I don’t think I’ve ever been as impressed by any technology as much as I was by Microsoft’s upcoming Microsoft Flight Simulator
(which is coming to Xbox One for the first time, in addition to its usual PC release). It’s astonishing in its commitment to realism, and the implementation is clever, extraordinarily technical, and completely blew me away.
I was lucky enough to experience the sim at the Worldwide Flight Simulator Press Event, held at the offices of Rainier Air at the Renton Municipal Airport just outside Seattle. The city of Renton is an aviation city, home of the Boeing manufacturing plant responsible for the 737 airliner. Sitting on the edge of Lake Washington, the woodlands give way to massive hangars and aircraft in various states of completion. The airfield where I got to learn about and play Flight Simulator is the first strip of tarmac the 737’s taste before they take to the sky to be delivered to customers around the globe.
Microsoft Flight Simulator First-Look Images
Microsoft Flight Simulator’s Streaming Satellite Imagery
The event began with a presentation about the technical improvements coming to Flight Simulator. I didn’t really know what to expect, figuring the latest version of the legendary franchise would integrate some RTX features from the GeForce 20 series GPUs at the very least. What Flight Simulator does is so much more than just a graphical upgrade. Flight Simulator X came out in 2006, when the 1GB Nvidia GeForce 7950 GX2 was considered a beast. It’s an entire graphical overhaul.
Yes, RTX features are coming and will add even more realism to an already incredibly realistic sim, but Flight Simulator uses a clever integration of procedural generation of assets with real-time Bing integration, meaning every location, every airport, even dirt landing strips on remote islands in my home state of Maine, are accurate to visual flight rules. In other words, near-absolute accuracy.
I thought I might be the only one who visited mapping sites like Google Maps and Bing to “visit” places I’d been in the past, or places I’ve never been before. Developer Asobo Studio took this concept and uses it to recreate literally any location on the surface of the Earth. Data is pulled, in real time, from 2 petabytes (PETABYTES!) of Bing satellite imagery. The effect is absolutely incredible.
Trees and buildings are modeled on the fly in 3D and sit exactly where they do in real life. We were invited to try to find our houses and fly over them, which, of course, I did. Since the buildings are generated, it didn’t look like my house, but it was exactly where my house is in real life. All my neighbors houses were where they are here in the real world, with the roads and side streets busy with procedurally-generated traffic.
But I wanted to see just how deep the data really went. Asobo told us during the presentation you could fly from or to over 40,000 real-world airports. I asked Asobo Studio CCO David Dedeine and lead programmer Lionel Fuentes if that meant I could land in one of the airstrips dotting the many islands on the Maine coast. Their answer: “Why don’t you try it?”
Setting off in my Cessna 172S from the Knox County Municipal Airport in Owl’s Head, Maine, I pointed the plane toward the sea, to the island of Matinicus. It’s the most remote inhabited island in Maine, some 20 miles off-shore, with a year-round population of around 30. They’re surrounded by the richest lobstering waters on Earth, and make a fine enough living to order pizza delivered by the local air service at a cost of around $300. I thought it would be fun to recreate the pizza route, and after a few minutes with the mainland at my 6, the island began to take shape. Sure enough, the tiny, treacherous dirt landing strip was there. I lined up the Cessna, made my approach, and landed successfully on the 2 mile by 2 mile island off the coast of Maine. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Since Flight Simulator pulls data from Bing satellite imagery, it means you can visit anywhere on Earth. Head of Microsoft Flight Simulator Jorg Neumann told me his favorite thing about it is the ability to go sight-seeing.
“I’ve never been to Machu Picchu,” he told me, “but I’ve always wanted to see it. And now I have, in Flight Simulator.”
Neumann said he’s looking forward to the implementation of helicopters in Flight Simulator, primarily for their abilities for future visits to simulations of real-world locations.
Live and Living Weather
Bing integration in Flight Simulator does more than make everything look real, it also makes the weather a literal force of nature in the game. Real time weather data means you can fly through any conditions on Earth at any given time. If there’s a storm over Oklahoma right now, for example, you could jump into Flight Simulator and try to navigate it.
The entire physics system for the weather has been overhauled to make it even more realistic. Clouds behave much as the would in real life to the point where, if your right wing is in a cloud but your left wing isn’t, you’ll experience the difference in lift only where the cloud touches your aircraft. Winds and weather also react to the landscape, with sheer and updrafts in and around mountains, always moving and changing, just like the real thing. Even the water of seas and lakes begins to form whitecaps and waves as the wind picks up.
It’s Not a Game, It’s a Simulation
I don’t really know the correct way to describe “playing” Flight Simulator, because it’s not quite a game. It’s an unbelievably spot-on simulation of the real world. In the case of the planes themselves, cockpits were 3D-scanned and in some cases, the manufacturers sent Asobo the AutoCAD files for the cockpits so each one could be built to exact specifications.
Asobo lead software engineer Martial Bossard told me in planes with digital instruments, or “glass cockpits,” the team had to emulate the software found on each piece of equipment. There’s also improved support for home cockpits, so if you’re the type of Flight Simulator diehard who builds a replica cockpit in your house, Asobo “extended the number of simulation variables” and supports multiple screens for Flight Simulator. Asobo even has a team dedicated to recording realistic cockpit sounds, to increase cockpit immersion further still.
Ground to Air
After playing around in the simulation for a while, we then boarded a real-life Cessna 172S aircraft for a flight around the Seattle area with an instructor. Nothing drove home the realism of Flight Simulator more than experiencing the actual flight in the real-life plane I had just been using on a PC. The cockpit was flawlessly recreated in-game. Aside from the lack of Boeing 737s, the Renton Municipal Airport was spot-on, as was the surrounding Pacific Northwest landscape.
Near the end of the flight, the instructor offered me the controls, and that’s when it all came together. The PC stations set up for Flight Simulator were equipped with yoke controllers, off-the-shelf ones from Amazon, and they didn’t quite match the feel of the real thing, but as far as keeping the plane straight and level, Flight Simulator was a fantastic warm-up to taking control of an actual airplane at around 1500 feet above the Microsoft campus in Redmond.
Flight Simulator is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had with a computer, and I’m curious to see how the Xbox One version shakes out. That opens up this incredible sim to console gamers for the first time, and since it’s a Microsoft first-party game, PC gamers can play it day-1 with Xbox Game Pass PC. Personally, I cannot wait to get my hands on Flight Simulator to begin visiting places I couldn’t otherwise, to test my skills flying different planes, and mostly just to experience the joy of flight from the comfort of my home office.
Seth Macy is IGN’s tech and commerce editor and just wants to be your friend. Find him on Twitter @sethmacy.