Microsoft
CNN —  

The global pandemic put quite the damper on travel. Suddenly, a simple trip to New York City or Los Angeles seems like a lifetime away.

That’s why Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s the one game this year that removes all boundaries, difficulties and concerns about seeing the world, no matter where it is you want to go. It’s the only way some of us can experience flight for the foreseeable future, and as such feels much more like a transcendent experience than any airplane simulator really ought to. It’s our window to the world, and no one even saw it coming.

This exceptional game looks absolutely fantastic and gives you the freedom to go anywhere in the world — and what’s more, it lets you jump into the cockpit of virtually any airplane to become a fledgling pilot. It’s an impressive technological feat and one that you’ll definitely want to experience, even if you aren’t interested in simulation games.

Freedom takes flight

Microsoft

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is the first official entry in the long-running series since Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition in 2014. Six years may not seem like a long time in terms of video game development, but when you see what’s been accomplished here, it might as well have been an eternity.

For those unfamiliar with the series, essentially it lets you choose the plane you want to fly, from Boeing to Airbus and a wide variety of models in between, with smaller prop and turboprop planes available should you want to mix things up a bit. You can then choose a departure and arrival airport anywhere in the world by dropping a pin on the extensive map — and then fly there. Yes, anywhere, even through no-fly zones. There’s nowhere you can’t fly, as long as you know what you’re doing.

That means you can fly out of your local airport to the North Pole if you so desire, or check out the gorgeous night lights of Los Angeles, or the peaks of the Himalayas. The world is at your fingertips, which is difficult to process when you stop and think about it. Using heaps and heaps of satellite data and imagery, Microsoft has created a full-scale map of the entire globe that you can fly around at your leisure, and it’s absolutely incredible.

To put that in perspective, this is a massive game. So massive, in fact, that you will need upward of 100GB to install the game and a peppy computer to run it on its highest settings. Our beast of a gaming PC can run it with no issues on Ultra, but this won’t be a reality for everyone. With that in mind, the game puts some incredible strain on your setup, as it continually downloads additional data to flesh out the world you’re flying around.

This enables high-level, cloud-assisted detailing as you explore every inch of the world. It’s positively teeming with life, down to moving cars and signage posted around the world. While it looks absolutely gorgeous from a distance as you fly over your favorite destinations, it doesn’t look as good up close, obviously, as the data isn’t there to make it look photorealistic — but what the game does manage to do is nothing short of incredible.

Because of this astronomical amount of detailed information shared at any given time, you will face lengthy loading times even with an SSD, and lower-end hardware will certainly have a hard time. But if you have the system and internet connection to handle it, you’ll be entering a world of unlimited exploration unlike anything you’ve ever seen before — except, perhaps, Google Earth.

Learning to fly

Microsoft

Of course, if you want to see every corner of the world, you first have to know how to pilot the plane you choose. You won’t be going anywhere if you can’t leave the runway. Luckily, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is willing to help you learn so you can leave the ground at your leisure.

We won’t lie and say it’s easy. You’ll need to spend a good amount of time (and likely watch tutorials) to learn the ins and outs of operating a plane. It’s almost as complicated as the real act of getting a jet off the ground and carrying a flight full of people at 40,000 feet safely to their destination.

Aviation fans will find just as much attention paid to the exterior and interior details of each airplane, from Dreamliners to Cessnas and everything in between. Some planes are obviously more difficult to learn than others, but luckily you don’t have to worry about learning every single nuance of being a pilot. There are three settings you can choose from, if you’re not interested in putting in the time to learn how to fly, that can help you ease into realism or back away from it.

You can avoid certain controls and have the game handle them, or you can lean into trying to manage every single aspect of your flight. Whatever you choose, the first moment you lift off and begin your ascent is satisfying in a way that’s difficult to describe. We chose to fly with assists both on and off in equal measure, and we came away with an even bigger appreciation for what pilots deal with on a daily basis.

You can take the realism bid even further by utilizing a flight stick if you have one, but we opted to use an Xbox One controller to take flight. There are plenty of possibilities for you to make your stint as a pilot as realistic as you like, so if you want to set up a small cockpit in your living room, you can totally do that, as well as assign the proper keys to each and every function. We chose not to go that far, though we did take the time to get familiar with a wide variety of knobs, buttons, keys and other niceties inside a plane. We still enjoyed ourselves, and hardcore aviation buffs will too.

Furthermore, while we stopped short of a full cockpit setup, we did test a yoke and thruster system on a Lenovo gaming tower as well. Specifically the Tower 5i (starting at $1,029.99; lenovo.com) with an Intel core i7 and GeForce 2017 graphics processing unit. It packed plenty of power to run the game and gave us plenty of ports to use with the Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas X ($79.99; dell.com). Overall, it’s a relatively simple yoke and thruster setup, but it lets you get a bit more immersed into the game as you physically pull back for takeoff or climb. It’s also easier than remembering keys and having to learn the different bindings. Here are a few flight sticks (but be sure to grab one soon, as they’re selling out quickly):

We also paired it with a massive 44-inch Lenovo Legion Y44 curved monitor ($1,032.99, originally $1,199.99; lenovo.com), which aided in the realism, as it felt like we were at the helm of a plane. We didn’t need to pan the cam at all to see both windows because the 44 inches gave us ample room. It really was an ultimate setup, and while it’s costly for this specific monitor, there are more affordable curved options that still provide a cockpit sensation.

Customizing your experience

Microsoft

Once you’ve got a feel for how to get up into the air, you can play with all the different options. You can, as previously mentioned, drop a pin and choose a destination by setting your departure and arrival airports. This is a very free-form game mode, with low stakes and fairly low stress (unless you crash, of course). You can also check flight plans from flights currently going on in real life to follow those if you’d like, which adds a fun element of realism to the game.

Further, you can tackle a series of built-in challenges to try to prove your worth as a formidable pilot. If none of that interests you, you don’t have to fly at all. You can sit back, relax and head to an airport to watch flights taking off and landing, which makes for a surprisingly addictive experience. It’s fun to fly on your own, but when you watch folks who have done this a million times online — or watch digital versions of real planes that are taking off and landing in real time — there’s just something calming about it that lulls you into a nice, comfortable state.

Whether you’re just curious and want to fly over your house in the game, or you want to match your flying skills against other pilots loading into Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, there’s a suitable set of options for you. Most of your time will likely be spent simply exploring the globe via drone, which lets you get up close and personal with the buildings and structures on the ground, including vehicles. It’s a lot of fun to simply pick random areas and explore them, especially if you don’t have a destination in mind.

A high-flying simulator

MICROSOFT

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is truly a marvel when it comes to everything it accomplishes. From the sheer variety of planes, to the destinations you can explore across the globe, to the amount of polish it sports, it’s clear an abundance of love and care went into making the game a reality. Microsoft really did knock it out of the park with this Flight Simulator release, even if you only use it as a way to watch what’s going on in the rest of the world while you wait to be able to travel again in real life.

If you’re looking for a game that has a ridiculous amount of content or you’re even a smidge curious about what it’s like to fly a plane, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is a must-buy. It’s an essential buy for anyone who’s into exquisite detail, fantastic gameplay and those moments that make you marvel over what can be accomplished these days by technology. It’s a triumphant return for the Flight Simulator series and one of the best titles of 2020 thus far.

Better yet, you don’t need to wait to take to the skies. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is out right now and starts at $59.99 for the standard version. You can opt for Deluxe at $89.99, or $119.99 for Premium.

  • Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Standard Edition ($59.99; microsoft.com)
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Deluxe Edition ($89.99; microsoft.com)
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 Premium Edition ($119.99; microsoft.com)