Microsoft Flight Simulator is As Awe Inspiring as Flight Itself
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 05:00pm 30/07/20 | Comments
Over the past few weeks we’ve been taking flying lessons in the impressive Microsoft Flight Simulator, and we’re here to tell you all about our journey across the globe...
Scale is often a key component of the simulation genre. From getting a full city view as you lay down roads and residential zones in Cities: Skylines to managing a fleet of delivery trucks driving on various routes across the entire continent of Europe in, err, Euro Truck Jamz 5000, scale remains key. This also works the other way, however. Farming Simulator, for example, not only lets you pick and choose what crops to grow but also have you inspect them up close and then take direct first-person control over a tractor-’thing’ to do all the farm-’stuff’.
When it comes to PC simulators and software that bleeds over into the gaming space, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is a veritable institution. The very first version dates back to 1982 and was used by many at the time as a benchmark to ensure the first IBM-compatible PCs were exactly that -- compatible. A time when Hello World met Hello Skies.
In the decades since, Microsoft Flight Simulator has remained at the forefront of real-world simulation and PC graphics technology. Offering budding pilots a manual thicker than any Legend of Zelda guidebook to read through; to both learn the ropes and use as a means to figure out how to disengage the flim-flam from the what’s it.
In that sense Flight Simulator doubles as both escapism and an educational tool. Its laser-like focus on replicating the look and feel of what it feels like to fly a plane is the digital pot of gold at the end of an accurately rendered rainbow. But, if you’ve been on a plane to... anywhere from within Australia, you’ll know that even at 30,000 feet (9144 metres) it takes a long time to move around in a non-After Burner or Ace Combat world.
The last version to hit retail shelves and makeshift homemade cockpits was Flight Simulator X back in 2006. Microsoft Flight Simulator, or as it is known within the sim community ‘Flight Simulator 2020’, sees the long-running series make its triumphant return to PC (an Xbox Series X release is also on the cards). The long-awaited return of an all-time classic? Yeah, reason enough to get excited. And that’s exactly what we’ve been for months now, in a way usually reserved for games with bright neon-lit futures and augmented abilities to learn.
Weirdly, this comes from a place that knows full well what a flight simulator is. As a young lad back in 1990 (a time when The Simpsons was airing its first season) my cousin got a MS-DOS powered PC and it came with a little program called Flight Simulator. The manual made little sense, so it took us probably an hour just to figure out how to get the plane to move. From there another hour to successfully take-off. When it came to landing – we went full Indy. Fly? Yes. Land? No.
"Flight Simulator doubles as both escapism and an educational tool. Its laser-like focus on replicating the look and feel of what it feels like to fly a plane is the digital pot of gold at the end of an accurately rendered rainbow.”
Long story short, flying from Melbourne to Sydney in an interactive jam like Flight Simulator takes at least an hour just like it does in the real-world. And probably more than that when you factor in getting the hang of the controls. But, those visuals in the preview footage for Flight Sim 2020. Photorealistic. Beautiful. Stunning. Maybe this time would be different, and I’d spend the time needed to learn how to fly properly.
Worst case, it’d offer some stunning vistas and push the AusGamers gaming rig’s AMD Ryzen 3800X and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti to their limit.
A Visual Feast
Some of the global sight captured in July 26 in Microsoft Flight Simulator
On that note Microsoft Flight Simulator more than lives up to its visual promise, it’s beauty and scale is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen (or played). It’s the first thing that hits you, and it’s a level of detail that extends to everything under the hood. Assuming plane slang is the same as car slang.
In addition to its triple-digit GB installation size, Microsoft Flight Simulator draws on multiple petabytes of cloud data housing all manner of satellite info, numbers, and high definition photogrammetry to allow for the entire planet to be there ready for you to visit in a manner of seconds. There’s an offline mode, but to get the full photorealistic effect for every location outside of those touched-up by hand you’ll be streaming a few GBs an hour easily.
"In addition to its triple-digit GB installation size, Microsoft Flight Simulator draws on multiple petabytes of cloud data housing all manner of satellite info, numbers, and high definition photogrammetry to allow for the entire planet to be there ready for you to visit in a manner of seconds.”
Microsoft Flight Simulator features every airport in the world – and there are thousands.
Put it this way, there’s no commercial hardware currently available with enough storage to house a full-fledged Microsoft Flight Simulator installation. And that data isn’t wasted, AI takes care of most of the rendering of things like mountains, buildings and houses. Yeah, you can see individual houses in this. Through analysing high def satellite images, AI can work out not only where a building or structure is, but where its walls are situated and exactly how tall it is. Cutting edge deep learning like this is one of the main reasons Flight Simulator looks as good as it does.
Wind, dynamic weather and clouds are generated based on real-world analysis and data crunching. Clouds in Flight Simulator are created using a cutting-edge technique known as ray-marching. Think ray-tracing, but with surface movement being traced, and you’re on the right track. It’s a tool and technique on the bleeding edge of real-time graphics.
In a special preview event detailing Flight Simulator, members of the Asobo Studios team revealed that these ray-marched floating bits of fairy floss were also being generated without a cost to GPU performance. At that point the team could have said anything, viewing something that accurately models and replicates every single location on Earth whilst ensuring that the tide on every shore line behaves as it should and that when wind moves over a mountain it cools down, it’s all a series of technical magic tricks. But it’s not smoke and mirrors.
" Clouds in Flight Simulator are created using a cutting-edge technique known as ray-marching. Think ray-tracing, but with surface movement being traced, and you’re on the right track.”
In the same presentation, which also went into the physics of how planes behave – in a way that exposed my need for flashy Air Crash Investigation-style re-enactments – I asked the question born from decades of knowing how hardcore, hardcore simulations can be. What if you just want to take to the skies and see the sights? The answer not only surprised but paved the way for the sort of accessibility we weren’t expecting to see in Flight Simulator.
Flying isn’t easy, it’s a challenging and deep, deep learning process, where the reward is not only a better understanding of your abilities, but the sheer awe that comes from dancing among the clouds. In Flight Simulator, the ‘tutorial’ or introductory elements are built and modelled after real-world flight lessons. Jorg Neumann, the head of the Microsoft Flight Simulator team, compared them to his first jaunts in a real-world plane. Where at first he was only given access to the yoke, the flight instructor taking care of the rest.
“It felt like flying in a videogame”, Jorg told me. “And with every lesson, the instructor added one more thing, another little thing to learn, and it built up from there”. It’s a statement that describes the approach taken with Microsoft Flight Simulator, the lessons are designed to ease you into flying a Cessna 152 slowly, leading up to you having the confidence to fly on your own without guidance.
Through detailed assistance and co-pilot settings (that you can activate at any time during a flight) there’s an accessibility here that we haven’t seen in a flight simulator before, and it’s commendable. And it’s not simply there for newcomers, those that fly one plane in the real world may not know another. Deep, detailed lessons alongside in-flight guides and tooltips allow anyone to jump out of the cockpit of a Cessna and into the cockpit of a Beechcraft or even an Airbus.
Landing in New York. Local time 0400, and local time in Melbourne, AU 1800.
It was after completing a bunch of these lessons that the confidence level reached a point where opening the in-game globe, picking a spot, and just flying was something to savour. Sure, most assists were left ‘on’, but that felt natural. This is the current stage of my piloting skill and career.
And it’s here where all the parts formed a single picture; the stunning vistas, the cloud data used to generate the environment, the real-world weather, the fact that each streetlight you see at night is an actual light-source. In a way Microsoft Flight Simulator doubles as a time-machine, a teleportation tool, letting you experience sunrise in Greece one moment and a cloudy afternoon somewhere near Iceland the next. In the current climate, with real-world flight and international travel a big question mark – what is deeply peaceful, serene, and awe-inspiring becomes therapeutic too.
"Through detailed assistance and co-pilot settings (that you can activate at any time during a flight) there’s an accessibility here that we haven’t seen in a flight simulator before, and it’s commendable.”
To be honest I feel a little silly putting this into words, because in a way it simply re-affirms factual elements present in Microsoft Flight Simulator. Where you can experience anywhere in the world as it exists now and the recent past. Recently it was 6pm in Melbourne and I decided that it would be cool to try landing a plane in New York, one of the world’s largest cities. Using current live satellite info and weather information the local time in the Big Apple was 4am. Taking control of the yoke though, and seeing the orange haze of a new day on the distant horizon was not only beautiful, it was calming and introspective. The moment felt like being there, existing in two places at once. At home in Melbourne but also over flying over a city many thousands of kilometres away.
This is the sort of escapism that videogames at their most zen can provide, and in that sense Microsoft Flight Simulator exists on a, well, plane all its own. It isn’t a game in the traditional sense. It’s also not pure simulation, something that hearkens back to the series’ roots going all the way back to the 1980s. By leveraging cutting edge technology across physics, weather simulation, rendering techniques, lighting, AI and drawing vast amounts of real-world data from the cloud – whilst you’re amongst the fluffy stuff high above the surface – it’s something more.
Like flight itself, Microsoft Flight Simulator is a testament to human achievement. It’s spiritual.