A long time ago, at a resolution far, far below current ones, I played a video game.
It was called Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0, and your objective was to not crash your crappy Cessna into the blocky untextured blobs that represented the world beneath after (almost always) taking off at Chicago’s Meigs Airfield.
Over the years, the series’ graphics got better and better until you could see scuff marks on your plane’s canopy. One thing didn’t change much, though, whether you were playing MS Flight Sim ‘98, Flight Unlimited or X-Plane - it was still a flight sim, and thus a pretty niche thing to experience. If you weren’t already interested in flying a McDonnell Douglas MD-11 from New York to San Francisco... they weren’t very likely to change your mind on the subject.
Fortunately for simmers, though, the internet and digital distribution models have meant that every single person out there who wants to simulate the precise way in which the switches and displays on a Boeing 707 can find just the addon for what he’s after. As a result, it’s a more viable genre (and indeed franchise) than probably ever before.
Yes, it’s a glorious age to be a sim nerd - so it caused quite a bit of shock when Microsoft announced a while back that they were pulling the plug on the hugely successful and long-running series. Sure, the latest installment - Flight Sim X (or ‘X’ with a line of expletives from many ex-fans) caused a bit of controversy with its bloated engine and sluggish performance - but it hardly seemed like reason to bin the franchise.
So when this announcement was followed up a while later with a title called ‘Microsoft Flight’, people were curious... and a bit worried.
The twist with the just-released Microsoft Flight is this: it’s free.
They’re jumping on the “buy the bits you want” simulator model... and big-time. You can download the core game, two planes, and the big island of Hawaii for absolutely nothing, and you fork out Microsoft points for additional planes and locations to fly around (at the time of writing, the rest of Hawaii and a few more planes are available, with Alaska announced but still unreleased).
So, really, what you get is a simulator with breathtaking graphics, one island and two very light planes. (I’m not kidding about ‘light’, either. One is basically a flying powerboat and the other is a two-seater left over from World War 2.)
“So what!” I can hear most of you saying (I’m schizophrenic for the purposes of this review), “It’s still a flight simulator. Who the heck cares? You fly your plane from one pixelated airstrip to another with nothing to fight!”
This is what Microsoft wanted to ‘fix’ in Flight, and in this reviewer’s opinion, they’ve done a damn fine job. So how’d they fix this? Well, they gamified it.
The world in Flight is not just beautiful, but dotted with glowing packages denoting places of interest. See that weird looking rock formation, that funky hotel or that idillic beach? Fly through the floating package and you’ll get both points for your profile and a little background as to what the place is and why it’s useful.
For someone with an obsessive personality, this is a godsend. It gives you reason to explore far and wide, investigating every nook and cranny in the gorgeously-rendered Na Pali Coastline, fly low over townships and even land your seaplane on a beach and get out for a walk through a small cave system.
I mention this first because it’s the most unique feature, but the biggest drawcard is a series of activities (read as: missions) which slowly get you used to the both the features & locations in the game and just how to actually fly a light plane.
At first, you get a simple “already in the air” mission swerving around floating air targets, but soon you’re doing full flights involving taxiing to runways, checklists (which you can manually execute or simply watch as your automatic co-pilot executes) and flights from strip to strip, over all sorts of places and performing stunts or difficult landings.
That in itself isn’t a hugely new thing. Most sims have had ‘missions’ as well as the obligatory free-mode. These ones feel much more polished, though, and wonderfully nonlinear. The two basic streams in the core game involve either stunt trips in small but fast stunt-planes or taking tourists on scenic flybys of various scenic vistas.
You can attempt any activity at any time, but the game kindly uses your pilot’s ‘level’ and which activities you’ve done before to judge if the activity is ideal for you to fly next (or at all). So, for instance, if you haven’t completed the basic stunt flying activities, it won’t recommend the activity where you enter a stunt competition.
Given these activities in almost every real sense pretty much come down to ‘fly to point A’ or ‘perform this maneuver’, they’ve been given unique flavours by having stories and surprisingly well-scripted and voice-acted chatter both over the radio and from your passenger.
Even from the very start your co-pilot is telling you about how to land at airports in a very simple and clear manner, and your passengers tell you why they’re going where they’re going and why. I found some activities quite engaging as some very believable native Hawaiians told me stories as we flew about where we were or where they came from.
One activity has an extremely talkative photographer telling you his back-story on the islands, and all kinds of technically unrequired but engaging stories about the coffee-table book you’re helping him take photographs for.
These add so much flavour to the activities I actually found myself hugely drawn to each one, almost unable to put the game down. “Just one more flight,” I’d be telling myself when I really knew I should be stopping to make some dinner.
So what about the negative?
Well, it is missing features which hard-core simmers may lack. There are, for now, no heavy aircraft, no helicopters, no working ILS or other navigation systems, and no way to radio towers and perform realistic commercial flights outside of activities.
The ‘core game’ included in the free version of Flight is really just a stunt & tourism experience, and it’s barely scratched the surface of what it can clearly do. Even in the existing places include packages which are clearly impossible to obtain from a plane - hinting at helicopters in future content.
So for now, this won’t appeal to virtual jet plane pilots or those who want to fly in specific places around the world that aren’t Hawaii, but as a core game which will hopefully have many more places, activities and planes added in the future? Well, I’m excited (and addicted).
If you’ve ever wanted to get into a non-combat flight simulator but thought it sounded too difficult or esoteric, Flight is one to try out. After all - the price is right, and flying planes is so much darn fun!