In all my current time with flight simulation, and in particular, being within the media side of things, I had never thought I would be writing a review for a new Microsoft Flight Simulator platform. The series that was left behind when the Aces team was closed down seemingly held on to life for years thanks to a huge amount of developer support and community members still finding new tricks and techniques to gain better performance. As we saw better hardware, we too also saw more immersive add-ons. Other simulators came along and the community continued to thrive and grow. The elephant in the room, however, was always the lack of support.
With previous iterations of Flight Simulator, we saw updates and changes that would be an evolution of a previous feature. However, this new simulator, simply named as ‘Microsoft Flight Simulator’, (notice the lack of year compared to previous releases) entered development back in 2017 in a world where online data is used almost everywhere. Furthermore, technology, computing power and advanced tech such as AI are more advanced than ever meaning Microsoft could finally realise its ambition on creating an authentic world.
The technology in Microsoft Flight Simulator is fundamental to the simulator. Yes, it’s a flight simulator and you can explore over 37,000 airports in the world, but under that is the power of Azure. Combined with global data scanning, integration with numerous real-world data points and incredibly smart Artificial Intelligence (AI) we are able to traverse recognisable cities, towns and other far-flung destinations even if they don’t have the photogrammetry technology. This is all without the need to buy additional add-ons.
That brings me onto an important point I think should be considered for the remainder of the review. Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t try to be the be-all and end-all of products. It doesn’t hide the fact you may want to add third-party content to the platform – the marketplace is front and centre right on the home page. So whilst it may be disappointing to some that we will have to continue to buy products to enhance our experience, take solace that the new simulator provides developers with more powerful tools and accessibility than ever before.
Explore Anywhere, Anytime
Exploration is a key factor of this new simulator. In previous versions, a handful of cities had some kind of included cityscape. Typically they consisted of a handful of low-polygon and low-resolution renditions of some key buildings. However, the power of Bing Maps and Azure has totally changed the game with how cities are represented in the simulator.
There are two types of included data when it comes to cities. Some locations and cities have been reproduced based on photogrammetry data. This is where Bing Maps has 3D imagery of particular cities (about 400 in total) and the simulator uses this to create realistic renditions of those areas in unprecedented detail. These cities are brimming with life including recognisable landmarks, lifelike buildings and plenty of populated roads down below.
Of course, there are more than 400 cities in the world and plenty of remote locations where data may not be as accessible to Bing Maps or available. This is where the power of Azure and AI comes to full fruition. The entire world has been scanned and using AI the whole world has 3D generated data. Whereas previous simulators used autogen to populate cities based on landclass data, the new simulator tries to build an accurate placement and height of buildings and place vegetation where it should be based on aerial map data. This means even flying in remote places can yield somewhat realistic results. Whilst it won’t populate your exact shopping centre, petrol station or even high-rise tower block, it will do its best to figure out what type of building it is and give you something to look at.
This isn’t to say that every place I visited looked as stunning as some of the videos and screenshots out there. It’s like a diamond in the rough. There is clearly something of quality there, but not yet fully polished or realised. That said, it’s still hugely functional, and provides pilots of any type something genuine to look at out of the window. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve looked at each continent exploring various cities and it’s clear that regardless of where you fly in the world, you’re going to see cities, towns, forests and other types of settlements represented better than anything we’ve seen in any other simulator. A big caveat of this stunning world is, of course, having an internet connection. For some people, this isn’t possible or they may have data caps. However, flying in an offline world still yields plenty of potential for those who may not have sufficient data access. The whole world is still available, cities still exist and accessing the 37,000 airports is all possible. If you choose to fly offline, you will lose the ability to have the photoreal imagery and AI-generated buildings streaming into the simulator. You also won’t be able to take advantage of the live weather, multiplayer options and other data-dependent features.
There are still options available for those with limited data options including the ability to cap the amount of streamable data, use a cache mode and simply to fly offline. Cache mode is a great in-between option especially if you fly in certain areas. Downloading areas to the simulator means you can then fly in detail without worrying about any patchy connections.
In my time with the simulator, I experienced no issues with the online components. Once the simulator loads, data is streamed seamlessly into the simulator. In my world tour, exploring over 80 cities in numerous continents and all included airports, I racked up just over 8GBs of downloaded data. Of course, your mileage will vary and if you have uncapped internet plans, you will have the best experience possible.
Before we look into the world itself, I want to touch on those included 37,000 airports in the simulator. It goes without saying that not each of the 37,000 airports included has been hand-crafted like those included with the simulator. Those non-hand-crafted airports are functional, but still remain just the building blocks we have seen from other simulators in the past. Still, plenty of work for third-party developers to do here, as there are inaccuracies with some parking spots, taxiway layouts and signage. They are somewhat improved over past simulators using the new modern graphics engine, but they do stand out compared to how the hand-crafted airports look.
Above – A variety of shots from some of the included hand-crafted airports.
Above – Some shots from a default airport; in this case Gatwick Airport.
As for those hand-crafted airports, the quality of them varies from airport to airport. The small ones such as Lukla, Courchevel and Saba are brimming with intricate details and well-executed design, whilst the bigger ones such as Paris CDG, Los Angeles LAX and New York JFK all feel quite generic. They certainly are far more functional and detailed than those not hand-crafted, but there’s still room for improvement that only a third-party developer who’s specifically making an airport could actually give to it. Paying extra for the Premium or the Premium Deluxe Editions of the airport (the latter is priced at $120 compared to the standard $60 edition) feels a little underwhelming when you look at the final quality of those airports and yet you will still likely want to buy third-party additions.
The world may be full of cool cities, tropical landscapes and sparse villages, but the atmosphere, sound and ambience of the environment is what brings the simulator to life. By now, you might have seen numerous screenshots and videos demonstrating the simulator in numerous lighting conditions. This isn’t a case of something being pre-rendered drawn into the environment, but rather the result of all elements dynamically interacting with each other. Cloud will block the sunlight creating darker shadows, whilst dust will change how the air looks when light hits it. Equally, night lighting will bounce on the underside of clouds in busy cities, yet when overflying the baron area, the impact of the streets and buildings below will be minimal.
All of this lighting is truly enhanced by the advanced weather simulation included with the simulator. You can choose from a range of pre-sets included with the sim, create your own or have live weather injected. Each cloud, wind and atmospheric layer can be adjusted individually to your liking. So if you’re looking to create a specific scene, you can do this. Of course, many users will enjoy having the live weather be directly injected into the simulator for an authentic experience. This will put real-world data into the simulator forming clouds, wind and other conditions that breathe more life into the world. Clouds will form and move whilst wind will have a direct effect on the 3D grass, trees and even the water and lakes. If you’re taking the ICON A5 out for a spin, I highly recommend you try landing in the water on a windy day and see how the water physics impact the landing and watch your plane rock around as it bounces on the waves. Interestingly, weather interacts with the ground and buildings including dynamic thermals and wind shift depending on the environment. Rain will also make the ground wet, splash off of the aircraft and even drip from your aircraft. Finally, flying through clouds will build up ice on the aircraft which can have performance and system failures happen.
The weather within the simulator is by far more advanced than we’ve seen in previous simulators. There still seems to be room for improvement such as enabling historical data (if you want to recreate specific conditions) and I’ve seen odd shifts in turbulence from time to time which resulted in my aircraft buffeting and stalling. This caused some frustration but only happened occasionally.The final component of the environment I want to talk about is the sound. This is a simulator that takes that to the next level by including a complete soundscape. During my many hours of touring the virtual world, I decided to take a pit stop on a nearby beach. Despite the most common sound being, of course, the engines of the aircraft, I decided to just land, turn off the engine and sit there. To my surprise, I sat there enjoying the tranquillity of waves crashing upon the shoreline and birds flying around. This isn’t just at a beach, but worldwide and dynamic based on where you are. If you’re in a busy city, expect to hear cars, traffic and other sounds associated with those environments.
With such heavy use of photographic aerial imagery throughout the scenery, seasonal texturing and variation is of course something high on many simmers’ wishlist. Within Microsoft Flight Simulator, simply changing the date and time will not adjust the colouring of the ground or the trees, as per previous simulators from Microsoft. This may be disappointing to some simmers, there is still some idea of seasonality within the sim. For example, during the winter months (in either hemisphere), the sun will be lower in the sky and the days are drawn in. The real-world weather will also affect the environment too. If snow is falling, expect to see the ground, trees and buildings covered in the white stuff.
Aircraft and In-Flight
Being a flight simulator, having aircraft is part and parcel of the experience. Included in the standard edition of the simulator are 20 aircraft covering everything from low and slow and stunt aircraft to long-haul jets and amphibious aircraft. Those picking up the Premium and Premium Deluxe Editions will get an additional 5 or 10 aircraft (depending on the version) added to the diverse line-up.
It would be impossible to discuss how each aircraft handles, how realistic they are or the system depth, but we can cover how Microsoft and Asobo Studio have approached aircraft in the new Flight Simulator.
The detail in these aircraft come with no compromise when it comes to the visual and sound design. Visually, all cockpits looked incredible. Crisp and clear displays with a high screen refresh rate that are hugely impressive. The way the glass cockpit lights up on the glass of the cockpit or how the rain dynamically moves based on speed and wind is also incredible to see and continue to immerse you. Zooming in you can clearly see details that go beyond anything we’ve seen in any aircraft before. Sound-wise, there is a lot to love about how the engines sound during flight or even the clicking sound of the starter motor. The engines sound spectacular and I was really immersed with how the aircraft rocked, creaked and sounded under stress when I put it to the limits. Wind, rain and other environmental effects all add to the experience whilst sitting inside your cockpit ready for flight.
Within the cockpit, there are a lot of functional buttons and switches to press and experiment with. If you run out of fuel, the engine will starve and cut out or turn off electrical power, which will result in you losing any GPS equipment you may have onboard. In some planes, you have glass cockpits with displays visually showing you the ground beneath you to assist with your flying along with system warnings when something is quite right. Icing also plays a part, unlike other flight sims. Fly through clouds and watch as the ice builds up on your cockpit windows, wings and fuselage. Not only is it visual, but expect to see your pitot tubes freeze and prevent you from getting the crucial data such as your airspeed and altitude to your cockpit. This happened to me several times and I finally had to start really thinking about how flying in the clouds may impact the performance of my aircraft; totally unlike how other simulators have functioned before.
There is also the question around how these aircraft handle in the simulator. One of my biggest gripes with how ‘on-rails’ ESP driven simulators feel. Weather, environmental factors and aircraft configuration didn’t seem to have much impact on the fluidity of aircraft. This is always a major concern for some, especially in smaller GA aircraft which so heavily impact on those small factors. With the new flight model, there are 1000 points of contact in which the physics, weather and other factors can now interact with the aircraft. The result is a much more fluid and active aircraft that you must now fly and react to.
It’s clear from my time with the simulator that I believe people will enjoy the smaller aircraft over the bigger jets included with the simulator. The Airbus and Boeing aircraft are certainly beautiful on the outside, but there are more issues with these planes than the likes of the Cessna or Robin aircraft. They’re fun planes, accessible for newcomers and include a lot more depth than we’ve seen with older simulators, but still don’t reach levels where they are that enjoyable. There are some obscurities (no TCAS in the 787 for example) and numerous INOP switches that make the larger planes feel rushed. That said, there is some detailed work with the displays, the functioning in flight management systems and of course an autopilot that does a somewhat decent job of handling the aircraft.
Flying big jets for many is why they are into flight simulation. Microsoft Flight Simulator will not be a one-for-one replacement if you like flying these types of aircraft. They are functional, can get you from A to B, but I felt a lack of polish or realism especially compared to other aircraft in the simulator. I was left impressed with how the 747-8i had a navigation map akin to the real-aircraft, but then left underwhelmed by the lack of polish with the fonts on the display or even how even the most basic of switches (seat belt sign) just didn’t work. This is really evident by the fact the interactive checklist system (which I really like) is only half complete. My time in Microsoft Flight Simulator was, and likely will be for some time, focused on the general aviation experience.
Whilst these aircraft are by no means “study level”, nor without some issues somewhere along the line, they offer a lot of detail above anything as default aircraft in previous simulators. For both newcomers and seasoned simmers alike, they all offer something to enjoy and experiment with.
Default aircraft do offer the functionality to enable failures during the flight, which can be set up to occur at any specific time or right from the start. In all aircraft, you can set up to have failures with the oil system or even engine fires. That said, they are mostly visual with a handful of impacts on your aircraft; nor can you fix the issue in some cases as the control you may need to use is INOP. For newcomers, it’s a neat touch that will certainly keep you busy when learning these new aircraft.
It’s easy to soar through the sky, make minimal adjustments to my trim, throttle or configuration and you can now feel the aircraft react accordingly. These new flight dynamics are embedded in the world not as an afterthought but as part of the ecosystem as a whole, meaning everything from the weather around you to the shape of the terrain under you will impact how you fly. You will notice a difference in flying over cities compared to flat fields in the country.
The Most Accessible Simulator Yet
Accessibility with the new simulator has been a top priority for Microsoft. That is made clear from the start when you initially have to set up settings such as text size, menu colour (for those who may have visual impairments) and also your simulator settings. Some may not like the interface, which is very reminiscent of more mainstream video games, but I feel they demonstrate a move away from a clunky menu system and bring us into a modern era of usability and design.
It’s not just the menus that have made the simulator more accessible, finding new destinations, cities and points of interest is now easier than ever. No more guessing on a low-resolution map, but now instead you can rotate the globe to your desire. Clicking anywhere will set up a custom location and you can jump straight in. Of course, those looking to complete a full flight can also do so by searching an airport by ICAO/IATA code, airport name or even city. You can zoom in, select a gate (visually) and follow it up with an arrival airport. Once you have your airport pair, VFR flyers can either add custom way-points to help them go from place to place or hop in and fly as per your own flight rules. IFR pilots ready to do short-haul or long-haul flights can plan their entire route from within the simulator using real-world and updated navigation data. Add a SID/STAR to your flight and load up your flight. A full nav log will show you estimated enroute time (with weather considerations), waypoints and more. It’s all there right inside the simulator without the need for any external tools or applications.
As with the actual world within the flight simulator, the world map UI is also alive with data. You can filter for active online friends, show wind data, see points of interest only or even see actual real-time airport arrival and departure information powered by FlightAware. This works really well and offers further customisation to help you find what type of flight simulation experience you’re looking for. I enjoyed seeing friends on the map and being able to easily find areas where there are animals walking the Earth.
Once you’re in the aircraft, the accessibility options continue to support both newcomers and experienced simmers. Perhaps one of my favourite features, even as a serious simmer, is the integrated checklist system. Learning a new aircraft is a tough challenge – regardless of your experience. Whilst some conventions are typical and similar, really understanding them requires time and some dedication. Often, you will find yourself searching online for a manual, tutorials, or seek answers from an aircraft developer. Within the new simulator, a lot of that can be avoided by using the tools built directly into the simulator. The integrated checklist system will, step by step, run you through what you need to do in order to get the aircraft through various phases of flight. The system will highlight the checklist item, the aircraft part you need to interact with and finally move the camera to exactly what you need to look at. This is so refreshing instead of scrambling around the cockpit when your focus should really be on flying. As with all of the other accessibility features, this is totally optional.
Newcomers will appreciate other accessibility features such as the automated copilot system, which will take control of the aircraft from take off to landing, if you so wish. If you don’t want to interact with the built-in ATC, you can set up your virtual co-pilot to handle the radios. In fact, if you don’t even want to fly and simply admire the environment passing, you can toggle on the AI to keep control of the plane – with or without any autopilot functionality. Again, I consider myself a serious simmer and yet I’ve used these options numerous times for various reasons. This type of flexibility isn’t there to detract from the simulator experience, it’s there to enhance it and offer support for those who want it.
Other ways in which the simulator caters to both audiences is the number of options available for controls, performance, and flying itself. Plugging in any supported hardware will automatically assign all the keys and axes to all the included aircraft meaning you spend more time flying than configuring. If you don’t like something or want to change it, head to the menu options and change it. It’s small things like this which make this sim that much easier to use than anything before.
Whilst the world is totally accessible within the simulator from the world map, there are still plenty of challenges, landing competitions and bush flights to go and see. Not only are you able to partake in global challenges, with leaderboards, you can also take part in 8 initial training sessions. From learning the basic flight controls to performing a full solo flight with VFR navigation. It’s a great entry tool but does actually leave you wanting more. For newcomers, this does fall short if you want to continue learning more. I felt a bit lost once I finished my final training flight and hoped to at least be given an idea on how to pilot the bigger jets, interact with ATC or even some of the functionality for how to operate radios or handle failures.
Ultimately, Microsoft and Asobo have both found the perfect balance between bringing down the barriers for the newcomers but also ensuring the core simmer has maximum flexibility to do their own thing without restriction.
This is always a subject which requires a complex answer. To be as simple as possible, I found performance to be exceptional considering the visual quality the simulator was outputting. For clarity, here are my specs:
GPU: Nvidia GTX 1080TI
CPU: Intel i7 4770k @ 4.4GHz
SSD: 1TB Samsung Evo
I’m not running a hugely up-to-date system, yet running all my settings on high I’m pulling off a decent amount of performance for some stunning visuals. Of course, there is a variation on where you are in the world, what aircraft you’re using and weather. Chucking yourself into JFK airport, in the 747 with stormy weather will see a frame hit, just as you should expect with pushing the limits of your hardware. That said, this is a sim built for the future, not just the now.
I’m pleased to say that after the initial seconds of loading the simulator, you get a mostly smooth experience. I did encounter stutters in some scenarios and some texture pop-in, but the overall experience didn’t feel hampered at all. Of course, if you do find yourself in a situation where you aren’t getting the performance you think you should, then the plethora of options available will give you plenty of control over your simulator. Overall, the performance is very dependent on the system and scenario you’re running, but my experience has been mostly smooth.
Beyond Flight Simulation
There is still plenty to consider outside of the flight simulation itself. Whilst I’m not trying to gloss over any one particular aspect, there is simply too much to cover in as much comprehensive detail. Included with the simulator is a push back system that works with default aircraft to get you back from the stand, all whilst watching the incredible animated airport workers interact with your aircraft.
Part of the pushback includes interaction with ATC, a feature I know many were hoping to see huge improvements over. Sadly, this is one area that really does lack that sense of polish. Instructions, commands and even the language used is generic and non-region specific. Flying in the UK, for example, and I was being told the pressure in Inches of Mercury as opposed to hectopascals. You also can’t engage with ATC beyond simple keypresses, which is a shame. Other services are out there to bring a more realistic ATC component to life, but this is an area I hope we do see significant improvements so those that do want to jump online have more confidence than what is available.
Finally, of course, there is multiplayer and online traffic. This is an area I think Microsoft and Asobo Studios have been both incredibly ambitious and also very modest about. This is undoubtedly one of the standout features for the simulator. To be able to find any friend online at any time and fly with them with minimal lag is fantastic. Grabbing not just one friend, but a whole community to join you online is as fun as it sounds. There’s no restrictions on where or who can fly with you and the flexibility to fly online in what would be an MMO or a group server controlled by you is just perfect for this type of simulator. It enables content creators, communities, virtual-airlines and more to create private hubs just for their users at any time with no outside interference. Combine that with live data from worldwide traffic directly into your sim and the living world is now truly complete. The only gripe is that the included models for aircraft are incredibly lacklustre and clearly not designed to be realistic.
Microsoft is no stranger to providing multiple variations of the same product, but with enhanced functionality or features for the top-tier levels. With the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator, there are three packs to choose from: the Standard Edition ($59.99), the Premium Edition ($89.99) and finally the Premium Deluxe Edition ($119.99). All versions feature the 37,000 default airports, the technology and cities to explore, with the only difference between them the included aircraft and hand-crafted airports. Whilst it’s easy to think that having extra airports and aircraft is reason enough to buy the more top tier copy, to charge double is hugely excessive.
Considering the base simulator features so much functionality, it doesn’t seem justified, in my view, to charge just as much for a handful of aircraft and more detailed airports. Coupled with the fact some aircraft are simply repeated; the Diamond DA40-TDI is simply a diesel version of a virtual plane.
If the aircraft or hand-crafted airports were released separately as downloadable content, that would be better to at least give the choice for those wanting to fly to Heathrow in the 787-10, for example, rather than spending double the amount.
When it comes to the new Flight Simulator, I think expectations need to be set.
Whilst gamers are getting excited for the release of the next generation of consoles, namely the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, we flight simmers should be excited for the next generation of flight simming. This is another way in which I am setting my expectations. Whilst I don’t want to go deeply into third party offerings in this review, it’s clear as day that they will be very much a staple still in our ecosystem. Microsoft has given them this huge sandbox, active development platform and an array of tools to create those masterpieces older technology has perhaps stopped them from doing.
Looking at the early-previews we have seen from developers thus far, it is clear that the new simulator will give these developers an entirely new way to create regions, airports and aircraft in ways we’ve never had before. We can see clearly that developers can use incredibly high-resolution textures, a large number of polygons and take advantage of the advanced lighting engine within the simulator. There have been cries of the SDK still having some issues, but it’s voiced time and time again that there will be updates and that Asobo/Microsoft are listening and working on it.
For anyone in the community, the new Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t just represent a new simulator, it represents the dawn of a new and exciting era within the flight simulation space. Whether you think the simulator is ready for prime time or simply good enough to enjoy just a handful of flights, it’s indisputable that this is the most graphically, technologically and most accessible flight simulator ever made.
- Next-generation graphics, sound design and systems
- A hugely detailed world full of environmental effects and options
- Breathtaking cities brimming with life around the world
- Huge flexibility and accessibility for newcomers and experienced simmers alike
- A new sandbox ready for third-party developers to add to
- Jetliner aircraft less complete than other aircraft
- Some limitations with the weather system
- $120 Premium Deluxe Edition Doesn’t Add Much Value
- Best experience is online only