Review Tomorrow the eagerly awaited 2020 incarnation of Microsoft Flight Simulator lands. The Register had a play with the release version and was impressed with this first draft.
Developed from the ground up by French outfit Asobo Studio, Flight Simulator is one of the most hotly anticipated titles in the genre for years – though admittedly you can count the big hitters on one hand.
Through a combination of Bing Maps image and topographical data, Azure AI and external partner Blackshark.ai, Asobo set itself the task of reproducing the entire world in believable detail. Not just through generic scenery objects either – but at the level of individual houses, streets and trees.
Using the inbuilt 'drone mode' camera you can go right down to street level and look at a closeup of your house
Microsoft gave us access to a review copy of the game so we took it for a spin – literally and figuratively – and while we're not wholly blown away, this is a hugely impressive piece of work that will satisfy die-hard flight simmers and curious gamers alike.
If you're an old hand at flight sims, don't be tempted to leap straight into free flight. It's worth the five to 10 minutes of going through the first tutorial mission to familiarise yourself with the user interface. Fans of previous franchise Flight Simulator X (FSX) will find some but not all key bindings have been recycled, while the camera system has undergone a total overhaul.
Now the user interface is split between a series of menus called up when you move the mouse to the 12 o'clock position on screen, opening a drop-down series of buttons that bring up menus when clicked: camera, air traffic control, weather and so on.
Aerobatics and flight modelling
The flight model seems pretty good as far as light aircraft go: the way the in-game wind and weather interacts with the aeroplanes is phenomenal. I took an Extra 300 a couple of hundred feet over the top of the Rock of Gibraltar – notorious for its strong, unpredictable winds – and the little machine was flung about like a leaf. Asobo's promises are true: the world breathes on you.
Our Extra 300, mere moments before being flung around like a leaf in a gale thanks to the Rock of Gibraltar's famous rotors
Some things feel a bit overdone, however. Rudder effects in all aircraft seem to require a tiny movement for a huge impact and even tweaking the control sensitivity only partially mitigated this. While exploring the Extra's flight envelope, the rudder seemed to have inordinate control authority even coming off the top of a stall turn; centralising the pedals as the nose pointed groundwards made the whole thing wobble like a child's Airfix toy.
In that regard, the model reminded me of how Flight Simulator X reacted to rudder input so it's not that this is a cock-up; rather, it represents the current state of the art in flight simulation engine technology and modelling. Stall turns were quite doable, though the entry needed to be disciplined to prevent them turning into a messy wingover. Is that realistic? On the basis that I wasn't flying a Grob Tutor, the only aircraft I've done aerobatics in, I couldn't say.
Convincing the light aircraft to spin took some effort, which matches what I've been told about efforts to get docile machines such as the Cessna 152 Aerobat to depart from controlled flight. HASELL checks completed, I throttled back and pulled the nose up. When the stall warning horn blared, I gave one rudder pedal a bit of welly… and she dropped a wing, turned a bit, and then in a half-hearted "Do you really want to do this?" sort of way, rotated in a rough imitation of a spin that ended as soon as I took my foot off the rudder.
After a few more tries I concluded the C152 simply didn't like to be spun – either that or my aerobatic abilities are severely lacking. But the depiction seemed right: there was no evidence of FSX's "flying on rails" feeling where, once trimmed, the aeroplane was perfectly stable. All the aeroplanes I tested hunted slightly even when flown straight and level, from light GA singles to the Boeing 747 and 787. Flying over bodies of water or near hills at low level caused updrafts and downsurges, lifting and dropping the aircraft.
The scenery is really very good when you keep in mind that it is Bing Maps satellite imagery with procedurally generated 3D buildings and shrubs, served over Azure, layered on top. While building placement and approximate size seems convincing enough, flying over areas you're familiar with will provoke nitpicking.
Buckingham Palace, for example, seemed to have become a council housing estate complete with tent camp occupying the Queen Victoria Memorial Fountain on the Mall, in front of the monarch's London residence.
Buckingham Palace appeared to be a block of luxury flats, while tents covered the Queen Victoria Memorial Fountain
St Paul's Cathedral was simply absent when your correspondent flew over it, with a forlorn Bing Maps 2D image occupying the place of Christopher Wren's architectural masterpiece. Strangely enough, the modern shopping centre opposite the cathedral was (passably) rendered in 3D.
Yet to dwell on these things is to overlook what Asobo Studios has achieved here. I was able to fly over London, turn southwest, pick up the M25, follow it to junction 2 of the M3, turn down that and see the civilian and military rifle range complexes at Bisley and Pirbright (danger area EG D133, under the far end of the Farnborough runway 24 ILS, if you're a pilot or have the charts handy).
You simply cannot do this in any other consumer desktop flight simulator without spending inordinate amounts of time and effort downloading and installing satellite imagery, a task that requires above-average knowledge and patience. Receiving this level of fidelity out of the box is an incredible feat and Blackshark.ai's addition of buildings and flora really brings the imagery to life.
Proving the point, during multiplayer testing we took a couple of Boeing 747s out of Cairo International down to Sharm El-Sheikh (as you do). Levelling off at about 28,000ft, the rocky, inhospitable deserts surrounding the Nile Delta were depicted very convincingly. The pyramids were in their rightful places too, and the "points of interest" highlighted on the map assured us that the Sphinx and other wonders of the ancient world were waiting for us to rubberneck as we passed them by.
Talking of multiplayer, our live test of it went well. However, the more anarchistic among Flight Simulator's new players will be disappointed to learn that they can't kamikaze into each other:
"I like that it's an Xbox release too," commented Richard Currie, curator of The Register's monthly gaming column, whom I roped in for multiplayer testing. He used an Xbox controller on PC in lieu of my joystick/rudder pedals/throttle setup. "Console players won't have much difficulty getting into it as the game caters to noobs and old hands equally. The controller is viable to an extent, but I worry about the finer instruments in the cockpit view that might be fiddly to tweak without access to keyboard and mouse."
Flying around Barcelona in a Cirrus SR22 was a bit underwhelming, though. The Spanish city's iconic TV tower had been rendered by the AI building generator as a giant church steeple, looming menacingly over the city from the top of the mountain range to its northwest, while the dockyard cranes had all become churches of their own – surrounded by inexplicable 1,000ft high structures.
Oddly, cruise ships had been picked up and rendered by the AI building detector too, even though there are separate in-game models for cruise ships.
The main reason all these little jarring details jump out at you when playing Flight Simulator is because Asobo Studios has done an absolutely magnificent job otherwise of rendering the world in a reasonably convincing way. Your eye is drawn to the bloopers precisely because the rest of this simulated world is so convincing.
Why does it always rain on me? Change the setting
One of the stand-out parts of Flight Simulator is the weather system. Asobo's depiction allows on-the-fly changing of settings. A number of presets let you experience everything from a howling winter gale to rainstorms through to balmy sunshine. Advanced users can set wind strength, temperature, cloud cover height, precipitation intensity and more besides.
Real-world live weather data seemed a bit patchy during our testing even in areas of Western Europe where you'd expect data input to be extensive and available. Too often, during testing over the past few days, the altimeter defaulted to 29.92 inHg with an outside temperature of 20°C (68°F) and a cloudless sky, even when real-world METARs said something different was going on. Perhaps this was an internet connection thing; or perhaps the much-vaunted Azure backhaul was struggling a bit with the load from beta testers and reviewers.
Rounding out and flaring
Does all this mean that Flight Simulator is one to shrug at? Not at all. The beauty of this new simulation is the scenery's procedurally generated fidelity to real life and the flight dynamics engine, which seems to be one of the better consumer-grade representations of real-life aviation physics.
Yes, there are rough edges: some of the AI-generated buildings aren't quite right; sometimes the live weather data downloads don't work; and the game is notably light on documentation for its multi-layered features. Perhaps Microsoft plans to release that along with the public debut tomorrow. Some areas of the world are much better depicted than others, including major American and Chinese cities.
A "Developer Mode" is included, at least in the Premium Deluxe version made available to El Reg. There was no immediately obvious documentation but file types supported for import included .bgl (used in previous editions for scenery depiction) and a handful of less familiar ones. Despite the temptation we didn't test it with an FSX-compatible scenery file lest it broke the simulator.
A spot of low-level Visual Flight Rules over Bedfordshire – note the instruments' reflection on the cockpit canopy
As far as performance goes the game seemed reasonably smooth (we weren't monitoring framerates; perception is what counts, not digits) on our i7-10700K test rig running a Nvidia 2070 Super graphics card and with 16GB of RAM, though whenever we glanced at the system dashboard MSFS2020 seemed to be most intensive on GPU and RAM in that order. The only visible stutters came while using live weather over the UK last Saturday when thunderstorms and reduced visibility/mist/fog were well in evidence. Turning the graphics preset down from "ultra" to "high-end" solved this.
Down, locked, three greens
Microsoft and Asobo have been quite open that this is a "platform" rather than a done-and-dusted game. "We began work on an SDK which will be available to everyone for free at launch. We worked directly with hundreds of third-party developers to ensure the SDK had the features and tools they need to continue to deliver amazing addons, and we will continue this partnership well into the future," said Asobo in a briefing note for reviewers.
Gone are the days of flying over landclass scenery tiles that depict generic repeating images of fields or suburbs or tundra. Gone are the days of trying to follow roads and railway lines incongruously crayoned over the landscape. Gone too are the days of spending, well, days downloading custom satellite imagery scenery tiles – and of propping up storage vendors with the sheer number of hard drives or SSDs needed to store all these.
It's an absolutely brilliant first draft – and with Microsoft's promises of a 10-year lifespan, Flight Simulator should continue to improve. To the skies! ®