The landing of a plane is never less than a marvel of scale. Eyes fixated at the landscape beyond a bit of plexiglass; cities and countryside, geometric shapes... colours. All coming together to form a larger and more wondrous picture of a time and place. Tiny structures and moving parts. Vehicles on highways, dirt roads, maybe even a boat or two. Yet even with landing gear extended, tray-tables raised, and seatbelts fastened – right up until that exact moment wheels touch tarmac, there’s a sense that what you see through that plexiglass could fit in the palm of your hand.
The miracle of flight is something to savour, no matter your seat. Microsoft Flight Simulator not only captures that feeling, it manages to put the entire world in your hands.
The latest instalment in the long running Flight Simulator series from Microsoft continues the trend of being as focused on ensuring the propeller on a Cessna 152 is the same dimension, size, and weight of its real-world counterpart as it is presenting the sort of distance and scale we rarely see in digital form. In 2020, Microsoft Flight Simulator leverages technology that feels as much of our current place and time as it does the immediate and distant future.
"The miracle of flight is something to savour, no matter your seat. Microsoft Flight Simulator not only captures that feeling, it manages to put the entire world in your hands."
From small towns to large cities, high-resolution satellite imagery is then processed by sophisticated AI to let Skynet-by-the-way-of-Azure cloud computing recreate structural and environmental shapes, heights, and detail without the need for an individual to go in and spend months modelling Sunshine West in Melbourne. It’s impressive to say the least. But again, throw in scale – as in the entire planet Earth – and the mind boggles. Especially when real-world weather tracking and entire systems that ensure clouds look and behave realistically, in addition to how wind affects your craft depending on which side of the mountain you’re flying, are also in place.
As a simulator the goal is to present the right real-world feel but also a photorealistic visual representation of the locations and various craft you’ll fly. With every airport and runway accounted for and only a small percentage of those hand-crafted, the results -- at their best -- rival anything we’ve ever seen in the digital realm. And in the ‘beautiful open-world to explore’ stakes, Microsoft Flight Simulator creates and exists in a tier of its own.
Is it perfect? No. There are entirely visible seams, places, and locations where you’ll notice a shadow mistaken for something else or what should be a building textured onto a hill. A weird line or elevation that looks like a glitch in the Matrix. At height and from a distance, it’s not a major issue nor is it a problem when so much of the world, the entire planet on which we all live, looks stunning.
By that same token there’s the understandable and immediate response you get from familiarity – flying over your home or a recent vacation spot. The latter of which takes on a whole new meaning thanks to 2020 being what it is. The intention going in is to heighten and reinforce memory, or at the very least a sort of spatial awareness. If something is missing or out of place, there might even be a sense of betrayal. Which is a natural and human reaction to have.
"In the ‘beautiful open-world to explore’ stakes, Microsoft Flight Simulator creates and exists in a tier of its own."
After features and videos began appearing following Alpha and Preview builds for Microsoft Flight Simulator, weirdly this sentiment took on a level of national and personal pride the likes of which no game or single piece of software has ever seen. Melbourne may not look exactly like Melbourne, but the photorealistic visuals bend the needle towards unbridled awe, more often than not. Even when it garners a mixed reaction, Microsoft Flight Simulator is always in the realm of wonder.
On that note Microsoft Flight Simulator lets you spin the globe, pick a spot, set the conditions, pick-out a plane, and soar. Visit the deserts of Algeria, the cloud-jutting mountains of the Himalayas, the vast countryside of Thailand, the beautiful nights of Kyoto, the scenic seafronts of Malta. The golden hour of sunset is miraculous here, godly in its pure warmth, as is watching a sunrise or taking on the not-so-simple task of piercing the edge of a storm.
A moment that once experienced, bathes you in sumptuous colours. Greens, blues, yellows, and more. At its best, Microsoft Flight Simulator feels alive.
As a PC title, and in all honesty Flight Simulator should have been used as a technical showcase for the upcoming Xbox Series X, flying at higher resolutions with detail settings cranked is taxing on even the most formidable rig. The footage above, as beautiful as it is, is bolstered by a top-of-the-line and clearly sweating NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti GPU and AMD Ryzen 3800X CPU combo. Scalable across a wide range of hardware, it’s no secret that to get the most out of Microsoft Flight Simulator you will need a powerful bit of kit.
But even here a wider appreciation for Flight Simulator’s scale enters the picture. As detailed in a recent preview session with developer Asobo, the studio and Xbox team at large view Microsoft Flight Simulator as a 10-year project. That is continual improvements made to its underlying technology, new features like VR support, a community-driven marketplace, new planes, more detailed locations, and a lot more.
"Microsoft Flight Simulator lets you spin the globe, pick a spot, set the conditions, pick-out a plane, and soar. Visit the deserts of Algeria, the cloud-jutting mountains of the Himalayas, the vast countryside of Thailand."
Like seeing flashing lights on the horizon, Microsoft Flight Simulator is a platform, a runway. The flight-path is clear, the journey smooth, and it’s one that’s only just begun.
In the end the big question that revolves around any sim is whether it’s a game, a piece of software, or something in between. On that front with Landing Challenges and engaging Flight Lessons that ease you into the world of Yokes and Rudders and Trimming, there’s enough to classify specific elements within Microsoft Flight Simulator as a game. Especially when Landing Challenges and events have scoring and leaderboards to inject that classic time-trial feel you might find in a racing sim. A whole genre whose game-cred is never really is brought into question.
Does the sense of awe wear off? Is the sense of isolation there when you’re alone at 15,000 feet? The sheer beauty and scope of the explorable Earth is here to tell us no. Equally, all doubt evaporated once we experienced the multiplayer side of Microsoft Flight Simulator -- a seamless group-up or drop-in deal that lets you explore the world with friends.
It was taking off high up in the Himalayas with propeller planes that presented a sense of challenge to following each other in such a stunning backdrop. Choosing the right path, attempting to elevate and climb high-enough to fly over a peak. Here the limitations of propeller planes were brought to the fore, physics and beauty at war as failure and decisions on where to go switched up, well, on the fly.
Lets try that again, but this time with a pair of jet-powered birds. Reaching the clouds wasn’t an issue, nor were there any impediments due to bad weather or poor visibility. You can change the weather mid-flight, which is awesome. With Mt. Everest in sight, amid the clouds and peaks and vistas the likes of which we may never see in person, a sense of freedom crept in. Pure bliss. So, we picked a spot between peaks, untouched by man, and decided to land our multi-million-dollar hunks of metal.
What we liked
A technical feat of staggering proportions
The entire world to explore
Every airport and runway accounted for
Incredible detail in how planes both look and behave
An entire world of vistas and beauty to discover
Intuitive lessons for flight newbies
Fun and challenging Landing Challenges
Multiplayer is seamless and wonderful
What we didn't like
VR not ready for launch
Needs an in-flight tracker to find your group
Some satellite imagery and locations not as detailed as others