'Microsoft Flight Simulator' Has a Rough Landing on Xbox Series X

It’s harder to play and control than it should be

  • Microsoft Flight Simulator is being ported to consoles for the first time this week, as its 2020 edition lands on the Xbox Series X|S.
  • The port is gorgeous and evocative, but tricky to control.
  • It's a decent game to throw on and chill out with, once you master its intricacies.
Microsoft Flight Simulator screenshot of a plane over a green lake

Microsoft Flight Simulator on Xbox Series X is an incredibly faithful port of last year's award-winning PC game—and that's my biggest problem with it.

This isn't a version of Flight Simulator for the Xbox. It's an attempt to make the existing game fit into a console’s framework, with numerous shortcuts and adaptations made so you can control a realistically depicted airplane straight from the pilot's seat with your Xbox controller.

It's a lot to juggle when you've got the comparative freedom of a keyboard and mouse, or any of the elaborate hardware mockups that serious flight sim fans have put together. When you try to cram all of that into the relatively limited space available on a gamepad, you're asking for trouble.

Having said that, Microsoft Flight Simulator controls fine once you're in flight, but it's the rare video game where I had more trouble with the tutorial than anything else.

The View From Upstairs

Flight Simulator screenshot of airplane over a mountain with clouds

When it launched last year on PC, Flight Simulator was the first entry in the series in 14 years—Flight Simulator X came out in 2006, Gold Edition released in 2008. There was also a blink-and-you-missed-it Flight spin-off in 2012, too.

Its marquee feature is its recreation of the world in virtual space, using Microsoft's Azure technology to pull down maps of the Earth in real-time as you fly above it. You can get into a plane in Flight Simulator and try to land it on the street right outside your window.

From a layman's perspective, it's an amazing technical achievement, combined with some best-in-class graphics, and it's a great game for showing off what the Series X hardware can do. I'm not usually someone who goes around taking a lot of photos in-game, but Flight Simulator will draw it out of you. It's hard not to, when you can get close enough to a virtual Statue of Liberty in New York or Christ the Redeemer in Rio to brush its face with your wingtip.

Nighttime landing screenshot from the game

It's not without its technical issues, however. The game’s download manager has been one of the most widely criticized aspects of the game during its time on the PC, and it isn't any more impressive on Xbox. It takes a long time to boot up on Series X, and much of that is spent laboriously checking the download manager for updates.

When it finds them, it acts like it's individually ferrying every packet on horseback. A 1.16 GB content update has been pending for two days at time of writing, and has yet to complete despite the game running for hours as I flew around the Croatian coastline.

Juggling Acts

Flight Simulator menu for All Assists

Flight Simulator 2020 left me with a new appreciation for what pilots do. You can broadly tweak the game's degree of accuracy in the options menu, but even at its lowest settings, there's a lot going on with a moving aircraft: airspeed, altitude, attitude, RPMs, etc. An AI pilot can take some of the work off your hands, but the achievements require you to go manual, and it’s more difficult than I expected.

It's not difficult to stay in the air once you're aloft, but as Indiana Jones taught me, taking off and landing are the hardest parts, and I've hardly mastered either. Just flying around is surprisingly easy, and the rest works out with a little practice.

Just like the PC version, however, the user interface leaves a lot to be desired. The menus are notoriously dense, with many useful features like "active pause" hidden behind layers of options. On the Xbox, this is further complicated by an awkward virtual mouse pointer that's a slog to use.

It gives Flight Simulator on Xbox an even steeper learning curve than it already had on PC. Microsoft would have been better off trying to make a new version of its simulator, rather than simply porting it straight across.

If you're willing to put up with that, it's a beautiful game that lets you sight-see across the entire world in real time, while flying a variety of actual aircraft. It's a big sandbox to play in.

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