For a clue about the direction in which Microsoft has taken its long-running flight simulator series, you need look no further than the absence of the word ‘simulator’ from Microsoft Flight’s (MF’s) title. As a further giveaway, one of the two free aeroplanes included with the gratis portion of the game (MF represents the first ‘free-to-play’ entry in the series) looks about as easy to control as a small family car. Your instructor even remarks as such during the opening tutorial segments.
Dedicated simulation-heads who long for the chance to be fiddling with oil gauges and endless combinations of wing flaps, look away now. Microsoft has charted a clear course for casual flying. The aforementioned Icon A5 aircraft is so simple to get up in the air that, well, I could manage it without referring to any external instructions. Ok, yes, I did crash into a balloon and tumble to earth during the very first tutorial, but aside from that it was some pretty smooth flyin’.
Oddly enough, I may be precisely the sort of player Microsoft is aiming at with MF. I’ve played my fair share of obscure Eastern European tank sims, and always find their general attitude of “Oh, you want to learn how to drive this tank? Tough! No proper tutorials for you!” a bit brutal. In contrast, MF’s gentle hand-stroking coo of “Shh … it’ll be fine … hey, we can fly this thing, ok? Relax.” is quite appealing.
Both the Icon A5 and the Stearman biplane (which you can pick up pretty easily just by logging in to a Windows Live account) are easy to get up and running with, even if you turn off most of the flying assist options. Soon, you’ll find yourself cruising over Hawaii’s ‘Big Island’, performing spins and buzzing cruise ships like an inconsiderate jerk.
MF is most assuredly on the gamey side of the game-to-simulation scale, and lets you know this at almost every possible opportunity with awards, achievements (yes, awards and achievements) along with experience points for performing as a noble aviator should. Some of these are pretty entertaining (‘Tormentor’ for freaking out at least ten passengers), while others are just kinda sad (‘Fly for 5,000 real-time hours’… uh, no thanks).
Activities over the island take the form of missions, challenges and ‘Aerocaching’ (a plane-based version of a Geocaching treasure hunt), plus, of course, a free flight mode that allows you to just do your own thing. There isn’t really any kind of narrative structure linking these events together, you just pick-and-choose stand-alone jobs (like delivering a passenger to a burger joint, as seen in the video above), attempt to prove your piloting chops (by landing on a dirt track airstrip in the wind, at night) or show off even more by stunt flying your way through some rings on a challenge course with your eyes closed.
For all of these activities you can alter the time of day and the weather conditions (although some airport jobs are only available at certain times); so if you fancy trying to land in thick fog, or carrying a passenger in a thunderstorm, the power of the elements is yours to command. Things like wind speed and turbulence perhaps don’t have as much effect on your little plane as they might in more punishing simulators though, which, again, may bother you if you’re after the most authentic flying experience possible.
While we’re on the topic of authenticity, it’s a little weird that you seem to be alone on Hawaii’s main island. There’s no traffic (air or otherwise, unless you join multiplayer) and no real sense that there’s any sign of life beneath you at all. If you dwell on that for too long, it can feel a bit on the eerie side.
The free portion of MF isn’t too stingy with its missions and aerocaches (particularly if you treat it as a giant demo), but you will run into ‘locked off’ sections of the game after a couple of hours. Cargo missions require a paid-for plane, and many of the aerocaches are on the other Hawaiian islands, hidden away in a $20.00 USD add-on.
This is where your own ideas about value and needs as a player come into the equation. It’s true that the older Microsoft flight sim games offered loads of planes and airports from the outset, and from that perspective these piecemeal location updates seem rather expensive. The next update is said to be Alaska; if that’s another $20.00 USD, you’ll already be at $40.00 USD for a handful of planes and two full locations. It’s also a crying shame that MF will have no user-made or third-party add-ons (a staple of previous titles in the series), because Microsoft want their own team controlling the development, and sale, of new segments.
Single plane prices seem on the high side too. The P51 Mustang costs $8.00 USD, but doesn’t even have a cockpit view (surely something of an oversight for a flight game), while the Maule will set you back $15.00 USD on its own (but does open up more missions for you to fly).
All that, though, is only a problem if you intend to seriously invest in the game. If not, there’s actually a fair amount of fun to be had with the free portions on offer. Free flight opportunities are technically endless, especially if you hop in and out of some multiplayer matches that allow you to fly and communicate with other pilots, but the challenges alone account for a few hours of distraction.
MF is a typically sleek Microsoft production, with a sensible user interface and scenic graphics that, while not spectacular (and at times a little muddy), can offer some impressive views when weather, time of day and lighting conditions combine in just the right way. It’s easy to jump in and get airbourne with mouse and keyboard (or even a 360 pad), and it has a learning curve so smooth you’ll barely notice the incline. This will not impress those people pining for the complexities of previous Microsoft flight sims; nor is the lack of user created additions or the DLC pricing structure likely to be popular with many who’d prefer a more standard retail model.
However, as with flying itself, it all depends on your angle of approach. If, like me, you find yourself embracing the more casual flying style and feel satisfied by what MF will give you for free, the title is certainly worth your time.