FINALLY, I can talk about Flight. I’ve been in the beta for the last few months, and I think it’s time to disclose a few home truths about the beta and the community.
EDIT: Coming from AVSIM? Read this.
1: Not all beta testers were created equal. Those who participated the most (read: were fortunate enough to stumble onto bugs and vocally ranted on the forums) got more content. Many of us got the base game and nothing else. I never got to see anything except the big island, the Steerman, and the Icon A5.
2: Most of what the non-beta testers said was rubbish and entirely misinformed.
3: The AVSIM community deserves special recognition for being the most childish out of the lot. Given that the Flight Sim demographic is usually in the “older” segment of society, I was incredibly surprised to see so many people carrying on like a pack of entitled children. In most cases I hate that term “entitlement” because it’s often a substitute for “I don’t like your argument so I’m going to declare it invalid by way of entitlement.” In this case though it was entirely warranted; people were screaming like Microsoft were selling out to the general public, that it was going to be a kid’s game, that because it didn’t implement big iron and VATSIM bullshit coming out the arse that it was a complete failure and so on. Personally I’m glad Microsoft stuck it to that community. There’s no pleasing them.
Anyway, Microsoft Flight actually stands separate from the Flight Simulator range for a number of reasons. Firstly the aim is skewed more towards the general public than the hardcore simmers. It has a more limited scope which does allow them to do a few interesting things, which we’ll get to. The base product is entirely free. You get access to the Big Island of Hawaii, the Icon A5 light aircraft, and the Boeing Steerman taildragger. Both are propeller aircraft. This is more or less just a demo of the game (though it’s not time limited and there’s a fair bit of scope of play here) with the real meat coming from the DLC, namely opening up the rest of the Hawaiin island chain and adding in another aircraft, the RV-6 with a more detailed cockpit. The other two aircraft is the Maule M7, another prop aircraft which also appeared in Flight Sim X, and the P-51 Mustang, which doesn’t have a cockpit and is flown from a chase cam. My biggest complaint is the price; to get the most out of the game right now you’d need the Hawaii Pack which is about $29.95 AUD, and the Maule which is $19.95. That’s an awful lot of money straight out the gate. The Mustang’s lack of virtual cockpit represents a division that Microsoft talked about during the beta; proper virtual cockpits for the simmers, and basic cheaper aircraft for those who weren’t fussed. I’d question why anybody would want the latter, because it’s practically useless since this isn’t, despite what people tell you, an arcade game.
But as anybody who plays flight sim games will tell you, addons tend to be incredibly expensive. A full scenery pack for Flight Simulator X for a single country can easily run to $100. The OrbX pack for Australia costs around $80 normally, which is pretty much the cost of a new game, and even then it isn’t 100% realistic (but far superior to the defaults). It’s worth recognising then that this isn’t a simple autogen guess-work job here; the scenery is far superior to what you’ve seen in the default FSX world. It’s a lot more realistic in terms of building placement and landscaping. Taken in that context the cost makes more sense (especially since with the Hawaii Adventure Pack you get the RV6 too, which on its own would cost a fair bit). But for people unfamiliar with the flight sim world (which this is clearly aimed at) I can’t help but think it’s a bit expensive.
Alright, with that said, let’s talk about what Flight does and who it is aimed it. There’s NO SECRET here that Flight caters primarily to people who haven’t played a flight sim before, or who play it casually. I will make this very clear: it does not cater, nor will it likely ever cater, to the people who build their own 747 cockpit out of plywood with 4 monitors and crap like that. It does NOT, however, amount to an arcade game where there’s no flight model. The default flight model with all the “assits” turned on is actually far more unforgiving than the “easy” flight model in Flight Simulator X. Turn off the assists, and the commentary coming from real-world pilots in the beta suggests that the aircraft actually fly closer to reality than the base content ever did in FSX. I’ve seen particularly good comments about the RV6 from pilots who actually own and fly one. Yes, there are some ridiculous missions where you collect sparkling rings or fly through a particular course. FSX had those too. You do not need to play them. I SAY AGAIN: YOU DO NOT NEED TO PLAY THEM. Some people on AVSIM act like their simple inclusion is tantamount to “dumbing down” the game. I don’t even know how that argument has any logic behind it, but I’ll say it again: they are entirely optional.
There are two missions which are compulsory, and both are very short: they’re simple introductary missions where it goes over the controls with the Icon A5, and walks you through a simple flight and water landing. After that it dumps you to the map screen where you can ignore everything and go fly. Alternatively you can work through the missions and take on generated jobs if you want more structure to your flight. More on that in a second. First, let’s talk about the interface.
The interface is a mixed bag in some respects. Yes, there is a bar up the top that by default shows you the heading, airspeed, throttle setting, wind speed and direction, altitude and fuel quantity. Yes, you can turn it off if you want to rely entirely on cockpit instruments, which do function as you’d expect (with some exceptions which we’ll get to in a second). The game can be played with a mouse, keyboard, 360 controller, or the more serious joystick and throttle setup. Support for TrackIR is curiously absent despite it being a much asked-for feature in the beta. As a slight compromise camera support is much, much better; the camera doesn’t snap back to the centre of the view but slews around nicely, and the mouse can now also be used to move the viewpoint up and down or left and right as you need to by holding the middle mouse button. That sure helps a lot with looking for particular cockpit instruments or looking over the nose of a taildragger. The mouse can also be used to look around like normal and zoom in, as well as manipulating things in the cockpit. It’s a big improvement on the virtual cockpit in FSX. There’s also a much better checklist option which not only walks you through the procedure but also highlights different control elements. It’s not quite as comprehensive as the checklists in FSX but they are better for learning basic procedural elements, since they point out cockpit points. Since having this I’ve actually started to learn more about engine management, whereas in FSX being a casual simmer it wasn’t something I was too concerned about learning.
The basics of flight are there. It’s not an arcade HAWX experience like some people are complaining (did any of them actually play HAWX, and did they actually try out Flight?), particularly when the assists are turned off. But what about the cockpit instruments? You can fly entirely on instruments without referring to that bar at the top, it isn’t a problem. VOR, NDB and ILS stations are in the game, you can set the radio to lock onto them, and there are cockpit instruments that fuction the same as in FSX. Curiously, there aren’t any tutorial missions which cover the use of the radios or the nav instruments. The map can be set to display these elements though, and you can use them for navigation as you would in FSX. It seems like it’s half-finished though… like it’s there, but the markers aren’t set to visible by default, and there’s no route planning opions. I can appreciate that this part of Flight is mostly for visual flight rules but they are functioning so I don’t know why they aren’t more prominent. Maybe Microsoft have bigger plans for them. Only the RV6 and the Maule aircraft, to my knowledge, support instrument flight rules, to my knowledge at least (I didn’t play with the A5’s GPS display too much).
There are two really, really notable absences though. The first is ATC, and along with it AI aircraft. Neither were in the beta, but there were frequency lists for each airport, outlining frequencies for approach, ATIS and stuff like that. These frequencies are still there, and airports are marked as controlled and uncontrolled. You can set your communication radios to these frequencies, but there’s nothing to hear. There aren’t aircraft in the sky to bother you. This is disappointing, but I’m almost certain that it’s going to be a future feature, probably as DLC. The fact that the frequencies are all there and that the radios can be tuned suggests that it is an intended feature at some point… but it isn’t here yet. All of the information for the airports is apparently there, but there’s nobody to talk to.
As with FSX, there are missions to try out. What missions are available depends on what aircraft and scenery you have. To get the most out of it you’ll need the Hawaii Adventure Pack and the Maule. There are some scripted missions which are more or less the same as the ones in FSX, as well as some other generated missions from airports. These missions might have you flying cargo or passengers (or something) from one location to another in various aircraft. Successfully completing missions earns experience points, which in turn unlocks other missions. Again these are entirely optional and you don’t have to fly them, but they’re there if you want more structure in your flights. The generated missions aren’t rigidly controlled like the normal missions; it gives you an objective and it’s up to you to fly it. There are also challenges, like flying through a set course, making difficult landings, and the silly “coin collection” events. Again, they’re optional. There are also Aerocaches, which are hidden objects that you can collect if you want to. Actually they seem to be an excuse to show off particular places or to get you to use Bing to look up where they might be. I don’t really care much for them or the challenges, but they’re there if you’re interested. Of course you’re free to just fly on your own if you choose to do so, picking out an aircraft and a location and going for it.
In all, Microsoft Flight isn’t going to satisfy the hardcore simmers. It never was going to do that. But it is not the arcade experience they’d have you believe, particularly when you turn off the assists. There’s a ridiculous amount of bullshit going on over at places like AVSIM, mostly focusing on the interface (with someone going on about the “xbox interface” somehow being responsible for crippling… something or other, it was a load of bullshit) and the “coin collecting” thing, but they all miss the point of what Flight is about. Flight focuses moreso on VFR flights and the casual simmers who don’t want the hardcore big iron experience, but don’t want an arcade HAWX game. Flight excels in this aspect. Much of the community is bitter that they didn’t get what they wanted, but it’s time they faced facts: Microsoft doesn’t owe them anything, if Microsoft decides to look to a new target market, it’s at THEIR discretion to do so. The hardcore simmers are a small market. You can be bitter all you want, but it doesn’t change how invalid some of your views are when it comes to Flight. Go back to FSX, or try out X-Plane 10. For everyone else looking for a decent introduction to flight simulators, Microsoft Flight is particularly compelling. Bottom line is that the base package is absolutely free, so you lose nothing by trying it out (except maybe an hour or so of your time).
With all that said, let’s look at two other points. Firstly people do complain that it’s only covering Hawaii, but I want to point out something. In the default FSX scenery, my home city of Brisbane, QLD, Australia, is represented by a 20km blob of buildings, surrounded by desert or light-blue tropical water. This isn’t even remotely accurate. Actually it’s laughably inaccurate. Anyone who has visited Brisbane knows that the Brisbane River is nothing like the topical wonderland that FSX says it is. It’s brown, and you do not want to go swimming in it. So while Flight covers only Hawaii, it does cover it in much greater detail than most of the default FSX scenery ever covers, so it looks closer to the real thing. There are niggling issues and some landmarks are missing, but generally speaking it’s better than their previous attempts. If Microsoft release scenery packs in stages for particular areas of the world, it could prove successful. Most simmers aren’t going to fly all over the world on long-haul flights. People tend to stick to areas that interest them. For me, it’s my home state, or on a larger scale my home country. I don’t fly in Africa, Europe, Asia, whatever. People also tend to stay towards areas with the more detailed scenery, since there’s more to look at. And the instrument simmers don’t really care about the scenery because they never look at it, they’re focused on their instruments. So although it only covers a small area, and yes covering the whole world would probably cost a lot, the graphical fidelity is a lot higher and it’s a lot closer to reality than the autogen mess in FSX.
Secondly, as we discovered during the beta, Flight does actually model the entire globe. It does so in ultra low detail, but if you zoomed out far enough, you’d see the whole world. The landmasses did exist but they were very, very low deteail. You can’t do this in the retail version so I don’t know if it still does the same thing, but given that the globe appears nowhere else (i.e. as part of an in-game map screen or something), it suggests that Microsoft do intend to expand to other regions. We don’t yet know where it’s going to go, but Microsoft obviously have plans. It’s one to watch.