Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 review


I’m a long-time Microsoft Flight Simulator user. I started with 4.0. Back then scenery was extremely limited, so you were mostly limited to instrument flying – which I learned to love, to the point that when we had to give a presentation at school, my talk was about aircraft navigation. 5.0/5.1 was a major step forward in visuals with the introduction of textured terrain. I also bought the Scenery & Object Designer and started building airports. I continued with 2000 and then X, but didn’t fly virtually for more than ten years as my interests focused on other things. A visit to Texel airport on a busy day kickstarted my interest again, so I got a one-month subscription to the Xbox Pass for €1 and downloaded the Standard version.

Versions

Three versions are available: Standard, Deluxe, and Premium Deluxe. The higher-priced versions offer more aircraft and “hand-crafted” (i.e. manually built) airports. Since the standard version already offers quite a decent selection of aircraft, I would only consider one of the more expensive versions if it a) has an airplane that you really want, or b) a hand-crafted airport that you can’t live without. Of course, Microsoft has packaged some very popular airports in the Premium Deluxe version, such as Frankfurt, Heathrow, and San Francisco. So if you like these big airports, Premium Deluxe is probably a must for you. For general aviation aficionados, Standard should be fine.

Aircraft selection

No helicopters so far, unlike FSX. The Standard version has a decent selection, ranging from the Cessna 152 to the Boeing 747-8I. Most of the GA aircraft use a Garmin glass cockpit – if you want an analog gauge 172, you need to buy the Deluxe version. The Cessna 182 is no longer there. I think there are quite some duplicates there among the GA aircraft, I would have preferred another high-performance single – the Cirrus SR22 is in the Premium Deluxe version. It is also quite obvious that not all aircraft received the same detail treatment. The checklists of e.g. the Diamond DA40 and the Beech Bonanza are very basic.

If you’re into jets, the selection is somewhat limited. Standard has the Citation CJ4, Airbus A320neo, and 747-8I. You need to buy Premium Deluxe to get the 787 and Citation Longitude.

Scenery

This is where MSFS2020 shines. It combines high-resolution imagery and terrain data with procedurally generated buildings and vegetation. The result is not perfect – due to being procedurally generated based upon a limited number of archetypes, our sim house has a gable roof instead of the real flat roof, and some famous landmarks are missing or represented by a generic model, as I noticed with Stuttgart’s famous TV tower. But for the first time it is possible to fly VFR practically anywhere in the world.

The most glaring omission are probably the military airports. I can understand that military-only airfields are not there, but all dual-use airfields are missing too. This includes commercial airports such as Eindhoven in the Netherlands and Stuttgart in Germany. Bing Maps blurs all of these, Google Maps doesn’t. I hope that this will be rectified in a future update and that we will get at least the runways and civil facilities of larger dual-use airports that operate regular flights.

Flight Model

My real flight experience is limited to several hours in the Cessna 172 and 182, so I’m not really in a position to provide judgement here. I also fly predominantly piston singles in the simulator. What I have noticed is that (deploying) flaps seems to have little effect on the plane, that planes roll very well, and that some planes (e.g. the Bonanza) fly nose-high in certain circumstances. My experience echoes what a real pilot has found in this review. I can’t help the feeling that the focus in the development of MSFS2020 was on the visuals, not the flight model, and that several planes use the same generic model.

VR

MSFS2020 supports VR, and it works fine with my Oculus Rift S. The immersion is great – looking around is so much easier, and suddenly you are inside the scenery instead of looking at a flat screen. The downside is that the resolution is too low to read the fine lettering on displays. It’s difficult to use the glass cockpit of GA aircraft, and airliners are reported as being pretty much unusable. Wearing the headset for longer periods of time may also be uncomfortable. So I think that VR is a great feature for immersive VFR flights and difficult approaches, but for IFR flying, I prefer the old flat screen.

Activities

MSFS2020 provides a flight school (which I haven’t tried), landing challenges, and bush trips. The latter are probably the most interesting feature. They are all longer VFR flights consisting of multiple legs, where you have to use visual clues and the stopwatch for navigation. Unfortunately, it is not possible to save in-flight or accelerate the sim rate during bush flights. I had to fly a leg of the Pyrenees trip three times as I crashed twice during a very challenging landing (for which the Diamond DA40 really isn’t suited). This review provides another critical note of the plane selection and activities.

Hence the main activity for most people will probably be flights originating from the World Map. You can either look around the map and select airports, or search for them. It might not be obvious at first glance, but the World Map actually provides many options for choosing a flight plan. You can select whether you want to start with the plane cold & dark or already lined up on the runway, and the departure, route, and approach that you want to take. This is great for instrument flyers – yes you can do direct GPS flights (boring), but also follow real procedures and routes and talk to air traffic control while doing so. This can of course be done with live weather and air traffic.

Verdict

MSFS2020 has its high and low points. Graphically, it is stunning, and the ability to fly VFR almost everywhere is great. Regarding the flight model, X-Plane 11 appears to be the better choice. So MSFS2020 is probably on the gamey side of things. I hope that future updates will increase the realism, and deal with some of the issues such as missing airports. Currently I’m undecided whether I’ll buy the Standard version after my one-month Xbox pass trial runs out, or spend my time doing other things.

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