What I Love About ‘Microsoft Flight Simulator’ (And What I Hate)
The new Microsoft Flight Simulator is a special game. Incorporating mapping data from Bing Maps, developer Asobo Studios has modelled the entire globe for you to fly around. So, at a time where we're doing less travelling than ever, there's a game that lets you visit anywhere on Earth.
The sheer scale of Microsoft Flight Simulator is a little boggling. The team has included more than 37,000 airstrips, with 40 of the largest being handcrafted to look their best. The game also updates with real-time weather and flight data to populate the skies with clouds, storms, and air traffic. AI populates the ground with buildings based on aerial photography so when you look down at the ground you'll see buildings, roads, and cars exactly where you should.
I've been playing a preview build of Microsoft Flight Simulator for the last two weeks and I've become a big fan. Though, while there are some things I love, there are others I really hope are fixed before or in the months following launch.
Looks great in the air...
When you pull away from the airstrip and rise past 10,000 feet in Microsoft Flight Simulator it can be distracting how good this game looks. The ground below looks photorealistic, that's because it is literally textured with photos taken from Bing Maps. The clouds around you are perfectly formed volumetric puffs of vapour that break up the sky exactly as you hope they would. And when you're flying at dawn and the sun flares into your vision it makes the whole game look majestic.
Microsoft and developer Asobo Studio have made an AI that auto populates the world with buildings, roads, and cars based on the aerial photography that generates the ground texture. So when flying over London, you'll see the space is filled with buildings placed where buildings are in reality (although, unless the building is a famous landmark, it will be an appropriate building rather than an exact one). This means when flying over cities, towns, and villages, there's a complexity and depth to the ground geometry. Seen from high above, Microsoft Flight Simulator is one of the best looking games around.
...Less so from the ground
The tech that makes the game look so good from the air shows cracks when you fly closer to the ground. When I flew through Manhattan, the city looked more like it does in I Am Legend than it does in reality. Buildings looked collapsed and covered in moss, no doubt a glitch caused by the city's density in aerial photos. On ground level, too, the cars you see are as tall as buildings. And, when flying through London, it looked more like Venice, with lakes where lakes shouldn't be and water levels defying physics, forming slopes against buildings.
This is not a game-breaking problem, and it's likely to improve over time as the tech generating world geometry is enhanced. But considering how Microsoft Flight Simulator looks from high in the sky, it was surprising to find it look quite so ugly close up.
Weather changes everything
The weather systems in Microsoft Flight Simulator don't just look excellent, they fundamentally change how you'll fly. At its simplest, your plane will be more difficult to handle in a storm than it does on a clear hot day. So far, so expected. But there's much more complexity to it. For instance, on a clear hot day, where the air is warmer, the airflow and updrafts in mountainous regions becomes more violent and unpredictable. So if you're flying over the Andes, mountains so tall your plane is never too far off the ground, you'll be buffeted by warm air and sometimes sucked down towards the harsh rocks below. It brings a tension to a flight that would otherwise only be a pretty view.
The weather also highlights every strength and vulnerability of the different planes. I was flying a small single propellor plane over Edinburgh in a storm when I realised I had no idea where the ground was. The storm clouds were so thick I had zero visibility. Suddenly I had to rely on the limited information from my instruments to work out where I was. My altimeter was going up but my airspeed was going down, so I realised I had gone into a steep climb without meaning to and my plane was on the verge of stalling. The winds were also blowing my plane sideways, rolling me as I climbed. In a heavier plane with more powerful engines, I wouldn't have been so dramatically affected. I'd also have had instruments that had warned me of my climb.
I'd like to say I pulled out of the climb like a pro, but I crashed real hard.
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No career mode
When you boot up Microsoft Flight Simulator you're presented with tutorials, free play, and some challenges. Microsoft and Asobo will help you get off the ground but it's very much for you to make your own fun.
This will be familiar to a lot of sim players. In Kerbal Space Program, for instance, for years there was basically no campaign or career mode to speak of and it fell to you to define your own missions in the NASA simulator. However, other games, like Euro Truck Simulator, use a career path as both a tutorial and as a way to draw you into a showcase of its world and systems. This can be extremely useful for players who don't already know the ins and outs of trucking.
What this means in terms of Flight Simulator is that after going through the tutorials, I felt a little lost as to what to do next. This reflects on my dim imagination but the flights that came to mind were the ones I'm most familiar with - London to LA, London to Cologne, London to... look I fly from London mostly. In the case of the transatlantic flights they're fairly straightforward and extremely long.
Clearly, you need to start thinking outside the box. You can create a flight path from one of tens of thousands of airstrips around the world. Maybe you'll want to see some of the world's largest mountains. Or you want to fly over every capital city in the world. Or you want to visit Area 51 and see them aliens. And you can start rolling in different weathers and mechanical failures to contend with.
However, it would be good to have some of those sorts of flights out of the box, simply to show you what was possible and coax you to come up with your own missions.
Modders will fix this
The good news on the career front is that Microsoft and Asobo are releasing extensive tools that will let modders create missions. So after Microsoft Flight Simulator's launch next month we'll likely see an explosion of mission packs to play with.
Modders will also be able to add more planes and airports. They'll also be able to add more detailed landmarks on the ground below, so we may see more accurate cities start to appear in Flight Simulator.
Essentially, what I really want to play is US Airways Flight 1549, when Captain Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson.
My biggest gripe with Microsoft Flight Simulator is how long it can take to start flying. There's a long load to get to the start menu and then multiple minute load to get to the airstrip. If you're trying to fly low over London and you keep hitting the Houses of Parliament by mistake while trying to do a loop-the-loop like me, then it can feel like most of your time is spent staring at a loading screen.
Of course, if you are on a long flight and you aren't crashing all the time, you'll only have to contend with that one long load when you start flying. Travel through the rest of the world is seamless. But even with that being the case, I'd love to see the time to airstrip cut down before the game launches next month on PC on August 18.
Featured Image Credit: Asobo Studios