Review: Microsoft Flight Simulator sets a mind-blowing new high bar

Virtually taking to the skies has never felt as great as it does in the latest Microsoft Flight Simulator, which was released this week.

It's an incredible piece of software that takes simulators to new heights and in a lot of ways, does the same for games in general.

If you're an aviation enthusiast or plane geek, this will be an intense form of catnip for you. The painstaking digital recreations of aircraft and airports have been achieved through official licensing agreements, laser scans, manufacturing documents and of course, cutting edge 4K computer graphics technology.

Years of development and what one can safely assume was an enormous production budget from Microsoft have resulted in an extraordinary level of detail.

The planes depicted sound realistic from every angle and fly about in weather and environmental systems that are crazily precise, emulating the actual real-world conditions in real-time, if you choose it to.

For a lot of people, the real magic is in the exploration, however. You may remember that initial feeling of mouth-open awe that hit the first time you used Google Earth - this is similar, but obviously a much more hands-on experience.

Developer Asobo Studio has used Bing Maps and Microsoft's Azure technology to simulate the entire surface of the planet.

On my first session in this game, I flew over my own house in Auckland, the MediaWorks TV building in Eden Terrace and the homes of every other member in my immediate family.

Up close, none of those buildings looked much like they actually look in real-life, but they were all in the exact right location and roughly the same shape and size.

Here's a couple of screenshots that show both how amazing flying around your own city can be - and the limitations of it:

Auckland from the Manukau Harbour in a Cessna in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.
Auckland from the Manukau Harbour. Photo credit: Newshub.
Flying over central Auckland in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.
Flying over central Auckland. Photo credit: Newshub.

I took off in a Cessna from Auckland International Airport and flew toward the CBD, taking the first screenshot while over the Manukau Harbour near Onehunga and Hillsborough. In the second image the intersection of K Rd and Symonds St is right under the aircraft, giving a much closer view of the CBD.

As you can see, the Sky Tower and Harbour Bridge are both there - but they don't look right. But a lot of the city does from the right altitude, as does everywhere I've flown to - and some look considerably better, too.

Hitting the brilliant 'active pause' button means you freeze time wherever you are and can look in any direction to take screenshots, and play God by changing the weather, time of day and whatever you like.

I've now taken off or landed at a bunch of the airports I've transited through in real life like Heathrow, Sydney, Hamad, LAX, Haneda and Narita, Queenstown. I've also flown through the Grand Canyon and around the Pyramids of Giza.

You can seriously go ANYWHERE in the world. It's amazing.

For some that may be a novelty that'll wear off - for others, it'll be a limitless source of joy. I also imagine Microsoft will continuously improve upon the graphics, too and fully expect the Sky Tower, Harbour Bridge and maybe even my house look a lot better soon.

Hopefully, Auckland will eventually look as good as London does with a paid upgrade from Orbx, which gives it this level of detail:

Flying over the Isle of Dogs with Orbx on Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.
Flying over central London. Photo credit: Eurogamer

Experienced flight simulator fans will jump into this fairly easily and enjoy the impressively customisable array of assistances that can be turned on or off, at any given moment, to help with unfamiliar aircraft.

For someone who hasn't earned their wings as a virtual pilot, there are some basic lessons - eight, to be precise. They cover the basics, but occasionally don't quite explain absolutely everything quite how I hoped they would.

And there's a lot more to learn than just the basics.

While I did find shortcomings with the lessons and training, they're either not a major issue or soon won't be. The cockpits are so realistic you can download a pdf manual of the real-world equipment to suss out what you don't know, where available.

But also, very soon YouTube is going to have many, many training videos from random helpful people. There's already a great number of entertaining and informative videos of people using this thing when it was out in limited release, but now it's released for the public, their number is going to exponentially multiply.

How the community enhances Microsoft Flight Simulator is going to be really exciting to watch and be a part of.

Other people can play a pretty big part within the game, too. If you choose the option, the world you're playing in will feature all the other people playing too - you may have to wait on the tarmac for someone to take off before you can.

But you can fairly easily join up with a specific few buddies and fly around together. Me and a friend have both taken off from Queenstown Airport together a few times now and it's quite a buzz to see them sharing your airspace and maneuvering around each other.

Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot.
There's an immense amount of cockpit detail. Photo credit: Asobo Studio

However, at our amateur level of aircraft control, it's thus far been quite difficult to stay near each other while airborne. This is something I want to work toward being able to do a lot and actually a great incentive to level up my playing ability.

Exploring the world alone is fun enough, but doing it with mates in this just has so much potential.

Eventually, pulling off fancy synchronized tricks will be great too. 

As incredible as the game is, it will be perfected further not only by the community but also Asobo Studio and Microsoft, who will continue to make upgrades alongside third-parties like Orbx.

A lot of them you'll have to pay extra for.

I have a fairly grunty computer and once I've been flying for a bit, everything runs nice and smoothly, even outputting at 4K on ultra settings. But to get there, there are some very long load times to endure and often framerate dropping during take-off or early in the training session.

It's also one of the most sizeable things I've ever installed, with an initial 150GB and a rolling cache that helped push my Microsoft Flight Simulator folder up to 328GB in just a few days.

The Azure cloud is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but it's still a pretty demanding piece of software and I wouldn't want to see how it runs on an older machine.

To get the full benefits, on top of buying the game you'll want to invest in some peripherals like a yoke, throttle quadrant and pendular rudder too. That quickly gets expensive.

But it's thankfully very cheap to dip your toe in and see if you want to take the pricey plunge thanks to it being made available immediately via Xbox Game Pass. Using that, you can download the game for the price of a monthly subscription, which is currently NZ$7.

Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot.
Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot. Photo credit: Asobo Studio

Be warned though, if you fall in love with this like a lot of people are going to, it could become a slippery slope that sees you ultimately a part of the Home Cockpit or Simpit subreddits.

Even if you don't drop thousands of dollars on it like those people do, if your passion grows you could easily drop thousands of hours into it.

Loads of people are going to.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is a truly spectacular game and a monumental achievement that Asobo Studio should be proud of.

It would've been amazing no matter when it was released, but coming amid a year that has most of us barred from international travel makes it feel all the more special to spread one's wings and fly wherever they like.

Five stars.


Microsoft/Xbox provided a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator to Newshub for review.