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Microsoft Flight Simulator

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: Simulation
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: Aug. 18, 2020

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PC Review - 'Microsoft Flight Simulator'

by Adam Pavlacka on Oct. 19, 2020 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Microsoft Flight Simulator is the next installation in the long-running flight simulation series.

Buy Microsoft Flight Simulator

When it comes to sheer audacity of scope, Microsoft Flight Simulator is an impressive piece of work. The game effectively models the entire world and provides it to you as a playground. You're free to roam around as you please, flying from location to location, with no real limits other than fuel and skill. Unfortunately, the reality doesn't quite live up to the promise, and Microsoft Flight Simulator consistently falls short in some key areas.

Assuming you have the hardware to run it, Microsoft Flight Simulator looks good. There's no denying that this is a stunning re-creation of the world, especially when you're a few thousand feet in the air. Sure, the illusion can be broken if you get down to ground level outside of a featured airport, but when it works, it works. Fans of aerial photography are going to love the game for this aspect alone.

 


The problem is that to get Microsoft Flight Simulator looking its best, you need to have high-end hardware, and you need to do a bit of work to tweak the settings. Whatever the game detects as the default for your hardware isn't likely to be enough to run it without occasional stuttering.

My test rig is an Intel Core i7-9700K, with 16GB of RAM, and a NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Super, connected to a QHD monitor. This is well past the recommended specs, but with the game's defaults, I was getting stutter whenever I flew near a city. Flying around the San Francisco Bay Area (where WorthPlaying is based), the game would stutter when I got near downtown San Francisco or Oakland. Dropping the resolution from QHD to HD helped somewhat (it did not eliminate the performance issues), but it did reveal another issue with the game: Microsoft Flight Simulator cannot set the monitor resolution, even when running in full screen.

Effectively, this means that while I could run the game in 1080p, it looked rough. Edges were jagged and fonts were blurry. Surely this wasn't right? I finally got the game to work properly in 1080p by first setting my desktop resolution to 1080p and then booting into Microsoft Flight Simulator. Suddenly, the game looked good again, even though it was running at a lower resolution. While the fix was easy enough, there's no reason why I should have to manually adjust my desktop resolution to run the game at a specific resolution.

As a simulation, the base game provides 20 aircraft for you to choose from. Upgrading to the Deluxe and Premium editions adds an additional five aircraft per edition, as well as an additional five "enhanced" airports per edition. The planes are the real attraction here, while the enhanced airports are a nice bonus. As far as I can tell, the enhanced airports don't add any functionality to the game; they just look nicer when you are taxiing to and from the gate. If you're the type to start and end your flights on the runway, then it's likely not something you'll notice.

 


What all players will notice — and included at no extra charge in all versions of the game — is the live weather support. Technically, there is a slight delay, but in general, if you have it enabled, Microsoft Flight Simulator sets in-game conditions to be similar to the real-world conditions in the region that you're flying. If there's a hurricane off the coast of Florida, you can fly into it. If there are thunderstorms in the Midwest, you can experience those in game. Don't forget the San Francisco fog.

This also extends to time of day, so if it's sunset where you live and you're flying over your house in the game, you'll see an in-game sunset. You do have the option to disable this (in case you want to experience a daytime flight in Europe and don't want to stay up all night just to check it out), but for the most part, I kept it enabled.

Live weather isn't the only thing that streams into the game in real time. Microsoft Flight Simulator uses imagery from Bing Maps to generate its realistic view of the world. You'll use roughly 1GB per hour of bandwidth to support live maps, but it does mean the world is at your fingertips.

Microsoft Flight Simulator does maintain a rolling cache to prevent constant re-downloading of areas that you regularly visit. It also allows you to create a manual cache file, selecting specific chunks of Bing Maps to pre-download and keep locally. Presumably, this would ensure that the latest data was being used, but what I saw in the preview was not what I saw in-game. Bing Maps has current imagery of San Francisco (and I verified that in the preview when I was creating a manual cache), but the ground imagery used by the game when I was flying around was approximately six years old. This was true both with and without the manual cache enabled. That is disappointing, to say the least.

 


One flight reality I am glad that Microsoft Flight Simulator ignores are no-fly zones. If you want to fly over the White House or check out North Korea, you can. You can even buzz Disney World if you prefer, which has had overflight restrictions in place since post-9/11.

Experienced flight sim players will appreciate the detail that went into each of the planes and the operable gear inside each cockpit. You can control everything with keyboard shortcuts, but the core (virtual) buttons, switches, and levers are all operable. New players can learn the basics of flight with an eight-step flight school that provides an overview of essentials, while an adjustable system of assists means that you can simplify the experience if needed.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Microsoft Flight Simulator is the controls. On the high end, Microsoft Flight Simulator supports a number of flight stick and throttle setups, as well as control panel switch boxes, all of which are designed to replicate the main elements of a cockpit. Not everyone has the cash to invest in that level of gear, however, so I opted to review Microsoft Flight Simulator with an Xbox One controller. It's an official Microsoft product and an official Microsoft controller, so what could go wrong? A lot, apparently.

Trying to fly with an official controller was an exercise in frustration. The sensitivity on the analog stick is so high that it might as well be a digital controller. The rudder (mapped to triggers) starts analog, but it feels like it switches to digital when you stop moving and hold a specific position. This makes for some very jerky flying.


Still, those issues were manageable with some practice, and the most recent update does allow you to tweak sensitivity settings. The show-stopper for me was the way the plane would constantly pull to the right with the official controller. Calibrating the controller in Windows did nothing. Increasing the dead zone in the game did nothing. The controller works fine on my Xbox One X, but Microsoft Flight Simulator was nearly unplayable with it.

The solution was to switch to a third-party controller. Swapping between controllers was much easier to do after the most recent patch (prior to the update, swapping controllers on the USB cable would crash the game back to the desktop), but the result was still somewhat random. Each controller seemed to have different handling characteristics, but only within Microsoft Flight Simulator. Reviewing the official support forums, the problems with the Xbox controller don't seem to be an isolated issue.

My other big complaint has to do with what the game calls Active Pause. In theory, this is ideal for taking photos, since it freezes your plane in place until you turn it off. In practice, it freezes the plane, but it doesn't always do the same to your plane's systems, which can be catastrophic to your flight. I've had planes go into Active Pause at cruising speed, only to immediately stall and fall like a rock when Active Pause is disabled. Another time, I went to full throttle and started a turn before enabling Active Pause, as I was trying to set up a shot. Active Pause didn't stop the throttle for some reason, so my plane stressed beyond its limits and broke up while in Active Pause. Like much of the game, when the feature works, it works well. The problem is that it doesn't always work.


Not always working even impacts emergent gameplay. I have a flight simulator, and I live in San Francisco, so of course, I'm going to try flying under the Golden Gate Bridge. When I tried this with a small plane, I flew under the bridge at a height of 150 feet above the water. The simulation abruptly ended not because I crashed, but because it assumed I was trying to land on the water and had not deployed landing gear. On the other hand, I was able to land on the new span of the Bay Bridge successfully, so that was pretty cool.

When all is said and done, Microsoft Flight Simulator in its current state reminds me a lot of Sea of Thieves shortly after launch. The game has a lot of promise and a lot of potential, but it is marred by a number of issues that keep it from really shining. Once the issues have been worked out in six months or a year from now, I fully expect Microsoft Flight Simulator to be a must-have title. Right now, unless you are a hardcore flight sim fanatic, I would pass on buying the premium version and just stick to playing the basic version that's included with GamePass.

Score: 6.0/10

 



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