re in for a treat.
Microsoft Flight Simulator can also, if you’d prefer, be a fair bit more approachable than that. 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.
Or you could just dick around. Get in an aerobatic Extra 330LT and kick it about like it’s a sprightly sportscar, dancing through the valleys of west Wales’ Mach Loop – or wherever else in the world might take your fancy. Or jump in a 747 and soak in all the detail of that busy and elegant cockpit as you cruise with the Queen of the Skies above the clouds. Then you might also recall that flying is something that’s majestic, be it meditative or mind-meltingly thrilling, always invoking a primitive thrill. Flying, essentially, is an awful lot of fun.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is as keen to impart that as it is to replicate all the fine details. This is an approachable thing in more ways than one. You can play it with a yoke, rudder pedals and a throttle quadrant to really get a feel for these things – and they feel fantastic, beholden to the wind and the weather in tangible ways and each craft with its own idiosyncrasies and stall points to learn. Or you could play with a single flight stick, or mouse and keyboard or even a controller – and while the complexities of the cockpit haven’t mapped particularly neatly to an Xbox gamepad, if you want the simple and perfectly satisfying experience of flying then it’s entirely adequate.
If you’re looking for the game side of Microsoft Flight Simulator, though, you might be a little underwhelmed. There’s a brief tutorial that runs you through the fundamentals, including all you’ll need to embark on the trio of bush trips – extremely enjoyable expeditions across diverse terrain in rickety bush planes where you’re scooting from point to point by reading the landscape – and a generous handful of landing challenges. By traditional game standards, it’s not much at all (though I’ve still been witness to out-and-out war being conducted on the leaderboards for certain landing challenges).
This is a sandbox in the more traditional sense of the term, where you’re given all the tools from the off and invited to explore an open world. And it is, of course, the entire world, in all its beauty and all of its strange glory. Microsoft Flight Simulator’s biggest trick is its representation of Earth in as much detail as possible, an alchemy of map data, streaming technology, photogrammetry and procedural generation making for something that’s mighty convincing, and frequently breathtaking. It doesn’t always work, and there’s some regular funkiness to endure – I took a trip to Penang to flyby my partner’s parents who’ve been stuck there over the summer, only to find the major highway from the airport to Georgetown entirely submerged in water. Rivers can develop giveaway tics in their bends that alert you to their artificiality, and trees can sometimes grow from the most awkward places.
Such is the splendour elsewhere, though, that more often than not it’s easier to look the other way. 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.
It’s endless, which makes it feel mean to complain about some shortcomings elsewhere. There’s a glorious roster of planes, and they’re all gloriously detailed, but there’s not quite the variety I might have hoped for. Maybe that’s after comparing it to something like X-Plane 11, with its SR71s, Space Shuttles and gliders, or maybe it’s because it’s missing the truly vintage machinery that’s often starred in Microsoft Flight Simulator. And maybe it’s a little much to expect from the first steps of what’s been set out as a ten year project, with more to come over the coming weeks, months and years. I’m excited to start playing around with big third party developers expansions like Orbx’s forthcoming London landmarks pack, fascinated to see what mod-makers do with their new toy and pleased that Microsoft seems to have created an open enough space to support it all.
And I’m awaiting it all with an enthusiasm that’s taken me by surprise. Like many players who’ll be drawn to this most attractive of games, I can’t claim to be an expert in the discipline of flying, nor in the simulation of it. But Microsoft Flight Simulator is the kind of thing that can make an enthusiast of you, or rekindle a passion that’s been lying dormant. I’ve started to work over my own checklists, and map out my own flight plans. I now can’t bring myself to spawn on a runway, and instead enjoy getting lost in the rhythm of procedures as you set off from your stand. Over the past month or so, Microsoft Flight Simulator has sent me on a spiral of discovery, exploring the world as well as the often mundane, frequently magical detail of air travel, my appreciation of what Microsoft and Asobo have achieved growing all the while. When it all comes together, this thing can be as uplifting as flight itself.