Developer: Microsoft Studios
System requirements: Windows XP SP3/Vista/Win 7, Dual Core 2.0 GHz CPU, 256 MB graphics card with Shader 3.0 support, 2.0 GB RAM, 10 GB hard-drive space
ESRB rating: E
Release date: Available now
Once upon a time, flight simulators were popular. Their intricate details were great at showing off what your new home computer could do, and besides, who doesn’t want to fly? At some point, those with only a passing interest got tired of feeling like they needed actual flying lessons to buzz around, and flight simulators fell into the purview of those weird people who run virtual airlines. After canning the team that developed Flight Simulator, Microsoft is back with the new Flight, a free-to-play sim that’s aimed at those with an interest in planes but who don’t own a $200 joystick-and-pedal setup. Does Flight succeed at broadening its audience without alienating core sim fans?
After a simple 1.5 GB download (and an optional Games for Windows Live login), Flight takes you through two simple training missions to familiarize you with its controls and basic flying theory. Your starting plane is the Icon, an easy-flying amphibious push-prop that looks like a futuristic flying car. From that point on, you’re given the Big Island of Hawaii to explore at your leisure. Job boards are available at each of the 10 airports on Hawaii, and range from acrobatic stunts to carrying passengers. Aerocaches are hidden in the beautiful scenery, which you can find by following hints (and searching for more clues on Bing with the handy link). Depending on how well you perform, each mission awards you with XP, which unlocks more difficult missions to try. It might not be FsPassengers, but it’s an improvement on the challenges in Flight Simulator X. If all you want to do is explore on your own, the ever-faithful Free Flight mode is waiting for you. If that’s too lonely, multiplayer is there too, letting you soar around with others. Once safely parked on the ground, you can even get out and walk around, a cool feature that’s really only of use to get the hard-to-reach aerocache locations (and to admire the details on your plane).
Because Flight is aiming for a more casual audience who might not own a joystick, a lot of work went into the controls for both keyboard/mouse and an Xbox 360 controller. The mouse works like a flight stick, while WASD controls throttle and rudder. They’re not the most precise controls, but they get the job done. The 360 pad is surprisingly effective. It uses the analog triggers as the rudder and the bumpers for throttle, and the button mapping is almost exactly like Ace Combat (but in a good way). Setting the trim with the D-pad and leaning back in my chair made for a pleasant VFR flight around Hawaii.
I hope you enjoy tropical VFR flights, because that’s all you’ll be doing in Flight. Lacking any sort of radio or GPS navigation, you’re limited to either flying by sight or using mission waypoints. Also missing are any multi-engine or turboprop aircraft. This might be linked to the current size of the land mass. While perfect for low-altitude sightseeing, it’s pretty small for turbojets. The game will need to grow before MS can effectively add the Learjets and 747s, which Flight so desperately needs for variety.
Being F2P, Flight is all about pushing you DLC. While you start with the one plane (two, if you login with GFWL), a large island and lots of missions to try, you’ll have to buy the Hawaiian Adventure Pack if you want more. Coming in at 1600 MS Points ($20 if you don’t like play money), it comes with the rest of the scenic state, 20 new missions (including new mission types), and a new plane. Yet it doesn’t add enough variety, as you’re still flying over Hawaii in single-engine prop aircraft. However, more DLC is certainly on the way, and loading-screen tips already mention helicopters. If Microsoft ever adds Alaska and the DeHavilland Beaver as DLC, I shall never want again.
If you’re already entrenched in the flight sim scene, then Microsoft Flight is not for you. If the limited scope and simplifications don’t turn you off, the inability to mod it most definitely will. However, if you’re a dabbler with a passing interest in the world of flight, this game is tailor-made for you. Flight offers an approachability and sense of progression that rarely is seen in the sim world. While it certainly doesn’t replace X-Plane, there’s an appeal to leaning back with a controller in hand, watching the scenery go by as your invisible copilot practices her ukulele. Yeah, that happened.