Flight simulators don’t really belong on console. They need peripherals, they need a static setup, and they need you to dedicate hours of time in order to accurately embarking on a flight between Heathrow and Philadelphia. Someone didn’t tell Microsoft or Asobo Studios though, and those silly folks have brought Microsoft Flight Simulator to the Xbox Series X|S family of consoles. The thing is, it’s all turned out rather well.
The Microsoft Flight Simulator brand is a gaming icon, and for good reason, as it typified and cemented a whole genre while remaining its undisputed king, pretty much until its successor arrived. The newest iteration immediately usurped its ancestor upon its release for PC last summer, and now, almost a full year after release it’s clear that this is a flight simulator of unsurpassed beauty and depth, but with a newfound sense of accessibility.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a hungry beast, needing so much raw power to run effectively that at launch it had older PCs, including my old GeForce 1070-equipped MSI number, whimpering beneath their desks. Inherently CPU-limited, it stuttered, it creaked and (for me) it barely worked. Not all of this was MSFS’ fault or it’s designers, but one of the occasional difficulties of PC gaming and software design. Still, in the end I simply gave up and bought a new PC.
Fortunately, the Xbox Series X and Series S have arrived in our living rooms and they’ve got a few hardware solutions of their own – alongside some deep optimisations to reduce the CPU load on PC. Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox Series X outputs at a crisp temporally upscaled 4K, while the Series S iteration plumps for a solid 1080p, both targeting 30fps which is perfect for this sedate experience. Even with an Xbox controller in hand, this simulator doesn’t feel out of place in the living room.
Part of that might be the modern trappings; gorgeous satellite-influenced imagery, iconic landmarks and reliable Microsoft presentation make it feel closer to Forza Motorsport for plane enthusiasts than a precise simulator experience. That’s how it’s going to hook you in, and once it has its ailerons in you, they’re not letting go.
Once you’re in, you realise this isn’t a gung-ho experience, despite the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick tie-in. I learned ever so often in my first hour with it that this is not Ace Combat. Aircraft do not simply turn and go where you want them if it’s too demanding a movement, and nor do they stop and start on a sixpence. It’s something we’re not too attuned to in the console space and it takes some brain realignment to get used to. Once you’ve got used to it, it’s an experience unlike much else.
It’s easy to throw around words like zen, and meditative, when talking about MFS, and at various points that is the kind of effect this piece of software can have on you. Flying above the rolling countryside of the British Isles, or skimming the African savannah, there’s often little to do other than take it all in. It’s not demanding a million things from you, there’s no glowing chevrons to follow, and there’s no overarching danger of a missile lock-on – you’re just flying. It’s peaceful, picturesque and unendingly appealing.
That is only part of the story mind you. You still have to do a multitude of things to get your plane in the air, and once it’s there, it won’t just stay there. You’re making constant incremental changes, whether being buffeted by the wind, or ensuring you’re staying on course for your chosen destination. There’s gauges to check, landing gear to manipulate, and a mild fear of running out of fuel to manage as well. You can always engage with more of the flight assists, turn on the AI Flight Assistant to auto-pilot you along, or skip to a different part of the flight plan.
It’s utterly engaging, whether you’re just flying for the fun of it, trying to find your house, or taking a Discovery Tour of one of the world’s most recognisable cities like New York.
While MSFS manages to look remarkable at most points, there are a few technical hang-ups you should be prepared for. There’s a noticeable amount of pop-in off in the distance, especially when flying over a city, and some odd shimmering as the game tries to resolve reflections in rivers and lakes. Some of the issues from the PC version of the game also remain, including the appearance of some joyfully silly floating cars when they hit a suspension bridge, and some overly long loading times. To top it all off, the frame rate will take the odd moment to catch up, at least on Series X.
Another PC-like quirk is the way that the game installs. The base game is a straight forward download just shy of 100GB, but if you want to take in the sights of the UK or Japan, for example, you might be wondering why Buckingham Palace is just… missing. It’s a flat texture. Since last year, Asobo has released 5 World Update packs that have visited different regions and added local landmarks, handcrafted airports and polished up the more iconic terrain. Each of these is an additional download, taking Flight Simulator closer to 150GB with all of them installed, but that will only happen when the game is open on Xbox.
If you want to fly with a friend, you should also expect some teething issues as you get used to how the game handles multiplayer. By default, you share the skies with live air traffic and some other players, but it’s not immediately obvious how you can join a buddy, even once you’re in a group – essentially, you just need to have good eyes to spot them in the distance.
It’s clear though that it’s still a remarkable achievement. You may well want to invest in a dedicated peripheral or two if you really want to get into the spirit of things – we spent most of our review time using the Thrustmaster T.Flight Full Kit X – but it’s impressively enjoyable with just a controller in hand, even if you will have to dive into the menus a lot more to make incremental changes. There’s also the option of hooking up a keyboard and mouse, but at that point you may be starting to wonder why you’re not sat at a PC.