Microsoft’s newest incarnation of Flight Simulator has made us fall in love with the skies again. We're Googling for HOTAS setups and yokes and learning about ILS approaches. But it's also got us hungry for more. Flight Simulator is majestic, but but there are things it just doesn't have. Lock-on missiles, for example.
It’s got us Googling HOTAS setups and yokes (yes, you need pedals too). Searches for ILS approaches have spiked the world over. But Microsoft also got us hungry for more.
This list of the best flight sims is dedicated to the breadth of experiences you can have in an imaginary cockpit, like dogfighting instead of cruising between airports. Or dogfighting, but in space. Or piloting a helicopter. There are some great flight games out there—play them to keep your HOTAS from getting sad and lonely.
The best civilian flight sim: Microsoft Flight Simulator
Okay, before I get to the rest of those recommendations—this is the first game anyone with even a passing interest in flying planes should check out right now. Flight Sim 2020 feels like it’s skipped a generation and given us a glimpse into a future built from cloud AI grunt and, oh, just the entire world’s map data. Petabytes of it.
Azure AI and Bing Maps combine to create a world map that even those completely ambivalent to a Cessna’s power-down procedure are drawn to explore. It’s rich and gorgeous, if not quite perfect, but if anything its glitches, like the lone 600-storey house in Melbourne Australia, add to the thrill of exploration.
The flight model’s rewarding for those using a pad, but it’ll definitely feel more immersive the more bespoke peripherals you throw at it.
The best space combat game: Elite Dangerous
How Frontier Developments must have laughed when we all struggled to get our heads around Flight Sim 2020’s 1:1 scale replica of Earth. They did, after all, manage a 1:1 scale replica of our entire milky way in Elite Dangerous, and they released it before 2014 was over and done with.
Granted, you can’t fly over your house, but what you can do is genuinely too varied to detail. Suffice to say the combat gets very intense with a good HOTAS setup, and even moreso if you’re in VR.
But there's so much more to do. Trucking and trading. Soon, even getting out of the cockpit. There’s a stoic satisfaction to just nailing a docking procedure or successfully navigating the yawning black infinity and landing at the hunk of rock you actually intended to. Preposterously vast in scope and wonderfully accomplished in the small details, this is a flight sim for ‘big picture’ types.
The best dogfighting game: War Thunder
There are also tanks and naval vessels blowing each other to smithereens below you, but in War Thunder the real joy has always been aerial combat.
Part of what makes the experience is the sense of ownership, which is an ironic thing to say about a free-to-play game. But rather than just picking a plane out of the hangar, you really invest in hardware, upgrading it over time and learning its quirks in the skies.
The other part is a truly detailed combat model which simulates armour penetration on a level that even real bullets probably can’t be bothered with. When you actually shoot another plane out of the sky in War Thunder, you know you’ve really pulled off something to be proud of.
The most realistic flight sim: X-Plane 11
Hoo boy. This will be a contentious denomination for a while, but in the current state of release of both sims, X Plane-11 simply goes into more detail than Flight Simulator 2020. ATC, in particular, has a full working model that many professionals have used as a training aid, and particulars like fuel burn and engine behaviour at precise angles of ascent are modelled with greater precision.
Of course, X-Plane 11 has the advantage of a vast modding database and a passionate community, so we’ll see where this debate goes as Flight Simulator 2020 enjoys user-created content of its own, but if you’re prepared to trade off some of the gorgeousness for detail and add-on options, this is the one.
The best arcade combat flight sim: Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
This is about as different as it gets from X Plane 11. Ace Combat is bonkers, and yes, you can control its planes with one hand while cooking dinner with the other and holding a phone call on speakerphone. To even begin to attempt any understanding of its plot is to stare at madness itself. But simplicity and eccentricity are no bad things.
It has such an eye for spectacle, from absurd experimental planes spewing drones at you to perfectly timed collapsing building, as if they were waiting for Michael Bay’s cue when you fly past. These flourishes make every mission memorable and challenging. There’s a hangar full of authentic planes, too, whose loadouts are customisable to the nth degree.
The best space flight simulator: Kerbal Space Program
This one’s a bit different, isn’t it? For as much as it’s a game about cute big-eyed characters getting into slapstick escapades, it’s also probably the most rigorous simulation of actual rocket science we’ve ever had. Anyone with Scott Manley vids in their YouTube suggestions bar can attest to how incredibly detailed the simulation of ballistics, drag, gravity, and other things I wasn’t paying attention to in physics lessons gets here.
The twist is that you’re not just hopping into a spacecraft, but also devising it beforehand too, which makes eventual success feel like a truly tremendous accomplishment. We’d like to see you try and match that, Flight Simulator 2020.
The best helicopter flight sim: Digital Combat Simulator World
There’s a commonly repeated falsity that helicopters shouldn’t be able to fly, and if you ever want to know where the origins of the notion came from, load up DCS and have a go in a UH-1. After a few minutes spent trying to wrestle its opposing forces into something resembling sustained flight, the only natural conclusion to draw is that little pods suspended by whirling blades have been a massive hoax all along.
DCS does much more than rotor-blade flight, providing one of the most detailed combat flight sim experiences out there in spite of its advancing years (the original version dates back to 2008). But the helis are particularly well done here.
The best flight sim that isn’t really a flight sim at all: The Crew 2
Can it train a budding pilot to understand the interior of an airliner cockpit? Not in a million years. In fact, a good portion of The Crew 2 is spent very much on land, in a car, nowhere near a jet engine or a wing. Still, though—and hear me out on this—when it comes to virtual tourism, it’s up there with Flight Simulator 2020.
The Crew 2's condensed version of America is a wonderful thing to explore by air, particularly with a few mates in co-op. Take in the sights, do a few loop-de-loops, race to this landmark or that, and when you get bored, transform into cars or boats at the press of a button. Unique, imperfect, and still a curiosity worth shouting about.