Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator was worth the wait

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It’s been 14 years since the launch of Flight Simulator X, which long seemed like it would be the final release in the long-running series. When the company announced it would re-launch the franchise just over a year ago, using a new graphics engine and satellite data from Bing Maps, it sure created a lot of hype among both old fans and those who had never played the older version but were drawn to the next-gen graphics the company showed off in its trailer. The good news is, the new Microsoft Flight Simulator was worth the wait and, starting August 18, you’ll be able to see for yourself.

Pricing starts at $59.99 for the standard version of Flight Simulator on both the Microsoft Store and Steam. If you want access to more planes and hand-crafted airports, you will need to buy either the $89.99 deluxe version or, for even more of those, the $119.99 premium version. You can find the details of which airports and planes are included in each version here.

Rest assured, though, especially if this is your first outing in Flight Simulator, with the base version you can still land at the same 36,000 airports as the others, and there are more than enough planes to keep you occupied — you’ll just miss out on a few extras (and if you really want to, you can buy upgrades to the more premium versions later).

The cheapest way to give the game a spin is to subscribe to the Xbox Game Pass for a month, because the standard edition is now part of Microsoft’s subscription program, and if you’re a new subscriber, the first month only costs $1.

I already dove pretty deeply into the beta a few weeks ago, but Microsoft provided me with an early review copy of the final release of the premium version, so it’s worth taking a second look at what you’ll get.

The first thing everybody I showed the new sim to told me was how beautiful it looks. That’s true for the scenery, which includes a mix of cities reconstructed in every detail thanks to the photogrammetry data in Bing Maps and those Microsoft partner Blackshark.ai reconstructed from the 2D maps (for more on how that works, here is our interview with Blackshark). What makes this work is not just the realistic cities and towns, but also that they feel pretty alive, with traffic zipping down highways and local streets and street lights and even the windows of houses lighting up at night.

And then there’s the weather model. Flight Simulator features the prettiest clouds you’ve ever seen in a game. Rain clouds in the distance look just like in real life. Wind acts realistically on your plane. If you fly in winter, snow covers the ground — and you can play around with all of those settings in real time without having to reload the game with every change.

But since Microsoft and Asobo Studios decided to almost build a digital twin of our planet in Flight Simulator — and because the only way to do that is to use machine learning instead of placing every object by hand — you’ll still find plenty of oddness in the world, too. I had hoped that the team would fix more of these between the beta and final release, but I haven’t seen a lot of changes here. That means you’ll find bridges that look more like dams, roads that go under water and a few misplaced buildings and trees — there are so many trees where they don’t belong.

The way I look at this is that Flight Simulator is still a work in progress, and that hasn’t changed in the final release. I’m okay with that because even when there are mistakes, the cities and towns still usually look better than in any paid add-on for other flight simulators. Because a lot of this data is streamed from the Azure cloud and the team will continue to tweak its algorithms, I also expect that we’ll see fewer and fewer of these issues over time. Early on, I got hung up on this, but after a while, I realized that it doesn’t take away from enjoying the game — but it’s something to be aware of.

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