I was down the South Coast with my partner the other week. We were there for a funeral, the passing of a family member, and the whole week had been the sort of week you want to forget. Nothing went right. Just gathering in the midst of COVID felt unusual.
On the way down, my partner pointed to something out of the window. “Hey, it’s Shellharbour Airport,” she noted. We’d flown through and by it virtually only the night before, checking out her favourite spots and identifying the location of her parents through Microsoft Flight Simulator the night before. There was just something calming about seeing home, even streamed through the combination of a video game and Bing Maps.
“There’s not as many palm trees,” I noticed.
This review has been retimed following the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator this week.
To be clear, Shellharbour Airport definitely has some palm trees. Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s AI-generated recreation of the airport, built with a combination of Microsoft Azure cloud technology and data from Bing Maps, makes the area look like something out of North Queensland. Everything is still in the right place. All the landmarks of the airport are in place, and the surrounding geography, topology and general layout of the surrounding suburbs matches what I remembered, and what my partner and I drove through.
Just thinking about the possibility of that at scale in a game is staggering. It makes sense that one area, a major metropolitan city or a frequent transport hub would be accurately rendered. Games have always given certain areas special treatment, models or points of focus where more developer time and budget is spent. The Last of Us 2, for instance, invested an insane amount of power and time into the game’s models. Ghost of Tsushima spent that time and poly budget on the game’s environments. Both were sound, logical and excellent choices to make.
A place like Shellharbour Airport, or the airports around the towns where I grew up — Camden Airport or Mittagong Airport (which I’ve never seen in real life, because who flies into Mittagong) — lives outside such budgets. And so does most of Australia. The country is too big, not populated enough, and typically not worth the time for a developer building a game like this on a transcontinental scale.
And yet, I can fly over and see my home. And it looks like my home, or at least the plot of land, the roof I’ve stood on, the corner I’ve played backyard cricket on. There’s a lack of finer detail, and I’m still several hundred feet in the air, but the streets, layout, building and the general town are enough to trigger many childhood memories.
Having been excluded thanks to an invisible pandemic, and spending months grappling with the thought of what might happen to my sick family every time they step out for food, it was hard not to shed a tear looking over the dirt roads, curves and train tracks that marked where I grew up.
A town like mine does not belong in a video game. It is too small to be remembered, too plain to be worthy of national, let alone international, recognition. And yet, it’s there.
I’ve been supremely bullish about Microsoft Flight Simulator all year, but in many ways that’s a supremely easy call to make. It is, right now, a one-of-a-kind game. Flight simulators have been around for decades — Microsoft Flight Simulator itself goes back to the late ’80s — but they have always existed as niche, independent products lacking the support, scale or budget that a major platform holder could provide.
What Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 has in spades is that support and scalability. It is that rare breed of live service game that makes perfect sense. When it launches on August 18 for PC as a boxed product (with 10 DVDs) and through Xbox Game Pass, the game will launch in three versions. Most people buying the regular version, or getting the basic build on offer through Xbox Game Pass, will get access to 20 aircraft and the flight models for each.
There’ll also be 30 “enhanced” airports, which just means Asobo Studio has fine-tuned the details on those individual airports. It means you can expect a eerily accurate representation of Sydney, Haneda in Japan, JFK, LAX and the iconic Courchevel Airport in France, while locations like Melbourne Airport, or smaller rural strips, are AI-generated. You get access to a few more with the ultimate version of the game — which includes enhanced versions of Dubai International, Frankfurt and Heathrow, as well as access to Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft, Textron’s Cessna Citation Longitude business jet, and the adorably cute Shock Ultra, if cute is a term that makes sense for a light aircraft.
Everything that is hand built is done so to an astonishing degree of detail. You can identify the individual wires, bolts, rivets, and fan blades of specific airplanes. Everything you would expect to see within the cockpit is there too, also at an exceedingly high level. In higher-end aircraft with digital HUDs, you can see reflections of those HUDs shining back in the window. It’s stunning.
Over time, that list of aircraft and airports will expand. And that’ll be helped by the fact that no simulator has really had the level of exposure or access that something like Xbox Game Pass will provide. Having that scale changes the business model too, which is no small feat given the genre is famous for having notoriously expensive DLC.
But it also means Flight Simulator needs to be accessible in a way no flight sim has been before.
For the entirety of my experience, I played Microsoft Flight Simulator with a wired Xbox One controller. I’d originally wanted to play using just mouse and keyboard, as I thought that’d be a nice, chill way to experience the game. But I immediately ran into a snag with the first tutorial: The basic throttle controls were all mapped to the keyboard’s numpad … which I didn’t have, because I’ve been using a tenkeyless keyboard for several years now.
You can rebind all the keys if you want, but remember — this is a full, proper flight simulator. I had no intention of training to be a Airbus A380 pilot, but all the controls are replicated in full. The menu system actually has a search function to make life a little bit easier, but it also makes changing individual controls a little daunting.
But since I was sitting at the PC anyway, and figured I’d need to use the keyboard to some degree, I started fiddling around. It took about 15 minutes to work out what key presses I needed the keyboard or mouse for — things like the parking break, contacting air traffic control, and just using free-look so I could scan the environment.
Everything else, at least in light planes like the Cessna 152, is relatively easy to control with an Xbox controller. At the lowest levels, the game will help control pitch and roll, landing, takeoff, rudder control, and discussions with flight control. You can enable unlimited fuel if you just want to wander mid-air. All the damage can be disabled. The game has enough mid-air waypoints and indicators to make Forza Horizon proud.
But what’s important is that, really, light aircraft are easy to fly. The actual takeoff, landing, and controlling a light aircraft mid-flight, is a relatively simple process. There’s definitely bits and pieces that you’ll want to get accustomed to, but the 8 part in-game tutorial does a great job of slowly introducing you to the basic flight controls.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of things like controlling speed, turning, and pitching the aircraft up and down, you’ll then be ready for your first take-off and then first landing. If you don’t have the issues around a full-size keyboard like I do, you’ll have the basics of taking off and landing within half an hour of loading the game up. After that, you only need another hour of gameplay, and you’ll be able to handle a full solo fight on your own, navigating from point A to B.
It’s simple. Flight so often seems like it’s not, especially when you look at the cockpit and see the millions of dials and knobs. But as a game, as a cathartic experience, Microsoft Flight Simulator understands that players don’t need all of those things.
You can, and I have, just pick up a controller and fly.
There is a lot more that I’m leaving out, particularly just how much Flight Simulator scales for those after the actual sim experience. And I haven’t touched on the game’s support for HOTAS setups or how it compares to existing simulators, and with good reason. Microsoft did supply reviewers with a full HOTAS setup as part of the embargo period, but my unit didn’t arrive until earlier this week — and scheduling nightmares meant I haven’t even had the opportunity to enjoy the game with that hardware.
It’s worth noting, too, that Microsoft Flight Simulator isn’t the first game to use real-world data or live weather. Existing flight simulators do that already. And if the livestreaming element is a problem, or not an option for you, Microsoft Flight Simulator is perfectly playable offline. You’ll get a lower-res version of the game, as it’ll be relying on AI to recreate details as you go along. And even with the support of Bing Maps and satellite imagery, not everything in Microsoft Flight Simulator has that photorealistic quality.
That photorealistic data comes at a cost, primarily your internet connection — although it’s not as bad as you might suspect. In my time with the game, I found it used about an average of 500MB to 800MB an hour, which varied depending on the locations I was flying and how frequently I was replaying those locations. If you’re doing much longer trips, where the game is pulling in data more frequently new areas — not to mention things like live air traffic, which pulls in real-life traffic in the areas you’re flying — then the data usage will be a bit higher.
Digital Foundry found the game used about 700MB/hour, or 7GB over 10 hours, which tracks with my usage. But everyone will play this game differently, and you can also disable different elements of the game’s always-online nature to suit your own bandwidth needs.
How I ended up spending most of my time with Flight Simulator, at least towards the end, was with the various flying challenges. The game has a list of iconic and notoriously difficult airports. It sets you up in a specific airplane, just before landing, and you’re graded on your accuracy, how long it takes your aircraft to come to a full stop, and the speed at which your land.
It’s incredibly relaxing and fun just practicing a landing over and over again, trying to nail the specific angle of approach, speed, degree of flaps or descent required, what time you should cut the engines, and more. It’s especially fascinating just swapping locations and touching down in places that, realistically, many of us will never see — coronavirus or otherwise.
But it’s also impossible to ignore the freeing effect Microsoft Flight Simulator has at a time like this. In a world where leaving your front door is increasingly filled with anxiety, or not even a feasible option in some places, grabbing a controller and taking off sends the mind and heart into a warmer, happier place. It’s a reminder of the good times, and also a reminder of how good it is for the heart to hope: not just for all the places in the world we could go, the sights we are yet to see, but also a look forward into the future as to what is possible.
Quietly soaring through the clouds, streaming in the remnants of global air traffic going about their business, is wonderfully relaxing. And being able to smoothly access that from my home, and to be able to smoothly load up such an experience as a release from the ails of the world, is an incredible showcase for the next generation of games.
I was surprised when Microsoft Flight Simulator wasn’t featured as part of the Xbox Games Showcase earlier this month. I can understand why — the game’s Xbox release is still unclear at this stage, and odds are it’s likely we won’t see a console release for the game until 2021.
But Microsoft still should have shown something to the world. Halo: Infinite might be the tentpole franchise for Xbox and their next generation console, but the best game in the Xbox stables is probably Microsoft Flight Simulator. It’s accessible, it’s gorgeous, it’s incredibly scalable, and right now, it’s exactly the vibe 2020 needs.