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Microsoft Flight Simulator review – buckle in and see the world | Games


When the original Microsoft Flight simulator was released almost 40 years ago, it was very much for enthusiasts only. Early home computers could barely cope with drawing cockpit instrument panels, let alone scenery – so what you saw as you fought with the controls was a lot of dials and numbers, usually followed by an on-screen message politely informing you that you had crashed during take-off.

This is not the experience you will have with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. Developed by French studio Asobo using accurate geographic data culled from Bing Maps, a global cloud computing network, and real-time weather information, this is as much a visual spectacle as it is a simulator. And you will want to see as much as you can, because at 10,000 feet, the world looks spectacular (especially on the Ultra graphical settings, where it’s almost photorealistic). From craggy snow-topped mountain ranges to swooping desert valleys to bustling cities, the landscape is alive with detail.





An A320 on a rainy JFK runway ... Flight Simulator.



An A320 on a rainy JFK runway … Flight Simulator. Photograph: Microsoft

Without a moment’s airborne experience, you can access the world map on the introduction screen, pick a position and be dropped into a plane flying far above it. With all the many helpful assist options switched on, you can pilot your craft via joypad alone, your only concerns being altitude and air speed. Beneath you, a re-creation of the entire planet rolls by, so large that it would take 14 years of continuous play to see it all. One day, you may catch early morning sun beams rising along the Alps like searchlights, on another, you’ll see New York transform into a constellation of pin-prick stars as dusk drops and office lights take over; every flight, a kind of holiday.

But this is not a superficial flight sim. Far from it. Start switching off the automatic help, take control back from your AI co-pilot, and you have a rigorous, uncompromising simulation. Every flight is proceeded by lengthy engine and equipment checks and a 10-minute taxi to the runway; take-off and landing are precise and demanding logistical exercises; and flight paths are rigorously planned and adhered to. Eight tutorial flights provide a sense of the complexity to come, introducing the physics of flight and every instrument you’ll need to maintain it. You will learn how to use the yoke, trim and throttle, how to manoeuvre around an airfield, and how to get from one place to another using VFR navigation.





A quick jaunt around the Himalayas ... Flight Simulator.



A quick jaunt around the Himalayas … Flight Simulator. Photograph: Microsoft

And although you may start out crazily barrel-rolling a tiny Savage Cub propeller plane over Seattle, you will progress to piloting a Boeing 747-8, cruising at 35,000 feet, conversing with air traffic control, keeping a close eye on the beautifully replicated control panels, checking for warning lights. As fans of driving games such as Euro Truck Simulator have discovered, there is a sort of zen in simulated long-haul travel, a joy in mastering your role as driver or pilot so that it feels like you’re doing almost nothing – especially when you can pick out real-life scenic details en route.

There are moments when the simulation falters. I’ve encountered areas of scenery where trees give way to acres of flat, low-resolution textures, which look ugly and out of place; and although around 400 world cities have been accurately replicated using photogrammetry, others have been constructed using Bing Maps and AI, so that they resemble Lego-like model villages. Disappointingly, London is one of these, and its landmarks are blockily represented as a result. No doubt Asobo will be adding further to its list of fully replicated cities; it is also allowing third-party modelling and simulation specialists to create and distribute their own city models using an in-game marketplace, so users will be able to populate their worlds with favourite locations (at extra cost, of course). But still, Flight Simulator is a true marvel and an astonishing use of Microsoft’s technological resources.

In his wonderful book Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot, Mark Vanhoenacker writes, “Aeroplanes raise us above the patterns of streets, forests, suburbs, schools and rivers. The ordinary things we thought we knew become new or more beautiful, and the visible relationships between them on the land, particularly at night, hint at the circuitry of more or less everything.” This is what Flight Simulator aspires to. During an early session in a Cessna 152, your instructor tells you that she wants to teach you the mindset of a pilot: you will certainly develop a fresh understanding of space, time and motion.

There are specific flight challenges and missions to try out, and even a global scoreboard where you can match yourself against other pilots, but you never have to do any of this. You can merely pick a departure point and a destination, and fly along the Amalfi coast, or up over the Ural mountains; you can cross the Atlantic, the Irish Sea or Lake Wakatipu. Wherever you go, this game captures the wonder of flight, and the spiritual and emotional rush of seeing the world in a different way.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is available now, free with Xbox Game Pass for PC or £60 (standard edition)

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