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Hands-On With Microsoft Flight Simulator

HANDS ON

The new Microsoft Flight Simulator is just a few weeks away from a public release and we have been lucky enough to have had our hands on a beta build for just over a week. That time has been spent covering all corners of the world in this ambitious title. Without a doubt, this is one of Microsoft’s most vital releases of the year and in a world where staying inside is the new norm, the timing for this release could not be better.

In this preview before release, we’re going to cover our time spent flying. If you’re looking for a detailed review, performance analysis and coverage over every single aspect, to manage your expectations of this article, this will be coming later. For now, we’re going to focus purely on the world, environment and whether or not this new simulator will stand the test of time.

The World Is Literally Yours

Since the Global Preview Event back in September 2019, it’s been clear the whole world is yours to explore.

Before we focus on specific areas of the world, let me just say how stunning I think the simulation looks. Every screenshot or video you have seen so far, is really how it truly looks like in the sim. I’m running the simulator with a modest GTX 1080ti with an oldish i7-4770K and 16GB of RAM. I’m using “high” settings (despite the fact the simulator defaulted me to medium) and I am blown away with each passing minute. The sim runs incredibly well despite the immense detail and despite the 1440p resolution I am running. I will go more into detail about performance once we get review code but suffice to say, I’m impressed with performance even on my ageing machine.

This is the most beautiful looking simulator ever created. Period. There is no denying that years of using other simulators (even with hundreds of dollars worth of add-ons) is starting to age poorly. So to jump into something as beautiful as Microsoft Flight Simulator is a breath of fresh air. Cities look populated whilst golden coasts look inviting and tropical. With travel being such a limited option right now, being able to virtually see anywhere in the world brings joy to a somewhat dark world.

Having now flown to over 20 or so iconic cities, seen numerous countries and continents, I’m really pleased just how well all this new data and technology brings this world to life. Realistically, there are places with better data resulting in much more realistic looking roads, houses and building placement. However, even those with more limited data still look immensely improved over anything we’ve seen previously. Helped with Azure technology and machine learning, the world feels alive even in the most remote locations. Flying around places such as the Caribbean, China, Korea and remote parts of Africa still have a sense of realism due to how each region is represented. The technology is incredible and after speaking to Microsoft and Asobo, they also know how they can continue to improve it over time to continuously make it better and better.

It’s not just rural locations either, but iconic landmarks such as Christ the Redeemer, the Taj Mahal and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa have been faithfully recreated as part of these detailed cities. You can do true virtual airtours all from the comfort of your own chair.

For the first time ever, picking a city, airport, or even a famous landmark can be done in a wonderful new world map interface. Dragging your mouse around the map is easy, intuitive and you can pick any number of locations. With the handy legend detailing what each of the markings mean, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for. If you’re unable to find it visually, the search bar makes that job as simple as possible. Serious simmers can start with their engines off at any gate at the airport. If you’re looking to do some sightseeing, you can start fully powered up and in the air at any spot in the world. This makes finding those iconic landmarks easier than before.

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Once in the sim, you are immediately immersed into something visually stunning and technically impressive. We’ve mentioned it before, but serious extra work has gone into creating a dynamic and living world. Since the last build at X019 of the new simulator, Microsoft and Asobo have looked at various aspects of the environment and world. One area of improvement is with the night lighting, which is now using light bulb temperature data to show off each individual bulb’s temperature giving it an accurate colour representation. At long last, night VFR flying is possible globally, without the need for any additional add-ons.

Another area I want to focus on is water. Yes, water in a flight simulator has received a lot of attention. In our interview with the team, it’s explained that water plays a big part in telling pilots how windy the conditions are down below. Seeing the way the waves move and how white the crest are gives pilots an indication of the velocity of the wind. Furthermore, having the Icon A5 included as part of the Standard Edition means anyone can land on nearly any body of water. The way the water looks, moves and reflects the lighting is just a delight. For example, you can adjust the wind with the weather settings and see the wave height increase and also see it moving much faster around your plane. Also the colour of the water changes depending on the depth of the ocean or lake, as well as how close it may be to coral reefs or landmass.

A True Feeling of Flight

One of the hardest things I found to do was clearing my brain of old shortcut controls or systems. Being so used to using shortcut keys of other simulators meant I occasionally hit the wrong key for specific things and caused an issue to my aircraft. That said, there is a huge amount of customisation you can do to set up the simulator as you wish. With that now done, taking to the skies for the first time was effortless and above all else, memorable. Using controls to fight crosswinds and trimming the aircraft precisely is now more important than ever thanks to the new flight dynamics of Microsoft Flight Simulator. Every element of the atmosphere, flight control surfaces and weather now has an impact on your airframe. Pull back too much and you’ll lose airspeed causing your aircraft to naturally fall into a stall. Whilst default planes before had stalling included, the handling left a lot to be desired and putting the aircraft back into a recovery position was not possible in default aircraft. However, in the new Microsoft Flight Simulator leaving the controls for a few moments will help bring the aircraft back into a complete recovery.

Visually, the aircraft are stunning. They are complete with high-definition texturing and the finest details are covered. From the leather seats in the TBM 930 to how the needles in the dials shake depending on how you’re handling the aircraft. It looks fantastic. One area I am really impressed with is lighting. During the night, if you have any of the glass avionics in your cockpit, expect them to reflect on the glass of your cockpit as the light bounces off. It’s a minor effect but one that excels the simulation beyond anything we currently have today.

In total, 20 aircraft are included with the Standard Edition of the simulator. Most of them are single propeller aircraft and a handful of twins. There are also some quirky aircraft such as the Icon A5 – which has the ability to land on water (more on that later), the Extra 330 – which is perfect for aerobatics – and some speedy twins such as the TBM930.

My impressions for the small aircraft in the simulator leave a much better feeling for me than the larger jets such as the included A320neo and 747-8i. Those are some of the most modern aircraft in the simulator and provide a completely different experience compared to the aforementioned aircraft.

During my current hands-on time, I have yet to truly experience a breathtaking flight with either of the jets simply due to some of the strange quirks, such as incredibly fast climb rates and strange inconsistencies with handling. They are far from perfect, but I will say that they do provide more than any default jet for other simulators have yet to offer. I will spend more time with them over the coming weeks, but for now, I’ve enjoyed seeing the world at a slower pace.

The Most Accessible Simulator Yet

For decades, flight simulation has always had this huge barrier of accessibility. Whilst many will argue that downloading a simulator via Steam, loading it up and flying is simple enough, I would ask if that gave the best results. Over the years, it has become increasingly more obvious that the only way to have a truly immersive experience with a flightsim was to add numerous add-ons or downloadable content. Whilst developers have worked hard to make this easy to install, the barriers remained; the financial cost, knowing which to install and what impact it would have on your simulator.

With Microsoft Flight Simulator, some of those key challenges are removed and are just part of the default experience. Coupled with having to add shader tools (to get a realistic-looking colour in your sim), additional weather textures and of course any airport meant that running a simulator got complex and expensive. No matter your opinion, the fact remains that this is easily the most accessible simulator yet thanks to so many of the aforementioned features included with the base simulator.

Accessibility doesn’t just stop at having some nice visuals or data built into the simulator. It also comes in the form of educating newcomers to the field. The integrated checklists are an example of how this simulator can exist for both hardcore simmers and newcomers. Having the checklist guide you through the procedures, with the camera moving in accordance to what is going on will help those unfamiliar with the controls of these jets to get comfortable. Over time, those who are new will become educated and no longer require it. I particularly loved this as I was unfamiliar with some new aircraft included with the simulator and it meant I could learn without having to dig around for checklists or guides online.

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Another area in which I think makes the simulator much more accessible is the menu system. Gone, finally, are the days of the old FSX menus. I know they may have a feeling of familiarity and nostalgia for many, but it’s time to let go of the past and adapt to some more modern UI design. Clear buttons, easy navigation and numerous options make it, again, the perfect mix for hardcore enthusiasts and newcomers alike. If you’re a hardcore simmer, then there is still plenty of flexibility and customisation you can do to the sim. For example, you can adjust weather and time of day completely on-the-fly in the simulator and adjust everything. From the cloud coverage and precipitation to the wind velocity and even the amount of moisture in the air. Those also concerned about some of the UI elements in the external view will be pleased that you can easily turn them on or off, as well as hide/show some of the menu items depending on what you need. Finally, if you wish to take camera controls or weather controls to a second monitor, you can do so with the built-in pop-out feature.

Beyond that, there is a range of missions, tutorials and challenges which will give everyone the chance to try something new.

Is This the End for Third-Party Add-ons?

Simply put; no.

Microsoft and Asobo Studio have been clear since the start that the support from third-parties will continue to be paramount for the success of the platform. We already know that over 400 developers have access to the SDK, with a handful of them already confirming they are working with the platform.

Every post I read saying “I won’t need to buy this because of Microsoft Flight Simulator” will likely be disappointed that add-ons will still be required to truly have the most authentic experience possible. There is no doubt in my mind that the new simulator provides the best base simulator for the community and developers, but time is needed to truly bring your favourite airports and aircraft to life.

That said, there are some add-on types that will be less crucial than before. Sky and atmosphere textures, shaders and even weather engines to an extent are required less and less with the new simulator thanks to the technology built inside.

Will you have a good time in the simulator without add-ons? Yes, for sure. Bing Maps, Azure and the sophistication of the software will give you an entire sandbox to explore to a great level of detail – but the third-parties will build even more impressive sandcastles for you to explore.

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Will It Be the Future of Flight Simulation?

No product, game, or simulator will be perfect. What is clear, however, this is a long-term project with a passionate and dedicated team behind the wheel. Not only that, but Microsoft Flight Simulator is a modern and technical marvel which will open the doors to many, many newcomers in the future. That excites me. That should excite you.

Microsoft and Asobo have said multiple times now that this is a simulator they intend to give a 10-year commitment to. The team has worked on the simulator since 2017 and this is “just the beginning” of a long and exciting journey.

Of course, the reality is that for a lot of core simmers, there will still be areas to improve, key products missing and a lot of adapting to be done. Seasons won’t be immediately available, for example. VR will come later and other features such as ATC need a lot of refining. As flight simmers, this shouldn’t be too strange to us as we’ve always had to wait for simulators to reach their full potential.

As for Microsoft Flight Simulator, the next-generation of flight simulation is here and it has a strong-looking and healthy potential, but having some patience will be key.

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Microsoft Flight Simulator will release on August 18th 2020. Beta access was provided to FSElite by Microsoft.

Tags : Asobo StudioFirst ImpressionsFlight SimHands-OnMicrosoftMSFS
Calum Martin

The author Calum Martin

I have been an avid fan of Flight Sim since the release of ‘2000 and have developed my love for aviation ever since. I have the knowledge and experience to really deliver an excellent aviation community. Although no real life flying experience, I have a good understanding and always learning more and more.
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