Microsoft Flight Simulator: Landing on console for the first time in 40 years

Posted on July 30, 2021

Microsoft Flight Simulator as a franchise is legendary. Its roots go all the way back to 1977 when Bryce Artwick began development of “Flight Simulator”, and it was distributed for various computers at the time. Then in 1981 Microsoft approached him because they were interested in creating a definitive game that would demonstrate the difference between old computers and new. In 1982 it was launched as Flight Simulator 1.00.

Generations passed but Microsoft Flight Simulator has endured with 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 and so forth, each offering graphical and realism improvements over the last. Over time, the games featured more planes and by 1989 the series even had random weather patterns. The series is an absolute staple and a pillar of PC gaming, one of the first and the best. After all of these decades on PC its finally landing on a console for the first time, and we’ve spent a lot of time over the past several days taking it for a spin on the Xbox Series X.

So, it only took 40+ years for a console to be able to manage Microsoft Flight Simulator, and in some ways it does make sense. Consoles always had limited storage for data and limited buttons on the controller compared to what is available on a keyboard. Not to mention, the game has always felt a little intimidating and complicated if I’m being honest. With the newest version, Microsoft Flight Simulator sought to recreate the entire world with satellite data, AI and all sorts of fancy bells and whistles.

After all of this time, it comes down to this, Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox Series X/S. I should point out that the last Flight Simulator I played was the 1998 version on a PC. Booting up the game for my first time I was met with a beautiful vista and some atmospheric music while it loaded. I have seen some criticism about loading times online but in my view they are unfounded, it takes no longer than, say, Red Dead Redemption 2. Once you make it to the menus it’s super quick from there on out, merely seconds.

The first thing I needed to do was learn to actually play the game, which meant it was tutorial time. Tutorials are always a bit of a bore, like having to do your licenses in Gran Turismo even though you know how to race a car in a game. But with Flight Simulator, I did legitimately need to learn how to fly the planes properly, as they’re a tad more complicated. I was just itching to get into the air and see the world, so it did feel like a bit of a drag but it was definitely necessary. They do take some time and are optional but I would not recommend taking off without doing at least the essentials.

For me, I just wanted to get the taking off and landing down as much as I could, plus some basic controls. This is Microsoft Flight Simulator after all, so even in the console version when you take to the sky by yourself you can press all the buttons and dials in the cockpit like an excited kid in a candy store if you want to, but I would highly recommend not doing that, or at least going through the tutorial a little more than I did.

So, after some tutorials I knew how to taxi to my runway and take off (which is just full throttle then pull up when you are going really fast). I somewhat knew the theory behind landing a plane such as air speed, gradual decline, landing gear down – all common sense really, but at least I knew the buttons by now.

With those out of the way, for my first solo flight I accidentally chose the perfect plane for me, a light aircraft, single engine number that looked fantastic (glass roof so I could see plenty from the cockpit) that had a digital read out plus GPS so none of that “needing to read analogue dials” nonsense for me. So for my first flight, still a little nervous, I decided to go somewhere I know: my hometown New Plymouth in Taranaki, New Zealand.

It was a truly surreal experience, a little unsure of myself still, I flew off toward the city, the old power station chimney in the distance, Mt Taranaki in background, I circled around over where my Mum lives then headed out of the city to Lake Mangamahoe, up the coast past Bell Block and Waitara to Urenui Beach where we had a holiday house, and then back to the Airport for a surprisingly safe landing. After that, I felt the need to go further.

My next trip, I decided I would fly my little plane all the way to Wellington, following the roads I know and flying by sight. This is where the reality of the sim kicked in; probably about half way there, the engine cut out and I had to crash land in a field. I couldn’t figure out why for a little while – I should have had 30% fuel left. Here is a tip – before you take off, get to know your aircraft a little bit. It turns out my chosen craft (and most it appears) have more than one fuel tank. So at some point in your journey, you will need to flip a switch from one tank to another. Maybe I should have done more tutorials after all.

Microsoft Flight Simulator features real time and weather, so, feeling a bit more confident I actually found myself getting up very early on a Sunday just so I could get some air time in over the mid west USA before it turned to night there. Over the course of that day I flew from places I had never heard of to places I have never been. Especially in light aircraft you can fly at about 1000-2000 metres and really take in the sites and changing terrain. I even took a slightly larger turbo prop aircraft for a longer flight over remote Russia. This truly is a spectacular experience and unlike anything else available today.

How they managed to deliver this experience on a console is beyond me to be honest. From what I understand, Microsoft Flight Simulator uses an in-house graphics and physics engine whilst also utilising Microsoft Azure, which is a Microsoft data centre, providing a mind boggling two petabytes of world map data on demand. That explains why when booting up the game I had the option whether to stream data – with the obligatory data usage warning, check your plan data allocation – for the best experience, or whether to just run off the pre loaded scenery. I went for the full chimichanga.

I have noticed from time to time that the Series X is like a beast unleashed when it comes to data usage and bandwidth; it has no respect for other devices in the house. It really goes for the gold medal when it comes to download speed. So maybe that is why when playing this game, even 1000 or less metres from the ground it maintains to be a stunning view. Not all of the planet is just pulled from cloud data though; some parts of the world are hand crafted to give them that extra pizazz and in the menu there is a handy screen to let you know the latest enhanced parts of the world. But I have to say, I flew to some pretty random places and they were all just spectacular.

The world is definitely on point and so is the wide variety of Aircraft, from the lighter planes that I found myself preferring most of the time to Lear Jets, large passenger planes all the way up to some proper Jumbo Jets including the legendary Boeing 747. Which is an experience in itself for sure. I took it out once, but there are so many dials and buttons in the cockpit it is insane and a little overwhelming, but I can imagine satisfying to figure out.

As amazing an achievement the 747 Jumbo Jet is, for me personally the sorts of altitudes that beast likes to cruise at, there really isn’t that much to see out the window. However I can definitely understand the appeal of flying a favourite long haul route or just wanting to see what it would look like from the pilots seat, I can only imagine landing one from that high up in the cockpit would be terrifying.

One may wonder, knowing how complicated Flight Simulator can be, how it would work on a controller instead of a keyboard and how would the general complexity translate to a console? The answer is that it’s a very customisable game with scores of optional assists (some I still have no idea what they actually mean) so you can tailor it to how you want to play. It is set up in a similar way to modern F1 games where it can be as complex as you want it to be or as much of a breeze as you like, with a bit more autopilot, if you will. I would recommend putting your settings in the middle so that it’s still a little exciting and hands-on. For example my landings to this day are a little hit and miss, I think about whether I have enough fuel to make my journey or whether I need to divert to the nearest airport and I love it for that.

Also, the console version features an AI pilot (which I understand is also launching on the PC version at the same time) this means that if you open the menu whilst in flight, the AI pilot will take over until you have finished what you are doing. They won’t do anything crazy; most of the time they will just keep you heading toward your destination. Mind you, you don’t need to open the menu to press buttons on the aircraft dashboard, in fact its best you don’t sometimes, when I had the menu open trying to change fuel tanks – after a crash or two – I realised I was fighting the AI.

Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox is a stunner of a game in my opinion, it is impressive on every front. Its recreation of the world is just so spectacular and the parts of the world I visited that I have been in person are absolutely spot on and just as I remember them. It’s a game that can be as complex as you like but it is equally so friendly to play. You can go anywhere in the world you want to and see things that you have never seen before. It’s the closest we will get to international travel for a little while I reckon. I just adore this game, I really, really, do. I just cannot wait for my next flight.