Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox Series X/S
Release Date: August 18, 2020 (PC) / July 27, 2021 (Xbox)
If any one video game can chart the progress of PC development, it’s Microsoft Flight Simulator. First released in 1982, the title has been through 12 iterations, each one taking advantage of the latest technology and gaming trends. The newest version, simply called Microsoft Flight Simulator, not only looks fantastic, but also leverages Microsoft’s satellite imagery and live weather data to provide the most realistic experience yet. In addition, the game is also compatible with VR headsets and, in a first, with the Xbox Series X, opening it up to an even wider audience.
As I was writing this Microsoft Flight Simulator review, I would get lost for hours simply admiring everything outside the cockpit. It’s one of the reasons we gave it a Tom’s Guide Award as the best PC game of the year.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: Price and availability
The game is available in three versions. The Standard Edition costs $59.99, and will let you fly 20 different planes. The Deluxe Edition ($89.99) includes 25 aircraft, and the Premium Deluxe Edition ($119.99) includes 35 aircraft.
While all versions let you land and take off from 37,000 airports around the world, each edition has "handcrafted" airports with additional details. The Standard Edition has 30 such airports, the Deluxe, 35, and the Premium Deluxe, 40 airports.
The Standard Edition is also available as part of Xbox Game Pass for PC and the Xbox.
In the game itself, you can download additional updates, some of which are free, and others of which cost money. For example, you can install more detailed airports or more aircraft, from a WWI-era Bleriot XI to an F-15 Eagle. Most of these à la carte offerings range in price from a few bucks to as much as $50.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: System requirements and updates
Microsoft Flight Simulator requires, at minimum, a Windows 10 PC with either an Intel i5-4460 or AMD Ryzen 3 1200 processor, an Nvidia GTX 770 or AMD Radeon RX 570 GPU, 8 GB RAM, 2 GB VRAM, 150GB of hard drive space, and support for DirectX 11. Here is a link to the minimum, recommended, and ideal specs, according to Asobo.
|CPU||Ryzen 3 1200||Intel i5-4460|
|GPU||Radeon RX 570||Nvidia GTX 770|
|Bandwidth||5 Mbps||5 Mbps|
|CPU||Ryzen 5 1500X||Intel i5-8400|
|GPU||Radeon RX 590||Nvidia GTX 970|
|Bandwidth||20 Mbps||20 Mbps|
|CPU||Ryzen 7 Pro 2700X||Intel i7-9800X|
|GPU||Radeon VII||Nvidia RTX 2080|
|Storage||150GB SSD||150GB SSD|
|Bandwidth||50 Mbps||50 Mbps|
To test the game, I used an Alienware Area m51 with an Nvidia GeForce 2080 GPU, a 3.6 GHz Intel Core i9-9900K CPU, with 64GB of RAM. However, a large update in late July 2021 has made the game less of a drag on system resources, enabling better performance from lower-specced systems. After this update, with the graphics at Ultra settings, I was able to average between 50-60 fps on my flights, with the GPU output at around 80 percent and the CPU around 20 percent.
It’s also a large game. The initial download was 90.99GB, and a subsequent update was another 40GB. Waiting for these to install was like sitting in an overcrowded airport terminal. It added yet another aspect of reality to flight, albeit one that Microsoft probably didn’t intend.
Since its release, there have been numerous updates to Microsoft Flight Simulator, which have either added better detail in certain regions — such as better-rendered landmarks— or refinements to aircraft and various bug fixes.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 VR headset compatibility
Microsoft Flight Simulator supports OpenXR-compatible headsets, such as Valve Index, Oculus Rift S, the HP Reverb G2, and Oculus Quest with Link.
Previously, you could sign up for a closed VR beta program—in which it looks like you can use any VR headset—but you'll need at least an Intel Core i5-8400 or AMD Ryzen 5 1500X processor, an Nvidia GTX 1080 or equivalent GPU, and at least 16GB of RAM.
However, this latest update opens the flight simulator to a number of other VR headsets.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: Visuals and sound
June 17: Release 184.108.40.206 (World Update V): The Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are getting their due, and five airport landing challenges have been added.
To put it simply, the graphics are stunning. If anything, the best reason to play Microsoft Flight Simulator is simply to gaze in wonder at all the Earth has to offer, both natural and artificial. Passing over highways, you can see cars and trucks driving, with an astounding lack of gridlock — perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of the game.
Because everything is generated from Microsoft’s extensive world-mapping database, it’s as close to looking out the window of a real plane as you’re going to get. Outside of Google or Apple, it’s hard to imagine any other company being able to pull this off.
There are a few instances where the graphics could use some work, though. In the New York City area, the graphics under more than a few bridges were distorted, making it look like there was a curtain hanging from their lower decks.
Suffice it to say, invest in a good monitor to really bask in all that the game has to offer. It’s also helpful because many important popup screens — such as Air Traffic Control, your flight map, and navigation log — can quickly take up a lot of real estate.
You can set the Simulator to any time of the day or night, and you can also incorporate real-time weather information, which adds in even more realism and challenge.
Audio-wise, there’s not much to speak of, as the main sound you’ll hear is the thrum of your airplane’s engine. This too, is modeled well, as each aircraft has its own unique sound. The only other sounds are those of alarms and air-traffic control.
Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: Gameplay
While I’m not exactly a novice with flight simulators or flying games, it’s been a number of years since I sat behind the yoke. As such, I was pretty rusty coming into Flight Simulator 2020. No problem, I thought. I’ll just take the training courses — there are a handful, and they cover both propeller aircraft and jets — and I’ll be off flying the friendly skies.
Then I tried landing. It took several tries before I could safely land a Cessna 152 — your garden-variety single-propeller aircraft. Fortunately, the simulator can be very forgiving, and lets you adjust how “real” you want your flight experience to be.
Even so, there’s a real learning curve. After about a dozen flights in various propeller aircraft, I felt bold enough to fly a Boeing 747 out of San Francisco International Airport. I figured I’d swoop down low over the Golden Gate Bridge and snap a few picturesque photos for this review. Before you could say Coit Tower, I had all sorts of alarms and warnings going off in the cockpit.
You can take off and land from virtually anywhere on the Earth. A World Map lets you select where you’d like to go, the aircraft, and the time of day.
On the other hand, if you just want to sit back and enjoy the view, there are a handful of discovery flights where the simulator does all the flying.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 aircraft
The following aircraft are available in Microsoft Flight Simulator:
|Standard Edition||Deluxe Edition||Premium Deluxe Edition|
|Aviat Pitts Special S2S||X||X||X|
|Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental||X||X||X|
|Daher TBM 930||X||X||X|
|Diamond DA40 NG||X||X||X|
|Flight Design CTLS||X||X||X|
|Robin CAP 10||X||X||X|
|Robin DR400-100 Cadet||X||X||X|
|Beechcraft Bonanza G36||X||X||X|
|Beechcraft King Air 350i||X||X||X|
|Cessna 172 Skyhawk (G1000)||X||X||X|
|Cessna 208 B Grand Caravan EX||X||X||X|
|Cessna Citation CJ4||X||X||X|
|Zlin Savage Cub||X||X||X|
|Beechcraft Baron G58||X||X|
|Cessna 152 Aerobat||X||X|
|Cessna 172 Skyhawk||X||X|
|Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner||X|
|Pipistrel Virus SW 121||X|
|Cessna Citation Longitude||X|
|Zlin Shock Ultra||X|
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 airports
According to Microsoft, players can land and take off from around 37,000 airports around the world. However, 40 of these airports have "hand-crafted" elements, offering more detail and other features. So, for instance, all players will be able to fly into San Francisco's airport, but only those who have the Premium Deluxe version will be able to see these hand-crafted items. Microsoft has not specified what the exact differences are between hand-crafted and non-handcrafted versions.
|Standard Edition||Deluxe Edition||Premium Deluxe Edition|
|Aspen/Pikin County (USA)||X||X||X|
|Bugalaga Airstrip (Indonesia)||X||X||X|
|Chagual Airport (Peru)||X||X||X|
|Courchevel Altiport (France)||X||X||X|
|Donegal Airport (Ireland)||X||X||X|
|Entebbe Int'l Airport (Uganda)||X||X||X|
|Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira Int'l Airport (Portugal)||X||X||X|
|Gibraltar Int'l Airport (UK)||X||X||X|
|Innsbruck Airport (Austria)||X||X||X|
|Los Angeles Int'l Airport (USA)||X||X||X|
|Tenzing-Hillary Airport (Nepal)||X||X||X|
|Nanwalek Airport (USA)||X||X||X|
|John F. Kennedy Int'l Airport (USA)||X||X||X|
|Orlando Int'l Airport (USA)||X||X||X|
|Paris Charles de Gaulle Int'l Airport (France)||X||X||X|
|Paro Int'l Airport (Bhutan)||X||X||X|
|Queenstown Airport (New Zealand)||X||X||X|
|Mariscal Sucre Int'l Airport (Ecuador)||X||X||X|
|Rio de Janeiro-Antonio Carlos Jobim Int'l Airport (Brazil)||X||X||X|
|Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (Dutch Saba)||X||X||X|
|Gustaf III Airport (France)||X||X||X|
|Seattle-Tacoma Int'l Airport (USA)||X||X||X|
|Sedona Airport (USA)||X||X||X|
|Sirena Aerodrome (Costa Rica)||X||X||X|
|Stewart Airport (Canada)||X||X||X|
|Sydney Airport (Australia)||X||X||X|
|Telluride Regional Airport (USA)||X||X||X|
|Haneda Airport (Japan)||X||X||X|
|Toncontin Int'l Airport (Honduras)||X||X||X|
|Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (Canada)||X||X||X|
|Schiphol Airport (Netherlands)||X||X|
|Cairo Int'l Airport (Egypt)||X||X|
|Cape Town Int'l Airport (South Africa)||X||X|
|O'Hare Int'l Airport (USA)||X||X|
|Adolfo Suarez Madrid Barajas (Spain)||X||X|
|Denver Int'l Airport (USA)||X|
|Frankfurt Airport (Germany)||X|
|Heathrow Airport (UK)||X|
|San Francisco Int'l Airport (USA)||X|
Microsoft Flight Simulator: Recommended peripherals
For those who plan to purchase Microsoft Flight Simulator, the company recommends the following peripherals, which include a variety of flight controls:
|Extreme 3D Pro||F/A-18 Grip||Honeycomb Aeronautical|
|Flight Rudder Pedals||Warthog HOTAS (stick + throttle)||Virtual Fly|
|Flight Throttle Quadrant||MFD Cougar||Ruddo+|
|Flight Yoke System||Pendular Rudder||TQ3+|
|X52||T.Flight Stick X||TQ6+|
|X52 Pro||T.16000M (stick only)||V3rnio TPM|
|X56||T.16000M FCS (stick + throttle + rudder)||Yoko+|
|T.Flight HOTAS 4||Microsoft|
|T.Flight HOTAS One||Xbox Controller|
|T.Flight HOTAS X||Xbox Adaptive Controller|
|T-Flight Rudder Pedals|
Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) review: Verdict
In some ways, calling Microsoft Flight Simulator a "game" is doing it a disservice. There are no bosses to defeat, no coins to collect and nothing to “win.” It’s more like an experience. The attention to detail is truly impressive, especially if you have a system that can take advantage of it all. If you’ve been cooped up in your apartment, it’s the perfect pandemic game to get out and see the world without ever leaving your home.