Microsoft Flight Review – Updated «

 Like the exact opposite of a real commercial airline, free-to-play Microsoft Flight gets gamers up in the air and flying as quickly and painlessly as possible — or at least as painlessly as Games for Windows Live will allow. It does a commendable job of showing newcomers the ropes, and letting them freely take in the sights of beautiful Hawai’i… and that’s about all. Free content is as thin as the air at 30,000 feet, and Flight will need more than this to fulfill its huge potential of reinvigorating interest in the neglected genre.

Total Control

Flight is a “reimagining” of the long-running and legendarily inaccessible Microsoft Flight Simulator series. After spending over 10 hours flying around in this new free-to-play flight sim, it definitely feels (and flies) like the team at

Microsoft Studios has succeeded in bringing it within reach of gamers who’ve been hesitant to climb into the cockpit. I used my Saitek AV8R-01 joystick nearly every minute I spent in the air, but for someone who just wants to hop in and fly for a few minutes, the mouse is a viable alternative — and a strong first step by MS to lure in a larger audience beyond the wholly devoted hardcore sim fan.

Hey, I’ve been there!


The free version of Flight puts pilots on the Big Island of Hawai’i with two aircraft: the Icon A5 and Stearman. Both aircraft feel unique — the Icon is smooth and easy whereas the Stearman is more of a welcome challenge, especially during takeoffs due to the torque of the propeller. My go-to has been the Stearman. It’s been recognized as a well-rounded and reliable training aircraft since World War II — and that reputation comes through in Flight. Just go easy on the throttle and everything should be fine.

The Island location may not sound like much breathing room, but it’s actually a decent chunk of land to fly around.

The Island location may not sound like much breathing room, but it’s actually a decent chunk of land to fly around. I grew up on the island of Oahu, and seeing how fleshed out actual locations are, like the observatory on top of Mauna Kea or the Pu’u Oo caldera, is actually a pretty cool flight through memory airspace.

Free Falling

Right now the free content of Flight can be divided into a number of similar activities like missions, challenges, and the self-explanatory free-flight mode. You can also hunt for aerocaches (like an airborne scavenger hunt) or look on a local airfield’s job board to provide scenic tours of Hawai’i or perform cargo runs. It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. It only takes a couple of hours to play through each of these once, and by then the free version of Flight has shown all its cards.

Just getting started? Try the smooth-flying Icon A5.


The short tutorial missions (only four overall) give you the basics on how to take off, fly, and land, and that’s all there is for free in the missions menu. Challenges mostly involve landing an aircraft under certain conditions at specific airfields, flying through colorful waypoint hoops as fast as you can, or collecting floating rings before time runs out. Some of these objectives remind me of the Super Nintendo classic, Pilotwings, which is to say they’re tried and true, but not exactly breaking any new ground.

It’s too bad the challenge activities only involve flying through hoops, collecting rings, or landing on airstrips.

You’re awarded a trophy and some XP for succeeding in these tasks, but once you’ve tried them, all that’s left is trying to earn a better result. It’s too bad the challenge activities only involve flying through hoops, collecting rings, or landing on airstrips. It would have been great to include scenarios like landing an aircraft with a stalled engine or racing other planes across the island. You know, a little excitement.

XP is Flight’s currency, but it won’t get you far on its own. Leveling your pilot unlocks additional challenges or jobs, however many of them are only playable with aircraft you need to pay real-world money for. You’d think that an ace pilot would be able to earn some better wings by winning gold trophies in every challenge, but no matter how well you perform these challenges, the only thing you’ll unlock for free is different paint schemes for the free planes and an achievement.

Flying through hoops is fun, but it gets old fast.


Local airfield job boards add some variety, although not much for free players, and they could be easier to find. Right now you need to physically navigate to each of the 13 individual airfields, ranging from Kona International Airport (built over a dried lava field) to small airstrips across the islands, to see each of their job postings. It would’ve been far simpler to have “Job Board” as a menu option, especially because most of the jobs are rehashes.

Take tourists on a sight-seeing tour — bonus XP for flying smooth and not making them airsick.

Job-wise, the two aircraft available to free players are limited to either running a “$100 Hamburger” mission (seriously, that’s what it’s called) where you must fly a passenger from one location on the island to another, or taking tourists on a sight-seeing tour to some area of the Big Island of Hawai’i — with bonus XP for flying smooth and not making them airsick. There are other jobs available (e.g. cargo runs), but I can’t tell right now if they’re fundamentally different than a general point A to point B — they’re locked to an aircraft class that I haven’t paid for yet.

Aerocache hunts are some of the more fun activities to perform. Basically, it’s a scavenger hunt in which you’re given a hint about a location of a floating golden token located somewhere on the island, be it the aforementioned observatory on Mauna Kea or somewhere near Mauna Loa’s caldera. There’s even a handy Bing search option in the menu to help you track down tokens if you’re not that familiar with Hawai’i's terrain. You just need to be able to pilot your craft there and fly through them to pick them up. Not only do you get a decent XP reward (for what that’s worth), but these missions encourage pilots to explore and become familiar with the scenery.

Job Boards provide more free stuff to do, but they’re a pain to find.


Speaking of, Flight’s engine looks good and runs pretty well on low-end PCs. Of course, when played on a high-end machine it’s not the greatest-looking simulator ever, but it gets the job done. Like most sims, the closer you get to the ground, the uglier it looks — kind of like if Google Maps let you zoom way in without switching to Street View. At least both of the planes look great on the outside and in each of their individual cockpits, which are full of interactive dials and levers. They’re a nice novelty, even though I’ve found it much more efficient to use the keyboard hotkeys than clicking switches.

I dislike how the world is largely devoid of life.

From up high Hawai’i looks lush, but I dislike how the world is largely devoid of life, except for other players. There’s no wildlife, cars in the streets, or even AI aircraft waiting in airport hangers or in the air. I also didn’t need to communicate with local control towers for flight clearance, which is kind of odd for a game that’s supposed to simulate flying an airplane, and gives Flight the feeling of flying around after the zombie apocalypse. That would’ve been a better storyline than going out for hamburgers.

Speaking Planely

At least Flight’s flying physics exceed my expectations. I’d anticipated they’d be dumbed-down and casual, but I like the way the wind gives the Stearman a lift as I get closer to a mountain ridge, or when I settle the Icon in for a water landing and feel it bounce on the waves. Although I was hoping for more difficulty sliders in the menu to adjust aspects like stall frequency, complex engine management, or the option for a more difficult flight model, right now it’s limited to just four check boxes: increased stability, smooth braking, auto mixture, and propeller effects.

Hardcore plane, not a hardcore sim.


When compared to the batch of recent simulators, like anything the DCS or Maddox Games teams have brought to the genre in recent memory, or even its own predecessor MS Flight Simulator X, Flight can’t be considered a hardcore sim. It’s a major design shift for the series, and I have to admit that it’s a good entry point for wannabe pilots. But while I’ve enjoyed some of my flight time, I doubt the hardcore faithful will give Flight the time of day — at least for free. Now, on the next page, we’ll see what a little cash can do.

 

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