Never in my lifetime did I see a full flight simulation product be made available for a home console. In fact, I didn’t expect Microsoft to re-enter the flight simulation market after the tragic events of Flight back in 2012. Yet here we are in 2021 with both of those things. In fact, Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox could not have come at a better time. In a time where most of the world is still under some form of lockdown, exploring our planet from the comfort of your own living room has never felt so appealing.
I reviewed Microsoft Flight Simulator last year when it was first released and I was already hugely impressed. This review will focus on the Xbox experience more so than what the simulator offers. As they are both like-for-like, you can get an idea of what’s going on under the hood with our previous review. Having that said, I will be looking at the most recent update that paved the way for a lot of the technical and accessibility improvements that the Xbox version required for the new way to play.
Let’s just get this out of the way: this is a true flight simulation n experience. There are no gimmicks, no limitations on where you can fly and certainly no restrictions on how you fly. If you own the PC version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, then you will already know what it will be like on Xbox as they are like-for-like. That’s right, the whole experience of a flight simulator can be enjoyed in your living room from a tiny little box. No need for an expensive PC or worry about ensuring you have the right hardware – you can truly explore the world using a game console.
I admit that it must seem a little incomprehensible that a game console could even run a flight sim. After all, we have spent years as a community trying numerous performance tweaks and/or buying the most expensive hardware to get every frame possible from the sim. Yet now, a $299 game console can run the simulator at a steady frame rate and still look good.
I’ve been able to experience the simulator on both Xbox consoles. Whilst the Xbox Series X undoubtedly provides the best experience, the Xbox Series S is still mightily impressive. The most obvious difference between the two is that the Series X outputs the simulator in full 4K (providing you have a display that supports it). Not only that, but the performance is fairly stable at 30FPS regardless of the area you’re in. In fact, if you have a capable display, you can achieve a frame rate greater than 30FPS in some areas. Whilst there is concern that the level of detail would be downgraded, I can assure you that the sim looks just as beautiful as ever. In fact, I would say that the sim appears to be running on the equivalent of a ‘high’ setting from the PC counterpart. This strikes a great balance between visual fidelity and performance. As someone who owns a 4K TV, but not 4K monitors, to see the sim running at such a high resolution was breathtaking. Even if you’re used to running the sim at ultra settings, that resolution bump is so significant that it looks better than ever before.
On Series S, there is some visual quality dropping along with the obvious reduction in resolution. Does that make it an ugly experience? No, far from it. I took a 747 in stormy conditions around New York and maintained a steady 30FPS frame rate throughout. It still looked great and felt very smooth. Whilst flying at the time you don’t notice the visual quality, seeing them side by side and you can see where the compromises were made. The photogrammetry lacks detail there is a decrease in the level of detail at a distance. The overall picture quality also looks a little fuzzy, with some edges looking a little rough. It was noticeable but did not cause any instability for the performance. I would also add that the level of detail when flying up close was reduced and this did also cause some pop-in, even with objects up close. All that said, for a console that costs less than $299 and takes up hardly any space, it’s pretty magical to see the sim running as well as it does. It isn’t perfect, but once you put things into context, you realise just how incredible this is.
The only obvious area where some compromise was made would be on the glass displays in the cockpit. The refresh rate and resolution have been compromised quite significantly. This is mostly on the PFD when gaining/losing speed or banking. It’s just a little distracting when everything else feels so fluid and smooth. What would have been nice would have been the choice to adjust the settings to suit my needs. For some users, this won’t be an issue, but for those who want this to be a smoother experience, having a setting to adjust this would be welcome. Although this may cause some compromise elsewhere, one of the core things about flight simming is the chance to pick and choose options that suit your needs.
What Microsoft and Asobo have achieved with performance is nothing short of remarkable. All of the eye candy we already have in the PC version is present and both consoles maintain a stable framerate regardless of what you throw at it. Whilst the console version won’t allow you to change any of the graphical settings, it does mean you can jump in and fly without worrying about your settings. This does present a slight problem, however. One of the great things about the PC version is the ability to adjust options to suit your flying needs. Those that want to be flying high with a jet will not care about certain elements such as tree density, and as such, will adjust the settings accordingly. Though I accept that the Xbox version wants to be as jump-in-and-fly as possible, some choices would be welcome in a future update.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is stunning to look at, but it still does rely heavily on internet usage. For some that may be a hindrance, but this is par for the course if you want to have the photogrammetry details, live weather and live traffic. Again, the console experience doesn’t take away from the fact you can use all this technology to stream to your console.
Fantastic performance aside, Microsoft knew that the other challenge of bringing the Sim to a console is how accessible the product would be when away from the typical set-up. Whilst using a gamepad is nothing new, the change is the fact that the game controller would be supplemental to the keyboard and mouse combination. For Xbox, it needs to be assumed that the audience will only have a gamepad. This of course brings a fair share of challenges, but one that Asobo Studio took in their stride.
Normally, assigning specific buttons in the cockpit is easy with so many keys or mouse button combinations available. But again, the lowest common denominator for Xbox users will be the controller. This is why I think that the new “locking” control set-up is actually a genius yet simplistic method of interacting with a large number of switches and levers in a cockpit.
When the cursor is not acting as a pointer, you are able to pan your camera until the central marker is over a button, switch or lever in the sim. A tooltip will then pop up and you will then be able to “lock” into it and interact with it using the controller. At this point, further information will appear telling you what it is you’ve selected, how to interact with it and any further information. For example, say you want to change your heading selector on the autopilot panel, you will need to hover over it, press the A button to lock and then use the thumbstick to rotate it to the heading you need. The tooltip will also show you the selected heading. You can then quickly escape from the “lock” and continue flying as normal. Another example is the landing gear where you perform similar actions. However, as you will need to move the lever up or down, you will need to use that movement on the thumbstick. The default options work for the most part, but I did find myself upping the max speed the cursor moved to make it even quicker for me. I also think that this type of control scheme works better in aircraft equipped with the autopilot (A320, B747) as you can take a little more time to get things set up while the aircraft flies itself. Overall, it feels extremely natural and intuitive once you get used to it
Along with panning the camera, you are also able to bring up a cursor that is akin to that of a mouse pointer. Pushing in the left thumbstick, you will be able to view a 2D circle appear which will allow you to interact with the cockpit or menu options. I did feel it was a little too slow and sometimes not as snappy as I’d hoped. Although I did increase the speed of its movement, it’s no substitute for a traditional mouse. With some of the menu items or cockpit controls really small, it can be a bit cumbersome to use, especially in the heat of the moment. But, if you want, you can add AI assist to control the aircraft when you are using the cursor to navigate menus.
Despite all of this, if you have a spare keyboard and mouse lying around, you can easily plug it into your Xbox console and use that to assist you. Likewise, there’s already a range of compatible hardware that you can connect via USB, including a number of flight controls, for example the one from Thrustmaster. In the future hardware from Honeycomb Aeronautical and Turtle Beach will make the flying experience even better from your living room sofa.
Accessibility doesn’t stop at the way in which you control the sim. Knowing that a brand new audience will be experiencing the sim for the first time, some revamps were made to the menus and training. The training modules have been broken down into sections to make it more digestible, while the all-new discovery flights enable you to see stunning parts of the world and find points of interest across an array of cities. The world map has also seen a huge improvement with new satellite imagery when zoomed in and the new markers help you to find landmarks and cities easier than before.
Another area of improvement comes with the AI flight assistant. You can easily find interesting places near you, including cities, airports and landmarks and tell your virtual co-pilot to fly there. Even if your aircraft doesn’t have an autopilot equipped, the AI will do a good job at taking you there. You can also refine the assistance further by turning on only specific options like AI auto-trim. All these quality of life improvements will help newcomers and experienced simmers alike. Yes, all of these improvements have been carried over to the PC version via Sim Update V.
What impresses me most about the Xbox version is that this is like-for-like with the PC version. Every aircraft, every hand-crafted airport and the complete atmospheric engine is here and fully intact. There have been no compromises made to condense this down or gamify the experience. Some people may confuse accessibility with gamification, but this is a true flight simulator through and through.
Just as with the PC version, you can load up anywhere in the world and fly any type of flight you’d like. So if you want to fly a few short bush flights with some friends around Alaska, you can do so. Likewise, a long haul in the 747 from London to New York can be done all from the comfort of your living room with an Xbox controller. Everything you’ve done on PC is all possible with the Xbox version of the simulator. In fact, you can even take advantage of the cross-play and sync functionality. If you already own Microsoft Flight Simulator through the Microsoft store, you can download the sim to your Xbox for free and experience it via your console. All of your settings will be transferred via the cloud sync.
Perhaps the only thing truly missing from the Xbox version is the availability of the vast collection of freeware tools and products available. Sites such as FlightSim.to have gained huge popularity over the past year thanks to its huge library of freeware. Sadly, none of this can be used on the Xbox version as there’s no way to install them. All the downloadable content can only be installed via the in-sim Marketplace. While this is easy and convenient, there are some restrictions and challenges if you own a lot of products for your PC version.
One example is that a developer is in charge of whether you will need to pay again to use the content on your Xbox version. Another is that if you purchased a product through a third-party vendor, there will be no way to transfer that content over to the PC, even if the product is optimised for Xbox. Finally, not all products are compatible with the Xbox version, meaning that some of your favourite products may not be on the console version of the sim.
There will undoubtedly be naysayers who will continue to claim that Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox isn’t a true flight simulator. The reality is, this is a flight simulator in every sense of the word. I would argue that using Microsoft Flight Simulator on PC is the definitive way to go, the fact I get a visually stunning and smooth experience on a console that costs a fraction of a powerful PC is a massive achievement. Regardless of your position, this is a historic moment that will inspire an all-new generation to the flight simulation community.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is more than just a huge technical triumph; it’s an opportunity to inspire all-new generations.
All screenshots were taken on Xbox Series X, unless specified. Resized from 4K to 1080p for displaying online.