Microsoft Flight Simulator review: The killer app

While it can be rough around the edges, Microsoft's new globe-trotting airplane sim represents a whole new level of fidelity and allows you to explore the world like never before.

9

When you spin the clocks back about twenty-five years, you’ll come upon a time in gaming where the gradual shift to 3D graphics and the emergence of powerful new hardware worked in tandem to provide exciting new experiences and possibilities. For those immersed in gaming at the time, progress seemingly moved at a breakneck pace. As the growth in consumer processing power began to slow and the complexity of games and other software grew, seeing new releases that changed the way we look at video games or similar software became a less common occurrence, but never lost the thrill. When these moments in time come around every so often, you should jump on them while they’re hot. The 2020 edition of Microsoft Flight Simulator is one of these important releases and you should go play it now on PC and, if you aren’t a PC gamer, hope that Microsoft is burning the midnight oil to ensure that it launches with the Xbox Series X.

I can show you the world

The elevator pitch for Microsoft Flight Simulator is simple — this is the best-looking video game on the market and it allows you to visit anywhere on Earth in a matter of moments. The fact that your jaunts around the globe occur in planes is only somewhat trivial, but aircraft aficionados can also rest assured that their desires have also been fulfilled. Regardless of your passion towards aviation, Microsoft Flight Simulator is something worth spending time with. It reminds me of the older “must-have” applications in the earlier days of CD-ROM where you had to have an encyclopedia or a copy of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? because those were the reasons you owned a PC. 

Admittedly, the market is exponentially more crowded and there is a game to satisfy any possible niche, but the way that Microsoft has opened up the planet for touring represents a serious shift in how exploring the land and seas will be experienced going forward. In the same way Wikipedia made CD-ROM and paper encyclopedias nearly worthless, Microsoft Flight Simulator does the same thing for globes (and if not for its map data, Google Earth). If you wanna check in on the Sydney Opera House at midnight or if your personal hero is Pablo Escobar and you always wanted to land a twin-prop on an unmarked Columbian dirt strip in the jungle, you are totally covered.

For years, game publishers have been promising that the power of the cloud will make games cooler and more lifelike. Sadly, they were almost always blowing smoke up their players’ backsides with Microsoft being one of the worst offenders (remember how the cloud was gonna make Xbox One games great and Crackdown 3 was touted as a prime example?). Fast forward to 2020 and the promise of cloud-assisted video games has finally come to pass with Microsoft Flight Simulator. Using mountains of satellite data and imagery, Microsoft has managed to create an often convincingly realistic recreation of Earth. 

The amount of data required to deliver the visuals on display is probably measured in the tens of petabytes (or more?). No one has that kind of drive space available and the initial download would take months, even for those with good broadband connections. Microsoft Flight Simulator presents an install size north of 100GB but will also constantly download data while you fly to provide next-gen visuals through the use of photogrammetry. Think of it like an extra Netflix stream that runs in the background to make everything look as realistic as possible. The feature can be disabled and you can still go anywhere on Earth, but the level of detail will take a massive hit. Users with a poor internet connection or draconian data caps will be at a disadvantage in this respect, but this is the price of entry for cloud-assisted Earth recreation.

In addition to the wonderful surface visual being streamed into your game, Microsoft Flight Simulator also sports some incredible lighting and volumetrics. Finding yourself in a desktop wallpaper-worthy scene is all too easy while flying around. The dynamic day/night cycle and impressive weather effects work in tandem with the fluffiest clouds in video game history to turn any moment into something worth gawking at. From the ever-present fog lying over the Great Smoky Mountains to sunsets painting mountains in Utah with a polished copper hue, there is a nearly endless supply of things on Earth worth seeing for yourself.

Like any boundary-pushing piece of software that came before it, Microsoft Flight Simulator will put a hurting on your hardware. The game needs CPU cores, memory, and all the GPU power you can spare. The more power you have, the better it gets. Processing this insane amount of detail isn’t easy, but it is worth the steep price of admission. I will note that load times can be pretty rough, depending on your drive speed and internet speed. An NVMe drive and fiber connection are needed to keep them under control. If you ever needed a justification for upgrading to a 4K display, this is the one. Gliding over Naples and seeing hundreds of homes, buildings, and streets while still being able to pick out details of each is an experience unmatched by any other. Watching the glass on a 787 Dreamliner slowly ice up as you push upwards through the cloud layers and being able to turn and read the labels on each of the aircraft’s hundreds of switches and buttons is magnificent. 

Oh yeah, you can fly planes, too

While I’m finding it difficult to stop gushing about the scope and presentation of Microsoft Flight Simulator, I should also note that it is, in fact, a flight simulator. Depending on which edition of the game you opt for (the Standard Edition is available on Game Pass on launch day), you’ll be granted access to a variety of aircraft to enjoy for casual sightseeing or for playing out your commercial pilot fantasies. Additionally, many of the world’s most iconic airports have been painstakingly recreated for that extra attention to detail that aviation nuts will be sure to appreciate.

The in-game flight physics modeling is impressive and is an evolution of the progress made in the flight simulation genre over the years. Some aircraft require more work than others, but the game has a set of assists available that can hold the hands of even the greenest potential pilots. Three assist presets are available to allow players to quickly shift between levels of realism and control complexity, though each individual assist setting can be manually toggled for a customized experience. As I am not much of a pilot myself, I opted to enjoy my time with most assists enabled, save for assisted takeoffs, landings, and a few other variables.

The game supports mouse and keyboard, gamepads, and a wide variety of flight sticks and yokes. I hit the skies using the Xbox One S gamepad and had a great time. There are some finer controls and things that required me to use my keyboard, but it is possible to take off, fly around, and safely land with only the gamepad, should you desire. Those looking for a more serious time will find an avalanche of keybinds awaiting you — so many that the control bindings menus have search bars with filters available. Each aircraft may have its own binds unique to the installed equipment or capabilities of their real-life counterparts.

You can choose to spin around the globe and pick any random spot to depart from or you can build your own custom flight plans from the game’s menus. Additionally, the developers offer various challenges with predetermined locations and conditions so you can attack the pilot leaderboards if you strive for a competitive experience. You can take your flights solo or opt for a live session where any other online players near your location can be seen in real-time or on radar. The game even imports commercial flight data so you will routinely see real-life flights happening in your game. You could even sit on the tarmac at any major airport and just watch planes come in and out all day.

Most of the quirks and issues with Microsoft Flight Simulator are related to the flying parts of the game. I experienced a variety of bugs from harmless to those which sent my planes directly into the ground. Some of the premade content, like the bush plane excursions, have issues where it is impossible to complete the flights due to a lack of available fuel (though you have the option to play with unlimited fuel at all times). Sometimes the autopilot systems don’t function as they should in all situations. The graphical wonder can sometimes get wonky if your client cannot download data from the cloud fast enough. I had one flight into Chicago where things got choppy and all the terrain and buildings were comparatively ugly to the high-detail photogrammetry presentation. Once the download caught up, all the detailed textures and models popped in and my frame rate went back to being smooth as I circled around Wrigley Field.

This is the captain speaking

There is not enough room to list everything else offered by Microsoft Flight Simulator, but everything I did get to see during my time with the game was impressive. At the end of the day, it is still a flight sim and will never have the mass appeal enjoyed by other genres, but I can wholeheartedly recommend that everyone get in on it. The game marks the official entry into the next generation of visual fidelity and scope. Even if you only have a passing interest in the subject matter, it is worth a look on Game Pass just to fly over your own neighborhood or to take a short vacation to Hawaii. With everyone looking to the upcoming consoles to provide the next-generation experience, don’t let this one slip off your radar. Niner out of 10


This review is based on the Windows 10 Store release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. Microsoft Flight Simulator will launch on Windows 10 Store and Steam August 18. It will release on Xbox Series X at some unspecified time in the future.

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.

Pros
  • Unparalleled visuals
  • Planet-sized scope
  • Accommodating to both new and seasoned users
  • Actually uses the power of the cloud to improve the experience
  • Impressive flight physics
  • Justifies the absurd amount of money you spent on your PC
Cons
  • Can be buggy
  • Highest visual settings can cripple current PC hardware
  • Load times dependent on hardware and internet speed
From The Chatty
  • reply
    August 17, 2020 8:18 AM

    Chris Jarrard posted a new article, Microsoft Flight Simulator review: The killer app

    • reply
      August 17, 2020 8:42 AM

      Make a "How much streaming data does FS2020 use?" if you want the SEO love

      • reply
        August 18, 2020 9:49 AM

        We did. Thank you for the suggestion.

        • reply
          August 18, 2020 9:54 AM

          Yeah, but you made a "we don't have a clue and can't be bothered to investigate" article.

          Sigh

          Shouldn't be too very hard to grab some typical numbers if you know any IT professionals.

    • reply
      August 17, 2020 11:26 AM

      This is the game that Azure (Cloud Gaming) was built for, not the Crackdown stuff that they hyped up and never used.

    • reply
      August 17, 2020 2:22 PM

      I wonder if Google Earth could so something like this without the "flying a plane" bit. Google Earth already streams in assets, they just don't look as good.

      • reply
        August 17, 2020 2:23 PM

        (and you could imagine them doing weather, night/day, etc...)

      • reply
        August 17, 2020 3:57 PM

        They already have a VR app that's exactly this!
        https://arvr.google.com/earth/

      • reply
        August 17, 2020 4:02 PM

        If my experience with their VR app is any indication I don’t think Google is top of the heap in global Photogrammetry quality right now.

        • reply
          August 17, 2020 4:25 PM

          When it's good it's fantastic, but it can get real ugly real quick. I still like hopping in from time to time and just zooming around the planet, though.

    • reply
      August 17, 2020 6:09 PM

      Does it run on xbox?

      • reply
        August 17, 2020 6:14 PM

        It will once the new ones come out.

      • reply
        August 17, 2020 9:24 PM

        There will be support for Xbox. No official date on when

    • reply
      August 17, 2020 6:40 PM

      Me trying to fly planes

      https://i.imgur.com/jnpC8Uk.png

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