And if you look out to the left, you will see the finest simulation game on the market.
Microsoft Flight Simulator

When it comes to the simulation genre, I am not exactly what you would call an "expert." In fact, in all the years playing games, I have only dabbled in the genre a handful of times. That said, one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures is American Truck Simulator for the PC. I have played that game casually here and there when I just wanted to chill and relax. I would have a video or some music going on my other monitor while I drove the digital streets of the western United States hauling cargo and making deliveries.

In years prior, I may have dabbled a bit here and there in the sim genre, but there was never any title that really sunk their claws into me quite like American Truck Simulator did. I think the great appeal came from wanting to see and explore areas I knew about but never actually got to see or experience in person. And that is what games are all about, right? Living out some fantasy that you would not otherwise get to experience. Simulation titles are exactly like other games just more rooted. You could do these things, but you cannot for one reason or another so why not do so virtually?

This is where Microsoft Flight Simulator comes in. I requested a review copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator, which the company thankfully fulfilled. I did so with hopes that I could capture even a bit of that Truck Sim magic but at several thousand feet in the air. I have tried previous entries over the years, but for one reason or another, they never quite hooked me. That all changed with this release.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator for 2020 looks to be the 12th entry in a franchise that first began properly in 1982. This entry for 2020 takes literal decades of knowledge from what did and did not work in the past and puts it all into a game that allows you to fly literally anywhere in the world in unprecedented detail. This latest release was carefully crafted by none other than Asobo Studio (A Plague Tale: Innocence) and is perhaps one of the finest simulation titles out there.

One of the very first things you will notice with this game is that it is big. It is very big. The install itself demands upwards of 150GB of storage space on your computer, multiple GB's of which is used for caching purposes.

Why would a game need such a large cache? Well you see, Microsoft Flight Simulator makes use of a rolling cache to stream in updated and high definition Bing map data from the cloud. This allows the game to have always updated information no matter where you choose to take flight. This cache allows players to have the latest data ready to go should they decide to take flight again from the same location.

Yes, you can optionally choose to turn this feature off completely. You can also choose to limit the size of the rolling cache if you need to save space. Players can also optionally move the cache to an entirely different drive than their install drive if they so desire. The game has been very flexible in this and other areas, which has been a nice breath of fresh air.

Were this cache not implemented, there would be no way to get the latest map data to your computer. Thus, you could very well be left with low-resolution assets or outdated map data. Towns and cities may not appear properly, roads could be incomplete or outright missing, and the list goes on. Azure A.I. is utilized in Microsoft Flight Simulator to analyze map data and photogrammetry to create realistic 3D models of buildings and towns, trees, landmarks, and so on. These are in addition to the curated towns and cities that Asobo worked on for larger and more notable cities. In the Premium Deluxe edition of the game, which I have played for review, Asobo manually replicated 40 airports from around the globe. Some of these include JFK International, Queenstown Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International, Sydney Airport, Heathrow, and more. Together, between the curated locations and the AI generated content, there are some 37,000 airports, 2 million cities, 1.5 billion buildings, and 2 trillion trees in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

The rolling cache also serves another purpose. The Bing Maps data would need over two petabytes of storage if you were to have it all on your local machine. Two petabytes is two THOUSAND terabytes of data. Just let that sink in for a moment. This cache offers you access to all that data without the need to have it all stored locally.

Were this streaming not possible, Microsoft Flight Simulator just would not have reached the massively impressive visual fidelity that it has achieved. Even on mostly medium settings this game looks stunning. 3D towns are complimented by all matter of volumetric clouds. The lighting system allows for on the fly adjustment of the weather, including the time of day. Want to fly in a severe thunderstorm at the crack of dawn? You can. Likewise, you can set the weather to be the "live" weather conditions around the world. If it's raining in a city in real life, it will be raining in that city in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Games have had similar features to the live weather conditions for years now, but Microsoft Flight Simulator takes it to entirely new levels. As you are soaring through the air, you can see ominous rain and storm clouds from hundreds of miles away. Lighting will fill up clouds with bursts of light. Wind will pick up and start to make handling your plane far more difficult as you chase down the storms. Flying through the middle of these storms is an almost awe-inspiring feat, especially when you can hear the rain hit your windows or the subtle creaks and groans of metal straining against the elements. Take a flight in a snowstorm and you run the risk of your plane freezing up. Ice crystals can and will form in real time on your windows and wings.

Again, all of this is complimented by some of the best lighting I have ever seen in a simulator. Honestly, the lighting is probably some of the best I have seen in any game, period. Even something as typically overlooked as light pollution from cities is accurately represented in this game. The long shadows cast by skyscrapers during sunrise or sunset can be seen extending far off into the distance in places like New York City. Out in the wilderness, you will be able to land on long stretches of earth. When you do so, you may even notice that the game renders out individual blades of grass when you get close enough. Various animals, such as elephants, are also accurately represented with detailed in-game models.

Clouds, assuming they are thick enough, will cast shadows over the ground as they cover the Sun. Cities come to life at night with the ever present simulated traffic showing headlights and brake lights moving here and there on busy roads. During the day, the sun will pour in through your windows, lighting up the equally detailed interior cockpits of your plane. As certain angles, you will even be able to see streaks, smears, and fingerprints on your windows.

None of this would particularly matter if the physics engine were not the best and most accurate it could possibly be. Now again, I am merely a casual player. I could not tell you whether these plane physics are 100% accurate or if they are merely "good enough." I can tell you that Asobo has put together one of the most comprehensive physics models ever for this game. From my understanding, the physics models in this game are second to none. Asobo has considered such factors such as the typical lift and drag of these planes under ideal conditions. Then they up the ante considerably by incorporating factors such as pollution particles, how wind behaves around and between buildings and mountains, and even the friction of rubber as the plane's wheels touchdown on asphalt, concrete, or any of the other multitude of surfaces that could theoretically be a landing spot. Asobo even went so far as to simulate increased water waves for large bodies of water depending on how strong the winds are. The attention to detail is just on another level.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Those who are hardcore sim lovers will find a lot to love about Microsoft Flight Simulator. You can disable all assists while flying, leaving it so that it is just you, the plane, the elements, and your skills. You can even go so far as to run through a pre-flight checklist. You can manually turn and push buttons to go from a plane that is completely off to one that is ready to fly. There are various resources in the game that will help you to accomplish this and many other goals. However, if you are like me, you will probably opt to stick with the assists turned on. I just happened to find the game to be a bit more enjoyable without having to micromanage everything.

As I tend more towards the casual side, I will freely admit that I played this game mostly using an Xbox One Controller. Even though I lacked the hardcore setup that many hardcore sim fans will undoubtedly have, I still had a wonderful time flying around with just the controller. Takeoffs, general flying, adjustment of throttle, and even flaps are a breeze to adjust on the controller. When there was something that I just could not do on the controller, say adjusting the cockpit instrument lighting, it was as easy as taking my right hand off of the controller, grabbing my mouse, and making the manual adjustments on the highly detailed panels before my eyes. There are also some panels, such as camera control and navigation, that I was able to turn into their own window and drag over to my second monitor. This allowed me the freedom to work with those panels "outside" of the game without having them clutter up the in-game view. I am not sure how common a feature like that is, but it was quite nice to have the freedom to set the game space up in a way that worked best for me.

Sadly, Microsoft Flight Simulator falls just short of being an absolutely perfect game, at least for me. First, I would have loved for there to have been an objective type of game mode included in the game. This is probably my love of American Truck Simulator coming through again, but if there was a "career" type of mode that included objectives, I would have greatly enjoyed that. Say, take off from X airport and take these visitors on a tour around Paris, hitting up various landmarks, and then land back at X. Or perhaps I could have taken passengers on a jetliner on a trip from Seattle to Denver, just as an example. Theoretically, you can just do those things using made up objectives in your mind, but they still would have been nice to see officially implemented in a fully realized career mode. On the other hand, the game does feature a number of scored challenges that do add a fair bit to the overall "gamification" of this sim.

I also had some interesting performance issues here and there. At times, the game would run beautifully at 120+ frames per second. At other times, the game would be lucky to hit 60. Normally, I would not be paying too close attention to the framerate, but as this game is getting VR support in a few months, it would be nice to know how close I can get to a stable 90fps which is needed for smooth VR gameplay. If nothing else, I do know that nighttime severe weather and increased ground details do contribute to hitting the framerate hard, at least in my brief test cases. If I limit myself to more fair-weather conditions, I should not have much issue with the upcoming VR support. If worse comes to worse, I can still also turn down some of the graphical options. The game still looks fantastic even with a lot of the options set to low or medium.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Final Say
Despite a few personal gripes about the lack of a true career mode, Microsoft Flight Simulator is an absolutely wonderful gameplay experience. There is just something undeniably magical about flying around and seeing sights that you may have only read about in a book or seen online. With so many of us still in quarantine and self-isolation, there has never been a more perfect time for this level of escapism. With Asobo already working on a number of free content updates for the game, the future is looking damn impressive for Microsoft Flight Simulator. I already know that I will be heading back to the skies shortly after this review goes live.



Score
Microsoft Flight Simulator - 5 out of 5


Additional Information
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator
    • Developed by: Asobo Studio
    • Published by: Xbox Game Studios
  • Price: Starting at $59.99 (USD) via the Microsoft Store
    • Also available in Deluxe ($89.99) and Premium Deluxe ($119.99)
  • Platform reviewed on: PC
    • Reviewed on: i7-6700K, 32GB RAM at 2666, GTX 1080 Ti, and installed to a Crucial MX500 1TB SSD
  • Release Date: August 18, 2020
  • ESRB: E for Everyone
  • This game was provided to Total Gaming Network for review purposes by Microsoft.

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