Boeing Stearman flying against thunderstorms.
The game launches straight into its first tutorial, which has you flying the Icon A5 around hot air balloons to introduce you to the default controls. Initially, it feels odd piloting a plane with a mouse, but the tutorials are put together extremely well and give you just enough information to help you get through your first challenge, without bogging you down with loads of information you feel you have to remember. You will end up doing some missions, maybe even this first one, more than once because you want to get a perfect score, as it always feels just within reach. This is where the option to skip the intro cut-scene of a mission that you have already played would be nice. The voice acting and dialog of the characters that guide you through the various tutorials are brilliant; both sound honest and real and aside from sometimes hearing the same lines over and over again through replaying missions, or the occasional out of sync audio-cue, the characters themselves don't get old at all.
By the end of this first mission, you feel you have really achieved something. Even if you have never played any kind of simulator before, the tutorials are built so well that everything just clicks into place. They are also intuitive; if you plugged an XBOX Controller in to your PC before launching a tutorial, the game will recognize this and adapt it visual cues accordingly. So, where it might normally say use the mouse-wheel to adjust the throttle, it might instead say use the LB and RB buttons to adjust the throttle. This was a nice surprise, I thought I would have to play it through once normally, and then figure out how to perform the same actions with a different device.
With the standard controls, the mouse is used to gently lead the nose of the aircraft. Some people will possibly be coming from a background of arcade/combat flight simulators, in which case, the feel of flying is very different. It requires care and delicate mouse inputs to adjust the planes course, unlike wrenching an analog stick one way or the other.
When the tutorials progress to start covering things like aerobatic maneuvers, the default controls might not be the best way to go. Firstly, in order to be able to perform aerobatics, the game will tell you to turn off the 'Increased Stability' option from the Gameplay Options menu. If you are playing with a keyboard and mouse, you need to use the arrow keys to perform aerobatic maneuvers. However, the arrow keys have no sensitivity so this can become quite awkward. The game will auto-detect if you plug in any external devices like controllers or joy-sticks, which are great fun to use and occasionally make some things easier.
There are different cameras to choose from and you'll probably end up using quite a few of them even for routine flights. Switching between them is straight forward as they are bound to the high end of the F Keys. Holding down the right mouse button while flying locks the mouse controls, and allows you to move the camera around relative to the camera mode you are in. I tend to fly in Cockpit View (unless I'm flying a basic aircraft which doesn't have a cockpit view) for the majority of a journey. I've become proficient enough that I can perform a lot of basic operations using the actual interface in the cockpit. When I want to look around at either my aircraft or the scenery, I switch to Chase View, which is set behind the aircraft but still shows clearly where the nose is pointing. I also use this to help me line up when I'm circling around, trying to line up for a runway. The last one I use is Top-Down view, which I only ever use to taxi from and to runways when I'm on the ground.
I was very appreciative of the fact that they have accommodated open-cockpit aircraft such as the Boeing PT-17 Stearman (FSX freeware here), in which it's very difficult to see over the nose. If you hold down the mouse-wheel, you can move your view point and effectively lean over the side of the aircraft to get a better view.
The camera views and controls are all well designed; I only experienced one little glitch whereby the camera seemed to mount on the propeller and spin uncontrollably. But it only happened once, and it was only on one camera mode.
The overall user-interface is simple, clean and efficient. Menus are very easy to navigate, especially after the 'Flight Tips' tutorials show you around. Within the game itself, when flying around, the heads-up-display sits at the top of the screen and doesn't interfere at all. All the information you need from wind speed, altitude, heading etc. can all be found in the one place. You can, of course, turn it off all together if you wish, and get all the information from carefully monitoring the cockpit view.
Map Screen, Hangar & Jobs
The Map Screen is where you access everything and set up your flights. It has a large clear map of all available geography in the game (the parts that you haven't purchased from GFWL are grayed out) with various icons scattered around representing airports, missions and even other players. Using the mouse you can position the icon of your aircraft anywhere you want to start flying, or click on an airport and select a runway to take-off from.
The Hangar is accessed through the Map Screen, and it contains all the aircraft you have unlocked and all the aircraft available for purchase through the GFWL. The Hangar offers stunning models of each aircraft, with a selection of paint schemes for each one, more of which can be unlocked by meeting certain criteria within the game. Details of each aircraft are displayed as well as a fuel option, with sliders that show how the range and weight of the aircraft changes the more or less fuel you put in.
You can choose to set the Flight Conditions from the main Map Screen. These range from setting the time of day down to the minute, the season and the date. A wide range of weather conditions such as clear skies, isolated thunderstorms, dense fog and squalls help keep things fresh. All these settings are persistent and will be active in whatever mode you play, Free Flight, Challenges, Aerocache Hunts and Missions, unless the mission has specific settings. Some of these settings can make piloting an aircraft a lot harder, so you are awarded bonus points if, for instance, you complete a challenge at night. All the flight conditions you have selected, along with your chosen aircraft are summarized in the lower left of the map screen.
There are plenty of missions that can be accessed from the Map Screen, which you can do whenever you want, providing you meet the requirements for each one; for some you may need to be a certain level or need to have done another mission. These range from things like flying an astronomer to an observatory and climbing above the clouds so they can take pictures of a comet, to tutorial missions that teach you the basics of landing tail-draggers, aerobatic shows and more.
All airports have job boards, where you can pick up small, randomly generated jobs that have you charter passengers, deliver cargo such as livestock or safely transport a nurse and her patient.
The first job that I took from an airport was to take a passenger 15 NM to a small diner so that he could have one of his favourite burgers. He was a nervous flyer, so I made an extra effort to try and get him there with minimal complications. Every now and again he would have some quirky comment that helped build his character, and really bolster the belief that I was actually his pilot, to the point where, when the option came up to 'Skip To Waypoint' I didn't want to. I spent a good ten minutes making sure we weren't flying too low and avoiding any unnecessary turbulence so as not to upset my passenger, and took special care not to bounce the aircraft on landing.
Challenges and Aerocaches
If you're not looking for the narrative side of things, there are plenty of small consumable experiences to be found. Alongside Free Flight, which allows you to do whatever you want, there are various Challenges and Aerocache hunts.
Challenges are good fun and more often than not, I found I was using them to hone my skills rather than earn points. There is no obligation tied to them, you don't feel you have to sit there for ages trying to get gold on all of them, if you do end up doing that it's because you want to. As the games like Goldrush and Hoops are the only kind of experience you can't get from Free Flight.
The aerocaches are a neat idea, I think it's great that they appear regardless of what you're doing. Plus, the fact that there are so many of them, and new ones are added all the time, gives you something else that you can keep coming back for, even if only to play for ten or twenty minutes to try and find a couple.
Microsoft Live Integration
You are always online in Microsoft Flight, if you have an internet connection. By default your multi-player session type is set to public, this means that while your in a mission or searching for aerocaches, other pilots will appear in your game. You can change the setting to be completely private so that people can only join your session if you invite them, or allow people in you friends list to join you.
Some aspects of the Pilots Profile, that can be accessed from the Map Screen, are boggling. The stat-tracking is pretty much what you would expect down to little details like 'Maximum Positive G-Force', 'Strongest Crosswind' and 'Time Spent Inverted'. But there are also hundreds of small awards to obtain, some of which I can't even fathom getting. Some that will require some seriously dedicated pilots. There is one to 'accumulate 10,000 hours of total flight time; three and a half years of flying 8 hours a day. But it's nice that there are rewards in place for people that have the willpower to achieve such things.
For the record, I have been playing Microsoft Flight on a reasonably good computer. I'm running Windows Vista 64-Bit with a Q8300 Quad Core Processor 2.3Ghz, 4GB RAM and a GeForce GTS460 with roughly 2GB dedicated RAM. I have been playing on the highest settings with no fuss at all; the frame rate holds up very well. All I would have to say is that every now and again it takes awhile to load when I first launch the game.
On its highest settings the game looks fantastic overall. The aircraft are extremely detailed and the terrain textures are crisp. Weather effects are pretty seamless and even flying through thick, heavy clouds makes my aircraft chug, but not my computer. I spent some time playing the game with everything on its lowest settings and it holds up pretty well. The textures aren't nearly as crisp; it looks like some one has gone over it with a blur tool. But when you're above 700ft you really don't notice. The cockpit is probably what holds up the best on the lower settings. That and the draw distance, which remains vast and unwavering.
The sound is surprisingly one of my favorite aspects of this game. I love the fact that I don't hate all the characters with voices, they're all charming and full of character. I love the detail in the engine noises, how if I decide to open the doors while stall-spining from 15,000ft, I can hear the wind screaming at me as I try to level myself out and survive to deliver the chickens that I've got squawking in the cargo hold.
I only have a couple of small nit-picks. I would have liked it if certain scenery like the trees would lose their leaves if I decide to fly in autumn, and be big and leafy in the summer. That and the fact that when you crash (I know you're supposed to try avoid it but it does happen) the planes act like wicker chairs falling off the back of a truck; they sort of just slide and stumble around until they eventually stop. Even if you stall-spin from 15,000ft and don't recover.
To conclude I guess I would say that this game surprised me, I didn't expect to be able to have quite as much fun as I did with it. Even if I'm making the fun up myself in Free Flight, it's been a long time since a game has asked me to use my imagination, and leave me to it, rather than hold my hand through the entire, carefully orchestrated experience. I look forward to seeing what new content is released in the near future, and hope that it is enough to help generate some strong lasting appeal for what I think is a bold attempt, and a brave new angle at a genre that has been out of reach of so many people for so long.
Official Microsoft Flight Release Video
Below is the official video from Microsoft for the release of Microsoft Flight.