‘Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020’ review: the ultimate escapist fantasy in quarantine

The latest instalment of the ‘Flight Simulator’ series is stunning immersive fun, even for unfamiliar new players looking for escapism in quarantine

I had never played a Flight Simulator game prior to booting up Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 for review. My gaming hands were yet to grace the arcane curves and endless buttons of a HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) peripheral either. Yet, trailers and screenshots of Asobo Studio’s earth-simulation extravaganza made me want to properly authenticate the experience.

You could say that my interest in Microsoft Flight Simulator stemmed from the reverse psychology of quarantine. My travel plans for 2020 were humbled by the coronavirus, and given that it would be completely unreasonable for me to take a leisure flight in our current circumstance, I guess I thought the next best thing would be to simulate the experience.

If I were going to give this famous series a go, I wanted to go all in.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. Credit: Asobo Studio

I bought a Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS 4, plonked the plasticky peripheral on my space-starved desk and got to work. For the curious folks out there unwilling to splash the cash on a peripheral, please bear with me, as a HOTAS is completely optional for Microsoft Flight Simulator, especially if you’re not as recklessly enthusiastic as I am.

The game supports Mouse and Keyboard and console controllers, with control schemes that do a fine job of translating even the most complex inputs into a more accessible, less intense medium. You can absolutely kick back on the sofa and peel over The Alps, Xbox controller in hand without any experience with the franchise – pour yourself a drink and stick an album on, it is bliss!

Yet there is a unique layer of realism you get from playing Microsoft Flight Simulator with a HOTAS. Pulling hard on the joystick to skirt a cloud-covered mountain will make your body brace and your mouth gape, usually resulting in unusually fearful yelps exiting your mouth. But once you tap your rudders and get your trim right, you’ll start gliding past the most gorgeous vistas that our great green Earth has to offer. At this point, it’s easy to sink into a very powerful state of serenity.

Even though I was in the air, it felt like I was reconnecting with the Earth itself by playing Microsoft Flight Simulator. The game uses topographical data from Bing Maps to simulate the planet without cutting too many corners. The first thing I imagine many people will do is to initiate a homecoming flight to check out how your hometown looks from above – or the pavement if you manage to taxi your craft without crashing.

For me, this meant flying my biplane along the River Tyne and experiencing the Newcastle Quayside from the clouds, with a childhood friend in tow thanks to the game’s shared-world multiplayer system. It was strangely moving to commute to my home from the nearby airport, noting all of the quirks of the landscape like the farmland and fields I hadn’t really thought about since I was a kid.

Other adventures unravelled into adrenaline-stoked laughter as we struggled with the systems in remote mountain regions, making some hilarious emergency landings. More than anything though, it coaxed out great conversation about the places we’d been and where we’d like to visit, and that’s a privilege that can’t often be bought.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. Credit: Asobo Studio

Flying planes in Microsoft Flight Simulator will make you question your relationship with the landscape of the places you love for the better by making you reconsider your place in the environment. It’s given me an adventurous zeal and a strong desire to conquer the woods and nature nearby that I’ve been neglecting in quarantine, purely by showing me what’s on offer. Where other games can trap you in your own head, Microsoft Flight Simulator is a hotbed of pure wonder.

Thankfully, the game isn’t very strict about how you play it and everything can be modified to your liking. You can embark on demanding bush trials and landing challenges to test your level of control over the craft and level up with the handy progression system, but if you aren’t interested in the nitty-gritty, you’re not punished at all. You can put the handlebars on like I do, make flying simple and just cruise.

Taking off from San Francisco International, discovering Alcatraz and coasting past the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County is pure eye candy – but the map isn’t perfect. We found Macchu Picchu after some orienteering, but it ended up looking like an American hamlet full of office blocks and apartments in the middle of mountainous Peru.

You can tell when the developers haven’t given certain parts of the map a fair shake, but I think it’d be completely absurd to expect them to give equal attention to every nook and cranny. Post-launch support for Microsoft Flight Simulator will no doubt be dedicated like previous entries, so I’m sure it will all come out in the wash.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. Credit: Asobo Studio

We’d often jabber in sheer disbelief and delight at the weather simulation in Microsoft Flight Simulator. The beauty of the scattered clouds on the descent to Santorini is just as stunning as the strange comfort of a humming cockpit over stormy Tokyo. I’m yet to fully understand the intricacies of each engine, but the challenge of mastering these planes feels like a genuine possibility, even with my lack of experience.

However, Microsoft Flight Simulator certainly needs some technical optimisation, as the frame rate was a little unsteady, even on my RTX 2080 Super, but I can forgive it for the inimitable beauty it was working my rig to produce. I would also like to see some quality-of-life improvements surrounding the multiplayer, so that it’s a little easier to change location or craft when you’re exploring, instead of having to head back to the menu to make minor changes only to face long loading screens.

These issues didn’t get in the way of the fun, but it certainly could be a little more intuitive on that front. More documentation and a tutorial for how to play the game casually with your friends could also be of great use to new players, so they don’t have to trawl through the menus so often.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. Credit: Asobo Studio

With that said, I’m excited for the future of the game especially, and what Asobo can add to make the experience even more accessible to the average user, so more gamers can experience the delights of flight simulation on their own terms.

‘Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020’ will be released for PC on August 18.

Our Verdict

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is unlike anything I’ve ever played. But I’ve found that it’s always worth the effort to make space for the chunky peripherals when I need to wind down and daydream about future holidays after a rough day of work. I thought that I wouldn’t miss the monotony of flight in quarantine, but Microsoft Flight Simulator has made a case for its magical allure.

Pros

  • Jaw-dropping visuals that will make you reconsider your relationship with the natural environment
  • Surprisingly accessible controls across the board make it easy to pick up and put down
  • The novelty and immersive escapism of simulated flight is unmatched, and even more fun in multiplayer

Cons

  • Multiplayer and casual play could be made more intuitive with extra documentation and quality of life improvements for new players
  • The Bing Maps implementation is patchy in places despite getting the broad strokes right
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