With all the big announcements at this year's E3, from Watch Dogs Legion to Elden Ring, I really didn't expect the return of Microsoft Flight Simulator to be the thing that excited me the most. Revealed on stage at the Xbox briefing in the form of a beautiful, understated trailer, this is the first proper game in the series since 2006's Flight Simulator X and it's due for release in 2020.
Phil Spencer, Microsoft's head of gaming, told us (opens in new tab) that the return of Flight Simulator is an example of the company's renewed commitment to PC gaming. You can trace the series' lineage back as far as the late '70s, but even starting at the first Microsoft-branded iteration—1982's Flight Simulator 1.0—this is a series that has existed for almost 40 years. It even predates Windows.
Microsoft's last attempt to bring the series back was in 2012 with the free-to-play Microsoft Flight, a more casual aviation sim than previous entries in the series. Our reviewer enjoyed it (opens in new tab), but just six months after release it was grounded permanently. In 2014 developer Dovetail Games agreed a licensing deal with Microsoft and brought Flight Simulator X to Steam. But other than that brief resurgence, the series had been left forgotten and rusting in a hangar.
Encouragingly, Microsoft says its new Flight Simulator is an attempt to move the series forward, rather than just retreading old ground. "By revamping our tech, working in close collaboration with the community, and pursuing partnerships across the industry," it says. "We intend to deliver a best-in-class flight simulation experience." Well, it would say that. But judging by the footage, it's clear some serious resources are being spent on this thing.
The trailer really is magnificent: particularly the environments, which Phil Spencer says have been generated using 2 petabytes of real geographical data. We see glimpses of snowy mountains, sweeping deserts, and bustling cities, all looking impossibly detailed and realistic. The scale is vast, but there are some nice micro-details too including a flock of pink flamingos flying majestically over a dazzling blue ocean. Simulators are often quite drab and lifeless, so it's great to see one with these kinds of production values.
The weather looks incredible too. There's a brilliant shot of a vast, ominous storm looming on the horizon, then a cut to a passenger jet flying into a raging lightning storm. As someone who plays simulator games chiefly for their atmosphere and sense of place, this stuff massively appeals to me. I love the rain streaking down the windshield too. And how atmospheric is that shot of the plane coming in to land at night? I think I'm going to need a new GPU.(opens in new tab)
Flight Simulator still has a dedicated fanbase, and this is the audience Microsoft will have to work hardest to win over. The new game is being released on Xbox too, which some hardcore fans will see as a blinking warning light in their cockpit that the game is being dumbed down. I don't know how deep the simulation will be yet, but if Microsoft is smart it'll cater to both casual players who just want to buzz around in a jet and those seeking a more authentic experience.
Honestly, it's the former I'm most excited about. I'll definitely dig out my stick and throttle and go for the full simulation when I fancy it. But mostly I just like the idea of reclining on the sofa with an Xbox controller, soaring stress-free over gorgeous scenery while listening to Oxygène by Jean-Michel Jarre. PC gaming is defined by versatility, and I'd be amazed if the new game didn't offer both experiences. But I do wonder if there'll be enough depth buried in there to drag the purists away from their beloved Flight Simulator X.
With point-and-click adventures, Infinity Engine RPGs, and rally sims making valiant comebacks in recent years, it's only fair the humble flight simulator gets another shot at glory. Of course, games such as X-Plane, DCS: A-10C Warthog, Rise of Flight, and IL-2 Sturmovik never really went away, and are still being played today. But what's exciting about this new Microsoft Flight Simulator, besides heralding the return of a classic series to PC, is that it's a shiny, mainstream game that is, presumably, having a load of money spent on it. I really hope it lives up to the promise of that spectacular trailer.(opens in new tab)