It's not very often that a game makes me audibly gasp (in a good way). But then, Asobo Studios' Microsoft Flight Simulator isn't any ordinary game. There's been a lot of hype around the series' first major entry since 2006's Microsoft Flight Simulator X (watch the reveal trailer, and you'll know why) - and I'm pleased to report that the latest version absolutely lives up to that hype, delivering a breathtaking technical achievement wrapped around a highly enjoyable and largely accessible flight sim.
The basic concept of Microsoft Flight Simulator remains the same as ever - pilot your chosen aircraft, explore the world, and attempt to navigate from Point A to Point B without suffering any nasty accidents. And while the planes themselves are meticulously detailed both in and out of the cockpit, the star of the show is the game's utterly stunning recreation of planet Earth, which incorporates over 37,000 accessible airports in total - some of them carefully handcrafted.
By the time you've taken off, carried out all your procedures and given yourself a chance to finally peer out the window, you'll be struck with how utterly stunning this game looks from the air. This is particularly true if you turn on the map streaming feature, which uses real satellite data to make every location appear as authentic as possible, whether you're gazing down at busy city streets or small countryside towns in the middle of nowhere.
Because of this, the possibilities for exploration are almost endless. You can embark on big commercial flights and marvel at the most detailed clouds in gaming history at 30,000ft, or hop in a light aircraft and explore some of the famous monuments around the world. And yes - you can even try and find your own house, workplace or favourite sports stadium. You begin to see some of the cracks in the details when you explore these up close, but it's entirely possible to track down even some of the most remote locations throughout the world, and they're often surprisingly accurate.
And as if a realistic representation of the entire globe wasn't enough, the game even incorporates features such as real-time traffic and live weather, transforming it into a living, breathing world. You can explore sunny skies, rainstorms, heavy winds and intense snowfall at the exact locations and times they're taking place in real life, as well as track the paths of legitimate flights that are occurring at that very moment. It's seriously mind-blowing stuff.
I'll happily admit that when it comes to actually flying the plane, I'm not exactly what you'd call an experienced pilot. Fortunately, Microsoft Flight Simulator comes equipped with a handful of tutorials that teach you skills such as performing a successful landing and understanding traffic patterns. The downside to these is that they're far from exhaustive and only detail how to use one specific plane - the Cessna 152 - but fortunately there are also a range of menu options and in-game assists that allow you to tweak the game's difficulty to your liking.
In fact, the entire experience can pretty much be customised in one way or another. Want to encounter other live players on the map while you're in the air? Make it so. Feel like changing the weather mid-flight or even altering the position of the clouds? It's possible at the click of a button. You don't even have to fly the plane yourself if you don't want to - your co-pilot can take over as much of the journey as you like, including handling pre-flight checklists, or you can simply skip between different sections of the flight at will. There's plenty of scope to make every journey your own.
I can't compare the experience of flying in Microsoft Flight Simulator to someone who has years of actual real world experience at the controls, but it certainly feels responsive, intuitive and highly enjoyable. My only nit-pick would be the lack of a damage model, which means that in the case of a crash, you either find yourself bouncing off the ground or abruptly facing a black screen with an ugly single-line prompt. Don't get me wrong - I'm not asking for ultra-realistic fiery wrecks, but it would be nice to see some kind of collision model in the future.
In terms of modes, there's more at your disposal than the game's primary World Map feature, although it's certainly the highlight of the package, allowing you to pick literally anywhere in the world to begin your flight. But if you feel like testing your mettle online, you can compete in tricky landing challenges with full leaderboard support, as well as long-distance Bush Trips. And of course, Microsoft Flight Simulator includes full multiplayer, allowing you to take the experience online with your friends and fly anywhere in the world together.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, too. As you might expect, Asobo says it's planning to support Microsoft Flight Simulator for many years to come, and the developer already has some exciting updates in the pipeline (at least on PC) including the addition of VR support later this year. It would be great to see some kind of career mode implemented into the game at some point in the future, but even if the team at Asobo doesn't get around to it, Flight Sim has a famously active mod scene that will likely transform the game with incredible new features over time.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is nothing short of revolutionary, featuring an almost impossibly large, authentic and living open world that's bound to take your breath away. Asobo and Xbox Game Studios have delivered a truly special entry in this historic franchise, and it's only going to get better in the years to come.
Now, when is it coming to console again...?