Microsoft Flight Simulator is remarkable. A recreation of the entire world that you can explore at your leisure, whether you want to put on a faux-airliner captain’s hat and take on some intercontinental flights, or just hop in a prop plane while wearing your pyjamas. As you will have seen over the last year or so, it can look absolutely stunning.
While we technically had access to the game over the weekend prior to today’s release, we found it impossible to review. I mean, Dom could tell you about the torturous install process, with the initial app download followed by a further in-game install of over 90GB that is torturous in duration thanks to each file being downloaded and then decompressed in sequence, stretching out the install far further than speedy internet connections would otherwise be able to handle. He could also tell you about the lovely splash screens for Xbox Game Studios and Asobo before the game crashes. Then there are the joys of going through numerous troubleshooting steps, restarting his PC time and again, of reinstalling drivers and core runtimes – the joys of PC gaming. Let’s assume that the process will be much more concise and trouble-free when Microsoft Flight Simulator comes to Xbox.
I’ve personally had much better luck, installing the game as a troubleshooting guinea pig and giving it a quick go for half an hour. I don’t have a flight stick though, and certainly not the kind of set up with rudder pedals and a two-handed yoke that I got to briefly try at last year’s XO19. So instead I plugged in an Xbox One controller and just loaded into the game.
Where do I want to fly when I have the whole world at my fingertips, though? Well… as I’m sure literally every computer-literate person did when Google Earth first appeared, I decided to fly over my home, taking off from Gatwick Airport and taking a sharp turn south toward Shoreham, Brighton and the coast.
I’ve not really touched flight simulators before, my airborne escapades typically taking place in a fighter jet or… X-Wing. So perhaps the first surprise for me was just how involved flying actually is. Admittedly, I totally skipped any of the tutorials, so my trip was more like a passenger in a Hollywood action film stepping up to the plate when the pilot has been taken ill after having the fish for dinner, diving into the menus and checking controls, getting constantly beeped at and warned about flying too high, too low, too fast, too slow, too steep, too level. The only thing my plane seemed happy about was that it was slowly drifting on the wind to face west, forcing me to right my course every few minutes. For a supremely chilled out and relaxed concept, there’s a lot to do.
Playing on an Xbox One controller, it’s just a bit fiddly, with the game really wanting to have small and subtle inputs for those corrections that would be best done on a larger joystick, instead of on the edges of the dead zone of a little analogue stick. It’s still enjoyable though, once you’ve been taught or given up and looked up exactly what does what. A little extra refinement and the game could live quite happily on Xbox One.
Well, maybe with some extreme optimisation, because Microsoft Flight Simulator is a bit of a resource hog if you want it to look its best. On the whole, my Ryzen 3600 and Vega 56 combo can take it in its stride at 1080p, but loading times are long, even when installed to an SSD, and there can be some noticeable hitches, whether that’s down to my computer or the way the game loads in data from the internet. It feels like there will be some wizardry required for Asobo to scale this all the way back down to the base Xbox One with half decent performance.
We’ve all seen the game looking at its absolute best in trailers and screenshots, with stunning rain and lightning when flying through a storm, gorgeous recreations of some of the most iconic airports around the world. You soon discover that this has been built on top of a world that is decidedly flight sim-y. The AI world generation that’s been applied to satellite and flyover imagery is incredible, figuring out where roads go, which parts of the world to cover in trees, and filling in cities with little buildings and houses.
At a distance, it’s incredibly effective, but it’s clear that there’s still work to be done to refine this process, and a human touch is almost certainly needed in more places. As soon as you reach somewhere that you’re familiar with or look a little more closely, you’ll spot the generic buildings that are dropped in, turning terraces into detached houses in some places, blocks of flats in others, creating the feeling of flying over Cities: Skylines, where the roads have been laid, and then AI citizens and housing developers have bought plots of land and built the city afresh. This is part of the compromise of designing the game with a global perspective, but it’s still a slight shame that there aren’t more local landmarks like Brighton Pavilion that have made the cut. While some London landmarks have been captured, even Buckingham Palace has been reduced to being a boring old office block, unless you buy a DLC pack from Orbx, available via an in-game store.
I don’t think that undercuts what Microsoft Flight Simulator offers though, and it brings me back to that early sense of wonder that Google Earth provided in the mid-2000s. Sure, that was free, and Flight Simulator comes with a $60 ticket price for the standard edition, and a decade ago that would have kept this as a niche product geared toward those flight sim diehards. Game Pass and the mixture of first-month discounts and discount price for the PC-only Game Pass brings this much closer to free, so that more people will consider just trying it out and exploring the world.
I think that’s a fantastic option now, for anyone with a decently powerful PC, and in future when the game comes to Xbox. I doubt I’ll ever play it seriously enough to buy a flight stick, but it could just be an occasional haven where I can just go and visit some of the many cities around the world that feel so much more distant in 2020.
Before I get to that, I’m off to try and find where my parents live… in the dark.