5 October 2006
A wise man once told me, “When a game comes with a free barf bag, you know it’s going to be good.”
Almost any PC gamer knows, the Microsoft Flight Simulator has been one of the best-selling and longest-running franchises in history. Gamers and aviation enthusiasts of all ages have embraced this series as they dogfight over Europe and sail over Iowa cornfields. The latest instalment Flight Simulator X, is the culmination of over 25 years worth of development. The package boasts such upgrades as Living World, Shared Skies, and Missions – but will these technical advancements result in better and more realistic gameplay?
As I anxiously inserted the first DVD into my computer, I was expecting to be skyward bound in a mater of minutes, sadly that didn’t happen. You must have Service Pack 2 installed on your computer before you can even load the game. So almost an hour later, with my computer finally updated, I was ready to install both discs. This is a good time to mention that a game with such stunning graphics, really requires a top-class machine to run it. While Microsoft says the minimum requirements are a 1.0Ghz processor and 1Gb of RAM, my practically new computer was struggling to handle the game in its highest resolution. In fact, Microsoft recommends at least a 3.6Ghz, 2Gb of Ram, and a 512MB video card. So unless you have a decent computer, don’t even bother with this game – it will only lead to frustration. Before you start playing, I highly recommend that you click on the visuals and performance menu to optimize gameplay. Like most games, you have the option to adjust shadow details, background details, etc. So now that the game in correctly installed on your computer lets see what the Flight Simulator X can do.
As a first time player, I was most impressed with the variety of gameplay options. Most people, including myself, will want to start with the Tutorial levels. This gives you an excellent chance to acclimate yourself to handling an airplane. At first the cockpit might look a little overwhelming; all those gages and meters will make your head spin. Do not worry though, the game was very precise and guided you step-by-step through all the controls you will use. You’ll be off the ground in a matter of seconds. The joystick felt very responsive, but not too much. A firm movement to the left and my plane was banking hard, and instantly let up with a quick release. It’s obvious that Microsoft has perfected the handling mechanism over the years. Now would also be a good time to try as a few of the other planes (20 total). Being the geek that I am, I also had great fun brushing past trees and narrowly dodging the roofs of houses. It took me a good two hours before I felt comfortable enough to advance further into the game.
The next gameplay option, which happens to be my favorite, is called Free Flight. As the name implies there are no timers and no goals – just plain fun (no pun intended). You can choose to fly out of over 24,000 real-life airports and just fly wherever you like. It’s a pretty surreal experience to find your local airport and taxi down the runway. Naturally, you’ll want to try some of the most famous airports from around the world as well. I could literally spend hour and hours just gliding around and checking out the scenery. I also found that while I was having all this fun, I was also enhancing my piloting skills. Knowing precisely how to handle the joystick will start to become second nature. I can’t emphasize enough how much more fun the game becomes when you can stop worrying about plummeting to the ground because you forgot which gauges to look at. With my confidence sky high, I finally felt prepared to tackle some real missions.
Unlike the previous version of Flight Simulator this time you get real skill-based Missions, each with their own objectives. Another thing that shows Microsoft listens to what their customers wants is how they organized the missions. You have the option to play them in order of difficulty, or you can just play your favorite over and over. With dozens of different missions, there is something for everyone. Some (called Emergency) literally keep you on the edge of your seat, requiring cat-like reflexes to steer your plane to victory. Others (called Backcountry) are more for fun. What they all have in common, however, is the potential to earn rewards and trophies. You are given a logbook in which you can keep track of your achievements, total flight hours, and even a scrapbook of your favorite snapshots.
The final gameplay option, which I wasn’t able to test, is Shared Skies. Once this feature becomes operational, it promises to take the flight simulator to a brand new level. You’ll have the ability you talk with other players, share an aircraft, and even help train your friends how to fly their own plane.
Microsoft also came out with a deluxe version of Flight Simulator X. It’s essentially the same game, but few a few extra goodies: more planes, more missions, and a Tower Controller option. When using the Tower Controller option, you will be able to contact other planes (real or computer controlled) and help guide them safely through the busy sky lanes. I don’t think watching little blips on a radar screen will be all that fun, but it might be worth checking out.
Aircraft: Airbus A231, Air Creation 582SL Ultralight, Boeing 737-800 NG, Boeing 747-400, Beechcraft Baron 58, Beechcraft King Air 350, Bell 206B helicopter, Bombardier CRJ700, Cessna C172, Cessna Grand Caravan, De Havillard DHC-2 Beaver floatplane, DG 808S competition sailplane, Douglas DC-3, Extra 300 aerobatic plane, Grumman G-21A Goose, Learjet 45, Maule M7-260C Orion, Mooney Bravo, Piper J-3 Cub, & Robinson R22 Beta helicopter
You, your friends, your neighbors, heck even your dog will have the same reaction when they see the screen – WOW. With an updated engine, the graphics are crystal clear, smooth, and polished. The landscapes literally jump off the screen with all the realism you could hope for. While rolling hills and grasslands looks amazing, the game really shines is when you fly passed famous locations. I flew by the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the New York skyline; sometimes you think you’re looking at a photograph. It was impossibly cool to see air traffic, vehicles on busy roads, leisure boats, and cruise ships going about their business while you fly. This extra realism is what Microsoft refers to as the Living World.What also impressed me was that objects held their incredible detail even when you zoom I on them. Other games tend to lose their sharpness the closer you get to things, but not here. Naturally the quality drops off sharply when you play with the visuals on the less an optimum settings.
As is the case with flight simulators, the audio takes a backseat to the graphics. The drone of the propellers sounds realistic, but not oppressive enough to irritate you after a long flight. I’ll admit it was pretty impressive to crank up the subwoofer as you descend into a steep dive. The rumbles of the plane under stress could shake your fillings loose.
Microsoft’s latest effort, Flight Simulator X, will awe simulator fans and real pilots alike. Improved visuals, a wide array of missions, GPS, and real-life airports recreate the experience of flying like no game ever has. Whether you are trying to beat your best time in skill-based tests or just sputtering over your local street, you’ll find yourself smiling from ear to ear. Another area that this game delivers is the replay value. You could use a different airport everyday and it would take over 50 years to see them all! While it does require a little getting used to, in return you’ll get countless hours of fun soaring into the wild blue yonder.