Microsoft Flight Review
Flying is magical, but playing this game is not.
March 14, 2012
Unless you truly believe in the magic of potential future downloadable content – and are willing to pay the very real price for whatever enhancements may or may not be coming down the pike – Microsoft Flight is, for the most part, a waste of your time. It matters not if you're a detail-oriented, accuracy-loving sim-head or a gunning-for-action "arcade" gamer. Flight is likely not the droid you're looking for.
In an attempt to reel in a wider general audience for its latest flight-based affair, Microsoft has, in many ways, sacrificed much of what made its prior civilian flight games so compelling – realism and depth. In so doing, it will undoubtedly alienate a wide swath of its potential audience – the hardcore crowd that not only filled its simulation coffers for years but also stuck with Microsoft through a variety of rough patches.
You see, Flight is just about as far removed from a true flight sim as American Idol is from originality. Sure, it gives the illusion of a sim – comprehensive cockpits; pretty, believable renditions of real life planes; and an assortment of switchable options that seem as if they'd make the thing that much more difficult and wonderfully time-consuming.
Yet that illusion is…illusionary. Kill off every conceivable pilot aid and Flight flying remains near-effortless. Yes, you're impacted by wind and turbulence and, if you try to push the envelope, you'll sometimes find yourself in a potentially unrecoverable situation that'll take some practice and skill to survive. So we're clearly not dealing with Mario Airplane here.
However, that you can take off, navigate, and land one of these babies quite adequately with a mouse and a keyboard is…well, a slap in the face of flight sim aficionados and pretty good reason for them not to get involved. That you can land at all within a few minutes of first playing (the only real test during landing and takeoff being an admittedly thorough but optional equipment checklist) means everyone will have to find their challenges elsewhere in the game. Unfortunately, there aren't many to be found.
Moreover, Flight does not offer a radio. Or any other form of plane-to-plane or plane-to-ground communication. It does provide various weather and time of day "themes," but does not support dynamic or downloadable real-life weather. Worse still, you cannot crash an aircraft. It'll merely bounce clumsily along the ground instead, grinding its way to an intensely underwhelming halt seconds later, apparently none the worse for wear.
At least you'll have no witnesses since Flight is a void. One of the more seemingly obvious joys of a flying game, regardless of its level of realism, is interaction with other pilots and planes. Yet in Flight, that interaction is darn-near impossible. Consider that you can quite conceivably fly all day long and not see another moving aircraft. Indeed, the only animated objects you'll see in the entire game are clouds and, when online, precious few human-controlled planes. That's right – there are no AI-controlled airplanes anywhere at any time.
Indeed, there's virtually no movement at all. Fly over a city, and nothing moves. Fly over a beach, and the waves are still. Trees do not bend in the wind, and the grass does not blow. There are no cars rumbling along the thoroughfares, and the only ships you'll see are anchored and seemingly bereft of human life.
You can temporarily cure your loneliness by sauntering over to one of the game's "job boards," which you'll find at most every airstrip. Here, you're asked to fly quickie missions to and fro – sometimes cargo and sometimes passengers and sometimes something else entirely. Pick a job where you're flying humans and you'll hear them speak. You cannot, however, interact with them. Nor can you even see them – when you glance at their seat, it will be empty. It's all a wee bit spooky.
As frustrating as it may be for seasoned sim veterans, it likewise isn't "fun" enough to hold the interest of the casual gaming crowd it's clearly after. Somewhere along the development trail, Flight morphed from the sim-based follow-up one would naturally expect into the highly accessible product the developer ultimately decided it should be. And yes, it is accessible.
When you first climb into the cockpit, the disembodied voice of an instructor and numerous on-screen prompts hold the hand of the newbie like never before. Later activities include "Missions" (described above), an assortment of quickie "Challenges" where players are asked to perform mild aerobatics and a whole whack of landing exercises, and something called "Aerocache Hunt." The latter sends you off to various spots in search of glowing tokens, magically suspended in the sky. Interesting in that Microsoft offers an "aerocache of the day" that you'll need to seek out with real-life search engines and maps, Aerocache Hunt nevertheless suffers the same fate as the Challenges and Missions – they become sleepily repetitive.
Considering you can't conduct a career or live out a story, can't arm your plane with weapons and go about thrashing everything you see, can't fill the skies with AI aircraft (air races, for example, would have been a wonderful boon for action game converts), can't buzz a crowded town square and watch the citizens flee in horror (remember, there are no citizens, or cars, or trucks, or anything that could potentially move), can't fly a jet or an airliner or a helicopter or anything other than the relatively sedate aircraft you're given, there arguably isn't much to hold long-term interest other than to experience the joy of landing, taking off, sitting in the cockpit, and enjoying the scenery.
Adding salt to the wound, Flight isn't nearly the inexpensive proposition you may have heard. Though it is free to download and play the basic game, that basic game is, in all honesty, small. Free is good to be sure and many pilots will undoubtedly ply their virtual trade for days and perhaps a couple of weeks without paying Microsoft one red cent. But then what do they do?
The freebie Flight begins and ends in Hawaii. And even then, just one of the Hawaiian islands. If you want to venture beyond that, it'll cost you nearly $20. If you want to expand beyond Hawaii, well, you can't at any cost.
The freebie Flight also begins with just two aircraft – a Stearman biplane and an Icon A5 sport flyer (a wee sprig of a plane that feels like a flying car). If you have loftier ambitions, you're looking at $8 for a P51 Mustang and another $15 for a Maule M-7-260C. A firth plane, the Van's RV-6A, comes along for the ride when you buy the full Hawaii package.
To sum up then, in order to fly the entire state of Hawaii and house five airplanes in your hangar, you'll need to buck up $43. And even then you have no jets or airliners or choppers, and you can't leave Hawaii.
Microsoft Flight is not a terrible game. The environment, for example, may be eerie in its sense of airspace emptiness and its bizarre lack of animation, but the artistry is lush and convincing, the frame rate seems solid even if you're not running the latest and greatest equipment, and time of day and weather variables really add to the show. There is an initial wow factor, no doubt.
But look closer, spend some time with it, and all is not what it seems. The one big question here – and yes, it's really big – is where Microsoft plans to take Flight in the future. Will we see other parts of the world opened up? More aircraft in the skies? More options for the hardcore…and the softcore? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, Flight is best sampled in its freebie guise.