Flying above the virtual Space Needle. (Microsoft screenshot)

I spent much of my weekend exploring a virtual version of the world from the sky in Microsoft Flight Simulator, available this week on the Xbox Series X.

The unnumbered 11th entry in Microsoft’s long-running sim series came out last year for PC, and like the last Animal Crossing, hit during a very particular window of time. In a year when travel ranged from unwise to impossible, Flight Simulator gave its audience a high-fidelity way to go anywhere it wanted. It’s the first full refresh for Flight Simulator in 14 years and represents a renaissance for a title that served as an early demonstration of the potential of personal computers.

The new game takes advantage of Bing Maps’ global imagery and the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, along with artificial intelligence tech that enables live traffic and real-time weather.

The Xbox version of the game is the first time that Microsoft has ever ported any version of Flight Simulator to a console. $59.99 gets you the default experience, with 20 planes to fly into and out of 30 airports; the $89.99 deluxe edition adds five more planes and airports. Alternatively, it will go live on the Xbox Game Pass at launch.

It’s worth noting that at time of writing, Flight Simulator is only available for the Series X|S. Xbox One users can’t install it at all, though Microsoft promises they’ll get cloud access to Flight Simulator at some point in the future.

As a console port, Flight Simulator struck me as a mixed bag. The part of the game where you’re actually flying a plane is comfortable and reasonably intuitive on a gamepad, although you’ll want to dial back the sensitivity on the thumbsticks.

(It’s very easy with the default settings to pull the yoke too hard, which has gotten me in some trouble when I’ve tried to land. There was an incident with a snow-covered runway in Wyoming. I don’t want to talk about it.)

More importantly, Flight Simulator 2020 was already notorious for being a difficult-to-navigate stack of nested menus, and being crammed into a console has not made the experience any more user-friendly. Now you’re asked to set up a hundred different keyboard shortcuts without a keyboard, and stuck using a virtual mouse cursor to navigate your cockpit and toolbar. A lot of compromises have been made here to make Flight Simulator a console game, and while it works, everything but actually flying a plane is a rough experience.

“Cue the sun.” (Microsoft screenshot)

It’s easy to see why Flight Simulator is on the Xbox, though. It’s a graphics showcase on par with a Forza game, which displays elegantly rendered real-time versions of the world via Microsoft’s cloud servers. You can fly above a savannah and see individual trees, or pick out single cars in traffic on a highway 2,000 feet below you. It’s the sort of thing you’d pull out to show people why you have a Series X at all.

You can charter a random flight path from one of several dozen major airports, ignore your intended destination, and go check out the country or city of your choice. It’s an infinite real-time sightseeing tour hidden between crunchy layers of super-realistic flight sim.

In fact, it feels like there are two games in here, although both are so loosely defined that “game” feels like the wrong word for them. One is that tour mode, where you’re flying around a constantly-updated satellite map of Earth from half a mile up; the other is the flight simulation, with all the elaborate layers of detail that implies.

I’m not much of a simulator guy. In fact, I couldn’t tell you the last game I played with even simulated flight physics. (It might have been Rebel Galaxy: Outlaw.)

As such, I’m a lot more interested in the world tour aspect of Flight Simulator on Xbox than I am by the realistic piloting. Fortunately, there’s a lot of the game that’s set up to cater to people like me, with a feature that lets me skip forward to various stages of a trip. I can set up a flight from one city to another, then deviate from my flight plan with reckless abandon, and fast-forward to the bit where I’m actually airborne and at cruising altitude.

Messing around above midtown. (Microsoft screenshot)

If you want to experience a long-haul flight under uncompromisingly realistic conditions, including having to occasionally land to refuel, Flight Simulator has you covered. In fact, it’s specifically for you; most of the achievements are geared towards no-frills, no-gimmicks flight, conducted without any training wheels or AI assistance. I can respect it.

Most of the appeal for me, though, is in firing the game up under the least realistic set of rules possible, then buzzing over various cities in search of major landmarks, recognizable buildings (I did find GeekWire’s offices in Seattle), or friends’ houses. The actual “flight sim” parts of Flight Simulator, like the long trips across blank coastlines that are meant to challenge your navigation ability, strike me as too dull to consider.

On the other hand, you can set up aerial sightseeing tours here of any city on Earth, any one of which would probably be illegal or unwise to do in real life, and that’s the kind of interactivity that video games were designed for. That’s the basis on which I’d recommend this port of Microsoft Flight Simulator. As a flight sim, it feels like it was made entirely for people who already like flight sims, and it fits awkwardly at best onto a console, but it’s an open-ended way to virtually explore the world.



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