I’ve only been to San Francisco once. It was almost a decade ago, and I was only there briefly; I flew into the airport there on a trip to Napa Valley. My time there was long enough to pick up a rental car and drive out of the city. Yet as I flew a plane over a fictional version of the city in Microsoft Flight Simulator, I remembered driving over the Golden Gate Bridge on my way out. I made my way to the bridge, memories of a great trip coming back into my head. Did I remember the way? I only drove it once, yet that was a memorable trip, and the path ahead looked recognizable. Following that road, the twists and turns seemed familiar.
I kept flying until Napa Valley came into view. I glided over Napa and then made my way north over Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga. Memories of that trip flooded back to me. Memories that feel all the more vivid and sweet after the last year, stuck at home, barely seeing the world, let alone beautiful places I long to visit. Recognizing specific wineries where my wife and I spent a wonderful afternoon. I was moved in a way I didn’t expect from a flight simulator.
Microsoft Flight Simulator has the power to do that. A stunning recreation of the entire world is here, using real-time data and the power of streaming to provide more detail than you’d expect. In my time with it, I’ve seen my house, my parent’s house, places I grew up. I’ve also visited some of the world’s great cities and landmarks, some of which brought back powerful pangs of nostalgia from past trips, while others made me long to visit for the first time.
While a game is no substitute for a real trip, there’s something powerful about the freedom Flight Simulator provides. That freedom extends to the gameplay. There’s not a lot of direction; this isn’t even necessarily a game in the traditional sense. The Xbox version does offer a few pieces of guidance to get you started, but that’s the extent of it.
Learning The Ropes
Most players should start with the game’s training modes. They’re comprehensive, with Microsoft recently expanding them before the console release. You’ll at least want to go through the basics, which will show you how to take off, land, and control your plane while in the air. This isn’t some arcade game where you can wildly swing through the air. You’ll end up crashing fast if you try to play it like Ace Combat. Controlling even the simplest of these planes requires a light touch and the training helps you find that.
While useful, the training mode has some definite limitations as well. It does a better job of introducing concepts than actually teaching you. Despite nice voice narration and detailed tutorials, these training missions don’t tell you what you’re doing wrong when things don’t go according to plan. This can leave you in a frustrating position of knowing you’re not doing something right but without a clue how to fix it.
A few other modes do a solid job of getting you started once you’re at least mildly comfortable in the air. New Discovery Flights place you over cities and landmarks like New York City, San Francisco, and Mt. Fuji. No take-off required here; just float around interesting places and take them in. It’s a cool option and a great place for players to move after some basic training.
You also have Landing Challenges that push you to land on some of the world’s most dangerous runways. The sort of place even an expert pilot would be nervous about touching down. Small amounts of space, lots of things to navigate around, terrible weather, these are definitely tough and the sort of challenge I wish there were more of in Flight Simulator. It could use a little more sense of direction at times. Bush Trips find a nice balance there as well. They send you on predesigned routes along beautiful areas. Think of them like a guided tour. Only you still have to do the flying.
A Sense Of Freedom
Pretty soon, however, you’ll run out of challenges to do and have to create your own experience. With dozens of planes, a million options, and the entire world before you, there’s no shortage of ways to do so. Even the simplest of planes have a billion controls to master, and if you want to get into flying something like a 747, you’re going to need to take the time to master it.
If you’re not ready to handle that, or you’re concerned about doing it on a controller, Flight Simulator offers a ton of options to set certain features on autopilot and let the computer handle them. You can even set the entire plane on autopilot, turning this into a very pretty screen saver. There have been times where I worked in recent days where I did just that, just letting a plane float over cool terrain and taking it in.
Doing so wouldn’t be as appealing if this weren’t a beautiful game. While not quite on the level of the PC version, Microsoft Flight Simulator has made the transition to Xbox intact. It looks stunning on the Series X, one of the more impressive showcases for the system yet. While it does run at a lower framerate (30fps) on console, performance is consistent, and with this being a slower-paced game, that worked great.
What doesn’t always work great is the interface. While everything works, you’ll navigate large parts of Flight Simulator using a virtual mouse. This is still clearly built on the PC version. I actually saw a Windows-style mouse key pop up briefly in the corner of one of the loading screens before vanishing. This probably was the right move for controlling your plane. There are too many options to try to control simply with the buttons on a controller. It didn’t need to carry over into the menus and interface as well, though. It makes part of what otherwise feels like a premium experience feel like a cheap port.
The team at Asobo Studio did consider console players in a few ways, though. I love how large parts of the data here aren’t required unless you plan to use them. Even the base download here is huge, so helping console players save their limited hard drive space is a nice feature. It can sometimes be a shame to want to fly somewhere and realize you need to download something first, but I think it’s worth it. The game also loads quite fast, considering what needs to be loaded, using the power of the system’s SSD.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a stunning showcase for the Xbox Series X. It makes a stronger case than any other game on the system about what the next generation of gaming can bring. While a little more direction and a better interface would have been nice, my head has been stuck in the clouds ever since my first jaw-dropping flight. I can’t think of a better time for the sort of freedom it provides. If you have an Xbox Series X, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Xbox Series X (Reviewed), Xbox Series S, PC; Publisher: Xbox Game Studios; Developer: Asobo Studio; Players: 1 (up to 50 online); Released: July 27th, 2021; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator.