I paused to take in the surroundings as my little yellow bush plane taxied to a stop at Moloka‘i Airport.
Final approach had been beautiful. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as I lined up on the runway, dipped down below the treeline, and flared out for a graceful landing. I’ve been to the real islands of Hawaii before, but I’d never visited this particular one. Now, thanks to Microsoft Flight Simulator, I felt well on my way to learning about the place for the first time.
Then, something strange happened. The virtual air traffic controller started chirping in my ear, guiding in another airplane. Just behind me came a second single-engine airplane with tail number N778DS. It belonged to George’s Aviation Services, a real-world general aviation company with a 20-year history of flying into Moloka‘i, something I found out with a quick Google search.
Thanks to this marvelous simulation, which blends real-world data with video game technology, George and I were actually sharing the same airspace at the same time — he in his real airplane, and me in my virtual one. It’s not a moment that I’ll soon forget.
Microsoft Flight Simulator isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but it is filled with these kinds of magical experiences, when the barriers between the real and the virtual worlds seem to melt away. It’s also one of the most complex and challenging pieces of software that I’ve ever used.
You must at least give it a try, but it’s also important to know what you’re getting into.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is the latest entry in a series that began in 1982. This time around, rather than hand-crafting sections of the world piece by piece, the developers did something truly ambitious: They took 2 petabytes of satellite and photographic information from Bing Maps, used AI to create a three-dimensional map of the entire Earth, and let users pull down portions of that map, as needed, from the cloud.
What’s remarkable is that it actually works.
The terrain simulation is especially convincing at higher altitudes, where a tremendous lighting engine fills in the gaps. I’m even able to move a slider and actually push the sun itself across the sky in a gameplay mode called Active Pause, which leaves your plane perched in midair while you move the camera around. The results are breathtaking and, in many cases, almost indistinguishable from real life. (Just how indistinguishable will depend partly on your gaming PC — while Flight Simulator will run fine at lower resolutions, you’ll need a cutting-edge rig to get the most out of it.)
But the game’s ambition doesn’t stop at pretty pictures. The team at French developer Asobo Studio has forged partnerships with several providers that help to bring real-world data into the virtual space.
One of them is FlightAware, a company that “collects, interprets and distributes real-time and historical flight information” gathered from 28,000 ground stations in 195 countries. It effectively allows you to fly around in Flight Simulator with real-time air traffic flying all around you. You can also turn it off if you’d like a more private experience, but in remote locations like Moloka‘i, it adds a lot of flavor to the simulation. That’s how I found myself sharing a runway with George’s Aviation Service.
Asobo has also partnered with Navblue, which supplies players with real-world navigational data. That means that the radio channels and frequencies needed to get from point A to point B are the same in the game as they are in real life, and will get updated on the same monthly cycle as real-world aviation radio. That turns Flight Simulator into a viable training aid, something that real pilots can use to keep themselves sharp without burning jet fuel.
But the icing on the cake, to me, is the partnership with Meteoblue, which brings real-time weather into Flight Simulator as well. That means I can fly my little bush plane in the same kind of conditions that are over the real island of Moloka‘i right now — clear, sunny skies with unlimited visibility. Or I can spin the globe, zoom in on a tropical storm roiling over a landscape I’ve never even seen before, and see how much trouble I can get myself into.
Microsoft Flight Simulator has always been about recreating the experience of flying a real plane. These kinds of flourishes — situating the real so close to the virtual — are more than just window dressing. I’ll likely never get to land a tiny plane on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific, but on Tuesday I did. And I did it right alongside a plane from a real charter service that’s been doing it for decades.
That has meaning, almost a kind of romance, that goes beyond a simple video game.
Taking in the sights
Flight Simulator isn’t perfect, though. Look closely enough, and the illusion begins to show its edges. I’ve seen cars floating in the air and plunging off the edges of bridge abutments as I flew over roadways. Rivers have a tendency to crawl up the sides of mountain valleys. The images of ghostly ships leer up from the depths of the ocean around port cities — the result of real-world vessels in satellite images trapped below virtual, animated waves.
Some of these oddities are truly difficult to describe. Over the Thames on Monday, I noticed that it was ... lumpy in some places. Weird, watery hills rose hundreds of feet in the air along its banks. Flying low, I was reminded of the city folding over on itself in the movie Inception.
The developers promise to keep working on these landscapes with world updates, adding refinements and details in both free and paid updates for years to come.
There are dozens of little blemishes in most vistas, but even with them, Microsoft Flight Simulator looks incredible. It’s the sheer scale of the world that it creates that overwhelms the eye.
Almost as breathtaking as the landscapes is the level of polish present in Flight Simulator at launch. That extends from the planes themselves to all the little quality-of-life features that make flying them such a joy.
First, there’s the peripheral support. Where previous flight simulators have required hours of arduous setup and tweaking, Flight Simulator is virtually plug-and-play. I tried flying with every single device in the Polygon library — multiple combinations of sticks and throttles from both Logitech and Thrustmaster, as well as newcomer Honeycomb Aeronautical — and everything performed flawlessly. The game recognized most devices straight away (even the notoriously finicky rudder pedals) and automatically mapped all the axes and buttons for me.
Flight Simulator is also fully compatible with TrackIR, a head-tracking peripheral that uses the same kind of infrared technology that powered the motion-tracking Wii Remote. It allows you to look around the cockpit naturally. It’s an expensive piece of kit at $199.99, but its flawless integration turns claustrophobic cockpits into functional spaces, filled with working buttons and switches. It feels like a glimpse of what it will be like to fly in virtual reality, a feature that Microsoft says Flight Simulator will offer this fall.
Flight Simulator scales down to the mouse and keyboard just as well it scales up to high-end peripherals. And that ease of use also extends to traditional gamepads. It was surprisingly satisfying to fly with both a wired Xbox 360 controller and a wireless Xbox One controller. It’s that simplicity that will help open the game up to new audiences — especially when it comes to Xbox One in the near future.
Beyond that, Flight Simulator offers a bevy of helpful assistance features. Menus for navigation and radio communication can be popped out of the game window and moved over to secondary screens. I was able to turn on a glowing blue pathway of arrows to guide me through complex taxiways, and summon floating boxes into the air to usher me down to a safe landing at unfamiliar airports. There’s even an AI co-pilot that can handle chatting with the air traffic controller while I focus on flying the plane.
I especially enjoy Flight Simulator’s time-lapse feature, which compresses hourslong flights into a short series of thrilling moments. If you’ve got 30 minutes, you’ve got time for a cross-country trip from New York to Los Angeles. Alternately, you can spend hours flying through the incredible landscapes with realistic volumetric clouds.
As clever as Microsoft Flight Simulator is with its bells and whistles, it fails at a number of fundamentals. The issues add up to make things considerably more challenging than they otherwise might be, especially for newcomers.
The most glaring deficiency is its flight instruction, which is laughably thin. The developers offer up dozens of airplanes for you to fly, but they were only willing to teach you how to fly one of them. It’s maddening to be put into the cockpit of an expensive, long-range turboprop airplane and have absolutely no idea what anything on the dashboard actually does. Expect the community to swoop in with plenty of YouTube videos and add-on modules to purchase through the in-game Marketplace for the rest.
The game’s frame rate can also be a disappointment. First-time players will want to rush to the most beautiful cities in the world to see them firsthand, but Microsoft Flight Simulator can be extremely sluggish in built-up urban areas. Even with my laptop’s Intel Core i7-8750H, 32 GB of RAM, and an Nvidia RTX 2060 — well above the recommended specifications — it was hard to get more than 20 frames per second in London on high or even medium graphics settings. Like the terrain itself, hopefully that’s something the developers will improve over time.
The multiplayer system is also a bit bare-bones at the moment. Shared cockpits — the ability to fly alongside another player inside the same airplane, sharing the controls and teaching new pilots a thing or two at the same time — are absent at launch. That limits the game’s capacity to be a true teaching tool, and also reduces the appeal of flying some of the larger commercial airliners from Airbus and Boeing. For new players, at least at launch, the very best solution will be having someone there in the real world with you teaching you how to fly.
Just getting into multiplayer at all can be a chore right now. Some people on my friends list showed up as offline even when we were in-game and flying in the same airspace together. I’m chalking that up to launch-day stresses, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
Even with its lackluster multiplayer, its paltry training tools, and its at times quirky ways of reproducing the world around you, Microsoft Flight Simulator is an awe-inspiring piece of software. There have been moments where I’ve become lost in the visuals, lost in the joy of maneuvering through the sky, lost in the minutiae of troubleshooting some odd electrical mishap while starting up a cold airplane. Like the landscapes themselves, the little details all add up to something much larger than the whole.
Flight Simulator is a powerful platform for exploration, the perfect piece of software for a country trapped at home by a lingering global pandemic. It’s a gameplay experience that has so far rewarded my hours and hours of practice, and encouraged me to push toward mastery. Learning each new plane, each new airport, each new type of simulated weather is just as satisfying as learning a new weapon in Dark Souls. There’s also the added benefit that, while I’ll never face down a dragon in real life, someday I might find myself at the controls of an airplane.
Flying a plane is incredibly difficult, something that takes thousands of dollars of investment and hundreds of hours of training. For $59.99 — effectively free, if you already subscribe to Xbox Game Pass on PC — Microsoft Flight Simulator makes getting started as easy as turning on your computer.
Even if you just show up to take in the sights, it’s an experience that is well worth your time. Just turn on the AI pilot, kick back with a glass of Champagne in first class, and enjoy the ride.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is out now on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Microsoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.