In the past two weeks, I flew around the world in a preview from Microsoft new flight simulator. It is without a doubt the most beautiful flight simulator so far, and you will want to fly slowly and slowly over your favorite cities, because if you choose the right one, every street and house will be more detailed than you there. ‘I’ve ever seen in a game. Weather effects, day and night cycles, airplane models – everything looks fantastic. You cannot start it and you cannot edit the graphics.
But the new flight simulator is still under construction, just a few weeks before the planned start date on August 1
If the system works well, it is absolutely amazing. Cities like Barcelona, Berlin, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and others that have been rendered using Microsoft’s photogrammetry method look great – even and maybe especially at night.
The rendering engine on my i7-9700K with an Nvidia 2070 Super graphics card never dropped the frame rate below 30 frames per second (which is perfectly fine for a flight simulator) and usually hovered well over 40 with all graphics settings shifted up maximum and with a resolution of 2K.
However, if things don’t work, the effect is strong because it’s so obvious. Some cities, like Las Vegas, look like they have suffered some kind of catastrophe, like the city has been abandoned and nature has been taken over (which, frankly, doesn’t sound too bad in the case of the Vegas Strip).
Fortunately, Microsoft and Asobo can fix all of this. They just have to adjust their algorithms, and since a lot of data is streaming, the updates should be done virtually automatically. The fact that they haven’t done so is a bit of a surprise.
You may want to fly over your house on the day you receive Flight Simulator. If you live in the right city (and in the right part of this city), you’re probably lucky enough to actually see your house with its individual texture. But for some cities, including London, the game only shows standard textures, and while Microsoft is fine-tuning the outlines of buildings in cities that don’t do photogrammetry, it’s strange that London or Amsterdam don’t do this on this list (though London now apparently has a few wind turbines in the city center) while Münster is in Germany.
Once you’ve reached the height, all of these problems will obviously go away (or at least you won’t see them). However, given the graphics, you want to spend a lot of time at 2,000 feet or less.
What really impressed me when I played the game in its current state is how these graphical inconsistencies set the standard for the rest of the experience. The team says their focus is 100% on making the simulator as realistic as possible, but then virtual air traffic control often doesn’t use standard phraseology or hand you over to proper departure control when you leave a major airport, for example. The aircraft models look great and feel pretty real (at least to those I flew myself), but some are currently showing the wrong airspeed, for example. Some planes use modern glass cockpits with the Garmin 1000 and G3X, but they still feel severely limited.
But let me be clear here. Despite all this, Flight Simulator is a technical marvel even in beta condition and only gets better with time.
Let’s go through the user experience a bit. When installed on the PC (the Xbox version will be available sometime in the future), a good 90 GB will be downloaded so that you can also play offline. During the installation process, you will be asked whether you also agree to the streaming of data. This can quickly add up. After reinstalling the game and taking a few screenshot flights, the game had already downloaded about 10 GB – it adds up quickly and is something to keep in mind if you have a measurement connection.
After the long installation, you’ll be greeted by a menu screen where you can start a new flight, do one of the landing challenges, or do any other team-set up activity (they are really proud of their Courchevel scenery) and get started with the games flight training program.
In this training section, you will be guided through eight activities that will help you learn the basics of flying a Cessna 152. Most take less than 10 minutes and you’ll take a short break after that, but I’m not sure if that’s enough Prevent a beginner from getting frustrated quickly (while more advanced players just skip this section anyway).
I spent most of my time flying the small general aviation planes in the Sim, but if you prefer a Boeing 747 or an Airbus 320neo, you’ll also get this option as well as some turboprops and business jets. I will spend some time before the official start. All planes are beautifully detailed inside and out and everything works as expected except for a few mistakes.
To actually play, go to the world map and choose where you want to start your flight. The nice thing is that you can pick any point on your map, not just airports. That makes it easy, for example, to fly over a city. If you zoom in on the map, you will see airports and sights (whereby the sights are either real sights like the German Neuschwanstein Castle or cities with photogrammetry data). If a city does not have photogrammetry data, it will not be shown on the map.
From now on, the flight planning functions are pretty simple. For visual flights, you can go directly or VOR to VOR, and that’s it. For IFR flights, choose airways at low or high altitudes. You can’t really customize any of this, just accept what the simulator gives you. Flight planning doesn’t really work that way (at least you want to take local weather into account), so it would be nice if you could adjust your route a bit more closely. Microsoft has partnered with NavBlue for airspace data, although the built-in maps don’t have much to do with this data, and they don’t even show you the vertical boundaries of the airspace you’re in.
It is always difficult to compare the aircraft models and how they react to reality. The best I can say is that at least the single-engine Cessnas with which I am familiar usually handle what I would expect in real life. Rudder controls feel a little overly sensitive by default, but it’s relatively easy to set. I only played with a HOTAS-style joystick and rudder setup. I would not recommend playing with a mouse and keyboard, but your mileage may vary.
Live traffic works well, but general aviation traffic around my local airports doesn’t seem to appear, although Microsoft partner FlightAware shows it.
As for real / AI traffic in general, the Sim does it pretty well. In beta, you won’t really see real airline liveries – at least for the most part – I spotted the occasional United aircraft in the latest builds. Given some of Microsoft’s own videos, more are coming soon. Aside from the built-in models that you can fly in the Sim, Flight Simulator is still missing a library of other aircraft models for AI traffic, but I would also assume that this is also in the works.
We are three weeks before the start. I would expect the team to be able to fix many of these issues and we will review them all for our final review. My frustration with the current state of the game is that it is so close to perfection so often that it is particularly shattering when it is not reached because it pulls you out of the experience.
Don’t get me wrong, flying in FS2020 is already a great experience. Even if there is no photogrammetry, towns and villages look great when you reach more than 3,000 feet. The weather and cloud simulation – in real time – surpasses any add-on for today’s flight simulators. Airports still need work, but when cars drive around and flags fly around planes that push back, the world feels more alive. Wind affects waves on lakes and oceans (and windsocks at airports). This is really a next generation flight simulator.
Microsoft and Asobo have to walk a fine line between simulating Flight Simulator, which hardcore fans want, and an accessible game that attracts new players. I have played every version of Flight Simulator since the 90s, so it took exactly zero time to get started. In my opinion, new players looking for a good time may feel a little lost at first, although Microsoft has added landing challenges and other more playful elements to the Sim. In a press conference, the Asobo team regularly emphasized that it aimed at realism above everything else – and I totally agree with that. We’ll have to see if this is a fun experience for casual gamers too.