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How Microsoft Flight Simulator returned to the skies

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How Microsoft Flight Simulator returned to the skies

A spectacular comeback for a Microsoft icon

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Let’s play a quick game of word association: Microsoft — Windows? Excel? Xbox? All solid answers. But for me, for a while in the ‘90s at least, I would have immediately answered “Flight Simulator.” Microsoft Flight Simulator is the very first thing I can remember ever doing on a computer, sat on my granddad’s lap as we soared across blocky landscapes together with a Sidewinder joystick. It is one of Microsoft’s all-time iconic brands.

It’s also a brand that the company has more or less ignored in the past decade-plus. The last release, Flight Simulator X, came out in 2006, and a few years later, its developer, Aces Game Studio, was closed as part of widespread layoffs at Microsoft. A 2012 free-to-play spinoff called Microsoft Flight was less than well-received.

 

In just a few weeks, though, Microsoft is releasing perhaps the biggest upgrade to the series in its 38-year history. The new title, developed by French studio Asobo and simply called Microsoft Flight Simulator, is an ambitious attempt to leverage Microsoft’s Bing Maps data and Azure-powered procedural generation technology to render our planet in unprecedented detail.

 

I’ve been playing a pre-release alpha version for a couple of weeks, and it’s frankly astonishing. This is a full-throttle effort from Microsoft to re-create the natural world and the magic of flight. And while it carries the weight of an iconic series, it feels like it came from nowhere. Why is Microsoft reviving Flight Simulator now?

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“After Flight Simulator X, frankly, I think we just got more and more focused on Xbox and essentially just divested the team at the time,” Microsoft’s head of Flight Simulator, Jorg Neumann, tells me. “Why did we take so long to come back? Honestly, I’ve been at Microsoft for a good long time, and the desire to make another flight sim was truly always there. And people talked about it in the hallways, but it was always, ‘What are we going to add? What do we have to say? You know, can we actually make a meaningful step forward?’”

 

In more recent years, Neumann had been working on projects for HoloLens, Microsoft’s augmented reality headset. A demo called HoloTour, which let players fly around Rome and Machu Picchu, marked the first collaboration with Microsoft’s Bing Maps team. “I remember the first time I put on the headset, the sights and sounds were so real,” Neumann recalls. “I mean, I’ve never been to Peru, but it was real to me. And even then, in early 2016 or something. I just thought to myself, ‘Man, if we could just do this across the entire planet, wouldn’t that be something?’”

 

In 2017, Neumann got in touch with Asobo and asked if they’d be up for giving the project a shot. Using data of Microsoft’s home city of Seattle, which Bing Maps has rendered down to five-centimeter resolution with photogrammetry, Asobo took a few weeks to put together a demo of a Cessna flying downtown. Neumann then showed it to Phil Spencer, a VP at the time who is now the head of Xbox.

 

“He just looked at me and said, ‘Why are you showing me a video of Seattle with a plane?’” Neumann says. “And then the plane turned, and we flew over the Microsoft campus where we were sitting at that exact moment. And he’s like, ‘Is this real time? Is this running?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, it is!’ And we knew then we had something special.”

 

Showing someone a video of a plane flying over a photorealistic Seattle is one thing, but convincing the player that they’re flying the plane themselves is quite another. Despite Asobo never having developed a flight sim before, Neumann thought the team would be a good fit on technical grounds. Asobo had previously shipped Fuel, a 2009 open-world all-terrain racer that used procedural techniques and satellite data to create what was at the time the largest video game environment yet.

 

 

“We spent a long, long time to ingest what it is to be a simmer, what it means to be a simmer, what the simmer wants,” says Asobo co-founder Martial Bossard. “So we embraced what it is to bring a sim to the community, from going to flight school and understanding exactly what it is to be in a plane. You just have to go to a flight club, and you can talk to these kinds of people. They’re so passionate about what they are doing. And you know, we were not beginners. I’ve got the same story as you — I started computing with flight sims.”

 

Neumann is quick to point out that Asobo wasn’t starting from scratch. “I sent them the Flight Simulator X engine,” he laughs. “And the great thing was, they integrated the sim that we had one piece at a time. And pretty much from day one it worked. You know, sometimes you work on a product and for the first two years, nothing works. In this case, we could fly from literally day one and just bring up the different systems, which I think was key.”

 

I will say this about Microsoft Flight Simulator in its current state: it is very much a flight simulator — no more, no less. The focus so far has clearly been on the flight model and the underlying technology, and I think that’s for the best. Flying with a stick feels great, and the visuals are unparalleled. The reactive weather and clouds are a particular highlight. This afternoon, I just flew over my parents’ house in overcast England and felt like I was home. To be able to do that in the same package that lets you look for animals while flying over the African savannah is something special.

 

At this point, the detail of Flight Simulator’s world isn’t quite evenly distributed. Microsoft’s highest-quality data doesn’t cover all of the regions of the world, which means that a lot has to be tweaked manually, and unique objects like landmarks and bridges need to be built by hand because they can’t be generated with AI. I noticed this most when flying around my current home of Tokyo and spotting lots of famous buildings, but heading over to my previous city of Osaka and recognizing almost nothing.

 

“I think we’re going to get there pretty much everywhere,” Neumann says. “Commercial planes don’t fly everywhere, and some areas of the world are considered a little bit more remote. But those are actually the areas I’m going to focus on because you know western Europe and the US is good, right? But we want to focus on other areas because we think people have not been there, aviation hasn’t really gone there. There’s lots of fascinating terrain. And I mean, I think we can really inspire.”

 

“I spend a lot of time in Africa right now. I like flying around because it’s cool. And I just think we’re taking the industry of flight simming forward if we bring those areas up in quality because it’s been neglected. There’s all these third-party companies for decades now, they’ve made tons and tons of things, like a thousand airports or so have been modeled and 1,500 planes. But when you look at the geographical distribution of it, it’s not equal. And I think it should be — like really, this is going to be on my bucket list: ‘Make South America awesome.’ It is going to be on my bucket list.”

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For me, the thought of flying around a beautiful rendition of our planet has such obvious mainstream appeal that I’m a little surprised Microsoft stuck so hard to the stripped-down flight sim template. Despite the Bing tie-in, for example, you’re essentially taking off at one airport and landing at another with little in the way of basic map navigation. I found myself flying with Google Maps open on an iPad whenever I wanted to look for a particular landmark. Bossard says the focus was on producing “a sim for simmers first,” with Bing’s data initially used to help produce flight plans and work on technical airport navigation data, but the studio is looking at integrating it in other layers as well.

 

Despite Microsoft Flight Simulator’s sim-heavy focus, though, it’s inevitable that this version will be checked out by a wide audience of people who have perhaps never tried a flight sim before. It’s launching on the PC version of Xbox Game Pass, for one thing, and there’s even a version for Xbox consoles following later — a first for the franchise. Microsoft also announced today that VR support is coming to the PC version, which could further expand the user base. How does Microsoft plan to introduce Flight Simulator to a new audience?

 

“Carefully,” Neumann says, repeating Bossard’s “sim for simmers” language. “Because if you forget that and you start thinking about larger audiences or gamers and those types of things, you lose focus on what your kernel is. When we talk about what you just said, people that might be new to sims, we call them newcomers, not gamers. Because we specifically left the sim in its state of open sandbox, which is important to simmers. And instead of dumbing anything down, we left the simulation exactly what reality is like and went for assistances and tutorials and those types of things to help newcomers onboard.”

 

I also wonder how Microsoft Flight Simulator will run on Xbox consoles from a technical perspective. I have a pretty good PC and a fast internet connection, which is important for streaming data, but I didn’t always get solid frame rates and visuals when running it at 1440p even on medium settings. On one flight, I took off from JFK and started to fly north from the southern tip of Manhattan. Everything looked great at first, but by the time I got to the Chrysler Building, some skyscrapers hadn’t properly rendered yet and looked like a slushy mess. This is still alpha software, so don’t take this as a review, but if you’re unsure of your PC’s capabilities, it might be a good idea to try out the Game Pass version first.

 

“We basically tried to make this an accessible simulator,” Neumann says. “Some people are speculating that you need some sort of supercomputer to run it. That’s definitely not the case. There’s some pretty modest video cards and PCs. And I think it’s very similar on Xbox where there’s an entire spectrum between Xbox One and Xbox Series X. There’s continued optimization regardless, but Xbox is certainly reinvigorating our optimization efforts, is probably the best way to say it.”

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Microsoft Flight Simulator can’t please everyone. There will undoubtedly be die-hard members of the flight sim community who find that certain things are missing, while others new to the idea might find it overwhelming. But what Microsoft is shipping from day one looks like it will be an incredible technical achievement, one with a central idea so compelling that it should be easy to appreciate the release for what it is.

 

And this is only the first step. “When I pitched this product, the thing that Phil [Spencer] said to me was, ‘Hey, Jorg, if we go in, we’re going to stay in,’” Neumann says. “We know we can’t just go make a product and boogie and do something else. That is not how this works. We’re taking on a responsibility here for a hobby, and people trust us and we know that. It is our oldest franchise in the company. It is older than Windows and Office. It has a special place.”

“I often struggle with finding the right words — I think there is sort of an intrinsic human desire to fly. I don’t know if it’s flight or if it’s the perspective change, I don’t know what it is, but it’s something like that. There’s something really special about seeing initially where you live from a different perspective, and then going other places. It has nothing to do with the simulation, even. I can show it to my daughters. My dad is 91. Almost everybody can relate to it because it’s real. It is so close to feeling real.”

Microsoft Flight Simulator is coming to Windows 10, Steam, and Xbox Game Pass on August 18th.

 

 

How Microsoft Flight Simulator returned to the skies

 

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Karlston

Flight Simulator hands-on: Microsoft looks different 20,000 feet in the air

The news is (mostly) great: VR, Steam, TrackIR, night flying, tons more.

Pilots, we thank you for choosing Ars Technica for your travel needs. Microsoft Flight Simulator's closed beta is about to take off as a prelude to its retail launch in three weeks, so we're here to talk about a few things, preflight style. Consider this your incredibly long safety manual.

 

First, the developers at France's Asobo Studio, who have been building this new game since 2016, have a ton of news about the game. We'll start by summing up upcoming features and third-party marketplace partners, along with the devs' perspective about what they've done since the game entered a closed alpha phase in February.

 

Second, we've been testing MSFS's closed alpha for months, albeit with a ridiculous series of visual watermarks that has stopped us from leaking footage of every beautiful flight across the globe. That alpha build was quite similar to what I tested in August 2019, however, which meant I didn't have much to report until a fuller update that landed roughly two weeks ago.

 

This technically isn't a "review," since the content will see further refinements, fixes, and polishing passes ahead of its August 18 launch for Windows 10 PCs. Indeed, the launch is only the beginning. MSFS has been repeatedly described as a "ten-year" project, the kind whose content will grow and mature every step of the way. When pressed about the retail launch date, MSFS head Jorg Neumann said the following: "It's not a one-and-done product. It's a journey. But it's definitely a complete product."

 

Which is to say: In terms of content, structure, and graphics, the version of MSFS that's about to enter closed beta (and dominate your favorite flight-obsessed YouTube channels for the coming weeks) is pretty much what you can expect to go on sale in a few weeks, which gives us plenty to talk about in this feature-length hands-on.

 

And yet: Microsoft and Asobo have clearly left the development plan wide open, so the game today will likely vary quite a bit from what we might see in six months and beyond.

 

With all of that said: Buckle up, relax, and settle in.

Steam! TrackIR! And one more...

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If you're new to the 2020 version of MSFS, you can catch up on my September 2019 feature about the game. Short version: MSFS lets you realistically fly across our entire planet, complete with every known airport as a destination for takeoffs and landings, as supercharged by a constant connection to roughly 2 petabytes (2,000,000 GB) of Bing map data served on Azure Cloud Services. In a pinch, you can play the game offline and still enjoy a blurry-but-complete Earth in a pinch—or pre-download preferred flying destinations before going offline.

 

The version launching in August will land exclusively on Windows PCs, and while Microsoft has previously announced its intent to bring MSFS to Xbox consoles at a later date, that "later date" still hasn't been firmed up. Neither has any decision about exactly which Xbox consoles will work with the game.

 

Despite that lack of news, we've gotten some intriguing clarifications about PC ecosystem support that fans have been clamoring for:

 

Yes, MSFS will launch on Steam—and it won't face a delay. You can pre-order every version of MSFS on Steam right now, and that version will unlock the same day as its Windows Store version (August 18).

 

Yes, if you pay for Xbox Game Pass, you will be able to buy an upgrade to the Deluxe or Premium versions of MSFS, since you'll already have access to the game's base version (which otherwise retails for $60).

 

Yes, MSFS will support TrackIR's motion-sensing system, and the TrackIR beta implementation went into the game's test version a few days before this article went live. (Previous statements suggested that TrackIR implementation would take longer, so we're happy to see it land in time for the closed beta period.)

VR in MSFS isn’t virtual anymore

Finally, this feature deserves a drum roll... yes, MSFS will support virtual reality headsets. What's more, the VR toggle will be entirely free, with no additional purchase required.

 

We're surprised to see VR support announced ahead of other possible features, particularly Xbox console support, given that MSFS's non-VR version is already so demanding on CPUs and GPUs. (Which I'll get to in a bit.) For now, Asobo has put the game's VR version into a somewhat nebulous "fall 2020" release window, and the news does come with one catch: at launch, this mode will only work with the upcoming HP Reverb G2 system.

 

When pressed, Neumann and the rest of the MSFS team declined to specify exactly what about their VR implementation might require a limit to a single PC-VR system, especially since every headset on the market relies on OpenVR calls for axis orientation. (Indeed, this is exactly why non-Oculus headsets can be tricked into loading Oculus-exclusive software.) The Reverb G2 also happens to borrow the engineering and design of the Valve Index's lens array. Thus, we're hopeful that the game's VR mode removes these device-limiting flags and supports other headsets shortly after its launch.

 

The team also wasn't ready to clarify how hand-tracked controllers might work within the game's VR version. "It's an iterative process," Asobo CCO David Dedeine said. "We're trying to find something universal, that will work no matter what device you're using. We have interesting prototypes using advanced controls, I will say. There are exciting things happening. I am already amazed at what the team has made, in order to improve interactions with the cockpit in VR. It's different than interacting with a mouse. What we've already experienced is brilliant and will inform the current version of the game."

 

If you've seen the game's footage thus far, you may wonder how its detailed visuals and massive vistas will translate to the demands of VR—as in, two high-resolution displays (one for each eye) running at a 90Hz refresh rate. Asobo insists that the VR mode should target something close to the game's "medium" graphics preset, which, in my experience, is quite high-res: sufficiently fluffy clouds, relatively dense landscapes. The team says this graphical fidelity boils down to things like efficient CPU rendering ("the way you compute the right eye, then move much of that to the left eye") and expertise with the low-powered Hololens headset. "Hololens is a mobility device, and [our projects for that] forced us to ultimate optimization," Dedeine said. "So our team is plug-and-play on this subject."

 

Listing image by Microsoft / Asobo

 

You down with AoA?

Atmospheric modeling that you can expect under the hood in <em>MSFS</em>.
Enlarge / Atmospheric modeling that you can expect under the hood in MSFS.

In recapping the project's changes and upgrades compared to 2006's Flight Simulator X, Asobo began by showing a video of a virtual plane gliding through the air, covered in colored lines of various lengths and angles. "In FSX, only one control point per plane was used to control physics," a staff member said. "Stalls were effectively pre-scripted. Now, they're totally dynamic. It's all correct physics, so you can now recover from a stall." The team estimates that each plane has over 1,000 simulated surfaces.

 

We were shown that updated physics model last year, but Asobo has taken feedback from a closed alpha community of roughly 20,000 users and gone into "obsessive overkill mode" with its physics engine. In one example broken down to Ars Technica, Asobo CEO Sebastian Wloch explained that a real-life pilot's tests of the Robin Cap-10 plane exposed issues with the closed alpha's handling of angle of attack (AoA). That's a measurement of how oncoming air meets an airplane's wings. A wing's ability to generate lift changes depending on its AoA at any given moment.

In order to explain an error caused by an edge case, Wloch held his hand up over a webcam as if it were a toy plane while complaining, "I don't have an airplane here!"

 

Wloch then began with an incomplete loop-de-loop motion of his hand to pantomime inverse flight. "When you fly [inverted] and completely stabilize, then turn upright, you basically—they call it going back up the water, like going up a river against a current," he said. But this blew up the existing MSFS physics system. "Flying [inverted] was complicated, and going upward was completely impossible," Wloch said. "The pilot couldn't pull enough lift in [inverse] flight."

 

In debugging this reported issue, the team figured out that the virtual plane was stalling. That didn't happen in 2006's Flight Simulator X, Wloch said, because stalls in that game were calculated as data on a table. The complete surface-based calculation of the new MSFS, on the other hand, miscalculated the results of a negative AoA of 7-8. By fixing this calculation, "We improved the whole way a buffer stalls, even as a positive stall," Wloch said. "You can see the plane shaking and dropping one wing now."

Turn coordinators, slopes, and the ground effect

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Wloch and his Asobo teammates described other edge cases exposed by closed alpha testers, like an issue with how a second turn coordinator in certain aerobatic planes wasn't responding correctly (again, thanks to incorrectly using legacy FSX code). "We're probably going to see other edge cases where [typical pilots] usually aren't going," Wloch said. He admits that his team's focus has been on perfecting the game's simulation systems for takeoffs, landings, and how aircraft respond to atmospheric systems.

 

If that seems like a lot of detail for a potential edge case, then you clearly haven't sunk a lot of time into prior MS Flight Simulator products or competitors like X-Plane. Wloch went on to describe the team's emphasis on other small-but-significant tweaks to the project's physics model, which will arguably be invisible to anybody outside the closed alpha testing phase. The biggest of these feedback-driven changes is the modeling of various surface types and slopes in order to support taxiing, taking off, and landing on any open surface on the planet.

 

This matters not just when you want to land on a giant field (or in a body of water) but when all of that work on the physics system might collide with the earth in unexpected ways. We were shown a video from the closed alpha of a belly landing due to simulated engine failure, where point the pilot in question caught the "ground effect" of aerodynamic pushback in order to lose as much speed as possible, then forced the tail back to begin touching down with that surface first. The plane's body followed, and then the front propeller pushed down onto the ground and stayed in place. Landed! Whew.

Third-party ecosystem, first-class treatment

Getting into the rest of the game's systems makes more sense in the form of impressions, so let's wrap up the "announcements" half of this article with an explanation of the MSFS ecosystem to come. As previously announced, new players can buy one of three versions of the game, and each comes with a certain number of planes to fly and certain premodeled airports. Should you buy the "Standard" $60 SKU, with 20 planes and 30 hand-crafted airports, you can still take off and land from any airport on Earth, and you can also participate in online multiplayer modes with owners of "Deluxe" and "Premium" versions. Owners of pricier versions will just see accurately rendered geometry for additional airports, instead of relying on a mix of hand-crafted and procedural building blocks.

 

Should the Premium $120 SKU's selection of 30 planes and 40 hand-crafted airports not be enough—a fair assumption, considering the healthy add-on ecosystem you'll find attached to most major flight sim products—MSFS has been built to play nicely with third-party add-ons. Asobo and Microsoft had already announced this last year, along with the welcome promise that those developers can either sell their add-ons on their own storefronts or through MSFS's built-in store. (Meaning, you're not necessarily locked into Microsoft's marketplace interface.)

 

We now have a better idea of what content is on the horizon, and from whom, as Asobo confirmed 414 third-party developers are on board to build content. Neumann took the opportunity to shine a spotlight on some premiere partners, who are currently working on the following content.

  • Carenado: "A wide selection of planes" including Mooney 20R Ovation, Piper PA44 Seminole
  • Aerosoft: "20 airports" in MSFS's first year, including "a few for launch," such as Paderborn (EDLP) and Trondheim (ENVA), along with at least one aircraft, the Bombardier CRJ
  • Gaya: "4-6 airports at launch"
  • Orbx: Airports such as Graz (LOWG), Saint Helena (FHSH), Fairways (OG20), Page (WA67)
  • FlyTampa: "17 airports" (no timeframe)
  • PMDG: Boeing 777

Additionally, every copy of the game will ship with a fully fledged SDK that comes in three major parts: aircraft, scenery, and a node-based mission editor. Neumann described each part as "pretty much the tool we use," though we've yet to see how users might manually edit cockpits, navigation systems, or landscapes.

The upcoming road map—or is it a flight map?

MSFS: Flying to the Christ, The Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. This gameplay video emphasizes, among other things, some impressive cockpit reflections. We're hopeful that future "world updates" build other parts of the world up to this level of detail.
 

Asobo confirmed a content plan for the foreseeable future, as well, which consists of free and paid updates. The first update, as stated earlier, is VR support (again, only for the HP Reverb G2 headset at first). Following that will be three "world updates," two "sim updates," and two paid DLC packs.

 

In the case of world updates, "Bing updates often, and in a way that's hard to consume," Neumann said. By that, he means that giant swaths of terrain, and accompanying cities, are getting new, more detailed passes by Microsoft's Bing mapping team on a regular basis, which Asobo has to translate and parse for suitable 3D content in MSFS. As such, each new "area" that gets a big update will receive "2-4 handcrafted airports, depending on the region," aerial image translations, heightfields, and playable experiences like landing challenges. Essentially, the game will package any large dumps of newly modeled content in a guided way.

 

By the way, if you missed it last time around, Asobo has confirmed that any updates to terrain and world modeling, from the massive to the mundane, will be automatically uploaded to MSFS's cloud services. Should you play the game online, it won't be out of the question to return to a previously visited city and see brand-new refinements to things like building models and terrain. In comparison, the announced world updates will likely present a more radically updated section of the Earth.

 

Asobo offered a vague hint of what's to come in sim updates: "large features and improvements, as prioritized by the community." Based on my interviews, I'm partial to believing that this will fill in the gaps discovered by a wider testing pool during August's closed beta. In the case of paid DLC, Asobo's staffers declined to clarify exactly what to expect, but multiple members of the MSFS team mentioned the idea of flying helicopters without any prompting, so... we expect helicopters as a paid add-on. All of these updates will launch in staggered order: world, sim, DLC, world, sim, DLC, and world. With promises of a 10-year plan, we hope to see more free and paid updates once that series of updates concludes.

 

Not ready to conclusively judge performance

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You may notice the above description reads like a relatively uncritical interpretation of Asobo's sales pitch. I don't mean to blindly crow about the newest MSFS as the end-all-and-be-all flight sim, especially in a market with other options. But having casually played with the game's newest version over the span of a few months, I am a huge fan of this realistic, beautiful, feature-filled game... when it's running efficiently.

 

I'll start with the worst news: If you want to get this game up to a 60 fps refresh rate, even at 1080p resolution, you're in for a bumpier ride than the "recommended specs" might suggest. The issue boils down to CPU optimizations that still need ironing out in the game's prerelease period. Most of what you'll find in the "graphics" settings menu relates to GPU-bound toggles, with the exception of a few "density" sliders for elements like clouds and ground terrain.

 

But even turning these settings down sometimes failed to move the needle on my testing rig, an i7-8700K CPU overclocked to 4.9GHz and an overclocked RTX 2080 Ti, both humming on an NVME SSD and 32GB of DDR4-3000 RAM. You'd expect a system like this to clear 60 fps at "low" settings, 1080p resolution, on something like a flight simulator, right? In fact, you might think this was the kind of machine you'd throw at a 4K display?

 

Unfortunately, depending on the part of the world I flew in, I ran into frame rates that could drop into the 10s, sometimes even before my plane took off, even after yanking settings down to sub-1080p resolution and "low" or "lowest" options across the board. (I rebooted my system and disabled all background apps and any monitoring apps like MSI Afterburner or RTSS, to make sure this wasn't the fault of something on my end.) Adjusting those settings from highest to lowest would sometimes only recover 4-5 fps, which doesn't line up with how much fidelity is gained or lost when making those changes.

Xbox Game Studios' current suggestions for PC specs to get the game to a performative state. We will wait until closer to launch to offer our judgment on how accurate these results are, since my pre-release tests ranged from "easy to hit 50-plus frames per second on a variety of PCs" to "buggy, isolated issues that ran in the 12fps range."
Enlarge / Xbox Game Studios' current suggestions for PC specs to get the game to a performative state. We will wait until closer to launch to offer our judgment on how accurate these results are, since my pre-release tests ranged from "easy to hit 50-plus frames per second on a variety of PCs" to "buggy, isolated issues that ran in the 12fps range."

Thus, I'm not in a position to speak to the game's scalability across systems, nor about how settings impact performance. Something still needs optimizing on Asobo's end. Curiously, one of my worst and most consistent framerate chugs came from a prebuilt destination in the Balkans that the game encourages players to visit in one of its menus, and I was able to reproduce the issue on multiple PCs. That frame rate hovered in the 12 fps range while inside of the cockpit, whether on the ground or in the air, and closer to 30 fps (albeit quite unsteady) when the camera floated above the plane. Is the current issue due to the in-plane view? The specific number of trees rendered below? Something about the atmospheric systems being simulated? Asobo reps didn't have a good answer as of press time.

 

[Update, 4:10pm ET: A Microsoft spokesperson forwarded the following statement to Ars Technica: "Development is now heavily focused on making build optimizations for a variety of PC setups within our recommended specs. We anticipate additional performance improvements to be implemented as we arrive to launch on August 18 and beyond."]

Performance aside, what a looker

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I'm glad my primary testing rig has headroom, at least, because other parts of MSFS hum at over 60fps with all settings maxed out at 1440p resolution. And this, my friends, is some otherworldly stuff (though, again, this depends on where in the world you're flying). The article's first page has a showcase gallery full of stunning images, all captured on my testing PC, but the gallery directly above this paragraph is all about comparing "low" to "max" settings so that you can get a sense of how the game will scale on a variety of PCs.

 

In good news, the game's "high" and "ultra" presets don't look too terribly different from each other, and you can see one example of their mostly imperceptible differences in the gallery above. Between those two, the biggest differences are: shadow resolution, which you'll notice most clearly when you're on a long-haul flight and examining your plane's handsomely rendered, dynamically lit interiors; and reflection quality, which will be more evident if you fly over large bodies of water.

Adjust any and all weather systems on the fly (so long as you don't pick the fixed "live weather" setting before taking off). The amount of discrete control you have on cloud systems, in particular, is something else.
 

Either way, you'll still have tons of details to look forward to while playing the game on "high" or "ultra" settings. This all begins with a lighting model that impresses as much at 20,000 feet as it does at 2,000, particularly when clouds or fog enter the frame (which, let's be honest, they traditionally do). MSFS's particle simulation system is simply beyond compare, and though I've complained about the alpha test's efficiency, the clouds may not be the culprit.

 

Some of my flights through massive, lightning-filled storm systems in Texas could pack the sky above with rich, color-overlapping cloud systems and the ground below with trees, houses, and valleys, and the game not only didn't break a sweat, it also delivered a dramatic slice of black-and-gray cloud systems through the sky's blue outskirts. And a prebuilt flight challenge to land at the famed Courchevel Airport in the French Alps is an utter stunner. Your plane carves through low-hanging clouds, glowing pink and orange in the sunset's light, as you descend through a mountainous valley to land in a small town's tiny landing strip. This, and other front-and-center "challenge" regions, are a real showcase for what this engine can do with little more than procedural generation as applied to satellite data.

Night time is the right time

I'm not necessarily surprised by how gorgeous these scenes are, having already checked them out at last year's premiere event. Again, unlike many of you, I've been able to play this game on actual hardware since late 2019. I've seen the ridiculous water modeling in rivers and oceans. I've seen the scenic European hills covered in grass (which, thankfully, Asobo has touched up with shorter, more realistic blades of grass since the closed alpha began). What could wow me at this point?

The answer is MSFS's updated night-flying system, which appears to be quite efficient while also smothering streets and buildings with a convincing spread of lights. Asobo has even gone to the trouble of modeling light warmth based on the area in question, with highways, baseball diamonds, parking lots, and residential areas each glowing a different shade. Should you crave a true "visual flight rules" (VFR) challenge of finding your way solely by the lights below, MSFS currently has every other mainline flight simulator on the market beat.

 

However, certain areas of the world benefit from more clear "authoring" than others, and clicking through the game's menus to load Eastern regions of the world, particularly any randomly chosen airport in a nation like India, will generate a more generic, video game-y landscape—and usually a terribly flat one. Accurate as the topography may be, it's easy to see opportunities for Asobo to deliver richer digital facsimiles of some of these out-of-the-way locations—and you should arguably wait to fly to some nations until the developers get around to building their "world updates," as mentioned earlier.

A flight over Hong Kong, which primarily shows off the game's handsome nighttime light-modeling system, along with more reflections.
 
 

Flight school could use some homework

Thanks to Microsoft's Game Pass, MSFS will arguably have a larger casual install base than any other entry in the series to date—especially while Game Pass for PC still only costs $5/mo. And in good news, the base software package has good ideas to ease confounded new players into the MSFS experience.

 

A cheerful and straightforward "flight school" of eight tutorials greets novices, and it includes a voiced instructor explaining basics like takeoffs, landings, turns, rudder manipulation on the runway, and traffic patterns. These explanations come alongside largely linear flying exercises, and the first five sequences are clear and useful enough, complete with on-screen button prompts that correspond to whatever hardware you have plugged into your computer. (Sometimes, these button prompts do not match up, which requires pausing to hunt for their correct button mapping in the options.)

 

Unfortunately, by the sixth tutorial, the game's helpful prompts and visual indicators disappear, and players are asked to chart a flight path in a plane whose cockpit lacks useful screens and maps. The trouble is, the game does little to teach players about visual flight rules (VFR), which are crucial to navigating the world when a computer system can't help you out. And the tutorial series' pre-scripted dialogue and limited tips can only go so far.

 

It's at this point that I dreamed of connecting my session with a live, experienced pilot (real-life or simulation) who could see what I see, manipulate their own view, and talk me through the subtleties of VFR. "Hey, look over there" is a back-and-forth conversation starter, because I might reply with, "yep, I see it," or, "sorry, which hill do you mean?" But there's no online shared-cockpit functionality in MSFS just yet. This could also be an opportunity to learn how to manipulate my view within a virtual cockpit, which is inherently more narrow and limited than a real-world flight—but MSFS doesn't tutorialize this, either.

Challenges

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First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images.

 

I hope some of those tutorial issues will be touched up before the game leaves beta, but even at this stage, novices can learn enough to competently try a really neat series of built-in follow-up missions. These are divided into two familiar types for flight sim aficionados—"landing challenges" and "bush trips"— and both revolve around landing a plane in a handsomely rendered corner of the real world.

 

Landing challenges fast-forward to the descent portion of your trip, and they come with a scoring system based on how accurately and smoothly you land. These are a great way to get your head around the biggest core principles of MSFS through sheer trial-and-error practice: how time of day, weather, and nearby land masses affect the air, and thus your plane, as you approach a runway, and how pilots must manage their turns and throttle in order to successfully land a realistic aircraft. Plus, Asobo has picked some gorgeous locales for these challenges, so even if it takes a while to get them right, there's something about seeing a small town and its nearby valleys emerge from a low-hanging mist during your descent. It doesn't get old. (Which is good, because my novice self has seen some of these towns 20 or 30 times while trying to perfect my landings.)

 

The bush trips add intense navigation to their challenge, since they ask players to fly over roadless terrain and rely on VFR as a navigation principle. Take off from one runway, then follow a specific series of instructions to find and land at another runway. Pause to refuel, and repeat for quite a few legs. The three included bush trips at launch include a list of VFR-styled descriptions for each step of the way, which take up a massive chunk of screen real estate mid-flight—unless you run a multi-monitor rig, at which point you can turn this (and other HUD elements) into floating Windows 10 windows and move them elsewhere.

 

These are definitely not for untrained pilots. First of all, as I already said, the tutorials currently fail to guide players through VFR, so if you're the kind of gamer who expects shiny, Pilotwings-styled rings to fly through, you may struggle to trace the bush trips' steps. Second of all, the three bush trips available at launch are enormous. The shortest one measures a measly 850 nautical miles, with estimated completion times in the seven-hour range. (At least they're broken up into legs, so you don't have to play this mode wearing an adult diaper.)

 

Both mission types include leaderboards, though these currently don't include filters to narrow down your results compared to friends. I hope that changes soon, because there's no way I'm beating the insane scores from the current worldwide top-five results.

From gamepads to loaded yokes

With Xbox Game Pass's novice-flying subscribers in mind, gamepad support is solid enough, with most of the basics—throttle, rudder, yoke, and brake—getting dedicated buttons, and there's support for button combinations as well. The d-pad fakes like a POV hat switch for quickly glancing around, while the right joystick offers more fine-tuned viewing angles. (If you find this pair of camera controls redundant, consider reassigning functions for one of them.) And rumble support for standard Xbox One controllers is a welcome indicator of plane drift when controlling rudders (using the triggers) for a proper take-off. But you'll still need to be near a keyboard to have fuller control of every possible button during a gamepad-driven flight by default, including that all-important parking brake.

 

For the most part, plugging in additional flight-appropriate controllers works without a hitch. Microsoft provided members of the press a substantial hardware kit: the Honeycomb Alpha Flight Control yoke, the Logitech G PRO Flight Yoke System with throttle quadrant, and the Thrustmaster Pendular Rudder. I tested all of these, along with my existing Thrustmaster T16000M FCS Flight Pack, and found that they all popped up in MSFS with premapped buttons, yokes, and foot controls. But the T16000M isn't designed to replicate a standard airplane's cockpit, so I found myself manually remapping functions for its game-friendly button array, while my Logitech set's throttle quadrant required a single manual reassignment to actually affect my in-game throttle.

 

Most frustrating, really, is the lack of an in-game walk-through for remapping essential buttons and functions. There may very well be an edge case where your favorite classic control system isn't immediately recognized and mapped the way you might like, and in that case, you'll have to go the old-school route of picking through menus, typing in preferred functions, and mapping them one-by-one. That may never be the case, since Windows 10 makes USB peripheral recognition pretty snappy, so I only point this out as a possible edge-case headache.

 

Where Asobo told me to go

A takeoff from Sedona Airport, which particularly shows off how dynamic lighting in the game's "high" and "ultra" presets affects the cockpit in subtle ways.
 

As someone who's only flown one real-life plane and has minimal flight simulator experience, I can only offer so much context about the game's flight modeling. (Longtime Ars Technica readers, you are welcome to plead with our resident pendular rudder savant Lee Hutchinson to ask for his take on MSFS, which I believe would be more appropriate as the game nears its "retail" launch later in August.)

 

Having said that: everything I've sampled thus far has felt legitimate. I'm certainly not the person who will push Asobo's physics-modeling limits by testing precision maneuvers in things like aerobatic planes; if anything, I'm more likely to prove out how accurate the modeling is when I derp my way into a DR400 stall shortly after takeoff. But everything Asobo's team has discussed in terms of progress on the closed alpha, including specific work to fix errors with inaccurate updrafts and downdrafts due to its weather simulation system, bore out in my flights—especially when flying over and through mountain ranges, all smothered in their own intense wind systems.

 

Now, I mostly went where Asobo told me to go. The game's built-in variety of landing challenges and bush trips sent me around the globe through turbulent, beautiful locales—and, as I already pointed out, revealed some serious issues with the engine's CPU-related efficiency, depending on the environment. These trips laser-focused me on the moments most likely to throw up question marks about the modeling of winds, pressure systems, and how to compensate for all of those factors while also managing, say, an asymmetric plane. They weren't flights over ho-hum suburbs or barren grasslands.

 

I'm also lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, a region characterized by mountains, forests, national parks, islands, and the Puget Sound. I say this because I went on a hike during the game's recent preview period, and the first thing I did when I got home was to boot MSFS. "What's that mountain over there?" my mask-wearing friend had asked during the hike. "I dunno," I replied, "but I am totally going to fly to it."

A peek at the peak

I did. It took about 30 minutes, taking off from Snohomish, Washington's Paine Field, and the actual flight up and over said mountain was a particularly bumpy one. (I, er, crashed my plane into it.) Still, I loved the fact that a live weather system fed into my flight, guaranteeing the exact clear sky and sun positioning I recalled during my hike's peek at the peak. I loved that I could occasionally tap the "autopilot" button and lap up the incredible scenery with my mouse in free-aim mode, owing to the Seattle area's carefully mapped environs (call it a Bing bias, I suppose).

 

And I like that there are enough other similarly striking locales in MSFS to replicate this experience for a lot of pilots around the world—though clearly not all of them, not while Asobo is still building out the promise of a full planet to fly over. MSFS won't be everyone's cup of high-flying tea, but it's absolutely the best thing to ever happen to Microsoft's Bing and Azure divisions, in terms of a PR coup. This is a gorgeous proof-of-concept of how an authentic physics system, a top-to-bottom feed of weather and navigation data, and a mother lode of global imaging and mapping can deliver an exhilarating, one-of-a-kind experience—especially while many of us are stuck at home, wishing we could get away.

 

I really thought Google would beat everyone to the punch with a product of this scale. Instead, it's Microsoft—and they did it while respecting consumer-friendly options like an open third-party marketplace, easy access via Xbox Game Pass, Steam as an immediate option, and simple-to-toggle bandwidth limits. I don't fully recognize this Microsoft, but up here, 20,000 feet above the world, I like what I see.

Bandwidth?

Should you play MSFS online, the game will download a stream of data from Microsoft Azure to fill out any new regions you explore. As a hint of what you might expect, my primary testing rig streamed less than 10GB from Azure's servers in a 10-day span of testing the game's latest build, and this was spent pushing the game's limits by hopping to a variety of locales.

 

You can also assign a hard data cap within the game's menus. Once you reach your cap, the game will work solely with whatever cloud-based data it has already downloaded and otherwise procedurally generate any new places you fly until the start of a new month (or your preferred timing threshold). This is also how the game works if you play it wholly offline.

 

 

Flight Simulator hands-on: Microsoft looks different 20,000 feet in the air

 

(To view the article's extensive image galleries, please visit the above link)

 

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