I was down the South Coast with my partner recently for a funeral. A family member had passed away; the whole week had been the sort you want to forget. Nothing went right.
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 updated for the Xbox Series S and X release of Flight Simulator, which is out now.
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 well before it released, and the last year of the game’s release has only validated that view further. Even in a world where more games are becoming increasingly accessible via the cloud, Flight Simulator‘s scale is unparalleled.
It’s also that rare breed of live service game that makes perfect sense. The game originally launched on August 18, 2020 for PC, with Xbox Series X and S consoles getting access almost a full year later on July 28 Australian time.
You can immediately see the impact of the past year, especially if you’ve played the game on PC. The original 8 tutorials have been overhauled and expanded to 22, and the in-flight assistant has been improved to make life much easier for newer players. The base-level assists have been tuned too, so much so that Flight Simulator can be more of an on-rails experience if you really want.
The game first launched with 30 “enhanced” airports, although that number has grown substantially thanks to the support of the community and Asobo’s major updates. The enhanced airports are essentially more accurate representations of Sydney, Haneda in Japan, JFK, LAX and the iconic Courchevel Airport in France; less trafficked areas such as Melbourne Airport are still AI-generated.
For those playing Flight Simulator through Game Pass, you’ll have access to 20 planes with their individual flight models. At the time of writing that includes the adorably cute Savage Cub, Textron’s Cessna Citation Longitude business jet, the versatile Cessna 152, Boeing’s 747-8 Intercontinential, the Airbus A320neo passenger jet, and more. Most of these aircraft were perfectly flyable with an Xbox controller in the launch version of Flight Simulator, although the larger airliners really needed a mouse/keyboard/proper flight controls to full enjoy the experience.
The same still applies with the Xbox release of Flight Simulator, although the game does fully support mouse, keyboard and a limited range of fight controls on console. Asobo has tweaked the controller support so that clicking in the left-stick brings up an on-screen cursor, allowing you to interact with individual knobs and dials with a controller the way you might use a mouse. It’s slow and fiddly, however, so I’d still recommend new pilots or those wanting a casual experience stick to smaller aircraft with less to manage.
But it also means Flight Simulator needs to be accessible in a way no flight sim has been before.
The benefit of all these changes is that Flight Simulator is accessible in a way no flight sim has ever been. Thanks to changes to the auto-pilot functionality and some substantial performance upgrades, Asobo has retooled things so that people can legitimately just pick up a controller and soar. A more comprehensive simulator experience exists if you want, and there’s also a VR version available for those on PC.
It’s also staggering just how accessible that performance is on consoles. Asobo promised that Flight Simulator would run at a locked 30 FPS on Xbox Series X and S, with the resolution scaling depending on your console. For those with access to TVs supporting variable refresh rate, Flight Simulator has a little more headroom, but the game largely sticks to 4K/30 FPS, or 1080p/30 FPS on the Xbox Series S.
Performance upgrades have smoothed out some of the most severe frame rate drops, particularly around highly trafficked urban areas like Paris, Heathrow Airport, New York’s JFK, flying around Manhattan, and so on. If you’re playing on Xbox Series X, you’ll get a bit more clarity and draw distance than the Xbox Series S. Both consoles don’t really compare to the fidelity available on PC, but what’s super impressive is just how fast the load times are on either console. It takes around 10 to 20 seconds to load from the world flight map, although I haven’t been able to compare this to loading times on PC with the latest build.
But it’s impressive given the amount of data streaming in. The launch version of Flight Simulator, according to tests from Digital Foundry, pulls down anywhere between 500mb to 700mb an hour. That tracks with my own usage over the past year, although it’s dependent on what part of the planet you’re flying in: a trip from Osaka to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, for instance, will be vastly more populated and detailed than a quick trip over the mountains of Queenstown.
There are, obviously, imperfections. Part of Flight Simulator‘s brilliance is the support it receives from third-party developers and the community. The latter has been especially prolific in shoring up some of the flaws of Microsoft’s Bing/open-sourced maps data, although the data has occasionally added to the simulator’s charm. Most of those mods aren’t available on Xbox yet, although Asobo has released an SDK for developers to port those packages over.
But the size of those packages are already pretty substantial. The base Flight Simulator install — not including any extra data from the Deluxe version of the game — is over 100GB, which includes almost 55GB of “offline” data so the game is playable without an internet connection. Adding the game’s five major world updates, which add extra content and refreshed maps data for France, Belgium, the UK, USA, Japan and more, adds another 30.49GB according to the in-game installation manager. There’s also 8GB reservation for a rolling cache file for streaming data, although you can increase or decrease that cache, and the options menu has settings to cap data usage if you need.
It makes Flight Simulator comfortably the largest game you’ll install on your console. The simple act of installing the game will use up a third of the available space on an Xbox Series S and a substantial chunk of data for Series X owners. I wouldn’t be surprised if that grew to 200GB by this time next year, especially considering all the extra liveries, customised airports and future updates Asobo and third-party developers expect to port over. Flight Simulator‘s design means you won’t have to buy packages twice, either: if you’ve downloaded or purchased anything for Flight Simulator on PC, it’ll be available for download on Xbox.
The Xbox build also has its own bugs and quirks unique to its version. The game didn’t seem to enjoy swapping profiles, something that’s ordinarily not a problem on the Xbox ecosystem. In Flight Simulator, however, switching to my main account resulted in the in-game “cursor” refusing to respond on the main menu. I could flip between tabs with the left and right bumpers, but the game simply refused to acknowledge the presence of the face buttons, forcing me to restart the game in a different profile if I wanted to start flying again.
Support for flight sticks and hardware, as mentioned before, is pretty minimal at this stage too. But that should improve as more manufacturers release Xbox-compatible firmware updates, or specific patches to make their gear work with Xbox consoles.
Flight Simulator had the benefit of launching when a world was stuck in lockdown, and in Australia, it’s console release drops during a week when the majority of Australia’s population is stuck inside once more. It’s a tantalising idea to leave the confines of our homes and local government areas, and over the past year Flight Simulator‘s menus have been retooled to further highlight these kinds of pocket experiences.
The main menu now advertises “Discovery Flights”, which just basically pop you into a small airplane near major landmarks like the Pyramids. You could always do this in Flight Simulator — you can find your house on the map and launch a flight right above it if you want — but it’s a smart inclusion on Asobo’s part. Flight Simulator already has enough to learn for newcomers, and the shortcuts give newer players an instant taste of what makes Flight Simulator work so well as a game.
The landing challenges are a great, semi-competitive mechanical inclusion too. You can try your hand at landing an Airbus at Sydney Airport, or opt for a more complicated task dealing with the high winds of Nassau in the Bahamas. There’s 25 available off the bat, not including the extra challenges in Asobo’s major world updates.
Those updates also buff out Flight Simulator‘s range of bush trips, which are long flights where you’re tasked with navigating by sight and sensibility over multiple legs. The bush trips are probably the most game-like activity available, since the challenge is to continually check your instruments and VFR map to ensure you’re following the flight map properly. There’s a button to get you back on track if you lose your way, but you’ll lose access to an achievement for doing so — which ultimately isn’t such a bad thing, because the whole purpose of the flight is to enjoy the extraordinary views the world offers.
Quietly soaring through the clouds, streaming in the remnants of global air traffic going about their business, is wonderfully relaxing. It’s a remarkable technical accomplishment, even more so on the Xbox Series S. There are some obvious drawbacks, and the practicality of more advanced controls can be a bit tricky in living room situations when you’re dealing with USB cords coming out of the console. Flight sticks (and keyboards) aren’t especially known for having the longest USB cords. But even if you ignore that and just opt for a controller-only experience, what’s available is genuinely astonishing.
Coupled with the sheer range of content, and the raw value you get from the base version through Xbox Game Pass, it’s hard not to uphold Flight Simulator as the best next-generation title going around. Yes: it’s not much of a traditional game in the way, say, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart or Returnal might be. But those games are not dealing with the same sort of infrastructural scale or challenge that Flight Simulator has accomplished. What Asobo has produced is nothing short of pure brilliance — unrefined in places, but astonishing nonetheless.
And this is just how far the game has come within a single year. Just imagine what it’ll look like with years of mods, official updates, map refreshes, and extra support.