We learned yesterday that Microsoft and Paramount are going to be doing a little cross promotion that involves Top Gun Maverick and Microsoft Flight Simulator which will bring us an F/A-18E Super Hornet to the sim. Free! That’s a really cool promotion and one that all MSFS pilots will be able to take advantage of. There have been a lot of opinions around the community on just what this is and isn’t and I thought I’d offer my own thoughts as well.
This is (probably) not Combat Flight Simulator
Not everyone knows this but the MSFS marketplace doesn’t allow weapons on the aircraft sold there. There are aircraft with weapons hung on pylons but those are sold through other stores. The main store is a no-weapons zone. Right out of the gate I expect that Flight Simulator will not be changing its course any time soon and offering a modern combat flight simulation experience.
I have questioned what the utility of flying a combat aircraft without access to its full range of capabilities, however, a quick look at the market tells me that this is a popular experience. It’s easy to see the number of and overall interest in combat aircraft in civil aviation sims and that isn’t going away.
FSX for many years had a carrier and Hornet combination of its own. Aerobatics work with Blue Angels skins were commonplace in online arenas and other sims including X-Plane and P3D ship with their own mix of combat aircraft for the same reasons. There are compelling non-combat reasons to fly these aircraft including performing carrier landings, navigation, and just experiencing the thrill of going to full afterburner and shooting up through the clouds or zooming low around terrain features. It can be done anywhere in the world too and that is apealing.
This announcement doesn’t appear to signal a shift that Asobo is changing course or taking their focus away from continuing to develop the rest of the civil aviation aspects of the simulation. If they do go and do a combat flight simulator title, I’d expect a few years of development to build out the modeling for things like targeting radar, IFF, destroyable objects, ground and naval units, a damage model, SAM and AAA systems and so on. I say with some degree of certainty that this is not the announcement of a return of the Combat Flight Simulator brand.
Adding the fighter jet archetype
Even without explicit support for this type of aircraft, Microsoft’s new sim already has a slate of combat jet aircraft emerging in its marketplace. From a cheap Typhoon model (with the avionics of a couple of airliners) to DC Design’s sometimes controversial F-15 to JustFlight’s work in progress Hawk to the T-45 that I reviewed from IndiaFoxtEcho, its clear there are already combat aircraft in the sim and there are many more than the ones that I just listed.
These aircraft face some challenges because the base level support for them really isn’t present. Combat aircraft avionics require custom coding and many developers would benefit from having more built in support.
MSFS does have HUD support but it’s not mature. The display isn’t collimated properly and the text is often hard to read. Further development here would be a big benefit. I suspect that Asobo will be working to improve it with the side benefit that the growing number of civil aviation aircraft with HUD features will benefit too.
Until a recent update, the sim also had no support for aircraft traveling over Mach 0.9. Some “hacks” using the older FSX flight model still present in the sim allowed for faster travel but with none of the nuance of the modern flight model. Supersonic flight is now possible but further improvements to add more nuance to the transonic region of flight would be welcome.
Nearly all of these would benefit from better feature support and Asobo has a habit of building aircraft archetypes that offer their own good experience to virtual pilots while building foundational components that other third party developers can than expand on. I think that’s what the F/A-18E is going to do for Asobo and for the sim.
The Supercarrier and the spyplane
The F/A-18 isn’t the only thing coming to Flight Simulator. We also got a few shots of a Nimitz class supercarrier to go along with the Hornet and we also saw another glimpse of the mysterious spyplane that has appeared in the various trailers for the movie.
Let’s talk about the carrier first because I think that’s interesting. There’s already an aircraft carrier mod available for Flight Simulator and people have managed to make it work with aircraft like IndiaFoxtEcho’s T-45 which is really neat. But the next level would be official developer support and built in functionality for things like catapults which other developers could make use of for other aircraft carriers. The same goes for arresting gear.
The trailer shows a pair of Hornet’s on the elevator although they are not moving so its unclear if this is a fixed state or if Asobo intends to build the interior of the carrier and enable the elevators to work. That’d be really interesting if so!
What I don’t think this will be is the simulation that Eagle Dynamics is selling for their DCS: Supercarrier module. Animated deck crew, briefing room, LSO station, and other features are likely to be simplified or non-existent. I could be eating those words when more details are released but I suspect that these features are not likely to be present.
The spyplane is interesting too. It’s possible that Asobo is building this so that they can expand their simulation into the hypersonic realm and open the door to other supersonic and experimental types to be developed. Imagine if JustFlight or some other studio tackled a detailed SR-71 for the sim? That’d be an interesting ride and this may open the door for that.
I’ve seen many comments around the various sim communities about this. Some have disparaged this add-on as not being detailed enough while others have pinned too many hopes on it being a new combat simulator. I don’t think either take is correct.
Adding an F/A-18E Super Hornet to Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t unseat DCS World as the go-to high end combat flight simulation. It’s likely Asobo won’t go as deep into systems modeling as we’ve come to expect in DCS and that’s ok as it doesn’t necessarily need to have that level of detail. It almost certainly isn’t the beginning of a new combat flight simulator either.
What this will be is an entertaining expansion to the sim that opens up millions of players on PC and Xbox to the fun of flying a carrier based combat jet aircraft with the kind of performance and aerobatic capability that such an experience comes with. It will also very likely follow Asobo’s other archetypal aircraft by laying foundational groundwork to better support other combat aircraft simulation in the sim. It will do that by connecting with what will probably be a renewed interest in flying thanks to the release of Top Gun Maverick which is slated to hit theatres November 19, 2021 (after over a year of delays thanks to the pandemic).
There’s one more thing that it does. It will make people some people hungry for more. And when they are, they can turn to simulations like DCS World that adds detailed layers of combat flying to the fighter jet experience. That grows the hobby and ensures an ongoing future and that is a very good thing!