Microsoft Flight Simulator

Platform(s): PC, Xbox Series X
Genre: Simulation
Release Date: July 27, 2021


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Xbox Series X Review - 'Microsoft Flight Simulator'

by Cody Medellin on July 27, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

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

Buy Microsoft Flight Simulator

Flight simulators aren't really a thing on consoles. Despite being a big genre in the PC space, those who don't dabble in PC gaming have rarely seen even one title in the genre grace the libraries of most consoles. On the off chance that one makes an appearance, the focus has been on military jets with combat abilities turned off instead of commercial aircraft and others that are flown by non-military personnel. The appearance of Microsoft Flight Simulator on the Xbox Series X marks the end of that drought, and while the console isn't an exact match for the power of a high-end PC, it comes rather close when it counts.

The first thing to prepare before starting up the game is the amount of drive space it'll take up. Unlike the PC version, the game downloads all of the essentials upfront, so you need 97GB for the base game, and you still need to download the five free update packs, which add more detailed locales and airports, and puts it in line with the PC release. That will set you back another 20GB, but if you're planning on using the world streaming features, you'll want a significant amount of free space on the internal drive to handle all of that incoming data. When it's all said and done, the game doesn't eat up as much space as Call of Duty: Warzone, but it makes you worry if you keep more than a few games on the system's internal storage at a time.

After getting everything set up from the accessibility options onward, the game places you in the main menu with a variety of choices at your disposal. Considering how different Microsoft Flight Simulator is from most flight games, going to Flight Training is the logical choice, so you can learn the basics while flying a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. The lessons are comprehensive, as you'll go through everything from navigation to how to use instruments to taking off and landing. Although every plane has its own traits, what you get here is good enough to cover the essentials, but there is one specialty set in the form of lessons covering the takeoff and landing of the Airbus A320neo.

As a simulator, the lessons have very strict requirements for passing each one, but the game is lenient on a few key points. Failing a portion that would normally cause your plane to crash or stall means you immediately restart that portion of the tutorial instead of repeating the entire thing. The game gives you no less than a C grade for each lesson if you finish it, showing that it understands how difficult flight is and does its best to encourage people to continue while giving them the option to return and perfect the difficult parts. Finally, this is all optional material, so there's no fear of a Gran Turismo situation where you need to be perfect before going on an actual virtual flight.

If there's anything that the training sessions bring out, it's the realization that the Xbox controller is quite good at controlling the plane fundamentals. Compared to the PC version, the analog stick movement seems like it has been tweaked for minimal drift, though it still occurs now and then. The default button layout covers all of the flight basics, and the modifier buttons take care of some extra actions. You appreciate the complete customizability of every action, and the options to reduce the complexity ease players of all skill levels into the game. There's simply too much minutiae to cover for real, full control over the plane.

The good news is that Microsoft Flight Simulator has an extensive menu system, so whether you're customizing controls or looking for another option to enable, it's there somewhere. The bad news is that those menus are quite complicated to work with, as different pieces can be buried under several different menu trees. To compound matters, the game employs a virtual mouse cursor for all of the menus instead of something more console-centric. It works, but it feels slow, and even though this isn't a game where fast actions are needed, it can still feel cumbersome until you adjust to it.

The main mode is the World Map, which is essentially an aerial sandbox for the entire game. For the basics, you choose the type of plane you want to fly, your departure location, and your arrival location. While the game would prefer that you take off from and arrive at airports of any type (including some military installations), you're free to choose any point as your beginning and end, within reason. Taking off from the Indian Ocean with a plane that has no pontoons won't happen, but taking off from near the Grand Canyon and landing at your house is perfectly fine. You can choose the time zone and weather conditions you want, so flying through a thunderstorm at midnight is feasible enough, but the game has a cool feature where you can cull data from the internet to re-create exact weather conditions. It sounds nice on paper, and it's pretty impressive to see in action.

Once all of that is plugged in, you go through the entire flight process from beginning to end. That means starting the plane, taxiing the plane, taking off to hit cruising altitude, etc. It's thorough to the point that you're taking the whole flight in real time instead of it being artificially accelerated, so a 90-minute flight takes 90 minutes to complete. For those who don't have the time to spare, the game lets you jump to one of six points in the flight that coincide with major areas, like the entry into cruising altitude to the approach to the destination airport.

The minute you take to the air, all of the fiddling with options and menus goes by the wayside, as you see why the PC version was so lauded almost a year ago. To put it simply, the game is gorgeous. The work done to the terrestrial elements is astounding, and the cloud cover is as realistic as it gets. From the skylines of the countryside at sunset to the lightning storms that give off brief flashes in the sky at night, everything is picturesque. No matter the resolution, the visuals are a showcase for the console and can be used to create wallpapers for years. This statement holds true for the places that have been handcrafted by the developers, and while the procedurally generated stuff also holds its own, it shines brighter when the game uses Bing maps data to fill in those gaps. Those with data caps will miss out on that unless they want to get expensive internet bills, but for everyone else, this is astounding stuff. Compared to the PC iteration, the only limitation here is that it caps at 60fps, but you won't miss it since this game doesn't require that level of fluidity.

There's only one time that the illusion breaks down, and that's when you get low to the ground and away from the handcrafted areas. The data from Bing maps features as many details as possible, even though the data is at least three years old at this point. It didn't catch the new neighborhood that's being built near my house, but my house is in the correct location. Major storefronts are also legible enough that you can see a clear sign for The Home Depot close to a Target in the same shopping complex. The buildings and houses are very low polygon models, so the textures warp around them in strange ways, sometimes flanked by mysterious spires. While you see cars driving on roads and highways, there are times when sedans drive off-road or cars go through solid objects. The issues are the same on the PC build, but that version has more polygons to work with. These are nitpicky points, and in the grand scheme of things, it's an impressive feat to have the entire Earth mapped out to this much detail.

For those who are looking for more curated journeys, Microsoft Flight Simulator offers a few options. Those who want something focused on landmarks can go for Discovery Tours, which immediately place you in major spots with distinct time states, such as Rio de Janeiro at dawn or an early afternoon London. You'll still need to pilot the plane , but you'll easily approach some of the more famous landmarks, like The O2 and the Christ the Redeemer statue in addition to taking virtual airborne tours of each city. For those looking for something more challenging, there are the Bush Flights, which task you with trekking through natural surroundings and get from point A to B without any markers except for a checklist at the beginning of the flight. It isn't the mode for those looking for famous natural landmarks, but it's perfect for those who want to soak up the natural surroundings and want to see if they're too dependent on modern navigation tools.

Simulation fans will be pleased with what they see and experience, especially with the various control options including the regular Xbox gamepad, a few flight sticks, and keyboard and mouse support. Players experiencing this game type for the first time might be stunned at how structure-less it is. Beyond logging flight hours on your profile and getting better at flying the various aircraft, there's no other goal to reach or endgame to look forward to. The closest thing you'll get to something more traditional gameplay-wise is the landing challenges, as you'll be tasked with landing all sorts of different planes on difficult landing strips or turbulent weather conditions, and there's a global leaderboard for it. The lack of a traditional structure isn't a knock on the game, as giving the title a story or ending would go against genre tradition. On the other hand, it also makes the title a perfect candidate for Xbox Game Pass, as people who normally wouldn't seek out this sort of thing can try it to see if it's right for them.

If you've seen or read about some of the technical woes that the PC version went through since launch, you won't be surprised to hear that there are a few technical issues with the Xbox Series X version, too. There are moments when the live data option hitches, during which time textures fail to appear and the gameplay pauses while the data is fetched and loaded. The option to skip to different flight milestones is useful for those who want to speed things along, but it comes with the caveat that the plane can suddenly lose control and crash if the game doesn't know how to adjust to the abrupt changes.

Switch things to the AI pilot, and there will be times when it returns to the beginning of the flight rather than the arrival point. While the AI is competent at flying, don't expect it to do a good job of landing, as it approaches at the wrong angle or speed, causing you to land nose-first and stay there without a failure message. Finally, if you're used to the shorter load times afforded by the nVME SSD in the system, expect a throwback to the Xbox One days of loading, as it can take upward of a minute to load things up, depending on where you're starting.

The Xbox Series X version of Microsoft Flight Simulator works best if you look at it as the closest approximation that anyone could get to a sophisticated flight simulator without a beefy PC. The cracks start to show when you check the ground for details, and the frame rate could be better, but it remains a stunning game that showcases the system's power. The controls remain technical enough to scare away the easily intimidated, but the number of tutorials and assists ensure that you can get into the air with ease — even if getting back on the ground can be a challenge. It does well in its promise to let players see the world from above, and if you have the patience to deal with a byzantine menu system and don't want to fire off any missiles, you'll enjoy the countless hours you can spend with Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Score: 8.0/10

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