Microsoft Flight Simulator preview: Next-gen arrives ahead of schedule

The sky's the limit for Microsoft's new flight sim. Get a look at all that's set to arrive when the game launches next month.


As someone who has closely followed all the new game announcements and trailers from each of the next-generation console gameplay showcases, I was underwhelmed by the abundance of vague footage and obvious cross-generation visuals. With a few exceptions, my hopes that the next generation of consoles push visual limits forward has been delayed into next year (much like most things in 2020). 

Thankfully, Microsoft has been friendly to PC gamers in recent years and is preparing to drop the newest iteration of its Flight Simulator series onto PCs in late August. Sure, it's just a bunch of planes flying around, but it comes with a presentation that summons up memories of a past time when PC games constantly pushed the limits of technology. This is one of the first real looks at the future of gaming and people should be excited, even if they aren’t stoked to be a virtual pilot.

Taking off

Building on the foundation of its previous simulators, Microsoft Flight Simulator aims to offer the most realistic presentation of flight ever seen. If you love open-world games, you’ll be delighted to know that the entirety of planet Earth is the canvas for the flying action. Making use of the latest in PC hardware and the processing power made possible by Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing network, Microsoft Flight Simulator will deliver a virtual Earth with unprecedented detail.

Using satellite imagery and topographical data, the world has been meticulously recreated with a mix of bespoke elements and procedurally generated accoutrements. Iconic locations such as New York City and Paris have received additional attention and will offer properly-scaled 3D representations of their streets and structures. These special locations will also be enhanced by the use of photogrammetry to make the textures as lifelike as possible. The same attention to detail is also being given to some of the world’s most popular airports with faithful 3D recreations of real-life hangars and towers.

The fun is not limited to the big cities as everything on Earth has made the cut. You can choose to fly over your own neighborhood and will likely be able to spot your own place. All airports and runways known to civilization, even those made of dirt, will be included. Nothing is off-limits. If that weren’t enough, Microsoft Flight Simulator also offers a next-generation weather system that pulls real-time data from the internet. If you decide to fly over your house while in the middle of a real-life thunderstorm, that same thunderstorm will be occurring in-game at the same time. As seasons change, so will the landscape, with winter ushering in snow-covered terrain that looks as amazing as the rest of the game.

Reaching cruising altitude

The amount of detail present in the game is mind-boggling and an all-new rendering engine works to make the presentation as lifelike as possible. Featuring a checklist of all the latest and greatest graphical techniques, Microsoft Flight Simulator looks like a million bucks. From insanely detailed 3D cockpits to the fluffy clouds, everything on display is on a previously unseen graphical level. As you land or fly dangerously close to the surface, dynamic grass and vegetation start being rendered and add to the immersion. The grass will even blow with the direction of the wind.

Making use of physically based rendering for materials, the shiny hull of your aircraft or the dull rivets on the wings look incredibly realistic in the real-time lighting system. High-quality ambient occlusion is applied to all the nooks and crannies of the cockpit controls, helping them to nearly jump off the screen with detail. Metal surfaces, water, and even cockpit glass are capable of showing screen space reflections that offer a high resolution and contact hardening. Flying into inclement weather offers the chance to see lightning illuminate giant pillars of clouds scatter throughout the horizon. The same clouds scatter light and cast real-time shadows onto the aircraft and terrain.

Night flights are arguably more impressive as populated areas feature millions of street lights and virtual rendered traffic occupying the highways and streets. These are not simply white and yellow dots meant to mimic the look of lights on the ground — the street lamps offer real-time emissive light sources that can be reflected on the bottom of a fuselage when flying low or offer a soft ambient glow when flying hundreds of feet in the sky. Obviously, this level of fidelity comes at a cost. Current pre-release builds of the game will run around 30 fps on a RTX 2080 Ti at maximum detail at 4K resolution. This is not out of line with other AAA releases from the last year, but things will get better as we expect new high-end graphics cards from both NVIDIA and AMD to be on shelves ahead of the holiday season. 

It’s the little things

Microsoft Flight Simulator would be exciting just on its visuals alone, but it is also packing a supremely complicated simulation system under the hood. If some part of the atmosphere can affect a real plane, it will affect your virtual planes. Particle simulations will even take into effect the interactions between weather systems and mountains, mimicking the way air is moved down and around cliffs and valleys. All the parts of the planes are taken into account from single-props all the way up to the mammoth commercial jetliners.

The game supports all sorts of input devices from mouse and keyboard to flight yoke and throttle systems. The amount of user interaction required is fully adjustable on the fly, allowing for a serious simulation experience or a super casual flight with inebriated buddies from Discord. The simulation modeling for planes and the air will always be running at the highest levels as the difficulty selectors only dictate how much user interaction is required from the player. You will be able to land an Airbus A320 on a Guatemalan drug mule dirt runway using an Xbox One gamepad if you wish (assuming said dirt runway is long enough to actually land the jet and you don’t run the thing directly into the jungle). Track IR support will make the cut for launch, allowing owners of the peripheral to further add to the immersion by taking glances around and outside the cockpits. 

Looking ahead

Microsoft plans to support Flight Simulator for years to come, including loads of planned updates to real-life cities and airports. This is intended to be a product that grows and evolves with the community over many years. Eventually, ray tracing support will be integrated into the rendering engine to provide a further refinement to the visual presentation. VR support is also in the pipe for post-launch release and will be featuring a partnership with the upcoming HP Reverb G2 headset that was developed in a collaboration between Microsoft and Valve. The development team is working closely with peripheral manufacturers at places like Honeycomb and Thrustmaster for upcoming equipment that is purpose-built for use with Microsoft Flight Simulator.

A focus on the community is also important for Microsoft. Previous flight simulators from all developers have enjoyed support from third party content providers for years and Microsoft Flight Simulator will be no different. Microsoft has already teamed with some of the biggest names in the flight sim community to ensure that a steady stream of custom-built content will be available for players to purchase to enhance their experience, including new aircraft and premium airports from PMDG, A2A, and other prominent members of the flight sim community. 

Eventually, the game will make its debut for the Xbox Series X sometime next year, but for now, Microsoft Flight Simulator is the PC belle of the ball heading into this fall. Set to launch in August for the Windows 10 store and Steam, it hopes to be the simulation that players have always dreamed of.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

From The Chatty
Hello, Meet Lola