Updated on October 1, 2022
I’ve been flying around the world for the last two weeks in a preview of Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator.
Without a doubt, it’s the most beautiful flight simulator yet, and it’ll make you want to fly low and slow over your favorite cities, as each street and house will be rendered in greater detail than you’ve ever seen in a game.
Weather effects, day and night cycles, and plane models all appear to be incredible. You cannot start it without oohing and aahing over the graphics.
However, even just a few weeks before the scheduled August 18 launch date, the new Flight Simulator is still very much a work in progress.
It is still officially in beta, so there is still time to address some of the issues listed below.
Because Microsoft and Asobo Studios, which developed the simulator, are utilizing Microsoft’s AI technology in Azure to automatically generate the majority of the scenery based on Microsoft’s Bing Maps data, the world is filled with strangeness.
There are taxiway lights in the middle of runways, massive hangars and crew buses on small private fields, cars driving randomly across airports, giant trees growing everywhere (while palms frequently resemble big sticks), and bridges that are either submerged or large blocks of black spanning a river – and there are also a lot of sunken boats.
When the system works properly, it is truly remarkable. Cities such as Barcelona, Berlin, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, among others, look fantastic when rendered using Microsoft’s photogrammetry method – including, and perhaps especially, at night.
The rendering engine on my i7-9700K with an Nvidia 2070 Super graphics card never dropped below 30 frames per second (which is perfectly acceptable for a flight simulator).
It frequently hovered well above 40, even with the graphics settings pushed to their maximum and a 2K resolution.
However, when something does not work, the effect is stark because it is so apparent.
Certain cities, such as Las Vegas, appear to have been devastated as if the town was abandoned and nature took over (which, in the case of the Vegas Strip, does not sound so bad).
Fortunately, Microsoft and Asobo can resolve all of this.
They’ll need to adjust their algorithms, which should be nearly automatic because much of the data is streamed.
The fact that they have not yet done so is somewhat surprising.
Chances are, the day you purchase Flight Simulator, you’ll want to fly over your house.
If you live in the proper city (and in the right part of that city), you may be fortunate enough to see your home’s unique texture.
However, for some cities, such as London, the game only displays standard textures.
While Microsoft does an excellent job of matching the outlines of buildings in cities where it does not use photogrammetry, it’s odd that neither London nor Amsterdam are included on that list (though London does now feature a couple of wind turbines in the city center).
All of those issues, of course, vanish once you reach altitude (or, at the very least, you won’t notice them).
However, given the graphics, you’ll want to spend the majority of your time at or below 2,000 feet.
What struck me the most about playing the game in its current state is how those graphical inconsistencies set the tone for the entire experience.
The team claims its sole focus is on making the simulator as realistic as possible.
Still, the virtual air traffic control frequently fails to use standard terminology or fails to direct you to the correct departure control when departing a significant airport.
The airplane models look fantastic and feel reasonably authentic (at least the ones I’ve flown), but some currently display the incorrect airspeed.
While some planes employ modern glass cockpits equipped with the Garmin 1000 and G3X, these remain limited.
However, allow me to be clear here. Despite this, Flight Simulator is a technical marvel, even in its beta state, and it will only improve with time.
Let’s take a brief tour of the user experience. Installing on PC (an Xbox version will be available in the future) is a lengthy process that downloads approximately 90GB to enable offline play.
Additionally, the installation process will ask you if you are okay with streaming data, which can quickly add up.
After reinstalling the game and performing a few screenshot flights, the game had already downloaded about 10GB — this quickly adds up and is something to keep in mind if you’re on a metered connection.
Once you’ve completed the lengthy installation, you’ll be greeted by a menu screen that allows you to start a new flight, participate in one of the landing challenges, or other activities set up by the team (they’re pretty proud of their Courchevel scenery), or complete the games’ flight training program.
This training manual section walks you through eight activities that will teach you the fundamentals of flying a Cessna 152.
Most take less than ten minutes and include a brief debriefing.
Still, I’m not sure that’s sufficient to keep a novice from becoming frustrated quickly (while more advanced players will skip this section altogether anyway).
I spent the majority of my time in the sim flying small general aviation planes, but you can also pass a Boeing 747 or Airbus 320neo, as well as some turboprops and business jets.
I’ll spend some additional time with those in the days leading up to the official launch.
All planes are exquisitely detailed both inside and out, and everything works as expected, except for a few minor glitches.
To begin playing, navigate to the world map and select a starting location for your flight.
The nice thing about this is that you can choose any place on your map, not just airports.
This makes it simple to begin flying over a city, for instance.
As you zoom in on the map, you’ll notice airports and landmarks (which may be real-world locations such as Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle or photogrammetry-enabled cities).
If a town lacks photogrammetry data, it will be omitted from the map.
Currently, the flight planning features are pretty limited. For visual flights, you have two options: direct or VOR to VOR.
For IFR flights, you have the option of flying at low or high altitudes.
You cannot truly adjust any of these; you must accept what the simulator provides.
That is not how flight planning works (at the very least, you would want to account for local weather), and it would be nice if you could further customize your route.
Microsoft partnered with NavBlue to provide airspace data, though the built-in maps make little use of it, failing to display the vertical boundaries of the airspace you are currently in.
It’s always tricky to compare plane models and their responses to the real thing.
As far as I can tell, the single-engine Cessnas I am primarily familiar with behave as I would expect them to in reality.
By default, the rudder controls feel a little too sensitive, but this is easily adjustable.
I used a HOTAS-style joystick and rudder setup exclusively.
I would avoid using a mouse and keyboard when playing, but your mileage may vary.
While live traffic is functional, none of the general aviation traffic around my local airports appears to be displayed, even though Microsoft partner FlightAware does.
In terms of real/AI traffic in general, the sim does an admirable job of managing it.
While you won’t see any accurate airline liveries in the beta – at least not yet – I did notice the occasional United plane in the latest builds.
More are on the way, judging by some of Microsoft’s videos.
Apart from the built-in models that you can fly in the sim, Flight Simulator is still missing a library of additional airplane models for AI traffic, though I’m assuming that’s also in the works.
We’re three weeks away from going live. I anticipate that the team will resolve most of these issues, and we will revisit them all during our final review.
My annoyance with the game’s current state is that it is frequently so close to perfection that when it falls short, it is especially jarring because it yanks you out of the experience.
To be clear, flying in FS2020 is already a fantastic experience.
Even without photogrammetry, cities and villages look amazing once you reach a height of about 3,000 feet.
The real-time weather and cloud simulation outperform any add-on for today’s flight simulators.
Airports still require improvement, but having cars drive around and flaggers walk around pushing planes makes the world feel more alive.
The wind affects the waves that form in lakes and oceans (and windsocks in airports).
This is unquestionably a flight simulator of the next generation.
Microsoft and Asobo must walk a fine line between giving hardcore fans what they want and making Flight Simulator an accessible game that attracts new players.
Because I’ve played every version of Flight Simulator since the 1990s, getting started took no time at all.
My impression is that new players looking for a good time will initially feel lost, despite Microsoft’s addition of landing challenges and other gamified elements to the sim.
In a press conference, the Asobo team repeatedly stressed the importance of realism over all else – which I completely agree with.
We’ll have to wait and see whether this translates into a fun experience for casual players as well.
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