When Microsoft closed Flight Simulator X developers Aces Studio in 2009, many wondered if we'd seen the last of the world's longest-running flight sim series. Despite the announcement of Microsoft Flight, it's still a valid question – a free-to-play game with a focus on accessibility isn't the first thing that springs to mind when you think about the future of realistic aircraft piloting.
Flight, which is being produced internally at Microsoft Game Studios, has been built from scratch and takes little from its predecessor – not even its name. “I think the word 'simulator' was part of what kept Flight a niche product,” explains Joshua Howard, the game's executive producer. “We dropped it as a way of saying that Flight is a whole world of experiences, and it's for much broader audiences than those who commonly associate with the word simulator.”
The game is an attempt to bring not only a new audience to flight simulation, but to expand Microsoft's roster of free-to-play games. The two, Howard argues, are a natural fit.
“Flight gives me so many opportunities – I can not only present new planes and new ways to fly, I can present new places, I can present new kinds of things to do. The world of aviation is massive, and we can introduce it in incremental steps to a player-base over time and still not have scratched the surface.”
In making Flight more accessible, Microsoft have taken care to ensure that the basic flight model is as realistic as it used to be. “Instead of delivering a dumber simulation to begin with,” Howard explains, “we still have the hardcore sim underneath, but we've put assists on top to smooth things out. You can fine-tune the experience to be what you want.” It's intended that new players will be able to take off and soar around with mouse control immediately, while experienced pilots can disable the assists and head up with a joystick or flight yoke.
The new engine improves over the old in a number of areas, from rendering to physics. Despite the newb-friendly trappings, there's still a comprehensive simulator powering Flight. In fact, Howard argues, “it's a more sophisticated flight model and a better looking simulation than there has ever been before.” Flight is capable of modeling scenarios that its predecessors weren't, such as flat spins.
The game's tutorial begins with an obstacle where a light aircraft – an ICON A5 – must be steered in a slalom course between a row of balloons. The improved physics allows for closer shaves than before. “If you happen to clip a balloon, you'll send the plane into a spin, which if you're careful you can recover from. The previous simulation engine never could have handled that scenario successfully, never mind with some of the faster, more manoeuverable aircraft.”
Beyond the tutorial, time in Flight is spent chasing a range of challenges against the game's Hawaiian backdrop. These range from stunt challenges to a 'Gold Rush' mode where players race to find a set amount of coins in an area as quickly as possible.
There's also 'Aerocaching', a system similar to geocaching where pilots search for particular areas on the world map. Aerocaching forms the basis of the game's connected online mode – caches will move around from day to day, and you'll be able to compare your own progress with those of your friends. This service – like the game's marketplace – will be handled through existing Games for Windows Live accounts, and Flight will feature achievements.
Comparison between players is grounded in details such as how many landings you've made or the highest g-force you've pulled, rather a single level rating. The decision was made, Howard says, to avoid alienating casual players. “Given the broader appeal of the title, coming right out of the door with superhardcore ranking system may not be the right move – but one of the advantages of being an online product is if that's the place users want us to go sooner than we might have, we get to deliver that too.”
When the free client launches later in the spring, you'll have access to Hawaii, the ICON A5, and a number of Gold Rush and Aerocache challenges including a daily cache that changes every 24 hours. An additional aircraft, the legendary Stearman Model 75, will be made available when you connect your Games for Windows Live account to the game. Beyond that, new aircraft, regions and customisations will have to be bought through the Live Marketplace.
Flight is trying to be all things to all gamers, and it's relying on the universal appeal of flight to pull it off. If it can keep its promise of accessible air-pootling without losing that all-important fidelity, then it could well be the gateway simulator that Microsoft want it to be.