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Microsoft Flight Simulator returns as a mind-blowing next-generation cloud showcase

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Robin DR400
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Robin DR400 (Image credit: Xbox Game Studios | Asobo Studio)

Flight Simulator was among the top surprises of this year's E3 briefing, setting out to revive the legendary high-flying series on Windows 10 PCs, and Xbox One. With 13 years since the last mainline entry, Microsoft backs the project with its newest technologies, set to shake up the genre with a full generational leap. It's now been a week since my time with Microsoft Flight Simulator – and I just can't stop thinking about it. After three hours hands-on, Microsoft sets the bar with its next ambitious departure.

Flight Simulator 2020 and its crazy ambition

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Icon A5

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Icon A5 (Image credit: Microsoft)

Flight Simulator positions a single component at the heart of its latest refresh – the cloud. It's the foundation of the modern Microsoft from consumer to enterprise, as the title sets out to inject a ton of data in its portfolio of supporting Azure services. The long-overdue revival of Microsoft's longest-running franchise emerges as a rich culmination of geographical data, with over two petabytes flowing through its systems. It's a vast experience far exceeding storage of the average PC, enlisting help from the cloud infrastructure to serve up the globe.

Microsoft's mind-blowing take on modern Flight Simulator.

Cloning the real world with demanded accuracy and fidelity is no easy feat, placing satellite data and artificial intelligence (AI) fundamental to this premise. Microsoft's own Bing Maps provides the baseline bird's-eye view, elevated with photogrammetry, translating 3D scans upon the world. It accompanies terrain data for landscaping, foliage density mapping for 1.5 trillion trees, meteorological records for real-time weather, and air traffic tracking for authentic aircraft placements. Overlaying individual grass blades, ocean waves, and city lighting, it delivers a stunning final result, as reaffirmed by Microsoft's assets.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Daher Socata TBM 930

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Daher Socata TBM 930 (Image credit: Microsoft)

Once handled through Azure algorithms and machine learning, the result is an accurate and detailed reflection of the real world. This digital dupe retains pinpoint precision down to centimeters, conveying the world's top cities, airports, or even your back yard. And as pulled from Bing in real-time, any future changes over time will be reflected in-game. It also opens the ability to navigate using visual flight rules (VFR) for reliable navigation by-eye.

As Microsoft looks to show it's serious about PC gaming, this couldn't come at a better time.

This magic comes between Microsoft's internal Flight Simulator and Bordeaux-based talent, Asobo Studio. While most recently known for work on A Plague Tale: Innocence, past endeavors include Fuel famed for it's overwhelming 5000 square mile arena. The studio also offered long-standing aid on early HoloLens concepts and Kinect titles.

Microsoft's current public focus lies with Flight Simulator's fidelity, although the team has discussed adaptive streaming, altering the experience based on available bandwidth. While top-tier PC setups and connections serve the results shown to date, the experience can downscale to potential bottlenecks. There's also a full offline mode guaranteed to please some returning veterans, either running a stripped-down map or caching sections of a set flight path.

Microsoft addressed media at a dedicated Flight Simulator event at Renton Municipal Airport, about ten miles south of Seattle, Washington. Our time with the pre-alpha build kicked off from the same in-game locale, naturally flying over Lake Washington and the greater Seattle area. Exceptional fidelity is demonstrated downtown, across residential blocks, and ports, with clear refinement from Microsoft during the project. We found global hotspots reflect this detail, assumedly aided by 3D scans and additional modeling. Straying outside these areas will expose the shortcomings of an AI-driven approach, understandable given the scale of the globe, but worth considering as launch nears.

Microsoft Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator (Image credit: Microsoft)

I'm no pilot – but while Flight Simulator 2020 rides on its stunning vistas, it also ushers gameplay changes, likely welcomed by diehard fans. The latest take touts an improved core physics engine, building on the strong groundwork of Flight Simulator X via new aerodynamics simulations, collision models, among other enhancements.

Microsoft brings added depth to aircraft this time around, led by significant advancements for glass cockpits. Fully simulated LCD touchscreens emphasize interactivity, while out-of-box synthetic vision systems (SVS) offer an animated 3D on-display depiction of the surrounding terrain. Pilots are treated to a slick interactive checklist system too, highlighting instruments before departure. Layered with improved environmental effects, from on-dial lighting and reflections to rain-covered canopies, journeys capture the tone, alongside the mechanics. Throw the addition of VFR, and you've got some significant changes to how the new Flight Simulator plays.

Flight Simulator changes the game with the cloud

With over a decade since the last in-house Flight Simulator, new rivals have entered the genre, capitalizing on Microsoft's absence. But this new cloud-powered step is an undertaking only viable with Redmond, given its wealth of supporting services. The alignment with the firm's newfound focus on cloud and services under CEO Satya Nadella is impressive, with Bing Maps and Azure poised to be unmatched combination among top publishers.

Xbox One users will remember this isn't Microsoft's first gamble with the "power of the cloud," infamously tied to Crackdown 3 this year. With cloud underpinnings first under Cloudgine, departing mid-project after an Epic Games acquisition, the project never truly recovered from the hit. The final rendition was a half-baked cloud experience and a shell of former promises.

So what makes Flight Simulator 2020 different? Beyond smoother development, rather than offloading intensive physics processing to the cloud, Microsoft is using adaptive streaming to support the sheer scale of its world. Capable hardware (and bandwidth) is required for the highest fidelity, without expectation of miracles for low-end PC or console hardware. And if successful, it brings a new class of title into the world simply unviable in former years of disc-based gaming.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Daher Socata TBM 930

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Daher Socata TBM 930 (Image credit: Microsoft)

But the latest Flight Simulator falls in an ideal position, advancing upon a proven franchise with well-defined bounds. There's less pressure to change up moment-to-moment gameplay against your standard blockbuster title, allowing a focus on the surrounding raw simulation and technology. And as Microsoft looks to show it's serious about PC gaming, this couldn't come at a better time.

Microsoft Flight Simulator is headed to Windows 10 PCs in 2020, followed by a later console debut across the Xbox One family. Registration for its Technical Alpha tests has kicked off via the Flight Simulator Insider Program, expected for testing in the months ahead. The game also slated for an Xbox Game Pass debut, expanding Microsoft's in-house rotating library of downloadable titles.

Matt Brown is Windows Central's Senior Games Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.

17 Comments
  • Because their last exercise in cloud gaming looked exactly like it's previews too. I'm going to wait until this one is out before I get excited
  • Yeah, the thing you’ve got to keen in mind was that Crackdown 3 had a ton of hiccups and was trying to build an exciting gameplay premise — Flight Simulator is mostly riding the same timeless formula, which allows the focus to lie on the technology itself. Yes — it’s good to be skeptical, but I have much more faith in this project.
  • It doesn't sound like they're even doing remote rendering, so this isn't just better defined, it's substantially safer and less complicated. Game engines have been able to stream assets to create a seamless feeling world for a long time now, so swapping the source of that streaming from a hard drive to the cloud isn't as complex a task as figuring out how to break up a rendering pipeline or handle latency sensitive data processing remotely. You need to build in appropriate safeguards for failure states, but you're pretty much just caching data and rendering everything locally, and the devs know how fast your maximum speed is so they can optimize when to pull in more data, so as long as your connection doesn't give out and it's fast enough, you should have a good experience. A lot of the rest of the stuff they're doing is solely on the server side, and they've been doing similar stuff with Bing Maps, so this is an outgrowth of that. There's no reason to think it won't look at least as good as it demos and that should only improve over time.
  • Yeah, also true - this is streaming data so you don't need a 2PB hard drive, not to offload processing. You still need powerful local hardware to render high-end assets. The game does have an offline mode which will drop streamed textures, which assumedly would also kick in case of failure states.
  • Or maybe listen to the people who've actually played the pre-alpha? Unlike Crackdown, the entire game is designed around streaming assets from the cloud. There is no game without it working.
  • Curious to see how FS-2020 offline mode works
  • I wonder if it supports WMR.
  • This has to support VR or it won't be a true competitor in the flight simulator space in 2020. I've played fsx and xplane in VR and it is now a must have feature. I am a real life pilot and the sensation and fidelity of VR flying was not something that was ever captured by flying a LCD monitor.
  • This was my first thought too. While not every flight sim fanatic wants VR, those that do won't go back to a simple multi screen setup again. Done properly, this really could be one of those killer VR apps.
  • Sadly Microsoft hasn't committed to VR for Flight Sim, at least right now, but is open to building the game around player desires. Although I have a more extensive response in an upcoming sit-down with the team :)
  • They said in their Q&A that they wanted to make the base game great first before exploring into VR.
  • This "game" sounds incredible, I hope to get a chance to play it. This article, however, is very odd. It reads like it was translated from another language by AI, or like a word processor's thesaurus function was allowed to indiscriminately swap words out to make it sound better (unsuccessfully).
  • Thanks, I'll throw out my English vocabulary for future articles :)
  • Seemed like English to me.
  • The only thing odd here is your comment. Too much vaping maybe?
  • I noticed that too. I translate for a living and I always pay close attention to word choices and grammatical structures and there are definitely some unusual choices in Matt Brown's articles. Maybe he's from the future and this is what English will read like in 50 years?
  • "Mind-blowing" should be reserved for truly special accomplishments... an yeah... I think this fits! Truly mind-blowing! Kudos MS!