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Microsoft’s flight simulator is a ticket to rediscover the world of games

F.or a few seconds, it seems real. A Cessna 172 Skyhawk flying low over a rural landscape with fields and farmhouses, a grove with tall trees that cast shadows over the swaying grass, a winding country road. Then, on the horizon, the landscape gives way to a rugged coastline, and as the plane flies closer, we see the waves glistening in the evening sun. In real life, I haven̵

7;t seen the ocean in five months, and even though I’m just sitting in my kitchen watching a virtual presentation of a video game, I feel a surge of emotion.

When the latest edition of Microsoft’s decades-old Flight Simulator series was first shown at the E3 video game event last year, it caught the eye. With two petabytes of geographic data from Bing Maps and state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms running on the company’s Azure Cloud Computing network, the game offers an almost photo-realistic representation of the entire planet.

The statistics are stunning: there are 37,000 airports in the game, 1.5 billion buildings, 100 million lakes, two trillion trees. Most cities are procedurally generated by the AI ​​based on an algorithm that provides sets of architectural rules that the program can work with. It knows the types of buildings that dominate a French city and how they differ from those in an Indian equivalent, but the artists go inside and add certain landmarks that locals and tourists will recognize. However, another 400 key cities were recreated by hand using detailed photogrammetry. For example, if you fly over Seattle, you will recognize almost every building.

What does the button do?  ... flight simulator

What does the button do? … flight simulator Photo: Microsoft

That was impressive last year, but now, given the current pandemic, it feels really healthy. As I watched the two-hour demo of the game given by its main designers, a visceral jerk made me realize how much I had missed visiting new locations. It was almost a relief to be able to zoom over hilly landscapes again. In the past, Flight Simulator offered Sim fanatics a super-technical, incredibly authentic flight experience, and this edition also faithfully reproduces the cockpits, instruments, and flight mechanics of dozens of aircraft. But now it seems that developer Asobo Studio tried to capture the spiritual, emotional element of flying too.

“Lockdown impressed us very much,” says project manager Jörg Neumann. “To counteract this, I played in Suriname last week, a week before I was in Nepal. This week I’m going to choose another place on Earth to explore. I can now visit the planet again and that means a lot. The trailer that Sebastian Wloch showed during our presentation is near his birthplace in the Pyrenees. I love that! I want to go there and see it. I think that helps you relate to people. “

According to Neumann, Asobo came to Flight Simulator because of this fascination for virtual travel. “We were working on a HoloLens project called HoloTour. The whole point was that with AR you can visit different places on earth and we did Machu Picchu. I’ve never been to South America and it felt so real. I said to myself, ‘Can we do this for the whole planet? I want to sit on this hill in Out of Africa and look over the plains. ‘I think we can do that now. “

After watching the demo, I wonder if it’s not the big, great sights that you are really reaching, but the quiet moments of natural beauty. Clouds are three-dimensional and volumetric and consist of several layers that reflect light and cast shadows – they look plump and fluffy; In the meantime, the color of the sea varies depending on the mud and algae content, and the water is translucent and when flying over it. In some places you can see coral reefs below the surface. There are also full day / night cycles and seasonal shifts using the weather data from the Swiss specialist Meteoblue. The conditions that you encounter in the game correspond to those that the real world is experiencing at that moment. Together, these forces create authentic weather effects – a fog rolling in from the sea, a storm gathering on the horizon. When you get enough rain on a sunny day, the light is scattered by the droplets, causing the rays to be reflected and refracted. As it turns out, the flight simulator is also a rainbow simulator.

A rainbow over Amsterdam ... flight simulator

A rainbow over Amsterdam … Flight simulator Photo: Microsoft

These are the things we see when we fly over a landscape or even travel by train or car – the sky changes color, the clouds form, their shadows like dark handprints over the fields; The lights from distant cities sparkle like constellations and then disappear. These are the things that I miss – these quiet moments, the Earth and I that are traveling together.

And it seems that the game was partly developed for dreamy travelers like me, who may not want to fully deal with the instrument panels of an Airbus A320, but instead want to plunge through the clouds over the Italian Alps or land somewhere in rural Ohio. Different autopilot functions can handle almost all the complexities of flying, so you can only control your plane with a joypad. You choose an airplane and then go wherever you want. Choose a sufficiently small level and you can country wherever you want

“The Savage Cub has a very short landing distance,” said Wloch during our demo. “You can touch anywhere on the planet. You can land north of the Golden Gate Bridge and have that great view of downtown San Francisco. You can just sit there and enjoy the sunset. You can land on a mountain anywhere in the desert – these planes are great for exploring countries and discovering the planet. “

With its extraordinarily ambitious visualization of the world, the latest title promises more than a hardcore sim for flight fanatics: it promises a comprehensive, playful display of Google Earth, which enables us to revisit nostalgic places and relive our memories. I will definitely fly along the Amalfi Coast – the last place my family went on vacation together when my father was alive. I will follow the east coast of Australia where I went backpacking with a university friend. “Many of us on the team often visit places that mean something to us,” says Neumann. “We hear the same things from the alpha audience, many of whom send us pictures of places that matter to them.” There is even VR support for additional immersion, initially only for the HP Reverb GT headset, later for Oculus and other devices.

A storm over Florida ... flight simulator

A storm over Florida … flight simulator Photo: Microsoft

Many of us feel trapped at the moment. News shows deadlocked roads that lead to short breaks on the coast and beaches full of people, and these pictures are full of fear. People have to go, but should they? The idea of ​​traveling as a form of freedom has been spoiled – there is something paranoid about it. In this time of uncertainty, a game offers sense The idea of ​​a route, a view, a destination seems almost therapeutic.

When I say the Neumann, he nods approvingly. “I’ve been sitting in this house since March. It feels like the world is going to collapse, ”he says. “I’m not going to say the timing is random because what’s terrible is what’s going on. But maybe Flight Simulator is helpful, maybe it’s soothing … The world is still out there. “I think that’s something we all have to remember.

• • Flight Simulator will be available on PC on August 18 and later on Xbox One.

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