What is MSFS
The lull lasted more than ten years since the Microsoft Flight Simulator X’s release suddenly broke in the summer of 2019 when the trailer for the new part of the series was shown at E3. A vast fleet of aircraft, all the airports in the world, photographically accurate landscapes, realistic controls, dynamic weather changes – the dream of any fan of flight simulators.
However, some of them were suspicious of the fact that the development was entrusted to Asobo Studio, which had no previous experience in creating games of this scale.
But, as practice shows, experience is not everything. Thanks to cloud computing technologies and satellite maps, the Asobo team did something almost unreal: they recreated planet Earth at a 1: 1 scale. Do you want to land a plane on the street near your home? Or fly to the place of the next trip, which was postponed due to the coronavirus? Everything is at your service.
The casual player will not immediately find what to do: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is still a niche project with a reasonably high entry threshold and specific gameplay. There is no traditional “career” mode, no plot, no leveling up, and all planes and the map are open from the beginning. You will have to entertain yourself on your own – and if dedicated fans of flight sims need only this, then beginners can simply get lost in such a huge sandbox.
Let’s figure out together what the new MSFS is ready to offer to different types of players – and whether it was able to adequately continue the Microsoft Flight series.
How to play it?
I must admit that the Asobo team tried to do everything possible to make MSFS as convenient as possible for newcomers. This can be seen already when you launch the game: offer to select the desired simulation level. You choose in settings between “I am a real pilot, just do not interfere,” or you can specify “help me in everything.” The game will give all the necessary prompts during the flight.
There are several modes in the main menu: free flight, training, daily mission, and challenges. Training has eight lessons on a Cessna 152 aircraft: from a simple horizontal flight to the first independent travel with visual landmarks between two airfields. Courses were designed not in the form of a boring tutorial, but in a dialogue between player and flight instructor with a little bit of humor.
My flight experience in video games is mostly based on the Ace Combat series. Compared to Microsoft Flight Simulator, flying is significantly simplified in Ace Combat. And since we are on this topic, I also want to mention the 1986 Top Gun game, as my first flight game ever.
I have never played any previous installments of the Microsoft Flight Simulator before; even so, the first game was released in 1982. I can tell you that the current short tutorial in the 2020 version is not enough for beginners who are not familiar with flight simulators. How to fly other planes? How to use a sophisticated autopilot? What is the best way to tune the joystick if there is no preset? You will be left with two choices: try to guess or look for explanations on YouTube.
Speaking of the Flight Simulator YouTube tutorials. In my case, I had to learn the game from scratch; this is why it took me so long to make this video. I have two channels to recommend that will help you a lot.
First is the Squirrel channel, to learn the game in detail. Suppose you have multiple monitors and running games on one screen and have his video playing on another simultaneously. In that case, it’s like having your personal flight instructor next to you.
The second channel is P Gatcomb. His tutorials are more casual: watch them when you have some free time to get familiar with the game and airplanes basics. Links to both channels are in the description.
Challenges divided into three categories: normal landing, landing with strong winds, and landing at one of the world’s most dangerous airports. Depending on the terrain of a particular challenge, a suitable plane is issued. A short briefing tells what kind of place it is and why it is considered difficult among pilots. Then it’s up to you. During loading, missions are shown a small schematic tutorial with directions: where to fly and what speed to maintain to get on the runway. Planes change with each task, and you don’t have to be familiar with each of them: airspeed has already been given to you, controls are like in the tutorial. Just fly, enjoy the beauty and try to get exactly on the runway. Personally, it was not difficult for me to complete many tests and get a good score – albeit not always the first time.
Where to fly?
The map in Microsoft Flight Simulator simply amazes with the level of elaboration: mountains, forests, and plains, rivers and lakes, countless small villages. And large cities filled with cars and sights that are easy to recognize even from the air. Flying over some savannah, you can see wild animals and birds under the belly of the plane. All this became possible thanks to the Microsoft Azure cloud service, which collects data from Bing maps and generates the game landscape using Blackshark.ai algorithms. The accuracy and quality of the generation do not raise questions, although sometimes there are minor flaws.
Some nine-story buildings in my hometown have become three-story buildings, and large buildings are sometimes displayed as mounds. There are problems with structures associated with a drop in water level: hydroelectric power plants, and bridges over rivers. Algorithms clearly have difficulty digesting such map elements and do not accurately recreate them – it cannot be done without human intervention.
Of course, the first thing I fly over is my city – it is not very large, it was rendered almost flawlessly (apart from the ones described above). On the map I found my house, school, college, and even a house in the village where I spent summers as a child.
All this obeys a precise heights grid: the map also contains deep canyons and mountains several kilometers high. Not every plane can fly over. The Himalayas, Alps, and the Pyrenees look impressive and seem rocky and majestic – at least from a distance. But if you pass up close to them, you risk being disappointed: instead of the expected sharp peaks, there are only rounded hills on their tops. However, this is still a simulator of a pilot, not a climber, so such inaccuracies are hardly a severe reason for nagging.
What to fly?
There are twenty to thirty aircraft in Microsoft Flight Simulator: depending on which edition you purchase. The game has large airliners that can stay in the air for up to sixteen hours and small propeller-driven aircraft designed for low flights over short distances. Despite such a variety, each plane is adequately designed both visually and in terms of air behavior.
Cockpits created with attention to details: each switch and device are located precisely where they would be found in a real aircraft and show all the relevant information. There is a radio for communicating with the dispatcher, an on-board computer for programming the flight, and a weather radar for avoiding thunderstorms.
Large liners lack a full-featured cockpit, and some switches are not available. Still, there are more than enough for planning flights between airports (and airliners are used only for this). The developers explained the lack of detailed study by the fact that it merely takes a lot of time on each specific aircraft. We have to wait for future updates: many major aircraft manufacturers promise to release their products in MSFS.
Of course, after the very first takeoff, I asked myself: “What if I crashed an airplane into a building or the ground?” Alas, nothing special will happen: there will be just a black screen with the words “You crashed” and why.
It is somewhat understandable: many aircraft manufacturers agreed to present their real airplanes, but probably do not want to see their precious designs destroyed by careless players. Probably not good for their reputation or it could be some other reason. Therefore, Asobo Studio doesn’t show wrecks: after all, people come to fly simulators, and Just Cause already exists to enjoy explosions and destruction.
What to interact with on the map?
The free flight mode is set up as simply as possible: choose what you want to fly, where, and what weather. The flight does not have to be explicitly planned from point A to point B. You can just point at the airfield or on empty air space, click “Departure from here,” and start the flight. If you set the starting point at the airport parking lot, the plane will be completely turned off; if on the runway, it will be running and ready for takeoff. And suppose you choose a random place far from the airport. In that case, you will find yourself immediately in the air, and the autopilot will control the plane until you turn it off.
At the airport gates, you can request ground services through radio. They include fuel trucks, push back, jetways, luggage and supplies loading, and battery truck. In big airports, my advice is to order the fuel first, it could take a long time to get to you, depending on your location.
The map is generated from satellite images. For the first time, the simulator has all the world’s runways: from unpaved areas somewhere in the Rocky Mountains to asphalt runways at major airports. And suppose the algorithm did not recognize the crumpled grass of the flying club as a strip. In that case, it will still be visible on the ground, and you can land on it, except the game will not offer you a unique mark that this is an airstrip.
The problem is that there are more than 45 thousand airports in the world, and it is simply impossible to handle each of them by hand, and the algorithm sometimes makes mistakes. For example, on my first flight from the Yoshkar-Ola airport (UWKJ), the working lane was marked as closed. It is here that ordinary players around the world come into the business of finalizing the project: I have already sent a report to the developers about this error.
Another feature of MSFS is tied to satellite real-time weather data. Clouds, rain, snowfalls, and rainbows are not just textures for the surrounding world, but also a set of real objects generated on the map.
For example, suppose you flew under a rain cloud. In that case, there will really be no visibility under it because of the water. As soon as you pass out from under the cloud, the rain will stop – but you can still observe it from the side. This technology of procedural precipitation generation is used for the first time in a game of this genre.
According to rules close to real physics, air flows also interact with ground objects (mountains, depressions, and buildings), so turbulence over megacities or mountain ranges is not uncommon. And with strong winds, huge waves appear on the surface of the water.
In one challenge, I caught a powerful downdraft just in front of the runway, which nearly smashed my plane into the ground. And the first flight through a harmless cloud turned Cessna 172 into a piece of ice. I had to decrease the altitude a bit to melt the ice on the wings and glass.
Real weather conditions are downloaded from the servers of the Swiss meteorological service Meteoblue. They can be tracked in advance on the map: clouds, cyclones, and precipitation with wind are immediately visible there. In their interviews, Meteoblue employees noted that they were amazed at the amount of their data that they managed to recreate in the simulator. For years, they saw their labor results only in the form of diagrams and computer animations, and now they can see the weather in 3D.
How to navigate?
If you fly low and slowly, all navigation is about finding visual objects on the ground, checking them against the navigator’s log, and counting the time between checkpoints. However, it is unnecessary to repeat all these procedures every time. You can use modern technologies: plot a route with the on-board computer, turn on the autopilot, and enjoy the scenery.
But the larger your plane, the faster it flies, and the higher you need to climb to fly from point A to point B in the shortest time. Therefore, large airliners fly mainly by instruments. Pilots do not look for landmarks on the ground: they are often simply hidden under a layer of clouds. Instead, navigation points, stations, and routes are used for flight, and each airport has entry and exit procedures.
All this data is stored in a navigation database that comes with the game and updates with data from NAVBLUE, this company makes software for real aviation. When planning a flight, you select the starting and final airports, set the route criteria, departure and approach patterns, and flight altitude according to your aircraft. The route is then automatically downloaded to your on-board computer.
Who should you fly with?
It’s hard to imagine a flight simulator without being online: hovering over the planet alone without any visible goal can quickly get boring. Therefore, MSFS has built-in multiplayer where you can meet up with friends or random players, or even create a separate lobby to fly together.
There are even dedicated networks for virtual pilots. VATSIM and IVAO allow you to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of flight fully: register, install a client, connect, and you can take off. Truth to be told, to join such a community and play by its rules, you will need to independently study everything, learn how to fill out a real flight plan, and learn how to communicate with the dispatcher using unique terminology. It will take a lot of time to figure this out.
Such flights take the simulator to an entirely different level: they force you to study more material about your plane and read about the procedures used in real aviation. And later, there will be an opportunity to try yourself as a dispatcher – and this can drag you into the world of flight simulators for many years.
Should You fly at all?
There is no doubt about whether Microsoft Flight Simulator could adequately continue the famous series: many of the technologies used for the first time in games. From a technological point of view, this is a breakthrough. The greatest strength of the new simulator is its enormous potential for development and change. The in-game world will not remain the same as it was at release but will continuously update thanks to satellite maps and player improvements. Over time, new airplanes and helicopters will begin to appear from modders and third-party developers. Inevitably, new challenges and advanced training will appear; multiplayer air traffic will continue with themed events and live dispatchers online.
It is much more difficult to form an unequivocal opinion about whether MSFS is ultimately needed by someone other than fans of the genre. There is no need to worry about fans: they will probably be stuck in Microsoft Flight Simulator for many years. As for the newcomers? The Asobo team was trying to lower the entry threshold. However, their creation is still a pure flight simulator with all its narrow specifics. To have fun in such a game, you need not only to go through the training mode but also to understand at least some real aviation.
Besides, this genre requires a serious investment of time and money: planes, airports, additional peripherals, all this is not cheap and not available to everyone, and the game itself costs a lot. So if you still are not ready for a new hobby, but are just slightly interested, it is better to wait for discounts or use Xbox Game Pass.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a revolutionary project in the half-forgotten genre of flight simulators: new technological solutions provide an excellent foundation for developing the game in the future. But, despite all the efforts of Asobo, it seems the game doesn’t appeal to regular gamers: the primary player base will still consist of sim-fans. Does this mean that you shouldn’t even try to start flying? Not at all: you just need to be ready to spend time studying the game and reading the documentation. Good luck with learning this challenging gameplay, and hopefully, we meet in the sky!