After the utter failure of Microsoft Flight in 2012, Asobo Studio was tasked with the gargantuan challenge of reviving the beloved franchise and bringing it back to its roots. It is now 2020 and we are finally getting our first proper Microsoft Flight Simulator title in the franchise since the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator X in 2006 and the subsequent Steam update in 2014.
I am new to flight simulators, though I have always been interested in giving one a serious try. I have messed around with some flight simulators in the early 2000’s, but I found myself giving up in under an hour due to the steep learning curve. Yet something about the almost obsessive love fans have for the genre makes me want to drink the Kool-Aid and get into flight sims. I want to make it clear that this review is from the perspective of a curious new player. If you are looking for a review from someone with more experience in the genre, I strongly recommend looking elsewhere.
Beyond the short lessons provided by the flight instructor during training and the standard interaction between pilot and air traffic control, the game is completely devoid of dialogue. The instructor has some cheesy sayings, but thankfully she is mostly focused on teaching players how to fly. Beyond that, the player’s journey is completely in their hands.
Microsoft Flight Simulator lives up to its name, so the learning curve is going to be difficult no matter what. There is a reason why pilots need so many hours of flight time to earn their license. Luckily, Asobo Studio provides a tutorial and an incredibly deep set of assistive tools to help players get into the game no matter their skill level or the degree of realism they are interested in experiencing.
The tutorial involves several levels in a Cessna 172 where a flight instructor will walk players through taking off, flying, navigating, and landing. The tutorial is helpful, and I found myself flying the Cessna 172 with some confidence by the end of the training. The jump to the open world with new planes is a rough experience. Newer planes like the Textron Aviation Cessna Citation Longitude are particularly brutal as they use a new screen-based cockpit. As a new player, I feel like I am already trying to drink from a firehose as I learn new terms and try to decode messages from air traffic control. The game is in desperate need of an in-game manual of some sort with a glossary of terms and labelled pictures of each plane’s cockpits. Right now, players simply must rely on a web browser and use the mouse to hover over each button to figure out what everything does.
The game tries to recreate the pilot experience down to the pre-flight checklist. The attention to detail is stunning. For new players, this is obviously too overwhelming. Asobo Studio gets around this with a generous set of computer assistance options that automates everything down the AI co-pilot doing the flying for the players. The intention is for players to turn off assistance features as they hone their skills. The options menu provides both general recommended settings and granular controls for players to tune their experience exactly how they want it. The assistance ranges from letting the AI deal with more mundane things taking care of the pre-flight checklist to more intrusive assistance like automatically adjusting the flaps and throttle to help players nail a tricky landing. The most helpful features were the waypoints indicating the correct flight path to land or circle around the airport. The system works well but struggles a bit with the more intrusive options. Objectives displayed in-game help new players navigate and get through their flight, but they can be too vague beyond take offs and landings. Important information like the correct cruising altitude must be determined from the ATC radio, but information can get crowded off the screen quickly. If the vague objective is not completed, the game can get stuck and a little confused, leaving players to figure the rest of the flight out on their own. Other times, the AI can struggle trying to get the plane on the correct course. I am unsure if the AI is overcompensating to fix my own overcompensation, but I ran into a few occasions where I needed to make some extreme maneuvers to get things back on track.
I quickly learned the controls are a bit challenging without the correct hardware. As a new player to the genre who is not ready to make a commitment of hundreds of dollars in hardware, I use what most PC gamers have access to already: an Xbox One controller, a keyboard, and a mouse. This set up is usable for a casual player, but far from ideal. The controller is too sensitive by default. There is no dead zone on the thumb stick and the slightest bump on the controller can send the plane veering unless the air is completely still. While I am able to add a dead zone and dial back the sensitivity in game, adjusting things like thrust and trimming is still a pain compared to a proper lever. Not only am I missing the tactile feedback of a lever, trying to make precise adjustments using taps and holds is difficult. While it breaks the simulation, I would have preferred an option to have these bars displayed as necessary on the UI when players make changes to them, regardless of how the information is presented in the actual plane’s cockpit. A mouse and keyboard to supplement the controller is an absolute must. I found moving the camera around and interacting with lesser used cockpit functions and the UI was infinitely easier with the mouse. Additionally, the limited nature of the controller means some lesser used functions can only be bound on the keyboard.
While Asobo Studio has offered a strong suit of tools for new players, Microsoft Flight Simulator is still a rough game to get into as a newbie. It is a game that requires new players to buy in and dedicate time to slog through the initially steep learning curve, and an investment into proper hardware if you are planning to play seriously. But the effort is rewarded eventually. For me, it took a few hours of frustration to struggle past the initial cliff and figure out the absolute basics of the game with full assistance. Afterwards, the curve levels out significantly, and most of the learning is focused on transitioning between different planes and whittling down the number of assists from the computer. The game has made me see the appeal of the entire genre. While landings are incredibly stressful, choosing a location and just flying somewhere is a relaxing experience. The game is designed to put the exact amount of friction players want between them and the sky. From there, success, failure, and everything in between are simply within the player’s control. It is just as easy to set the game up for a sight seeing tour through Europe by having a co-pilot take the controls on a sunny day with clear skies as it is to challenge yourself with a windy night landing on a tiny airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Outside of wrestling with the more extreme AI assistance issues, the controls always feel fair and realistic. Make too extreme of a movement and a whole series of alarms will sound and the plane will shake in complaint. The realism extends to the flight environment, as the game offers options for real time weather conditions and flight traffic.
For those looking for a little more excitement in their flight sim experience, the game lets players jump to different parts of the flight. Those who need more action can start with the take off and ascent, skip or speed through the cruising, and then land the plane. If you want a challenge, then bush pilot mode and landing challenges are available.
The technical experience on the PC deserves a special mention. The installation is ghastly. The game has an update that is over 90GB in size right out of the gate that must be done while in game, and it counts towards the play time to Steam users who are considering a refund. The load times are brutal. I have my copy loaded on an SSD but loading into a level and even the main menu feels like the game is running on an old hard drive. On the other hand, it is smooth flying once the game is actually loaded in.
Microsoft Flight Simulator’s graphics are absolutely breathtaking. The planes look like the real thing to my untrained eye. The weather system is fantastic, and the live weather system is a joy to use when flying out of local airports. The landscape is incredibly well done, and I love that several major points of interest were created by hand to match the actual thing. Small details like animals and ground crew have not been forgotten either.
The era of COVID-19 restrictions highlights something special about Microsoft Flight Simulator: the freedom the game offers. After being cooped up for months, the ability to take a plane to a far away country I can’t visit right now and take in the sights by air is invigorating.
The audio experience is generally solid. The sound effects are spectacular. It is a game well suited for headphones, letting players hear small details like the quiet clicks of switches through the drone of the aircraft’s engines. The menu music, or the lack of, is a sore spot. Currently, there is only one short track for the menu, and it replays on loop. The track needs to be extended to by two to three minutes and a few more tracks need to be added to break up the tedium in the menu. The voice acting is minimal, but what is there is done well. The game has a quite a bit of voice chatter on the radio, but much of it uses either the Windows 10 speech engine or the speech engine on the Azure cloud server.
Microsoft Flight Simulator has a killer learning curve, but it also offers the intoxicating allure of freedom in the skies with a combination of solid simulation, fantastic graphics, and excellent audio. While Asobo Studio has done good job making the genre more accessible to new players with its generous suite of assistances, they have not perfected the method and still need to smooth out the learning curve. If you are looking to take your first steps to virtually fulfilling your pilot fantasies, Microsoft Flight Simulator is a great place to start.
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