Reviews

Slip the surly bonds of Earth — Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review

John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War, wrote an epic poem called “High Flight” that suggested that when we slip the surly bonds of Earth we touch the face of God. In my six short years in the Air Force I never felt so alive as when I was in the air. I wasn’t a pilot, but that didn’t stop me from experiencing the serene beauty and calm that only something as otherworldly as flight brings. Flying in a commercial airline isn’t the same as sticking your hand out the window of a single-prop Cessna and feeling the rush of the wind on your fingertips. There’s nothing quite like taxiing down the runway, pulling gently on the yoke, and feeling the plane break free as it reaches for the horizon. It’s been 14 years since Microsoft gave us a way to experience the thrill of flight with Microsoft Flight Simulator X. Technology has come a long way since then. Let’s once again slip the surly bonds of Earth and take to the skies.

Microsoft Flight Simulator isn’t a tiny game by any stretch. At a 127GB initial install, it also streams in a lot of data and for good reason. You’ll choose between two data settings — satellite data streaming and no world streaming, depending on your connection strength. Live streaming is necessary for pulling in live weather, real-time air traffic, photogrammetry, and more to make the world into a living, breathing, representation of the world around us. No world streaming is just as the name suggests, allowing the world to continue to spin with dynamic weather and such, but without the benefits of a live connection. All of this is accomplished with a meteorological service called Meteoblue.

Meteoblue works directly with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the National Centers for Environmental Prediction to collate an incredible amount of environmental data. Wind speed, humidity, pressure, temperature, satellite data, precipitation, and a massive laundry list of additional data points come together to deliver the most accurate and realistic weather we’ve ever seen. Better still, if you’ve enabled the live streaming portion, it’ll match precisely what the world is experiencing in that area at that time. Tying directly into the multiplayer aspects of the game, this also means that everyone’s weather is synchronized. Every wind shear that rattles your plane with turbulence is affecting everyone else simultaneously. It’s truly amazing to behold, but it’s not just cosmetic — all of this data can affect the 1000+ flight and control surfaces on each plane, making that data not only useful, but something you’ll have to plan around to have a safe and smooth flight.

There’s open world games, and then there’s this kind of open world. Microsoft Flight Simulator utilizes a treasure trove of satellite data gathered by their Bing search engine (which has over 2 petabytes of aerial data!) to recreate literally the entire world. Want to feel your pulse race as you approach what looks to be the scariest landing strip in the world? I recommend Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport in the Netherlands. Want to take off in Thailand and land in Bali? Done. Ever fancy a quick hop from Phoenix to Las Vegas? The strip is yours, complete with actual air traffic pulled in and placed programmatically in real time. You’ll even see vehicles on the ground, courtesy of the wealth of traffic data in Microsoft’s search engine. Here’s the thing though…they aren’t placed at random.
Without the aerial data, Asobo would have had to spend the next several decades trying to just place the trees in this game. Instead of simply laying pretty images (photogrammetry) on top of the world, they once again tapped into the compute power of Azure to try to interpret the data and programmatically place those objects in the world using complex algorithms. While not quite perfect, it’s so close that it’s hard to believe.

Before I could take to the skies, I’d need to take some lessons. Before I bothered with that, I’d need some proper gear. Plugging in my X56 stick and throttle, the game immediately recognized it and set up a default control scheme. In fact, it mapped schemes for mouse and keyboard, and my connected Xbox One controller. Even though it’s not supported yet (it’s already in their development pipeline), it even recognized my Tobii Eye Tracker 5 (my review) and it made suggestions on how I might use it in the interim.

With my control setup settled I jumped right into the training systems. My flight instructor gave me a quick look around the cockpit and then handed me the yoke. Each lesson is a small chunk of knowledge, compartmentalizing the skills you need to learn. Here’s a quick overview of the menus, as well as the first few training modules:

Popping into free flight, I immediately did the patently unsafe thing — I tested out the level of details settings by flying right through Times Square and taking a spin around the Vegas strip. Check it out in this video and judge for yourself:

When you want to take to the skies with your friends, Microsoft Flight Simulator supports a wealth of options. You can set it to only allow your friends to join, or you can engage with the world at large. You can have it pull in live flight and weather data, play with cloud cover, density, placement of clouds, hard ceilings and hard decks, where ground level is placed, and what time of day you’ll start your flight. You can even pre-program your flight path so your friends know where to set their headings. There are 20 planes in the standard edition, 5 more coming with the Deluxe version, and another 5 in the Premium, so you’ll have plenty of aircraft to choose from to fly with your friends. Inside the main menu there is a “Marketplace” tab that will hold all of the third-party content and mods we’d normally have to pry into previous games. Here it’s essentially as simple as adding a mod on Steam. You’ll find some familiar names like PMDG Simulations, Fly Away, and Orbx in the store, offering a mixture of free and paid add-ons for the world Asobo has created.

There is a number that is a source of confusion with this release, and that’s the number of airports. Just like the example above, you get a number of airports based on the edition you purchased, so where is that 37,000 airports number coming from? Well, here’s the thing — you get all of them. The biggest and most heavily trafficked airports are lovingly handcrafted through photogrammetry, satellite photos, and on-site measurements, whereas the remaining tens of thousands of smaller airports are done more programmatically. Don’t think for a second that makes them any less detailed. Even the training field in Sedona is amazingly detailed.

Speaking of planes, while the game is indeed tracking tens of thousands of them, the game does whittle it down to just the planes within a 200km range (not like that’s a small amount or anything), and displaying the 50 closest. It ensures that you are getting realistic flight information to avoid close calls and collisions while not overwhelming your data connection. Using Microsoft’s massive Azure infrastructure, it does this with an instance-like implementation you might find in an MMO. All of this is done behind the scenes, but it’s interesting how much crunching is going on underneath.

I’ve been dancing around this, but that’s only because it’s very difficult to even know how to describe just how absolutely gorgeous this game is. Regardless of settings, the level of detail in this game is crazy, but with everything set to Ultra it’s something completely beyond just about any level of expectation. Running it on a 1080Ti, I had no problem hitting 60fps at 1440p, with 4K and higher framerates awaiting you on newer hardware. The level of fidelity on every square virtual inch of this game is simply phenomenal. Zooming in on a plane reveals rivets, that’s expected, but it also reveals the small seams in between each section of the wing, the various warning labels both large and small, the roughness of the air intake fan as it meets the low-pressure compressor, and the condensation that builds on the wings. You could teach repair classes with the detail in the landing gear alone. Heading inside the cockpit I expected it’d be a perfect copy of the real-world instrument panels, but the reality of it is going to blow your mind.

It’s crazy that this is NOT a real-world picture.

Given that this isn’t a game but a simulator, talking about gameplay feels somewhat out of place. That said, let’s talk about what it’s like to fly. I’ve had the chance to take the yoke of a few military cargo planes for fun, and I did take an introduction to flight hop around the same airport seen in the training modules, but I’m a long way from being a pilot. The game starts you in a Cessna and gently eases you into flight concepts, with an emphasis on gently. While inevitably somebody will mod military jets with 35,000 lbs of thrust in the engines into the game, you are flying a single-prop plane with 180 horsepower at its disposal. I know I’m mixing measurements here, but suffice it to say that you won’t be climbing to 35,000 feet quickly — a Cessna is a slow glide up to 5500 feet. As such, everything you do in this plane (and every plane in Flight Simulator) is meant to be done gradually and with gentle precision.

One of my favorite things to do in this simulator is to just take off in places I’d like to visit some day and then cruise around them. Japan, Machu Picchu, New Zealand, the pyramids of Giza in Egypt — it’s all here. Being able to pause and look around these amazing places, seeing them in extraordinary amounts of detail, is ASMR in flight simulator form.

As I selected an aircraft, the game asked me for my flight callsign and tail information. I put in “Gaming Trend” as a laugh and I was surprised to hear the tower say that “Gaming Trend” was clear for takeoff on Runway 31. Further squawks told me what frequency to turn to, and other important bits of information. It didn’t sound like it was phoned in, either — it came across as if they had recorded it directly into the audio track. Check out the flights through Las Vegas and New York above to hear it in action. It put a smile on my face every time I heard it. Leave it to Microsoft to give us something this next level without so much as a peep about it.

So here’s the big question: Can you learn to fly using Microsoft Flight Simulator? I don’t know that I can answer that as I’m not a pilot, but I am 100% certain that you can practice what you’ve learned in the safety of your own home. With this level of graphical fidelity you’ll learn how to fly by landmark. With pre-flight checklists, communications with ATC (the tower), getting to try a variety of craft, and the ability to reinforce the muscle memory you’ll apply in real life, all while remaining completely safe, there’s nothing quite like it. For an amateur like me, Leonardo Da Vinci said it best: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward. For there, you have been, and there you will always long to return”.

100

Phenomenal

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Review Guidelines

There is nothing out there like Microsoft Flight Simulator. It delivers the entire world in unrivaled quality, combined with pinpoint precise controls and realism at a level that is unmatched. If you want a taste of the sky, this game is virtual perfection, and if you are learning to fly in the real world, nothing will reinforce what you’ve already learned more than Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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