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Whether you need to fulfill your Top Gun fantasies or just explore the wild blue yonder, these are our top picks for the best flight simulators. While they are a bit of a rare breed these days, flight sims are beloved by some of the most dedicated fans in gaming. These sims have flight models that range from pure fiction to exacting simulations.
If you're looking for a game that's as close to the real thing as you can get without stepping into the cockpit, it's tough to beat the surgical accuracy of Microsoft Flight Simulator. However, if you're in the mood to launch more missiles than Bill Pullman in Independence Day, look no further than the venerable Ace Combat series. While most of these can be played with either a mouse and keyboard or a controller, you may want to invest in a solid joystick or HOTAS setup depending on your level of commitment.
Take a look at our list of the best flight simulators below.
Incredibly realistic simulation
Thousands of airports
Accurate weather modeling
Experience the cockpit in X-Plane 11 Global Flight Simulator. This 3D simulator brings one of the most genuine experiences for serious flight sim fans with its thousands of airports and immersive landscapes including accurate weather and realistic cities. Even beginners can take to the skies with the smooth and easy-to-learn controls.
While setup takes a bit of time, it’s more than worth the wait the moment you set out in one of seven aircraft models. X-Plane 11 includes a completely new interface that boasts speed and accessibility for players of any skill level. This simulator comes highly recommended by professional pilots and can help prepare anyone interested in testing for their pilot’s license.
With impressive graphics and accurate details, flight enthusiasts of all kinds will be instantly immersed and lost in the highly detailed environments.
Available for Windows 7, 8, or 10 with a 64-bit CPU: Intel Core i5.
Tons of additional content
Slightly dated-feeling interface
Take your flight simulation to the next level with the expansive Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Gold Edition. Create your own routes, fly across the world, and even make your very own airplanes.
Plus, with mission-based play, your time in the skies can last for hours at a time with over 80 assignments from around the globe. You can even extend your gameplay by downloading plane skins and purchasing add-ons from third-party developers. You can make the plane of your dreams with endless possibilities.
This game does require a powerful graphics card and processor which, combined with its high price, could cost you a pretty penny in the end.
Microsoft Flight Simulator: Gold Edition is available for Windows XP, 7, and 8 in standard and deluxe editions, the latter of which comes with even more cities, planes, and airports to explore.
Excellent space program sim
Realistic aerodynamics and orbital physics
Varied game modes
Steep learning curve
Looking for an out-of-this-world experience that will take you to infinity and beyond? Get ready to take to the stars with Kerbal Space Program. Build your own spacecraft as you take charge of the titular space program for an adorable alien race known as Kerbals. Using accurate and realistic aerodynamics and orbital physics, this game makes employs you to explore space and keep your crew alive. You even have to engineer your ship to make sure it takes off.
Kerbal isn’t your typical flight simulator, but it’s a fun and engaging take on the genre nonetheless. It includes a ton of features that will test your creativity and keep you entertained for hours on end. Try out three different game modes — Science, Career, and Sandbox — each of which you'll want to play over and over again. Plus, there's a set of expansions and an enhanced edition to keep the game going.
Kerbal Space Program is available for Windows XP SP2, Vista, 7, 8, and 10.
Authentic helicopter sim
Included multiplayer mode
Experience the thrill of helicopters in one of the best immersive simulators out there, Take On Helicopters. Built after 10 years of experience developing complex military simulators, this game puts players into an authentic helicopter experience, with stunning and rich landscapes serving as a backdrop.
With three helicopter models to choose from, players can improve their flight skills while taking on challenging mission-based gameplay. Experience the various skills and techniques needed for a chopper pilot from aerial crane lifting to ambulance duties to military transport. Looking for some multiplayer action? There’s an online mode, complete with built-in voice chat.
Though there are plenty of missions and modes to choose from, the environment is a bit restrictive. The only options are Seattle and South Asia. But it's ideal for flight simulator fans of all sorts, from novice to expert, nevertheless.
Take On Helicopters is available for Windows XP, Vista, and 7.
Fun arcade combat
Fascinating world and storyline
Huge selection of aircraft
Time-based mission evaluations
Earn your stripes in the amazingly realistic world of Strangereal in Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. Whether you’re ready to be struck breathless from the highly detailed animation or looking for intense aerial combat, Ace Combat is ready to bring it all.
This game combines current, real-life, and near-future weaponry that makes combat engaging and immersive. Weather and environment shape gameplay, posing a unique challenge to most competing flight simulators. Players can experience intense dogfights in player-versus-player (PvP) mode with a multitude of aircraft to choose from. Enhance your aerial combat experience with full 360-degree movement and unadulterated thrills.
The biggest downside is your mission rankings are based on time, which means your killstreak is not nearly as important as getting the mission done in a timely fashion, a notable departure from previous Ace Combat games.
Ace Combat 7 is available for Windows 7, 8.1, and 10.
For highly detailed, realistic flight models, look no further than X-Plane 11 or Microsoft's storied Flight Simulator. If you're in the mood for arcade-style, chaotic air combat backed by a surprisingly cohesive and interesting story, check out Ace Combat 7 and its wild world of Strangereal.
Zach Sweat is an experienced games and tech journalist whose work has appeared in outlets like IGN and Void Media. He earned a dual degree in multimedia journalism and photography from the University of North Florida.
Lauren Hill is a gaming expert with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of North Texas. Her body of work includes landing pages for IP like Dragon Ball Z and Your Name, and has appeared in publications like Current Digital Magazine and B-TEN.
Plane selection - Each flight simulator game offers a different array of planes you can fly. A WWII game will have historical planes from that era, while games set in today’s time will have more modern jets. Some games even have the option to create your own flyer.Detail level - The graphics of your game make all the difference. While part of it depends on the capabilities of your gaming system, the development of the game will also play a factor. The more realistic and detailed the graphics are, the more immersive the experience will be.Add-ons - At their most basic, all flight simulators are the same. However, it’s the add-ons that really set one game apart from another. If variation is important to you, look for games with lots of different airports and landscapes. You can also alter the experience by manipulating the weather conditions, cargo weights, and airplane skins.