Whenever I board a passenger jet to go somewhere, my stomach sinks and my brain says, “Well, I guess you’re gonna die now.” But the thought of flying is still magical to me. Whether it’s fighter jets in Ace Combat 7 or TIE Interceptors in Star Wars: Squadrons, the idea of a hunk of metal flying through the air (or space) is an exciting, fantastical idea. Flight is very real, of course, even if a lot of science behind it can initially seem unreal. With the return of Microsoft Flight Simulator, a game that is built to mimic reality as best as current technology will allow it, I can wield that magic for myself, operating and flying a plane with the understanding that the actions I’m performing have a strong basis in real life. It is terrifying. And it is absolutely phenomenal.
Microsoft Flight Simulator’s greatest boon is how easy it is to start experiencing the wonder of flight. It’s a simulator first and foremost, of course–the amount of buttons, knobs, indicators in any one aircraft is staggering. Nearly all of them have a tangible function, too, and it’s easy to see how the game could be used to train actual pilots to operate particular planes or navigate certain routes. But the first thing Flight Simulator throws up at you is a menu to determine your level of assistance–a whole manner of optional modifiers and notifications are there to help you get in the air or guide you on what to do and how to do it. At its most basic level, it’s easy to get into the sky very quickly with minimal input using only a gamepad.
Microsoft Flight Simulator pushes you to learn more, though. The tutorial attempts to teach you how to read the dials and meters in your cockpit, runs you through basic flight theory and etiquette, and guides you on how to navigate your way through the air by yourself. While my experience with arcade flight games led me to choose a middle-ground experience that let me control the plane in a mostly realistic manner, I found myself very eager to learn more. I wanted to stay in the incredibly detailed cockpit view more often in order to try and internalise the meter readings. I wanted to know what all the dials and buttons did and when to use them. At the time of writing, I’m now at the point where I’m operating my plane primarily through manual activation with my mouse and keyboard, using a controller only for its analog stick, and I feel incredibly accomplished.
In my mind, it feels like I’m actually learning how to operate the plane in the exact manner I would in real life–and though that’s something I can’t confirm, it is a fascinating idea that continues to motivate me to try new planes, see what all the buttons do, and try to keep them up in the sky. Microsoft Flight Simulator drives this feeling so much that after hours of virtual flight time, I’m more eager than ever for more tutorials. I want more lessons about the intricacies of flight theory and wish the game had included plane-specific training sessions or airport-specific practice exercises where you can get run-throughs of the quirks of everything.
In fact, once you’re done with training, Microsoft Flight Simulator offers very little in terms of structured activities. There are Landing Challenges, which give you specific conditions to land planes in as best you can in order to slap a high score on a leaderboard. There is also a small selection of Bush Flights–multi-leg journeys through locations that challenge your navigational skills and endurance–which range from seven to nine hours in length, a fact I only realised an hour into one.
But the core of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and the game’s most remarkable feature, is its freeform mode where you pick and customise an aircraft, set your time of day and weather conditions, maybe chart a predetermined route, and then literally fly anywhere you want on a faithful, one-to-one recreation of the planet Earth. The whole Earth.
It is surreal, and it is astonishing. The first real thing I did in Flight Simulator was hop into a 787 Dreamliner at Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney and immediately shat myself looking at the overwhelmingly imposing control panel–the tutorial propeller plane had certainly not prepared me for this. The next real thing I did was take to the air and find the Sydney Opera House. Then, I found my office and performed my commute home, following the roads back to my house and identifying major landmarks along the way. I continued following roads and highways I knew to my parents’ house–in a suburb that I thought I would never, ever see in a video game–and performed a terrible landing at the regional airport near where I grew up. Flight Simulator uses a combination of machine learning, map data, and a technique called photogrammetry to create an accurate depiction of our world. While this first flight of mine was incredibly mundane, the familiarity of the streets and buildings I was seeing as I flew my passenger jet far too close to the ground made it a stupefying experience, demonstrating to me the fact that this simulation was pulling no punches. It’s hard not to be impressed by the feat of it.
The feeling of being able to tame a realistic simulation of a complex flight machine is exciting, and the feeling is magnified by being able to use those actions to fly over and visit what you understand to be authentic recreations of real-world locations from high in the air. Microsoft Flight Simulator is an astounding tool for virtual tourism. I continue to have my breath taken away flying over both familiar locations and places I can now only dream of visiting in real life–Mt. Fuji, Mecca, the North Pole, the Amazon rainforest, and that really good taco stand in Downtown LA. Live weather, time, and air traffic data add an extra layer of simulated realism that can make these trips feel extra special, but playing with the simulation to create your own scenarios (like trying to land a plane in the San Francisco fog) is just as delightful. The endless possibilities for self-guided activities are inspiring.
Charting and flying a real-time route from A to B will regularly result in long stretches where your ability to competently fly a plane won’t be tested at any great length, and in these moments it’s wonderful to just turn on the autopilot and quietly admire the exquisite scenery out the window, thinking about how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things. It’s a unique and sublime experience you can lose yourself again and again. You can also share the experience flying tandem online with friends, which is a very pleasant way to catch up and chat (Where we droppin’? Literally anywhere on Earth.)
Flight Simulator’s recreation of our world isn’t perfect, however. The algorithmic mapping has its fair share of amusing oddities that presented themselves to me right away–while the Sydney Opera House’s unique shape was modelled in-game, the iconic arch of the nearby Sydney Harbour Bridge was rendered as a flat freeway. But when you’re cruising at 30,000 feet in the air, very little of that actually matters. It should be noted, however, that an online marketplace is there to provide options for real-world purchases from official and third-party developers, one of which includes more detailed building models specifically for London. It should also be noted that Flight Simulator features long loading times, even on solid-state hard drives, and the occasional performance drop, even on machines that fly far and above the game’s recommended PC specifications. This is likely due to the density and scope of the simulation, as well as the fact that Flight Simulator constantly downloads data to populate the world (though you can tell it not to, at the expense of environment detail).
It’s a game that gives me anxiety about having to upgrade my computer. But it’s also a game that gives me a great sense of calm as I cruise through clouds far above the Earth. Microsoft Flight Simulator is a tremendous experience that makes you appreciate natural beauty and man-made ingenuity in equal measures. Being encouraged to dive into the rabbit hole of learning how to operate genuine, complex machines to perform amazing feats of science is giddying, as is being able to journey across a realistic, mostly accurate depiction of our entire, beautiful planet. Microsoft Flight Simulator is a spectacular technical achievement and a deeply inspiring experience filled with glorious possibilities.