PC Preview - 'Microsoft Flight Sim X'

by Alan Butterworth on Sept. 27, 2006 @ 2:17 a.m. PDT

Flight Simulator X will present players with a wide array of new aircraft to fly in a beautifully rich and believable world which will contain greater detail than past entries in the franchise.

Genre: Flight Simulation
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: October 17, 2006

I just got back from piloting a Boeing 747-400 through the steep red gorges of the Grand Canyon. I had a great time, but I imagine my passengers were screaming all the way. Shortly after, I was buzzing the lunchtime crowd in downtown Manhattan in my Extra 300S. Finally, I took a serene flight over the dark seas off McMurdoch airstrip in Antarctica. All this before lunch.

Microsoft's flight simulator is nearly 25 years old and is now back with a 10th installment that brings all the fun and challenge of flying. The good news is that the simulator looks better than ever, sporting next-generation graphics that come as close as ever to the real experience of looking out of a window at 20,000 feet. The bad news is that your computer is an underachiever. That's what you'll probably be feeling once you've fired this up, unless you're one of the few who has a souped-up rig that could serve the needs of small- to medium-sized businesses. To truly appreciate the amazing amount of polish that went into creating this flight simulator, it is recommended you have a 3.6 GHz processor, 2GB of RAM and a 512MB video card. I feel poorer just typing that. And don't forget the more than 14GB of hard disk space this beast demands.

At its highest levels, Microsoft Flight Simulator X assumes a degree of realism that will have you drooling and calling out to strangers in the street to come and see. I could go on and on waxing poetically about just how great these graphics are, but instead, I'll let the screenshots paint a thousand words. The virtual cockpits look especially good and can be panned around using a joystick hat or mouselook. As far as I can tell, they are extremely accurate and meticulously recreated. For me, while it was nice to gaze at the gorgeous scenery and marvel at the complexity of jet cockpits, the game was totally unplayable with the settings maxed out. It was a humbling experience to realize my AMD 2.6 GHz with twin Nvidia 7900 GSes in SLI and 2GB of RAM only managed to squeeze out 10 to 15 choppy frames per second at best.

Thankfully for us mere mortals, Microsoft Flight Simulator X comes with more options and tweakable bars and sliders than the cockpit of an A321 Airbus, so you'll be able to adjust the settings to suit your system. What would have been nice, however, is for the game to diagnose your system and set the graphics levels accordingly. As it is, finding the right balance of quality versus performance is a matter of trial and error. Some of you might see this as an enjoyable experimentation, while others will wish slave labor were cheaper. While lower settings do help to improve game performance, the difference in quality was noticeable and unsatisfactory, especially at close range. At times, the quality was so poor that I had trouble visually judging how far away the ground was on approach.

As usual, there are a large variety of aircraft for you to try your hand at piloting, each with their own unique features, nuances and different demands. I'll leave it to veteran pilots to determine the fidelity of flight models and just say that there is a substantial degree of difference between each model. At the time of writing, the following aircraft are available in the simulation:

  • Airbus A321
  • Air Creation 582SL Ultralight
  • Boeing 737-800 NG
  • Boeing 747-400
  • Beechcraft Baron 58
  • Beechcraft King Air 350
  • Bell 206B helicopter
  • Bombardier CRJ700
  • Cessna C172
  • Cessna Grand Caravan
  • de Haviland DHC-2 Beaver floatplane
  • DG 808S Competition Sailplane
  • Douglas DC-3
  • Extra 300 aerobatic plane
  • Grumman G-21A Goose
  • Learjet 45
  • Mauie M7-260C Orion on wheels or skis
  • Mooney Bravo
  • Piper J-3 Cub
  • Robinson R22 Beta helicopter

The developers have made an effort to create more dynamic living environments, both on the ground and in the air. The game features air traffic, vehicles on major roads and highways, leisure boats from small yachts to cruise liners, and freight ships moving slowly through the shipping lanes. The airports are buzzing with activity as flights come and go under the watchful guidance of air traffic control, and fuel trucks motor around the tarmac. You can even see wildlife such as dolphins, whales and elephants roaming around their natural environments, although you'll have to fly pretty low and be eagle-eyed. Of course, you'll have to pay a performance price to really appreciate this feature, but like everything else, the traffic density can be tweaked. The addition of moving vehicles, boats and animals does a lot to add to a sense of a breathing populated space, but you'll have to be quite close to the ground to see these sorts of details. The major problem is that the scenery in Microsoft Flight Simulator X is much like a Monet painting: beautiful from far away, but incomprehensible and ugly close up. Roads that look reasonably convincing from far away look like formless gray masses upon closer inspection. Similarly, the same art that makes night lights look almost photorealistic from on high look like a child went crazy with a yellow crayon up close.

A lot of work has been put into creating a workable multiplayer dimension to the game that unfortunately could not be tested in this preview build. Microsoft is promising players the ability to communicate with other pilots via LAN or over the Internet through a Gamespy account. In this way, friends and relatives can showcase their favorite flights to each other, request live help, or even act as an air traffic controller, sitting in the tower and guiding aircraft in and out. This feature looks great on paper but will rely largely on its popularity when the game goes live.

Perhaps the most powerful feature of Microsoft's latest flight simulator is the ability to explore locations all over the world from any one of 24,000 airports in 233 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. All of the major locations are rendered in good detail, depending on your graphic settings. I flew low over the Statue of Liberty and ran the gauntlet between brightly lit hotels on the Las Vegas strip. I followed the course of the River Thames as it wove between famous London landmarks in my Cessna. Real-world digital elevation models were used to faithfully recreate mountains, valleys and major roads and rivers so that you'll easily be able to recognize major man-made and natural landmarks.

For those who appreciate a more structured gaming experience, Microsoft Flight Simulator X offers missions for aviators of all flight experience aiming to please as wide a constituency as possible. With the ability to fine tune and customize realism settings, the game can be as difficult or easy as you like. Tutorial missions are perhaps the best place for the uninitiated to start. These missions don't bore you with the technical details of lift, thrust and drag but put you right in the cockpit with your hand on the flight stick, ready to go. A series of 10 tutorials will guide you through take off and landing, taxiing, approach, and the basics of helicopter flying. Although you'll be ready to take to the skies after these, if you really want to get the most out of the deeply detailed flight experience than is offered here, you'll have to visit the learning center, where you can read about radio communication, GPS navigation and all the other things that make piloting modern aircraft so wonderfully complicated.

Beyond the tutorials, there are some greatly imaginative scenarios that will take you all over the world doing all sorts of jobs that range in time from 10 minutes to over one hour – thankfully, you can save your progress mid-mission. One mission has you flying VIPs to a secret airbase in Area 51, Nevada. Another sees you trying to safely land a passenger jet after both of its engines fail mid-flight over the Indian Ocean. If that weren't exciting enough, try landing a helicopter on an oil rig in the middle of a thunder storm. Still other missions have you piloting stunt planes for air shows and dropping flour bombs from a Trike Ultralight. The variety and challenge of these missions is a welcome addition to the unstructured freedom of the sandbox mode. Finally, the missions feature great voice acting to accompany the scenario, whether it's your co-pilot chewing the fat with you, or the person you're ferrying from A to B remarking on the weather.

For those of you who might be wondering about crash effects, these are still woefully meek. Upon hitting the dirt, the game will cut to an external view of your downed aircraft sticking awkwardly out of the ground with a small bar that reads, "Crashed!" and some rudimentary smoke and fire effects, if you're lucky. Your aircraft does not break up, no wings are torn off, and there are no high-definition smoke plumes, balls of flame or fiery explosions. Perhaps I'm being a bit too morbid or craving inappropriate drama, but this seems to be the only area that realism was entirely neglected.

The hefty demands this simulator will place on your system are a great example of how games are at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of technology. However, you might not feel that way when you have to reduce the settings to minimal and it still plays like a scratched DVD. With that said, Microsoft Flight Simulator X is still a work in progress, and as such, video card settings are still being adjusted. It already looks highly polished and set to be another worthy addition to a series that has come to define the genre. With its wide array of options, it successfully offers something for everyone who might be even remotely interested in planes, aviation, or simply exploring the planet from the air.

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