Hands-On With the New Microsoft Flight Simulator

Let me get this out of the way immediately. This is a Flight Simulator. There is no doubt in my mind that Microsoft’s latest entry in their longest-running series (it’s older than Windows) will be…

Posted: 30-Sep-2019 @ 07:02z
Hands-On With the New Microsoft Flight Simulator

Let me get this out of the way immediately. This is a Flight Simulator. There is no doubt in my mind that Microsoft’s latest entry in their longest-running series (it’s older than Windows) will be the simulator many of you have been dreaming off. Highly detailed scenery, gorgeous weather effects and no restrictions on where in the world you can go. Forget everything that happened with Microsoft Flight (Microsoft sure did with their lack of reference to the game during the press event), as this is a simulator. They made it clear in their recent blog entries, but after trying it, my mind is now at rest. It’s worth noting that what I played earlier this week was a pre-alpha build. Despite that, I am confident in saying that this will be the next generation of flight simulation.

Before you read on, grab a pen, paper and 5 minutes of time. Write down a list of features you would love to see in a simulator. After speaking to many of you online, at events and in other capacities, I’m sure that many of you will list the following as some of those fundamental features:

  • Taking advantage of new hardware and technologies
  • Ability to explore the world in high-quality detail
  • Dynamic and detailed weather systems in real-time
  • Sloped runways
  • Detailed default airports
  • Detailed default aircraft
  • A brand-new aerodynamics engine
  • Third-party support
  • Ability for cockpit builders to continue building their systems
  • Solid performance

That’s a fairly ambitious list by anyone’s standards. However, that hasn’t stopped either Microsoft nor Asobo Studios from tackling this momentous task. Whilst you can read more about the features and technical aspects of this new simulator in this article, I wanted to also break down my hands-on experience with Microsoft Flight Simulator. All of those bullet points were part of my wish-list for a new simulator, so of course, they are what I will be focusing on during this hands-on.

My First Flight

My initial thoughts for the day were that Microsoft was going to be extremely restrictive in what we could do with the new simulator. To that end, I was incredibly pleased when, actually, the whole world was immediately open for me to explore. Like any good simmer, the first location I loaded up was my home airport, Bristol (EGGD), in the UK. Loading up the default included Cessna 172, I took off runway 27 and banked to the left to head towards the A38 road and follow it all the way to the city centre. Now, I am fully aware that exploring Bristol will not be the first thing everyone will do, nor will it show off the capabilities of the new simulator. But I was very keen to try out the Bing Maps technology which will power the world of the new Flight Simulator, which was so prevalent during their technical presentation (which you can read more about here).

The city of Paris as represented in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

I was able to follow the road all the way to Bristol pretty easily, with many distinguishing points of interest all along the way. From small town houses to larger town shops and flats. Whilst the buildings didn’t display as much detail as the focus cities, they were accurately placed overlaid the high-resolution Bing Maps orthoimagery. Whilst not exact replicas, the Azure technology was in place to automatically inject accurate buildings where there was a lack of data. This certainly helped create an immersive environment more impressive than anything seen in a flight simulator before. There was certainly a feeling of familiarity as I cruised around in the Cessna over my home city, with train stations visible below, plenty of cars and traffic filling the streets and more. During the clear skies, finding my way over recognisable parks, housing estates and local amenities meant finding my old house was incredibly easy. I could even see my garden where I spent many hours watching planes fly overhead. It was an odd, but exciting sensation to see on a PC screen.

After finding my house, I wanted to focus some time on flying the aircraft with more consideration than in my initial few minutes.

As mentioned, the first of the three tested aircraft I used was the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, equipped with G1000s. For many, this is an iconic aircraft. From being an incredibly popular training aircraft thanks to its versatility to being a wondrous touring aircraft with its high-wing. More importantly, it is an aircraft I have limited familiarity with in the real-world, so trying it out in the new simulator was magical.

First, let’s talk about the visuals of the aircraft. In a single word: realistic.

New Shiney Aircraft

The modelling and texture quality is of an incredibly high standard. Starting outside, I noticed that every rivet, air vent and latch was represented. Each control surface had clearly defined modelling, with even the sensors hanging off the trailing edge. Even the fuel tank handle was modelled in a level of detail not seen in a simulator before. Texturing equally impressed me, with even the padded surface of the foot-step pad visible. The aircraft was nice and clean, with little dirt or scratches, but the overall appearance was beautiful. PBR textures were used both externally and internally for that added shine and realism.

Stepping inside and I was straight away floored by the craft and care that went into modelling the Cessna. The G1000s were equipped to this particular model, with the screens being delivered in stunning high resolution with all the details clearly visible. Each knob had the grips modelled in 3D and each button had a click animation as you pressed them. Other parts of the cockpit were just as rich in detail with plenty of attention on dials, instrument needles and more. Panning around the aircraft it was clear that no part of the aircraft was left untouched by the modelling and artist team. No blurry textures, no rushed elements – everything was a joy to look at. The seating was textured beautifully with stitching in the seats visible, and side panels clearly had a mark or two where you could just imagine people would bash their elbows in the narrow aircraft. One of the more impressive visuals was the acute detail on the windshield. As you flew around, the sun would shine through, and scratch marks, dust and other environmental effects would slightly impair your visibility – just as it would do in real life. Another striking feature was how during the night or when the sun was low, your cockpit windshield would reflect the screens or dials in a curved manner across the shield. Those details are game-changing compared to what we have today.

After exploring the visual beauty of the aircraft, I focused on the handling of the plane. If you haven’t already read my article on the technical side of the new Flight Simulator, I suggest that you pause here and understand the new aerodynamic model within the simulator. If you want the quick and dirty version:

Microsoft Flight Simulator will have 1000 simulated surfaces, which are all impacted by the forces of nature, pressure, speed, momentum, temperature and more. This creates a fluid, dynamic and ever-changing flight model which realistically reacts to the world around you. It’s a lot more than that, so be sure to read the full article to fully understand it all.

With this in mind, there were a few things I wanted to try and test. Firstly, I wanted to just enjoy the sensation of flight. Flying through clear skies with light winds meant that the air was mostly stable. The experience felt smooth with just a few bumps shaking the small aircraft around. Using the provided Saitek yoke, I made tiny adjustments to the trimmed aircraft and I was able to keep things nice and level. What was most striking to me was just how smooth the inputs were. There was no jerkiness to the aircraft and it felt like each movement of the yoke had an actual impact on the aircraft itself. To put it another way: I no longer felt like I was flying “on-rails”, as I have with FSX/P3D in similar aircraft. At long last, the airflow was really having an impact on the controls of the aircraft.

The Cessna 172 Skyhawk flying around mountainous terrain

Changing the weather to a more challenging type of weather meant much more focus had to be given on ensuring the aircraft was flying. As the speed changed, the nose was pitching up and down, with the wings losing balance. Things certainly felt busier than in calm skies, which is exactly what I would expect. Adjustments had to be made much more frequently and dramatically, with the plane really feeling the strain of flying in high winds with storm clouds in the area. I took the Cessna to the Swiss Alps, which gave it a tough time due to the mountainous terrain, which caused a lot of changes to airflow. For the first time in a Microsoft simulator, you really have to be ahead of the curve when passing these areas to ensure your aircraft flies as you command it.

You may have previously seen a video regarding stalls and spins. This was next up on my to-do list. Putting the weather back to more normal conditions, I set off to climb a safe altitude of around 6,000ft. Once I was happy, I reduced power and pulled slowly back on the yoke. As I saw the speed needle head dangerously close to the stall speed, I heard the warning before then hearing the rattling of the aircraft as it desperate attempted to claw as much air as possible to keep me up. As I continued to decrease that airflow over the wings, the aircraft coped no more and pitched forward and sent me into a stall spin. Releasing the controls and applying power slowly, meant I was able to recover safely and quickly. I regained control of the aircraft and stress-tested it once more. It was pretty exhilarating to see, hear, and almost feel the impact I was having on the aircraft.

Whilst seeing is believing, I am also an advocate for high-quality and immersive sounds. Microsoft and Asobo Studios have worked meticulously to record sounds from the real aircraft with high-level equipment. In the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, I very much enjoyed the sounds of the engine start-up. As I cycled through various levels of thrust input, and as the RPM increased, the pitch and the noise level increased accordingly. As I did the takeoff roll, you could hear the rattles of the plane it went hurtling down the runway at speed. Landing, as hard as I did, also gave a meaty sound effect ensuring I knew I had touched down, along with some tyre screeches as I slammed on the breaks (naughty of me, I know!)

You may say “but this is all included already in some payware products,” and whilst you’re correct – this is a base model aircraft. So everyone who ends up getting the new simulator will have all these detailed aircraft from the very beginning. Does this mean the market will be closed to aircraft developers to make new ones for the sim? Absolutely not, but third parties were not a focus of this particular event.

Another point of interest with all the aircraft I got to try is the inclusion of an interactive check-list. You have the option of having an interactive check-list guide you through the aircraft’s systems. From Cold-and-Dark to shut down; each checklist will help you better understand the plane’s systems and get you going. Don’t fret, hardcore fans, as you can completely turn off any assistance such as this. Equally speaking, those new to flight simulation will have a great way to learn instead of being told to “read the manual” when they ask in support forums. As you work your way through the checklist, the camera will pan to the area needed and give a brief overview on what to do. Furthermore, tool-tips have been expanded upon by now giving a much more detailed insight into what each button, lever, switch and control input does. Again, these can easily be disabled or enabled depending on your requirements.

Whilst I spent a lot of my time in the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, the TBM 930 and also the Mudry CAP 10 were also included in my pre-alpha build. I was told by a Microsoft developer that all 3 aircraft will be included in the base-simulator at launch. Furthermore, they are as detailed as the Cessna 172 Skyhawk which I’ve spoken about a lot above.

A Truly Global Sim

The pre-alpha version myself and others got to try out was much more open than any of us had anticipated. As mentioned, the whole world was open to explore. From the dusty deserts in Dubai to the hustling city of New York City, as well as everything in between. After finishing my time in and around my home city, I decided to check out one of the more jaw-dropping moments from the original E3 trailer: New York City. Despite an initially long-loading time (unsure as to why), once I was dropped into action above the city, my mind was blown. Make no mistake, I’ve been fooled by game trailers in the past, but I can assure you that what I was seeing here was rendered on my machine in real-time. The views were simply amazing. It’s hard to express how realistic each building looked. From the towering skyscrapers in Manhattan to the lush greenery in Central Park. Everything looked life-like.

You will be amazed at how stunning New York City looks in the new simulator

That promise of using Bing Maps in conjunction with the power of Azure totally came to life and I can see now how all of this comes together to create this unbelievably immersive world Microsoft has been aiming for. As I conducted my own private tour of the City that never sleeps, I had to remind myself that this was a simulator. This was a common effect Flight Simulator had on my during my experience with the system. Each building was unique and based off the photogrammetry data that the new simulator will utilise. No more generic objects, no more random or repeating textures and no more displaced auto-gen in these densely populated cities.

The best part of this experience? It was all running silky smooth at a stable frame rate in 4K. I have never been exploring a city in a flight simulator this detailed in such a high resolution before with minimal impact on performance. I noticed a few microstutters here and there, but again, this is all pre-alpha software. There will be plenty of optimisations to come going forward. Even with overcast conditions and storms, the frame rate held up perfectly fine.

It’s not just New York that has this level of detail. Throughout the world, there is a range of cities which will feature the photogrammetry technology. These are areas in the world that feature 3cm scanned data for the highest detail (you can read more in our technical piece). Other cities which featured in the version I tried are San Francisco, Seattle Dubai and London. There are more, but I didn’t have time to try them all out.

What is clear to me is that these city areas will be the new norm for the future of Flight Simulator. These are not expansion packs, DLC or anything of the kind. These are default areas that come part of the core simulator experience. There is no compromise on quality here and providing you have the right internet connection and hardware; you will be able to explore the world in high definition.

Beyond these cities is still millions of miles of the rest of the world. As mentioned in our technical piece, there are trillions of trees, millions of buildings and accurate roads and lakes that will ensure you are flying over accurate representations of these areas. Take Seattle for example: flying over the region in Flight Simulator was extremely lifelike. Having done it mere moments before in an actual aircraft meant I had a great idea on what the area should look like and feel from the sky. It was amazing to fly over all the same areas with the landmarks, rivers, bridges and waterfalls all in the right places. True VFR flying is now really possible in the simulator.

I spoke to Steve Thorne, also known as Flightchops from his YouTube channel, during the event, and he told me that even a windmill at the end of the runway at his local airport had been modelled within the simulator. Never before has such attention to detail been included in a base simulator. Microsoft Flight Simulator will provide users an experience similar to that of TrueEarth from Orbx, but included as standard. Of course, this detailed coverage is in select areas, and your mileage will vary depending on hardware and bandwidth, but for key areas in the world, you will have a stunning experience. If you’re interested in knowing more about how the bandwidth situation will work, be sure to read our technical piece.

The other visual delights come from the all new weather and lighting engines. I remember uttering “Oh my”, when I first experienced the visual delight in 4K. There are lots of elements that come together in this new world that create picturesque views in every frame.

Latest METAR Report

Whilst the screenshots look fantastic, it isn’t until you see the simulator in motion you can really experience the visual fidelity. The weather has a huge impact on the in-sim lighting. Clouds finally dim the bright sun from beaming down. Rain makes everything look wet and dreary. Wind will alter bodies of water in realistic ways. We finally have a dynamic world where light and weather work side-by-side to create this beautiful vista of promise and delight.Clear skies means you have a bright blue, crisp look to your simulator. The atmosphere will finally have an impact on your viewpoint into the world. As clouds form in real time above you, so will the lighting down below as they create shadows, which will block the harsh sun. Layers upon layers of weather will form all around you giving you breath-taking and realistic views.

Clouds are no longer these 2D sprites, they are pure volumetric objects that can form, grow and dissipate depending on the conditions. As you fly through them, your vision will be impaired as you desperately search for breaks in the coverage to expand your visibility. Rain shafts may be hidden inside sets of clouds, which hit your aircraft, giving you the dynamic effects across your windshield in real time. As you break above the clouds, the sun will brighten up your cockpit, leaving droplets of water clinging onto your fuselage before evaporating away.
When I changed the weather to give me a stormy NYC, I noticed that clouds and fog wrapped itself around the towering buildings. No more strange visibility clipping you have seen from past simulators.

As the sun begins to set, the city will light up, also giving an orange glow to the base of the clouds

Night lighting continued to impress me. As the sun began to sink over the horizon, street lights along the roads lit up providing a picturesque view. Even more impressive was seeing the orange glow from the lighting hit the underside of the clouds, giving them a soft orangey glow – unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the past. If flying in the wilderness, expect to fly in the dead of night. I had a legitimate fuzzy feeling as I flew through the forests at night only to then head towards a see of yellow and orange in the distance to then find myself over a small town. It was said that you can now do true night-time VFR thanks to the power of the new simulator.

This was my experience and I was left speechless.

Moving away from planes and scenery, I want to talk about other important elements such as the UI and other options I got to explore.

Let me start with the UI. Sadly, no screenshots of the user interface were provided (nor were we allowed to take any photos), so I will do my best to describe the in-sim menu. As you hover your mouse over the screen, a small arrow icon will appear towards the top of the screen. Hovering specifically over that icon will show the in-sim menu, replacing FSX’s ‘tabbed’ style. This slick new design currently houses multiple options such as weather, time of day, options, checklists and more. Each icon is distinguishable so you know exactly what to expect. Something very cool is the fact that you can change the weather and time of day on the fly (pardon the pun). It is not required to reload your sim as you go from live weather during the middle of the day to overcast conditions in the dead of night. I’m can’t cover much else of the UI or options, simply because many of them at this time was limited due to the nature of the pre-alpha build.
With that said, one area I really want to go in-depth is the world-map explore feature. Exploring the world in flight simulation has always been one of the best reasons to jump-in. From picking any airport in the world and flying around is always magical. Microsoft has taken this to the next level with this new map, which literally enables you to see everything on a global scale. As mentioned before, we can’t share an exact look at the map, however, I will do my best to describe it and the functionality.

Upon clicking the menu, you are greeted by a satellite image view of the globe (complete with day and night cycle). You can then move the globe around, zoom in and find your next destination. A handy search bar also enables you to narrow down your results by IATA or ICAO code, country, airport name or even point of interest. If you fancy flying over the Statue of Liberty or the Pyramids in Egypt, you can simply search and begin your flight there. No need to find the local airport or spend time getting there as you can immediately spawn your flight right at that point of interest. Don’t be put off by this as you can still start at any airport in the world (over 40,000) and at any gate. As you zoom into the map, that globe will turn into a crisp and clean vector, which will show you the outline of the map along with dots representing gates or runway starting points. Clicking on that dot will then give you the choice to select whether you start there for departure, of if that is your arrival destination.

When selecting an airport as your destination, you can then also add in your arrival airport. Doing so will then scan the weather and included waypoint data and plot a route based on a bunch of factors to give you a range of options. It will also include both SIDs and STARs, depending on wind/runway usage. Once you’ve selected your route, you can adjust it to your needs, view a vertical flight path profile (to avoid any mountains) and also a mini navigation log. It’s not as detailed or customisable as software such as SimBrief or PFPX, but for beginners, it’s a great feature and will soon start to educate.

I spent around 30 minutes alone on this map view, always impressed with new features I found as I played around with options. Other things I did notice included that weather / cloud systems appeared on the globe as per real-world weather and that there will be lots of options for users to build their own map showcasing data they want to see. For example, you can filter out airport types (grass runways, large airports), as well as show any friends that are currently flying and also live traffic. Where that traffic is sourced wasn’t confirmed. I would love to speculate that it will be from FlightRadar24, but that certainly wasn’t mentioned at this time (but if you’re reading Microsoft, please let it be!).

What I didn’t get to explore or find out about?

Like all pre-release builds, you don’t get to explore everything. Furthermore, not everything was on the table to be discussed at this point. We’re still very early in the development phase, so sadly, it’s hard to offer more of an insight than I already have. Some things from the current set-up of sims was missing, such as ATC, AI traffic and seasons. Smaller things such as the ability to adjust weather as precisely as you can today in FSX also wasn’t available in this build. The other big question is: “when will we see third-party products?” That isn’t a question for now, according to Microsoft. This hands-on was all about what’s available right now and what the community can come to expect in the base-simulator.

Specification and hardware requirements were also a no-go talking point during this event.

What didn’t I like / feedback

I can’t stress enough that the experience I had with the new Microsoft Flight Simulator is from a pre-alpha build. Many of the features were locked or not yet complete. Furthermore, what wasn’t on show wasn’t spoken about, nor would any developer comment on them.

With that said, there were some quirks I found with the current software. Some areas suffered with the aerial imagery and also the implementation of in-simulator elements. For example, by the Statue of Liberty, I noticed that it was mostly flooded, with some elevation issues. Another, more comical, issues I saw was cars and road traffic spawned in buildings and seemed to travel incredibly fast. Whizzing around corners at 30mph, not following roads accurately and seemingly crashing into one another. Things like this aren’t prevalent to the flight simulation aspect, but noticeable as you do those VFR circuits.

Something else I felt needed work was the camera system. It’s more advanced than we have seen in default FSX, but programs such as ChasePlane have spoiled me on how I control my camera with fluidity and simplicity. Each camera can be adjusted in the in-sim menu, but it’s still a far-cry from the number of options ChasePlane delivers. I appreciate that ChasePlane is a stand-alone product specifically designed to improve camera interactions, but there were still areas for improvement. Take panning, for example. Using the hat-switch, I would expect the camera to pan slowly in that particular direction. However, in the build I played, it would instead switch to a slightly different angled view in the direction I flicked the switch.

Funny other quirks I noticed include the fact that some button combinations have changed, whilst others stayed the same. Call me old-fashioned, but my brain has been programmed to know that hitting F6/F7 will incrementally lower or raise my flaps. That key didn’t exist in this build, but F8 still gave me full flaps. There were other examples like this, but I was fully relieved to know that hitting B will still change my gauges to read the correct pressure from the weather.

It is still very early days for the all new Microsoft Flight Simulator. All things considered, this is a return to form for Microsoft. The new aerodynamics engine felt responsive, realistic and more in-depth than ever. This coupled with a simulator that has spectacular visuals, dynamic worlds, immersive weather and a clean UI, means that Microsoft is on-track to deliver the simulator we’ve all been dreaming of for years.

With a release date for 2020, there’s still plenty of time for Microsoft to listen and implement community feedback, new ideas and more. We are still waiting on the news regarding third-parties, but so far, from everything I’ve seen, we’re in the next generation of flight simulators. There is a lot to be excited about and I can’t wait to fly higher, faster and for longer.

The final screenshot I want to leave you with is that of the TBM cruising high above the layered clouds

Continue Finding Out More

Technical Overview for Microsoft Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator Developer Interview – Episode 1: World and Weather

[Premier – live on October 1st @ 16:00z] Microsoft Flight Simulator Developer Interview – Episode 2: Aerodynamics and Cockpit

[Premier – live on October 2nd @ 16:00z] Microsoft Flight Simulator Developer Interview – Episode 3: Community Engagement

4K Screenshot Media Libary

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Calum Martin
Calum has been an avid fan of Flight Sim since the release of FS2000 and has developed his love for aviation ever since.
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