author: Darius Matusiak
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Review – The Biggest Sandbox Ever
The whole planet, one mouse click away, at your own home. The world's greatest metropolises in a next-generation setting, completely realistic and scailed. Flight Simulator 2020 is a prelude to the next generation of games.
The review is based on the PC version.
Flight simulators used to be the pinnacle of gaming. Everyone knew the difference between the A-10 and the F-15; the Sparrow from The Sidewinder. Simulators topped the charts and dominated gaming mag covers, and they were among the highest-rated titles. Games with planes had to be made by everyone: Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Microsoft, Sierra and other major publishers from the 1990s. People used to anticipate the next game from MicroProse with the same exhilaration as they have for Battlefield or Cyberpunk.
These sims were also unique in another, more significant way: they were the main thrust of graphics development and research. Virtually each new game turned out a next-gen revolution. From vector graphics and a few colors on the CGA, they went into 256 VGA colors, then got sky textures in the F-15 III, Gouraud shading in the Harrier, fractal ravines and hills in the Comanche, and satellite images as terrain in Flight Unlimited and Jane's USAF. Needless to say, all of the above titles dropped jaws and emptied wallets, since the processor and RAM usually weren't able to handle it. Those were the days... and now they return!
FROM NEWSPAPER ARTICLES TO RECREATING THE GLOBE
The roots of Flight Simulator (yes, no Microsoft in the name) go back to 1976 and a series of articles published in the industry press discussing the capabilities of 3D graphics at the time. Readers were so intrigued by the topic they flooded the magazine with questions about purchasing said software. The editor-in-chief passed it on to the author, Bruce Artwick, and in 1977, he founded subLOGIC and created a virtual flying program.
It was initially released for Intel 8080, Altair 8800 and IMSAI 8080. In 1979, the first FS1 Flight Simulator launched on Apple II. In 1982, the company sold the license for an IBM PC version (with CGA cards) to Microsoft, which produced Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0. Interestingly, the game actually ran on its internal operating system.
SubLOGIC continued working on their version of the game, releasing Flight Simulator II for Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 800, Atari ST and Amiga computers. Meanwhile, Bruce Artwick, left the company he had founded and became involved in the development of Microsoft Flight Simulator, starting with Version 3.0 in 1988.
The return of the king
- Basically the whole thing.
- The whole Earth – once click away;
- Looks stunning almost without exceptions;
- Absolutely brilliant weather engine;
- A generous system of help and advice for beginners;
- Useful facilitations in a discreet toolbar;
- Incredible immersion, authentic air traffic, airport services working around the plane;
- Highly refined cockpit and airplane models;
- Lots of depth and details related flying in different weather conditions;
- The amount of content.
- Random technical glitches, probably unavoidable;
- Some minor things, such funny-looking smoke.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is the only fair form of a nostalgia trip: it makes the present feel like it used to back in the days, rather than merely hark back to the past. Once again, there's media hype and excitement among regular players about the upcoming flight sim, and after the initial run, I was made certain that my old PC has to go soon. I finally took off for my first serious flight somewhere on the edge of the world, in a destination I'll leave at my discretion. Like any good pilot, I flew straight into a storm cloud in a Cessna violated by the fierce wind. Rain was pouring down the windows, all I could see was "milk." I've completely lost track of such abstract concepts as "up" and "down." Am I going to hit something, or am I going to make it?
All of a sudden, I'm out of this storm. I saw an amazing wall of bright and obsidian clouds swirling around, sunrays bleeding through at various spots, and tall mountains in the distance – all the while, it looked like some BBC Earth footage. I was truly in awe long after launching the game, astonished by everything from the way the planes handle, to beauty of nature in near photorealism. I felt like Han Solo must have felt saying, "Chewie, we're home!”
The graphics of Flight Simulator are stunning. It looks out of this world – right after launch. It comes with an impressive weather engine and photogrammetry used to detail the cities. The best part? It doesn't disappoint with anything. There are trifles like bad smoke effect, registration signs on planes that don't look too good, and technical errors can happen.
At least that's what it looks like from the standpoint of a simmer. It's just that many years have passed since the "golden age" of flight sims. A whole new generation of gamers grew up around the world, and Flight Simulator 2020, with all the hype and broad the accessibility through the Xbox Game Pass subscription will surely interest many "ordinary" gaming enthusiasts. What's in it for them?
Is it a game, or pilot training software?
It all depends on how you look at Flight Simulator and what you find interesting. There is no career mode, no campaign or a progression system that rewards progress (though there are achievements!). But there's an endless sandbox across the globe where you can fly wherever you want. If you can enjoy the painstaking grind of XP points or other raw material in an MMO, you might as well enjoy the great thrill of flying a plane around the world. Enjoy learning how to start engines on machines like Cessna and Boeing, using the right messages with the tower, mastering the relationship between power control, fuel mix and propeller angle, and landing safely at the end of the route.
Sometimes there are only beautiful views, sometimes problems such as dangerous icing on the fuselage, too high a mountain for our machine's capabilities, crosswind at landing or flashing fuel reserve indicator. Yes, a lot can happen in the air, and any deviation from the norm causes a lot more trouble a car braking down on the road. As long as we can manage to play the part of a real pilot (like in an actual role-playing game), we'll be in for some great fun. And you arguably have to try and do that, as there's otherwise no background for the flights what so ever.
YOU SAID YOU'VE GOT AN EXPENSIVE JOYSTICK?
The Microsoft Flight Simulator series has entered the Guinness Book of World Records seven times, including for the longest-running aviation game, the best aviation game and the most expensive home cockpit built with a computer simulator in mind, which cost a certain Australian entrepreneur $200,000!
The only alternative to that is challenges with landings during extremely severe weather conditions in tricky locations. They last just a few minutes, going straight to the most exciting part of the flight, after which you get a rating and a mark, and perhaps compete with others in global leaderboards. The world top is rather out of reach, but you can get your mates to compete. And then there's the flying school, but it only covers the absolute basics in the simplest plane.
At the heart, Flight Simulator 2020 is perhaps the closest to slow games like American Truck Simulator or SnowRunner, except without economics. This is the perfect game to kick back to after work. It's truly therapeutic. Perfect for playing with your favorite music or podcasts. Combined with the views that you get from an afternoon flight from Edinburgh to Glasgow with a detour to Loch Ness provides an amazing mix of landscapes. And the Scottish tour is just one of thousands of opportunities!
Rookies – not players
The creators deliberately didn't include a career and progression system, and that was a well-considered decision. Interestingly the main target audience of this game aren't gamers, bur rather, players – complete rookies in terms of skill – as well as hardcore simmers. And you can really see that because the number of assists and facilitations is just huge. But it's fair to say that Flight Simulator 2020 leans more towards rookies, not veterans.
More difficult tasks, such as maintaining communications with air control, settings of altimeter pressure, rudder adjustments, even piloting the machine, can be delegated to the computer. There are options to display on-screen flight parameters, navigation points and approach paths on the runway. The checklists highlighting the items in the cockpit that you need to press, pull or switch at a given stage. And at the airport itself, you can see the taxiway and a big envelope where we should park the plane in front of the terminal, like a drop-off point in American Truck. There are also no problems with controlling the plane just by using a pad (although you will still need the mouse and keyboard, in the end it's a PC game) – you don't need buy that joystick and throttle right away.
YOU PLAY PAD? CONTROL THE SENSITIVITY!
If you're flying with a gamepad, make sure you set the sensitivity of the left knob properly. In the key assignment menu for the controller, find the flight control knob, enter the sensitivity option and reduce the slider value by at least half. The aircraft will respond to rudder input much more realistically and calmly, allowing for much more precise adjustments. This is a necessary step, at least when it comes to the pad from Xbox.
I was really impressed by the smooth transition from leisurely flying and admiring the rain physics, to realistic piloting of an airplane. We decide for ourselves when to turn off the various assists, we decide for ourselves the degree of the challenge. And in fact, after a while, we can find that flying at the highest level of realism is somehow not much more complicated, while offering more fun and immersion. Part of this is due to the fact that Flight Simulator 2020 isn’t that realistic after all – it's not a study-sim, it doesn't include all the systems of an airplane. The planes are simplified and many of the buttons in the cockpit simply don't do anything, which seems quite understandable with a few dozen airplanes coming straight at launch.
The whole world, a single click away
No matter how skilled you are, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is worth playing just to fly over your own home and then visiting iconic places around the world. I think just about everything has been said about the game's world, recreating the entire planet with Bing Maps satellite images. I can only confirm this really is as revolutionary and impressive, especially in cities generated with photogrammetry. But even in those made procedurally by artificial intelligence, it's easy to navigate "by heart," peering at a network of streets and places familiar from the real world. Something like this on such a large scale has never been done before!
The fact is that the quality of the locations varies significantly just as the quality of satellite images of different parts of the world. However, given that the area covers some 90 million square kilometers, the creators of Asobo and Blackshark.ai did pretty well for the first try. Apart from that, everything looks great from above anyway, which makes sense in a game about airplanes, which the MFS is, after all.
I focused on visiting these beautifully recreated locations and was surprised by even more unexpected details. In Los Angeles, for example, you can actually read billboards with beer or movie ads. Flying over Alexander Platz in Berlin, I noticed a sign of a restaurant I personally visited, and a huge advertisement of... the Surface Pro 3 tablet. About the beauty of Nature seen from above – the green fields of Ireland, the majestic Matterhorn or the wastelands of Patagonia... there's no way to describe it, you have to see it!
Playing the weather lord
Even more impressive than satellite images-created earth is the weather editor available at one click during flight. It allows you to fully control everything from the time of the day, wind strength, type of clouds, height of their individual layers, the intensity of rain or snow or the amount of lightnings. You can fell like a god!
The authors created a complete astro-meteorological simulation of the Earth with a day-night cycle and actual weather forecasts fed from the Internet. Darkness will fall much faster in December than in July if you're far off the equator, rain only falls if there's a rain cloud, and if the rainfall meets the sun rays, you've got a rainbow. Because that's how the game's physical engine works, not because there's a script telling the texture to pop up. You can do the same route 20 times, and it will look different each time.
The last will be the first – for after all, Flight Simulator 2020 is not a cartography game or a weather simulator. The creators have obviously focused on general aviation, which includes all civilian flights except scheduled. Therefore, in the game we will find a rich selection of light aircraft. The great Boeing 747 and Airbus 320 seem a bit of a bonus for now, because compared to the former, you can notice there's a lot missing. This is not just about on-board systems, but, for example, a much poorer checklist set.
I was also under the impression that small planes have a better flight model. Passenger liners were already complained about during alpha and beta tests, and I noticed only small improvements. I landed the jumbo jet a few times in a manner I do not wish anyone has to experience in real life, and it still didn't go wrong
Maybe it's fault of the poor collision detection system, as there is no damage model in the game (due to agreements with the manufacturers of airplanes). Still, things like hard landings and breaking at full power should feel a little different. It can be easily simulated just with camera work, but somehow I didn't notice anything. The feeling is much better when piloting small machines.
The list of available aircraft is generally the only thing I could complain about, personally. I understand the devs went for a few models that are popular among amateur pilots, as they certainly will want to play the MFS. It's also understandable they wanted to save a few for post-launch support. It is a pity, however, that there was no icing on the cake, some iconic classic like Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, Amelia Earhart's Lockheed, or the symbol of opulence in the US in the 1980s – the Learjet 28. One such gem among the planes is the Icon A5 – an aircraft that resembles a luxury car inside, and can land on water.
Imperfect, but perfect
So is Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 really such an outstanding, revolutionary game? Is it flawless? Well, if you only agree with the decision not to include a career or campaign, then it is. If we accept the sandbox rules that govern the genre, which hasn't been actually dead all the while, and has developed certain standards.
Microsoft's game, however, not only introduces better graphics and a larger map, but also a number of other improvements, which usually required the purchase of separate modules or a subscription in competing games. Live weather, bustling airport services – it all had to be bought additionally and it didn't look even half as good. What MFS2020 offers in the standard version is simply stunning – both in quality and quantity!
If you can drive a small plane on all roads of the road, and cars look like this in a flying sim, maybe we'll get Forza Horizon with photogrammentry sometime in the future?
We also have to mention considerable hardware requirements: because not only does the game require powerful CPU and graphics card, as well as any amount of RAM; it also devours every available bit of space on the SSD and demands the fastest possible internet connection without limits. For players accustomed to the idea that a new production should run in 60 FPS on ultra on a contemporary PC, this may come as a shock, but simulators have never really subscribed to that philosophy. They were always ways ahead of everyone else, always running smoothly on ultra only long after the premiere. Given Microsoft's history of the series, this installment is a particularly crazy endeavor. Only occasional bugs can make the experience unpleasant at times, such as unstable framerate after unplugging the controller, or sudden CTD.
Tower, Delta Mike – Golf Oscar Lima Papa Lima – airborne!
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is not a game for everyone, but everyone should try the gameplay to see for themselves what technologies this game offers. I feel that in a few years, with even better hardware, even faster internet and more accurate satellite imagery, similar solutions will be found in games like Forza Horizon. The whole world with procedurally generated highways and roads, where instead of looking at your home from among the clouds, we'll horn at the front door.
As it stands now, FS2020 is a huge game on launch and a promising foundation for the future, which over time will become even richer in content and even more technically superior, as the creators already promised to dedicate about a decade for supporting it. Even if flying isn't as engaging, it will be worth coming back to Flight Simulator in a few months, seeing the buildings, checking out new planes, maybe sometime helicopters or military aircraft. You don't have to wait until Christmas for next-gen. It's already here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I spent the last three weeks with Microsoft Flight Simulator, playing the closed beta and a launch version. During that time, I visited many locations around the world, tried flying all types of aircraft, did a few international flights and a lot of short tours. I'm certain this is only the beginning of my adventure with the game.
I love planes since watching Top Gun in elementary school. I did some modelling, and then it was time games. Flight simulators are one of my favorite genres. I've played every game since the F-19 and F-117. For the past two years I have been exploring the secrets of flying combat machines in DCS World, even running my own website about the game. I've spent a lot of time in passenger planes, as well as light aircraft and a helicopter.
Darius Matusiak | Gamepressure.com