james debate
james debate

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Developed by Asobo Studio
Published by Xbox Game Studios
Genre Flight Simulator (duh)
Platform PC, Xbox One

microsoft flight simulator 2020 xbox pc game

I can honestly say I never expected to be reviewing a flight simulator game. But then this is no ordinary flight simulator. Microsoft's newest iteration of the classic franchise is a technological marvel and pushes the genre in a bold new direction.

Let's start with the basics. Microsoft Flight Simulator is exactly what it says on the tin. It's a flight simulator and the latest in a long line of such sims dating back to the series' debut in 1982. But despite the franchise's storied history, this is the first iteration in the series since 2006. The long hiatus is certainly understandable, after all there is only so much one can really do with so niche a genre. They said it would take something fresh and worthwhile to bring the series back, and that's exactly what they've done.

As a flight simulator, this is absolutely peerless. Real aircraft models are rendered in this game in incredible minute detail, from the flight mechanics and control surfaces to the interiors (dashboard, flight stick and even the leather upholstery of the seating all recreated immaculately). The flight physics are detailed to a high enough level to be used as professional training, with highly advanced weather effects taken into account.

But the big innovation here is its world map. Rather than implement limited local maps to navigate, as was done in previous versions, Flight Simulator makes use of Microsoft's Bing Maps technology to render the entire planet in-game. That is not an exaggeration. Every inch of the entire planet is in this game and you can fly over all of it. Bing Maps processes its satellite data to turn its flat images into 3D land and cityscapes (to impressive albeit mixed success) with additional handcrafted detail added for particularly noteworthy landmarks (think Eiffel Tower, the Vatican, etc). While most locations will be procedurally generated in this fashion, some cities (New York City being a prime example) will make use of state of the art photogrammetry data to render in full, photorealistic detail.

Add to this live weather data (if it is stormy outside, it will be stormy at that location in-game) and live flight data (if you see an airplane outside you can probably find it and take control of it in-game) and you have a remarkable simulation of the world around us. You can even find herds of wild animals roaming geographically appropriate locations.

I really can't overstate just how much of a technical marvel this is. The idea of a 1:1 Earth map in a videogame has long been an impossible dream and yet here it is in sublimely rich, photorealistic detail, integrating live data to create the most accomplished, most complete flight simulator experience ever created and a true next-gen technological milestone. It's rare to see a game provide a true glimpse of the medium's future, but quite often Flight Simulator does exactly that.

More importantly, it's a joy to play. There's something very relaxing about taking an aircraft out for a flight over beautiful scenery. If you are the type to play Eurotruck Driver or Farming Simulator, or if you are the type to play games like Forza Horizon just to go out for a peaceful drive, this game will scratch a similar itch. That you can travel to any nation on Earth seems particularly timely given the ongoing global situation and its impact on our ability to travel. I won't pretend that flying over Tuscany is the same as actually being there, but it certainly satisfies at least a bit of that wanderlust.

At the same time, it is also clear that Microsoft have gone to great lengths to make this a more accessible Flight Simulator, one that appeals as much to the gamer crowd as the niche flight simulator community. The game can now be played from a gamepad for a start, no expensive specialist hardware needed. Time can also be sped up in game to allow quick transit between locations (especially useful considering the massive size of the game-world).

It is surprising, then, that Microsoft have added so few "game" features. You have landing challenges and longer "bush" flights (essentially long-distance navigational challenges), but that's basically it. Older versions of Flight Simulator included at least basic missions, ranging from "Transport passengers from A to B" to "deliver humanitarian aid to location C". Considering how much effort has gone into making Flight Simulator more attractive and accessible to casual gamers (indeed a console version is still upcoming) it is very surprising to me that they haven't implemented more content of this nature. It would be extremely easy to do so as well. The end result is a game that, while initially engrossing, I suspect will not be successful at holding the interest of anyone but the hardcore Flight Simulator aficionados in the longterm. I can see most players buying this, flying to their house, flying to some famous landmarks, maybe a few favourite vacation spots, and then getting bored.

The technology, while very impressive, can also be inconsistent in places. While the Bing Maps 3D algorithm is able to come up with a somewhat plausible depiction of your average modern city, it struggles with more niche architecture. It looks amazing when you fly over Vancouver or Manchester, but less so over small villages in the English countryside, for example, where old medieval cottages can often be rendered as bizarre modern office blocks. You can also see a big difference between cities that have received specific hand-crafted attention and those that have not, and this bizarrely includes some fairly prominent locations. London, for example, is shockingly incomplete in the vanilla game; a 2D texture where St Paul's should be, a horiffic office block where Buckingham Palace should be. For London, at least, they have already released DLC that improves upon the unique landmarks but, guess what, you have to pay extra for it. There are other prominent cities that are not even so lucky as that.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is undoubtedly a technical milestone, but as a game it is surprisingly lacklustre. These features may yet be added in the future, but for now given the extent to which they are trying to expand their fanbase to the casual gamer, that comes as a disappointment. Nevertheless, there has never been a game that has accomplished what Microsoft Flight Simulator has done. This remarkable marriage of AI and data offers a glimpse of gaming's future, and may yet impact the industry in a profound way. As a flight simulator it is top of the range and a wonderfully relaxing experience for those chafing under the current lack of global travel. The term "open world" has been used a lot in gaming in recent years, but never has it felt so appropriate.

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