Monday, October 30, 2006

Microsoft Flight Simulator X Review

Microsoft Flight Simulator X, developed and published by Microsoft Games.
The Good: High-quality and entertaining missions, exceptional terrain detail, believable flight physics, multiplayer can be fun
The Not So Good: Could have more aircraft, most won’t see visual improvements due to system requirements for high detail, feels identical to previous versions
What say you? The reigning champion of novice-friendly, feature-heavy flight simulations is back and pretty much the same as before: 6/8

It's finally come to this: in order to sell more copies, Microsoft has added hardcore nudity to the Flight Simulator series. Oh wait, I'm thinking of Flight Simulator XXX: how silly of me! As the 10th entry in the series, Microsoft Flight Simulator X continues the series on its long quest to make your computer explode, or at the very least require you to upgrade your hardware (I think it’s a grand conspiracy). Featuring a grand suite of civilian and commercial aircraft, Microsoft Flight Simulator hopes to model the entire globe and make flying to and from any real world airfield possible while providing a realistic aeronautical experience. Will Microsoft Flight Simulator X soar like an eagle, or crash and burn like an ostrich?

Like most versions of the game in the series, Microsoft Flight Simulator X pushes the graphical envelope to the extreme. The game will run on medium settings for the newer systems out there, but those who like to run everything at high resolution and high quality will be out of luck, as there are hardly any systems available on the market at this time that can do so. This is the double-edged sword of computer games: we want good graphics but then complain about the high system requirements. What jerks we are! Running the game at medium settings will make Microsoft Flight Simulator X look just like Flight Simulator 2004 with some subtle differences, such as cars and boats driving around. The terrain is exceptional for mountainous regions, as the peaks closely mimic their real-life counterparts. There are already some tweaks to improve performance made by some community members that will slightly increase your frame rate, and the game still looks really good for all of the detail on the screen. I think all of the complaints made about the requirements of the game are unrealistic and made by people who demand to run everything at 60 frames per second on the highest setting. Personally, I’m fine with running the game at a playable 15 FPS at medium-high settings, as the level of detail is still exceptional. It’s amazing how far computing power has advanced in the past 20 years, and Microsoft Flight Simulator X shows just how powerful consumer-level PCs are.

Like previous versions, Microsoft Flight Simulator X features standard and deluxe editions. What’s the difference? For an extra $30, you get 6 more planes, 5 more high-detail airports, 10 more high-detail cities, 20 more missions (for a total of 50), the ability to play as air traffic control in multiplayer, and the new Garmin display in 3 planes. Is it worth it? The extra missions and ATC controls are nice (I am apathetic towards the other additions) and it’s about the same price as an expansion pack (which it essentially is). If you plan on playing all of the missions and enjoy being the air traffic controller, I would say it is; otherwise, you’re not missing that much. Either way, all of the content I will describe from here on out is from the deluxe edition, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

The big new addition to Microsoft Flight Simulator X is the missions. The missions consist of several tutorials and a good variety of challenges covering many different situations. All of the missions are well thought out and enjoyable, and they will certainly appeal to people who find generic, non-objective flight boring. The missions comprise 22 hours and 10 minutes of gameplay (I counted; I am such a nerd) and include such things as flying to Area 51, landing a plane on a moving bus, racing a jet-powered truck, rescue operations, and racing. It’s nice to finally have a structured campaign of sorts, and, coupled with the comprehensive learning center, the missions make Microsoft Flight Simulator X feel like a more complete game rather than an extensive sandbox.

Of course, you can still fly anywhere in the world using the game’s free flight options. You start off by choosing one of the game’s 21 aircraft, which include three commercial airliners, a glider, a regional jet, two helicopters, eight single engine props, one turboprop, one twin engine jet, three twin engine props, and one twin engine turboprop. While Microsoft Flight Simulator X features a nice range of aircraft, covering all of the major classifications of civilian planes, I would be nice to have more. For a person who enjoys piloting jets, having just two Boeing commercial jets is kind of disappointing, especially when you consider the variety of strange craft available in competing software. Plus, there are no military planes, which would be an interesting fit into the game even if they didn’t fire anything. Of course, having a limited number of planes opens the door for all of those third party add-ons, which help to keep the Microsoft money train moving. Microsoft Flight Simulator X again features comprehensive weather options: the ability to download real world conditions in addition to using themes or user-defined conditions. The flight planner allows you to select a departing and arriving airport and will generate a path.

Microsoft Flight Simulator X has notable multiplayer options available, as the game has licensed the Gamespy matchmaking software. Finding a server is extremely easy, and you can place yourself at the closest airport to all of the action. Of course, the quality of multiplayer in a flight simulator is dependent on how the other participants are behaving; most servers with active ATC (usually noted in the server's title or description) are entertaining. The deluxe version lets you step into the shoes of an air traffic controller, and while the procedures aren’t as realistic as a full-fledged ATC simulation, they do an adequate job at letting you track aircraft near your airport. You communicate to other pilots through voice or text chat rather than the in-game ATC communication window used in single player; while this is more realistic, it only works if the operator and the pilots know what they are doing. Playing online on a good server is quite enjoyable and it's a close as most of us will get to real airport operations. You can also have a human co-pilot in a plane, which is a neat addition. While I can imagine that organized groups will have great fun with multiplayer, joining a public server will sometimes result in a chaotic mess of planes flying in random directions.

To most people, Microsoft Flight Simulator X’s physics model is indistinguishable from previous versions. All of the behaviors seem to be hard-coded into the game, which makes designing custom aircraft more difficult; the lack of supported editors supports this (most custom aircraft end up using the physics of existing or slightly tweaked aircraft). The planes appear to behave realistically, but it’s less believable than the real-time model employed by X-Plane that uses the shape of the plane instead of pre-coded values. Microsoft Flight Simulator X certainly has all of the bells and whistles you’d expect, but I still feel that X-Plane delivers more convincing flight models, and the flexibility of X-Plane should not go overlooked in comparing these two simulations.

While Microsoft Flight Simulator X has a number of new features, the only one you’ll really notice is the new selection of missions. Multiplayer additions such as air traffic control and co-pilots are nice but they will only be used to their fullest extent by structured groups. Otherwise, Microsoft Flight Simulator X is identical to Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004, and most users will not notice any difference whatsoever outside of the missions. Are the missions worth $50 (or $80 for the deluxe version)? No, so unless you’re completely obsessed with the series (in which case you’ve already purchased FSX), you can stick with the slightly cheaper FS 2004. Of course, the simulation as a whole is certainly good value, so people who are unfamiliar with the series or are new to flight simulators will find a solid product. Microsoft Flight Simulator X is good for beginning pilots or those who enjoy lots of features, but I still like X-Plane more for an overall experience due to its range of aircraft and more flexible physics model. Of course, if you value a more user-friendly simulation over a more accommodating physics model with more varied aircraft, then clear Microsoft Flight Simulator X for landing. Aviation jokes are hilarious!