Microsoft Flight Simulator took everyone by surprise at E3 2019 with its sheer visual fidelity, and since then every new morsel Microsoft feeds us about its new sim blows our minds anew. The whole planet to explore, somehow powered by Bing’s satellite data. Weather systems and seasons. Those graphics. Here’s everything we know so far about Microsoft Flight Simulator, and how you can play it before its full release.
When’s the Microsoft Flight Simulator release date?
This isn’t as straightforward to answer as it seems, and that’s not just a flowery way of saying ‘not a clue’. Currently the final version is slated for a 2020 release, which is pretty broad. Some people are playing a very early version of it right now, though—cast your eyes below.
Microsoft Flight Simulator’s closed beta begins in July
Microsoft Flight Simulator is getting a closed beta in July, according to a development roadmap recently posted by Asobo and Microsoft. The roadmap doesn’t get too specific with a date, but the closed beta is marked for mid-July. Closed alphas of the game have been in progress for a while now, but the closed beta could be when Asobo opens the floodgates and allows more players to try out the game (and maybe even share footage of it).
Microsoft Flight Simulator will implement real-time air traffic
That’s right, on top of seeing other players in the world, Microsoft Flight Simulator will simulate real daily air traffic across the world. That means you could be flying across the country and spot a flight that’s also happening in real life. That’s pretty cool. The developers did clarify that AI will take over and augment flight patterns if the game loses connection to the live air traffic information.
Microsoft Flight Simulator’s seamless multiplayer settings will let players decide which kind of online experience they want to be served up: one full of pilots roleplaying realistic flight plans, or one where pilots may be doing backflips or playing chicken with the side of a mountain. The looser “all players” mode also lets you tweak the weather and time of day to whatever you want, so that’s where to go if you’re after one-shot flight plans of your own design.
An hour of leaked alpha gameplay was swiftly removed
One player participating in the playable alpha Microsoft Flight Simulator brazenly uploaded an hour of gameplay to YouTube. The footage depicted a calming flight amidst clouds that eventually turned to a rainy storm and it, predictably, looked gorgeous. Unfortunately, Microsoft quickly acted on the leak and had the video scrubbed from YouTube. It was nice while it lasted.
Looks alright, doesn’t it?
Trailers aren’t legally binding representations of a game’s final release, and we’ve all been hurt before. But still—the scale and fidelity of the scenes this trailer shows are enough to capture an audience much bigger than flight sim enthusiasts.
It looks like a great means for virtual tourism even if you had zero prior interest in piloting commercial aircraft and absolutely no prior knowledge of how to request a runway with your nearest ATC tower. And for those who do have some skin in the flight sim game—well, it’s Christmas come… whenever the game comes out.
You can fly anywhere in the world in Microsoft Flight Sim
This is the knockout blow for anyone on the fence about it so far—literally anywhere in the world. Our whole planet is mapped and modeled, ready to be flown across from tens of thousands of airports. Our own Andy Kelly tried his damnedest to disprove this big claim from the devs, embarking on flights over Glasgow, Mount Fuji, New York JFK and more. Turns out: Yep, it’s true. And there’s no discernible drop in detail from one location to another, either.
This being a Microsoft game, all terrain data is pulled from the tech giant’s search engine, Bing. That’s right, Bing, the butt of so many jokes over at the Google offices, is finally getting its moment in the sun.
That data only gets you so far though, of course. The topography of each area still has to be fleshed out, trees and buildings added, traffic in the streets, that sort of thing, and the dev team are using a learning AI. That’s right, it’s an all-star cast of Microsoft properties: Azure’s on the case. (If you don’t know what Azure is, just Bing it. Or read these next words: it’s a cloud computing service).
If the developers had to manually drop wireframe models over a 1:1 scale replica of planet earth until it looked satisfyingly populated, the game’s development would become a family business passed down countless generations. Instead, Azure interprets the raw map data and knows where to populate it with the appropriate scenery.
All 37,000 of them. To pull off this feat, the studio is using a combination of Bing satellite imaging and a whole lot of manual work. The video feature above is an interesting look into what goes into turning a 2D image into a living, breathing, and shockingly accurate representation of real airports.
Seasonal weather is confirmed in Microsoft Flight Simulator
The weather system runs deep here. Clouds cast shadows over the landscape below, and over each other. They’re built from 32 volumetric layers, too, which makes them look far fluffier than the usual skyboxes you see when you look up in games.
Cold and warm fronts move around the globe, creating rain and storms as they go. And those storms in turn affect your plane’s handling, as one would expect. But with an aerodynamics simulation which runs up to 1000 surfaces simultaneously, it’s fair to say this will be a frighteningly accurate depiction of how hard it is to stay on course when the rain and thunder roll in.
And—AND—it uses real-world weather data to simulate its own weather systems. If you decide to fly over Hoquiam, WA next Wednesday and it’s raining there in real life (a safe bet) then it’ll be raining in Microsoft Flight Simulator. That even extends to more extreme conditions like snow, although it’s not clear yet whether rivers and lakes will freeze over accordingly.
Microsoft Flight Simulator’s developer is Asobo
Formed in 2002, Asobo has a long list of movie tie-ins and PC ports on its CV, but it’s probably fair to say it didn’t arrive on most people’s radars until 2019 when A Plague Tale: Innocence shipped. Great action-adventure-horror-stealth hybrid, that.
Not a flight sim though, is it? This is Asobo’s first simulator release, but it does have priors with Microsoft tech—some HoloLens software released in 2016—and with building enormous areas. Fuel, way back in 2009, was a post-apocalyptic open-world driving game and at the time held the world record for the largest playable area, some 5,560 square miles.
Asobo built a bespoke engine for Microsoft Flight Simulator called ACE.
Here are Microsoft Flight Simulator’s system requirements
Miscrosoft Flight Simulator is obviously a gorgeous game with a ton of fidelity in every frame, so you’d imagine a pretty substantial machine would be required to run it smoothly, particularly at 4K as is shown in the reveal trailer. It turns out that the minimum specs are actually pretty reasonable. To keep it brief, here are the recommended system specs:
CPU: Ryzen 5 1500X / Intel i5-8400
GPU: Radeon RX 590 / Nvidia GTX 970
Bandwidth: 20 Mbps
Will Microsoft Flight Simulator have VR support?
It’s certainly—and I quote head of Microsoft Flight Simulator Jörg Neumann—a “high priority” for the team, following fan feedback and the common assumption that there’d be full VR support based on the reveal trailer.
VR at launch can’t be guaranteed though, says Neumann. The team is currently working on its implementation though, so it seems like a when, rather than an if.
What about Microsoft Flight Simulator mods?
Almost immediately after its announcement, Microsoft confirmed that Flight Simulator will support community content.
This was a massive aspect of the previous Flight Sims, and it supported third-party devs who created nothing but maps and planes for virtual pilots willing to pay for them.
While it doesn’t look like there’ll be the same imperative to pay for third-party map data this time, planes are always an area of expansion.
We think it may well work in a fashion similar to Minecraft Marketplace, whereby both free and paid community content is curated and presented in moderated fashion.
No. That remains, as it will always remain, the pinnacle of rigorously simulated aviation.