It was 1982 when Microsoft Flight Simulator first came along. Microsoft called it a "simulation," but the experience offered was far from reality. Yet, MSF gave PC owners the chance to relive the myth of Icarus in a more modern way. No wax and feathers: the modern son of Daedalus dreams of flying over the Atlantic in a $400 million dollar Boeing 747. Between 1982 and 2006, 12 versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator were released, but with Flight Simulator X something changed: Microsoft did not announce a new game in the saga, and focused instead on an unfortunate free-to-play game called Microsoft Flight that was declared dead within months of launch. From then on, Microsoft's virtual hangar closed its doors to the public.
Yet, those who loved Microsoft Flight Simulator never abandoned the series; in the last 14 years, Flight Simulator X has been enriched with free and premium expansions and has surrounded itself with dozens of communities that, thanks to tens of thousands of volunteer hours, have made the sim "as real as it gets", as the old slogan goes.
Thus, the announcement that Microsoft would soon return to the virtual skies with a new Flight Simulator made the hearts of those thousands of enthusiasts who have never forgotten this brand rejoice. So, a little over a year later, I find myself - finally - reviewing Microsoft Flight Simulator.
The title of the game devoid of numbers and dates suggests that this is a reboot of the series. Indeed, what we're looking at is a product that has made several generational steps forward compared to Flight Simulator X. The historical elements of the series - starting from the game map that portrays the world on a 1:1 scale - are still all present, but they have been further expanded and improved upon.
Let's start with the reconstruction of the environments, which in many ways represents the most obvious improvement even to those who have only casually tried the old flight simulators by Microsoft. The world has been perfectly rebuilt starting from complex photogrammetry techniques that have made it possible to reconstruct with absolute precision every mountain range present on our planet. That little hill behind your house? Check. The Grand Canyon? Yep, there it is. All this has been interpolated with data relating to roads, railways, cities, rivers, lakes, forests, beaches, coasts: satellite detection techniques have made great strides in the last fifteen years, allowing MSF to deliver everything in its rightful place, from a great Indian metropolis to a small village in the arms of a Norwegian fjord.
Some places have been recreated with an almost frightening level of realism. All of the main cities of numerous nations have been reconstructed with photographic care: you will find every house, skyscraper, street, bridge, park and they will be perfectly recognisable. If you are lucky enough to live in a reconstructed city, you will even find your home. All the other locations, on the other hand, are based on real data and - although not entirely realistic - they still allow the player to find their way just by looking at their surroundings in the virtual world.
This is probably the first great advantage of this game: the ability to fly by using your own sense of direction, using landmarks such as roads, rivers and railways to orient yourself. Microsoft Flight Simulator is a paradise for Visual Flight Rules (VFR) enthusiasts who love to fly small planes over the beautiful landscapes that our world can offer. On one of my flights I left Venice for the Alps, and then crossed all of northern Italy until I landed near Milan, spending a few minutes trying to fly over my office, all by following rivers and highways to safely land at home. And when I say "home", I mean the closest airport to your house: there are 37,000 airports in Microsoft Flight Simulator, including some of the smallest and most insignificant airfields used primarily by paragliding enthusiasts. In one word: extraordinary.
The second aspect, of course, is the quality of the aircraft. The basic version of the software included in Microsoft Game Pass features 20 aircraft, ranging from light general aviation models to airliners such as the Airbus A320 and the heavy Boeing 747. What is surprising is the huge step forward in terms of the reconstruction of in-game instruments: in Flight Simulator X the features in the cockpit were limited, and only a small percentage of buttons could be actually pressed. In the new Microsoft Flight Simulator the detail of the simulation in the cockpit is much higher: almost all of the buttons are functional and the Flight Management System - the instrument that allows instrumental navigation on the most advanced aircraft - works perfectly and allows you to enter flight plans, including the official instrumental departures and arrivals of any airport in the world.
However, it should be noted that some features usually requested by the most demanding simmers are missing. For example, it is not possible to control the start of the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) on the Airbus A320, and some minor features are simply ignored. In any case, a complex checklist must be followed to start an aircraft, and those who want to simulate the so-called "cold and dark" departure of an airliner will have to spend time pressing a lot of buttons and checking a large number of indicators. Fortunately, the AI-controlled co-pilot can be called upon to carry out operations on your behalf.
The physics of the aircraft, as expected, are very realistic. At the maximum level of simulation, the aircraft behaves naturally, responding to every little attitude correction and reacting correctly to atmospheric conditions. The weather simulation system, as well as being visually beautiful with clouds that look like cotton candy fields, manages to offer truly challenging scenarios for the most daring players; piloting a light aircraft in a storm is scarier than you might imagine, even in a simulator. And, of course, there is real weather for each location, borrowed from the various weather stations that share data over the Internet.
Microsoft Flight Simulator, however, wants to be a modern product and therefore includes a robust multiplayer mode. Multiplayer works as a kind of an MMO, where all virtual pilots share the same skies. It is not uncommon to meet other pilots intent on flying with you and, consequently, you have to rely on air traffic control. At the moment, ATC is managed by artificial intelligence - there are no human flight controllers. However, this peculiarity should soon change as Asobo Studio has announced a partnership with VATSIM, the organisation that for years has been involved in providing human air traffic control to the old versions of Flight Simulator and which has given birth to a very passionate and extremely serious sub-community. In any case, it will be very interesting to see how the game will behave at launch: in this review phase there was only a few hundred connected pilots (enough not to leave us with a merciless sense of loneliness), but I expect a lot of real air traffic in the next few days.
So far it looks like MSF is going to give fans what they want, yet I wonder whether this new game is also going to be able to attract a new audience. As mentioned, the game both feels complete and intriguing, but - beyond the free flight that has always been the fulcrum of every Flight Simulator - there are not many ways to try your hand. There is a tutorial dedicated to VFR only, while the game seems to completely forget about instrument flight, otherwise known as IFR. If you're not used to the world of flight simulation (or do not own a commercial flight license), you will not find any guide that explains how to properly deliver a flight plan. Furthermore, there are no tutorials dedicated to fundamental devices such as the FMS or, more simply, to the autopilot. This makes the game's learning curve extraordinarily steep for those who have never used a flight simulator, and I believe that - once again - Microsoft Flight Simulator will have to rely on its community to be able to increase its player base.
It should be noted, however, that Microsoft Flight Simulator includes a challenge mode that lets you land at some iconic airports, with runways that have particularly dangerous approaches. There is also a kind of tourist mode, which lets you explore some picturesque places and which will probably be enriched over the next few months. The game, in fact, is always online and constantly updated, and I think that a lot of content will arrive over the next few weeks and months. Finally, I am sure that the in-game store will soon be populated with third-party products, both free and premium, which will make this game even more complete.
Finally, it is also necessary to dwell on the technical aspects of MSF. If you are coming from the old Flight Simulator X, you have had to deal with the bad optimisation of the game, which struggled to run at 60 fps even on hardware released 8 or 10 years after the original release of the game. While the new Microsoft Flight Simulator is infinitely more complex from a technical point of view, it has been optimised quite well. For this review, I used a mid-range PC, which was within the requirements recommended by the developers. With some compromises, the game manages to maintain 60-fps in almost all areas, except for around realistic cities where the huge number of buildings meant some frame-rate issues. Apparently, to play MSF it will be almost essential to install the game on an SSD: on a normal hard disk the loading times are biblical, and the data swap creates a bottleneck to overall performance.
I should also point out that MSF seems to need some extra polish. I have encountered bugs more than once, ranging from minor issues related to the placement of bridges (with cars driving into rivers) or the presence of badly animated elements (in the savannah I encountered a herd of elephants doing the moonwalk), to more serious bugs related to weather simulation and even a couple of crashes. I don't know if on August 18 there will be a Day One patch capable of solving these problems, but certainly, the build I played needed another layer of polish.
Let's be clear, though: Microsoft Flight Simulator is an extraordinary game that looks to the next-gen a few months before the release of the new consoles. This is a title that allows us to explore the entire globe and which, potentially, can guarantee hundreds or even thousands of hours of fun. I think fans of civil flight simulation will love it, and I am confident that the community will thrive for years. If Microsoft keeps on supporting it, I think this new Microsoft Flight Simulator will be remembered for years to come and will be loved by those who have been waiting for the return of this series for way too long.