In the annals of simulation history, few titles command a legacy and presence that Microsoft’s long running Flight Simulator series has enjoyed. The original released in 1982 and that was followed by a long line of simulators that pushed the abilities of each successful PC generation. Now, after a long hiatus between 2006 when Flight Simulator X first arrived, Microsoft Flight Simulator is back on the scene. The June 2019 trailer instantly changed the conversation about flight simulation and it was clear, even in those early days, that this new title would have us talking about it for a long time to come. Developed by Asobo Studios for Microsoft, the new simulation has been on the market for just over a month now. In that time I’ve been putting the new sim through it’s paces with one overriding question: Is this sim any good and will it stand the test of time? Here are my thoughts in this full review of the newest flight simulator platform on the block.
About this review
I’ve read a lot of reviews of Microsoft Flight Simulator. The big names in the gaming press had their reviews out on launch day and a few more reviews have trickled out since then. If you’re a regular reader, you know I tend to take my time with reviews and with Microsoft Flight Simulator I have spent as much time in the last month trying out the new sim in as many different ways as possible. I hope you enjoy the read, and more, I hope it’s useful in help you determine if you want to pick up Flight Simulator either now or at some later date.
This is a world simulator with aircraft as the vehicle
The more I experience the new Flight Simulator the more I appreciate the global, world simulating, perspective that the developers went with on this title. The new Flight Simulator’s biggest advancement is the representation of the world and how simulating it has changed from previous sims.
Flight sims for a long time now have sought to represent part or the whole of the world using automatically generated scenery created through data. That part isn’t new. The revolution that Microsoft and Asobo studios has introduced is how they bring that data together and how relatively seamless the experience for the end user is by streaming it in behind the scenes.
The entire world has been created using high resolution satellite and photogrammetry data from Microsoft’s Bing Maps and then designed the new sim to be able to stream that imagery in on the fly – as you fly! This means that you don’t need to download and store multi-gigabyte (or terabyte) scenery packages as we’ve had to in the past. Instead, the sim is fed imagery through your high speed internet connection presenting tiny pieces of what are petabytes of map data into your flight sim experience. It’s like Netflix for flight sim scenery and it works without a second thought provided you have a solid internet connection. You can also download and store a region locally if you want or the sim will work without streaming as well using a more generic look.
Good satellite imagery is one thing but the world also needs buildings, trees, and landmarks to really start to come alive and here is the next revolution. The whole world has been parsed using AI algorithms which creates and places buildings and objects on the scenery in all of the right places. Buildings are matched with available height data and photogrammetry where available. This is done using something called Blackshark.AI and the Microsoft and Asobo Teams can use this technique plus the number crunching power provided by Microsoft’s Azure computing platform, to map the entire planet. According to the developers they can build out or update the entire planet in about 72-hours and it’s something they intend to do on the regular as the sim continues to evolve.
Asobo and Microsoft have also signed deals with a variety of partners to feed data into their simulation world beyond just the static scenery. For example, MeteoBlue provides real world weather data, which is then injected into the simulation world. Real-world air traffic data is also mixed in with player aircraft to generate a realistic looking flight simulation world. Microsoft will even let you pick a real-world flight mid-air and allow you to control it for the rest of the flight if you want.
All of these features combine together with the more traditional pieces of the flight simulation experience. When you take it all in together, it’s impressive to behold!
A closer look at the scenery
Microsoft is offering a satellite imagery streamed experience of planet earth from pole-to-pole all injected nearly seamlessly into their simulation engine. Gone is the need to create your own orthographic imagery or download a custom pack representing a single region.
The real advantage of this comes into place when you can jump into the sim and decide on a whim to fly anywhere in the world and be reasonably assured of good-looking scenery. In one evening of testing I was able to jump from flying a GA aircraft above the city of Toronto to a bush plane adventure in Alaska to performing some aerobatics at a rural airport in Washington state. In each case, it didn’t take overly long for the sim to load me up in each of these spaces and let me get on my way exploring a new place on planet Earth. To be fair, load times can take a few minutes but this is par for the course and my X-Plane install takes just as long if not longer to load with some Orbx TrueEarth scenery installed.
Some places are undoubtedly better than others. I was less impressed by the imagery over Seoul South Korea than I was flying near Seattle. Also, while the satellite imagery generally works great, there are times where there are evident seams between different satellite images and some areas clearly have better resolution than others.
Information such as height mapping remains exceptional in some areas where in others its either not available or has been misinterepted by the AI system. There are some weird and unnatural terrain features created in some areas as a result. Although most of my experiences were excellent, you can certainly have an inconsistent experience at times. Some notable landmarks including mountains and waterfalls are sometimes robbed of their impressive stature as well. Mount Fuji in Japan looks great, Ireland’s high resolution imagery makes the emerald isle shine in any light but some areas such as Niagara Falls are somewhat failed by the autogenerated terrain.
Cities with photogrammetry are the ones that most look like their real world counterparts, however, if you decide to take a closer look you can see that the system doesn’t quite get everything right and there are clearly issues with the geometry on some buildings that give them a kind of ‘melted’ look. If you zoom in from a distance at lower detail levels the buildings will also appear as a kind of faux-modern pyramid. In other cases, small boats either appear flat and sunken into the water or as some sort of hoseboat/box like structure in other cases. In another example, one airport I landed at near Portland was more surrealist painting than real world. These are the exceptions to the rule but definitely examples of where the current system can fall apart.
Bridges are another difficult challenge for the system right now. Handcrafted bridges such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, made by 3D modellers, look great but the ones that the AI system interprets tend to arrive as blocky boxes without detail or any real shape to them and definitely don’t look like bridges. Other bridges are almost entirely missing and some are visible on satellite but appear under the water as the AI system didn’t get it right
On the other hand, the most exciting thing is that for anyone who lives in a place with highly detailed photogrammetry there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to fly over your house and see your actual house. I don’t mean an autogenerated piece of scenery but actually your house with the shape and colours matching the real one. I was lucky enough to have that experience and it was a really exciting moment.
Something else that Asobo Studios has done that is a unique addition is the introduction of wildlife. Although not in every corner of the globe, there are times where you’ll be able to spot birds, giraffes, or bears walking along on the ground. It’s just another way that this sim attempts to draw you into the experience.
Asobo Studios has said that they will continue, post launch, to upgrade different areas of the world and add more hand-crafted details where they can. Although we shouldn’t expect every city and every landmark to get that treatment, there are considerable numbers of points of interest around the globe that have gotten a decent treatment already. Chichen Itza in Mexico and Angkor Wat in Cambodia are examples of the more ancient landmarks that the sim represents and those are shared with famous modern structures such as the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, Burj Khalifa in the UAE, and the Space Needle in the United States (Asobo, how about a high fidelity CN Tower?). Other landmarks are passably detailed thanks to photogrammetry data although that handcrafted touch still results in the best-looking appearance.
These are definitely problems with the scenery system but I also want to make sure that I recognize what a landmark achievement this all still is. Compare this, the “default scenery,” versus that of any other sim and this immediately becomes obvious that this has pushed things forward in a dramatic way. Every photo of beautiful locations in the world that I see immediately causes me to wonder where it is and what it looks like in Flight Simulator and that provides for an experience unlike anything else we’ve ever had before.
Varying airports of size and quality
Microsoft has gone all out to represent as many airports around the world as possible with the final number being somewhere just over 37,000. There are still more that they have not captured yet, but I think most will agree that it is no small number that is covered.
Of the 37,000 airports, only a small handful have received a more premium approach some featuring high resolution imagery, handcrafted buildings and textures. The premium airport list includes the following in the standard edition:
- Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (Colorado, USA)
- Bugalaga Aitrstrip (CAMA) (Indonesia)
- Chagual Airport (Peru)
- Courchevel Altiport (France)
- Donegal Airport (Ireland)
- Entebbe International Airport (Uganda)
- Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport (Portugal)
- Gibraltar International Airport (Gibraltar, UK)
- Innsbruck Airport (Austria)
- Los Angeles International Airport (California, USA)
- Tenzing-Hillary Aiport (Nepal)
- Nanwalek Airport (Alaska, USA)
- John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York, USA)
- Orlando International Airport (Florida, USA)
- Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (France)
- Paro International Airport (Bhutan)
- Queenstown Airport (New Zealand)
- Mariscal Sucre International Airport (Ecuador)
- Rio de Janeiro-Antonio Carlos Jobim/Gaelao Int’l Aiport (Brazil)
- Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (Dutch Saba)
- Gustaf III Airport (France, Saint Barthelemy)
- Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Washington, USA)
- Sedona Airport (Arizona, USA)
- Sirena Aerodrome (Costa Rica)
- Stewart Airport (British Columbia, Canada)
- Sydney Airport (Australia)
- Telluride Regional Airport (Colorado, USA)
- Haneda Airport (Japan)
- Toncontin International Airport (Honduras)
- Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (Ontario, Canada)
The Deluxe Edition adds a few more:
- Amsterdam Aiport Schipol (Netherlands)
- Cairo International Airport (Egypt)
- Cape Town International Airport (South Africa)
- O’Hare International Airport (Chicago, USA)
- Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas (Spain)
Premium Deluxe adds still more:
- Denver International Airport (Colorado, USA)
- Dubai International Airport (UAE)
- Frankfurt Airport (Germany)
- Heathrow Airport (UK)
- San Francisco International Airport (California, USA)
Premium airports include the infamous Los Angeles International (LAX) and Paris Charles du Gaulle airports which represent the large international airports on the one end of the spectrum. Courchlevel and Saint Barthélemy’s Gustav III airport appeal to those interested at landing at the world’s more quirky (and most challenging) locations. My favourite is Donegal in Ireland.
There are other airports out there that aren’t “premium” but they are more carefully put together than the average airport. The rest are generated using an autogen system. For a lot of airports, the details come off as adequate, while others do have some problems or are missing entirely. This is the case with some military airports in countries where those bases are blurred on Bing maps.
On the whole, I’m pleased with the state of the various airports out there. Excluding the ones that have been given real attention, your average airport has just enough detail to look passable and the buildings are in my experience almost always in the right spots which means practicing circuits at your local airport, like I have been doing, has been an enjoyable experience.
A smart aircraft list
Asobo Studios saw fit to ensure that Microsoft Flight Simulator came with a good variety of aircraft and the more I look at and fly the types on the list the more I think they really picked a smart list. There’s a terrific variety of aircraft both in terms of types and configurations. Those focused on airliners have lamented having just three but when you break the list down into more details you can see that they have offered up a couple of each type with a small number of single engine and twin engine general aviation types, a couple of turboprops, aerobatic types, ultra-lights, business jets, a trio of bush planes, and of course the airliners.
Here’s the full list:
- Pitts Special S2S
- 747-8 Intercontinental
- TBM 930
- DA40 NG
- EXTRA 330LT
- Flight Design CTSL
- ICON A5
- CAP 10
- DR400-100 Cadet
- Bonanza G36
- King Air 350i
- C172 Skyhawk (G1000)
- C208B Grand Caravan EX
- Citation CJ4
- Savage Cub
- Baron G58
- C152 Aerobat
- C172 Skyhawk
- 787-10 Dreamliner
- Virus SW 121
- Citation Longitude
- Shock Ultra
The aircraft selection offers a cross section of popular ways to fly and experience the sim giving everyone except for helicopter and glider pilots something to fly right out of the box. Asobo has stated that additional aircraft packages are going to be released and that several helicopters and full helicopter functionality are something they intend to add to the sim at a later date.
All the aircraft are rendered at very high levels of detail inside and out with crisp textures and impressive PBR material rendering. Two complaints about the aircraft visuals can be levied against this sim. One, the aircraft little too clean appearing as if they have just come from the factory without any wear and tear at all. Seeing as Microsoft has licensed each aircraft it is likely that this is a slight concession to the companies they have licensed from who want their aircraft to look their best. Speaking of looking their best, my other complaint is the lack of available default liveries built into the sim. Each aircraft has just one right now and although third party skin packs are arriving rapidly, Asobo Studios really should generate some more built-in options as well.
Systems modeling that goes deep but not that deep
Asobo Studios has taken a pragmatic approach to systems modeling in their aircraft. They have prioritized the essentials of the flight experience and offered that at a remarkably high level of detail but no further. The more complex the aircraft the more compromises have been made.
Some aircraft such as the Cessna 152 are almost entirely modeled without anything left off the feature sheet except for maybe the ability to open and close the doors and windows. Most of the GA aircraft are well represented with most of them have glass cockpits featuring the many iterations of the Garmin G series of avionics packages. They are working well enough to get by but again they are a bit barebones at times.
I do appreciate the NEXRAD radar information being fed in without any extra plugins or add-ons required.
Nearly every aircraft in the sim has some sort of autopilot related bug. It may be connected to the autopilot itself, or what happens when you speed up the simulation rate (to fast forward to your next destination) or perhaps the use of the active pause function. Whatever the case, I’ve had the autopilot try and kill my virtual pilot on more than one occasion. Other times it works smoothly and without incident.
Although all aircraft have clickable cockpits, the more complex they get the more you will see the “Inop.” tooltip pop-up while hovering over switches and buttons. Airliners are the most complex aircraft and the least complete in terms of system modeling. You can still have the basic airliner experience with the core essentials of the experience all modeled. That includes everything from basic start-up, flight planning, pushing back from the gate, starting up the main engines, taking off, engaging the autopilot and then landing on the other side. None of that should be mistaken for a “study level” simulation of airliner operations. For that we’re going to need some third-party releases to help fill that in. More casual fliers may still enjoy taking to the sky in a 747 all the same.
A few aircraft such as the business jets and the King Air 350i also feel like they could use a bit more time in the oven. There’s no reason why the push button keypad, part of the Garmin avionics package, can’t be modeled as part of this pragmatic approach. For now its still inoperable except for the pilots menu button. I’d also really like to see the flip down HUD on the Citation Longitude become functional. For a bit of fun it’d also be great if the seatbelt sign button (and associated chime) were also part of the airliner package.
To be fair to Microsoft Flight Simulator, none of its competitors offer these kinds of high end features out of the box either. The closest competitors, X-Plane 11 and P3D, are rarely judged based on their default aircraft but rather their wide assortment of high-quality third-party aircraft including some high-end study sim level products. Those will come too with PMDG, Aerosoft and others announcing high fidelity products on the way. There’s also a freeware mod already available for the A320neo which may end up replicating the success of the Zibo mod for X-Plane.
For what they are, Flight Simulator offers plenty of depth and detail and does it just as well as its competitors if not better when it comes to out of the box aircraft. For those wanting a study sim experience, you’ll need to wait a bit longer.
Aircraft flight modeling
Flight simulators are inherently compromised in their attempts to render real world physics in real time as CPU power is just not yet at a level where fluid dynamic calculations can be done in real time. As impressive as the latest sims are, they are still not going to get every nuance and every detail right although many are now far ahead of anything we’ve seen before. The thing that matters most to me is how aircraft in a sim feel and if it fools me into occasionally feeling like I’m actually flying. I care about the numbers, yes, but they are secondary to me.
Although many have accused Flight Simulator of not being realistic enough, in my experience all of the aircraft have plenty of nuance to their handling attributes in the new flight model and that there’s enough here for me to get the sensation of flight. There are definitely good points here for quirky handling attributes here and there and things like stalls and spins feel good. It also does something that I’ve not seen anywhere else which is modeling the interaction of weather with the surrounding terrain. Flying near tall buildings, a large hill or a mountain range have provided unique and varied wind and turbulence features and that really elevated the experience.
Flight Simulator is the first sim where I feel like my aircraft is truly flying on a river of air. This is a river that sometimes has eddies and jets which are capable of tossing my aircraft around. It’s an impressive feeling and one that I’ve not seen done at this level ever before.
This experience is helped by an impressive sound set that includes some well timed creaks and groans from the aircraft when hauled through tight turns. In fact, the entire sound set really is excellently connected to the aircraft flying experience.
According to real world pilots and some documentation, there are some problems with the ‘by the numbers’ performance. The worst offenders seem to be the airliners and several Airbus and Boeing captains have taken to forums and YouTube to point out performance inconsistencies in the aircraft that they fly. Additional work to tune the flight models is no doubt required and several GA aircraft also probably need some time spent on them to get them right.
Notably absent is pilot G modeling. There are no red outs or black outs. This is hardly an issue in a regular Cessna 152 but something to consider in an Extra 330 or Pits Special.
The bottom line is that the flight model is definitely sophisticated enough possessing none of the “flying on rails” experience that I remember so vividly from FSX. There is a lot to like here for both casual and flight sim enthusiasts but expectations should be tempered a well. None of these issues appear to be fatal to the simulator or the experience and it seems all but certain that Asobo Studios will be working on improving this part of the sim into the future. Does it dethrone X-Plane, the purported king of flight models? I don’t think it does but it comes close enough.
Flight plans and navigational systems
Flight Simulator has set out some ambitious goals for how they manage navigation in the sim and they mostly hit them but not quite always. The map screen is one of the core parts of the interface and it offers an intuitive and easy to use way to find an airport, set it as a departure point and then just get to flying. Or you can set yourself up and fly from any point on the globe in the air just like that. But it goes deeper too as you can set some basic directional waypoints, departure and arrival, or you can get into the world of IFR flying and make full use of real world navigational points, SIDS, STARS, VOR, plus ADR and ILS beacons.
In one instance I was flying in New York state learning about and testing the VOR beacons in a Cessna 152 and the system worked just as it should. We intercepted the correct radial and were able to navigate to our destination airport without too much trouble. Of course the GPS based systems used in modern aircraft are all there and work well. ILS on the other hand is sometimes problematic from what I’ve seen an experienced bringing you down close to the runway but maybe not quite right where you should be. Some tweaks might be needed, possibly at individual airports only.
For the less technically inclined you can also always just hit the V button to bring up the ‘VFR map’ which offers basic functionality – although it could offer a bit more ground detail.
Weather like we’ve never seen it before
As a weather and weather forecast enthusiast for many years, the prospect of live weather injection into the sim was an exciting one. Although not the first time where weather has been fed into a sim, this comes bundled by default with Microsoft Flight Simulator and it offers some impressive abilities to project real world weather events into the sim.
Fly locally on a cloudy day and it will look cloudy in the sim. If storms are moving into the region you’ll probably be able to find them there too although I have noticed that there is often a delay from the real world into the sim world. Still, the effect is immersive and impressive and the transition between weather states is smooth as well – something that default weather in X-Plane doesn’t do.
This feature being baked into the basic version of the sim opens the door to real world weather events influencing the entire community. For example, the recent impact of Hurricane Laura on Texas and Louisiana in the United States saw hundreds or even thousands of virtual pilots flying into the hurricane – I myself did a little hurricane hunting on two different nights and it was an incredible experience.
In another experience, I flew over parts of the west coast recently that have been so completely devastated by the forest fires raging in that part of the continent. Although the sim doesn’t explicitly model the fires or the smoke, it does bring the low visibility in through fog. It’s another way that the sim interacts with the real world that is both fascinating from one point of view and sobering from another.
There are problems with the live system right now that causes the sim to render all winds as being about 2m/s from 225 degrees regardless of circumstance. I found this with the hurricane flying experience with a powerful looking storm with virtually no wind or rain modeled in. The most recent patch solves some of these issues but there may be more to work through. As the bugs are worked out I’m sure the live weather experience will continue to impress and even with the current problems I find it still feels much more natural and impressive than anything that I’ve seen before.
When live weather is failing you, there’s also the ability to select from a series of pre-set conditions from clear skies to thunderstorms and snowstorms. You can do this at any point during the flight and see what the difference feels like all in the same experience without having to restart.
Icing is also part of the weather system and that offers one of the coolest and most immersive features I’ve seen with the aircraft’s windows, wings, and other surfaces icing dynamically based on the conditions. It has impacts on flight operations as your speed indication suddenly and dramatically drops as the pitot tube ices over and the warning alarms start to go off.
Challenges and adventures
Flight Simulator offers a decent number of scenarios to help challenge you in different ways. There are two categories currently featured. Landing Challenges and Bush Trips are two ways to interact with the sim and have different experiences.
In the Landing Challenges, you’re put in an aircraft on approach to landing at one of a long list of scenic and interesting airports. Your goal is to put the aircraft on the ground and do it as smoothly and professionally as possible. Once done, you’re scored on a variety of different categories and ranked in the world based on how you performed.
The landing challenges are fun and they get you practicing one of the more difficult aspects of flying an airplane. At the same time, there’s a competitiveness aspect to the experience and you can always go back over that landing another time and see if you can do better on the scorecard.
The other option, Bush Trips, are among the more engrossing experiences you can have in this sim. Its also one that you can do on your own (with live traffic) or with friends. Three adventures currently exist taking you to places like Patagonia in the XCub and southern California in the Savage Cub.
With no VFR map icon on the list you have to use your aircraft’s systems (if they have them) and your own eyes to navigate the scenery and find your way from point to point. The long routes necessitate check points and can easily take you anywhere from several to a dozen or more hours to complete. Fortunately, you can save at each check point before carrying on. It’s easily some of the most fun I’ve had in the sim so far and it makes me hope that Asobo Studios can offer more challenges and experiences over time including some more bush trips – although nothing is stopping anyone from organizing their own.
I feel like there’s plenty of room for other types of activities as well. The aerobatic aircraft call out for future air racing modes and special events as just one example of a way that this sim could extend the functionality here.
Multiplayer and flight traffic
Baked into the Flight Simulator experience is a persistent multiplayer world. Drawing on a lot of technologies that I would associate with a massively multiplayer game, Flight Simulator can put other pilots flying in your corner of the virtual globe into your experience. You may see them as distant nav lights, or clogging the runways of a busy airport, but in either case it ensures that your skies are no longer empty. Flight Simulator can also fill the skies with AI aircraft that follow realistic timetables and schedules. Things end up looking a little more orderly when you do this and may be the option for some looking for maximum immersion.
Of course, flying alone is just fine but you can have tons of fun with friends and this is well implemented in theory right now if not in practice. Connecting with other Flight Simulator users enables you to see who is online, where they are flying, and then you can even pop into an aircraft right next to them (midair if you want). You can also arrange private group sessions without the bother of other users being around although that too is an option.
The problem is in the buggy implementation. With my group we’ve sometimes been able to connect and see each other online but at other times everyone has appeared offline or only intermittently appeared. Sometimes people wink in and out of existence while you’re flying and I’ve even seen my friends flying invisibly to me but with their nametag displayed clearly above them. We’ve also had it where everyone was in a group but not part of the same “shard” multiplayer experience so we weren’t able to see each other despite being in a group and flying over the same area.
Despite our best efforts to troubleshoot these problems, it seems to be the software rather than hardware or networking configuration related. We’ll have to wait to see this clear up.
Multiplayer network code is also adequate but not at the gold standard that I’d like to see. Aircraft, even under good network circumstances, tend to jitter back and forth a little bit. Although its nowhere near as bad as the old DCS World server desync which saw aircraft shooting back and forth this still reduces immersion during formation flights. Again, its not game breaking.
A flight sim title is rarely something that’s released and then never changed. Plans announced by Asobo Studios and Microsoft suggest that Microsoft Flight Simulator will see anywhere from 5 to 10 years of support with the next year sounding like it will be an active one. Even without the direct support of Microsoft and Asobo, they have wisely built support into the sim for active development by third parties with more than 700 having expressed interest in developing for the sim.
Aircraft and scenery developers are among the most obvious and we’ve already seen free and paid for scenery packages released. The first paid for aircraft modules have also come out and there are undoubtedly many more on the way. They are available and sold through the in-game marketplace but Microsoft has also wisely not restricted the sim to only the marketplace and so other well established points of sale such as Orbx’s OrbxDirect are other ways for people to buy in. Freeware also benefits as it can be installed the old-fashioned way by copying and pasting into the appropriate game directory.
These options will expand the scale and scope of the available aircraft and scenery packages well into the future.
Training and difficulty options
Perhaps one of the best things about the new sim is the thought put into training and helpers that should help new virtual pilots get into the sim. The intense hype around the new sim has rightly attracted plenty of new faces to the series and to flight simulation in general and so it only makes sense to offer a good training experience. And this appears to be among the best.
There are a series of eight training missions that start you with the basics of control and take you through landings, takeoffs, and all the necessities of flight. They feature voice overs and they are short enough that you can start over and repeat them regularly if you needed to without feeling like the experience is long or onerous and I really think they will help newcomers to the hobby get started.
Microsoft Flight Simulator also offers plenty of optional pop-up tips that suggest to new pilots what they need to do at this stage of flight and even what button they should press to accomplish that goal. That’s great for folks starting out and it really helps to get things moving.
Even better is the interactive checklist option – a feature that I think ALL flight sims now need to aspire to. A resizable, configurable, pop-up window can be displayed that lists everything that you need to do to start your aircraft from cold and dark. Even better, if you can’t find the control you need, you can click the ‘eye’ icon and it will move the camera to the control and highlight it in glowing blue. This is outstanding and easily one of my favourite features. Other sim developers need to do more things like this.
The sim also offers progressive difficulty levels. You can set it so that you don’t need to worry about overspeeding an aircraft or even worry about crashing into the ground. You can just bounce back up to flying attitude. Or you can turn the difficulty level all the way up and have the more difficult experience.
Performance and difficulties
As glowing as I feel about Flight Simulator on the whole, the experience has not been trouble free for me and for others its been even worse.
The download and install process has been fraught with troubles. First, you download an installer client (about 100mb) from either the Windows or Steam Store. Then once that’s installed, the rest of the content is pulled in during a lengthier install process that downloads well over 100gb worth of aircraft and assets. It’s this second part that some have had no issues with while others have had countless errors, crashes, and ultimately failures to install. Asobo has already issued one patch but others may be required to solve this problem.
The sim also has performance and stability issues. For example, plugging in or unplugging any hardware device while playing will cause a crash to desktop on most systems. This appears to have been fixed now but was a frustration on launch.
Others are seeing performance issues on even the highest end hardware with some of the airliners being among the most difficult to get running at stable framerates. On my own system I’ve noted that 16GB of RAM is just barely enough for custom medium/high-end settings in the sim. A GPU that have less than 6GB or even 8GB of VRAM have noted performance related issues as well.
Performance will change a lot depending on what’s going on. More AI objects (including ground crew, aircraft, etc.) and a more complex aircraft such as the 787 Dreamliner which is notorious for having lower frame rates will certainly impact the performance. Fly in something simple like a Cessna 152 in a more remote area with few other aircraft around and things run great.
Your experience will vary but it’s clear that the new Flight Simulator is a performance hog at times that will continue to benefit over time as better hardware becomes cheaper and more accessible. There’s also clearly room for some optimizations to the current software which I hope will shore up the experience for those with older systems.
The published system specs for the minimum PC is as follows:
|OS||Windows 10 version 18362.0 or higher|
|Video Memory||2 GB|
|Processor||Intel i5-4460 | AMD Ryzen 3 1200|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GTX 770 | AMD Radeon RX 570|
A recommended configuration asks a lot more:
|OS||Windows 10 version 18362.0 or higher|
|Video Memory||4 GB|
|Processor||Intel i5-8400 | AMD Ryzen 5 1500X|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GTX 970 | AMD Radeon RX 590|
Even the so called recommended specifications underplay the requirements needed to get maximum enjoyment. Although I think you’ll be able to play the sim on both configurations, to do so without stutter and without turning all of the details down to the minimum will require some seriously strong PC hardware. A high end multicore CPU, GPU with at least 8GB of VRAM, and 32GB of RAM running on a M.2 NVMe are where you want to be to be able to turn up all of the details to the maximum and even then I suspect that this sim will push things to the limit.
With Microsoft Flight Simulator, Microsoft and Asobo Studios have not only revitalized a famous and long thought dead legend of the flight simulation world but they have brought it back to life with the aim of setting the standard for flight sims in the future.
It’s no small wonder that we’ve seen the sim talked about in the gaming press like few others. While the latest X-Plane, DCS, P3D or IL-2 release will come and go without even a blip on the radar, Flight Simulator has simultaneously captured the attention of flight sim fans and the general public at the same time. It has inspired articles in the mainstream gaming press and even the general media. It’s partly responsible for a spike in hardware sales and the reason why trying to buy a new joystick right now is so difficult. None of these attributes speaks directly to the quality of the sim but they exist adjacent to it as this sim is not just software but also something of a cultural phenomenon in this corner of the entertainment market.
I have not been remiss to point out this sim’s flaws throughout the review and the difficulties with performance, stability, and installing the sim in the first place are all hurdles to be overcome. It feels as if Flight Simulator may have been rushed to market ahead of some perceived internal deadline. That being true or not, it’s clear that the sim does need work and will need to be patched well into the future adding refinement on all fronts. On the other side of the coin, flight simulation fans are used to dealing with complex and sometimes troublesome software and so in this way Flight Simulator does not break the mold.
The reason that these issues don’t particularly concern me is because this is just the start of the journey. Although Asobo Studios is still establishing their reputation post launch, it looks like both they and Microsoft are planning for a long road ahead with new content and improvements to the core of the sim planned out for several years from now. This is as much about a single title release as it is a new platform with which the sim will grow on supported by both the developers, third parties, and by the community itself as we’ve already seen ample examples of. Once the third parties have had more time to dig into the SDK and start delivering on vast quantities of content, I think we’ll see this sim come into its own.
Streamed satellite imagery, photogrammetry and AI autogenerated scenery together with a handful of hand-built points of interest combined with a good flight model, a wide selection of aircraft and aircraft types and a well thought out interface brings together both revolution and refinement into one impressive product. But it is also a product that needs a little more time to solve some pressing issues before I think more will be fully satisfied. Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t beat its closest competitors in every category but it does offer a complete package, free from the need for added plugins and time spent installing scenery packages to get the most out of it. This is a strong platform to grow a successful sim from and I see a bright future for Flight Simulator as it continues to grow. I can’t wait to see what the next chapters are!