March 2, 2012

Microsoft Flight - Release Week Review

Microsoft Flight is exactly what simulator fans guessed it would be when the title was announced. The message is clear: Less simulation, more game, on a free-to-play-but-you-should-pay model. It's a move to make the series much more accessible, and more fun for people who aren't like me.

By default, you control the airplane with your freaking mouse, after all. What the hell?

A game system of achievements, missions, and "Pilotwings"-esque challenges have been laid on top of what is still largely the same flight simulator engine. Basically, this game is trying to appeal to very casual new players and the old flight simulator geeks at the same time, so I'm going to split this review into two, based on two entirely different sets of expectations.

The Review for Non-Simulator Fans:

The first thing anyone will notice is naturally, the installer program. Usually, a review doesn't have to mention the installer, but in this case, it's unfortunately very relevant.

The installer is broken.

That's right, the game may be free, and trust me, it runs pretty well on even a crappy computer, but if you aren't running the exact specs they developed the game on (hell, maybe even if you are) then the installer will crash a few times. This is primarily due to Microsoft Flight getting lumped in with the terrible Games for Windows Live service, which ruined "Fable III" last year. GFWL is supposed to be like an Xbox Dashboard for your PC games, which would be fine if it just worked unintrusively. But nope, the installer for GFWL crashes over and over, and then the installer for Flight crashes because of GFWL, then Flight crashes on load-up because of GFWL, and basically GFWL ruins everything. To play a Microsoft game, you must don this albatross called GFWL and wear it with pride throughout.

But evading that glaring issue for the moment, what is the game like? Well, it's a simple, pretty flight game that lets you fly around Hawaii, doing missions and challenges if you want. The challenges are an awful lot like the "Pilotwings" games, in which you fly a plane through various kinds of hoops. There's Gold Rush, a mode in which you have to fly through 25 hoops in a concentrated dangerous area in a short time limit. There are capital-C Challenges, which have you fly through a linear course of hoops in an interesting area while doing aerobatic maneuvers like loops and barrel rolls. Then there are Aerocaches, hidden hoops you spend a long time finding based on clues the game gives you, so you can fly through those hoops.

Missions are usually as simple as "fly from this airport to that airport" but give you a passenger who says things from time to time and likes to pee her pants. Seriously, every passenger has the bowel and bladder control of a zoo elephant on Flomax, and they like to talk about it. There must be a button to tell them to use the bathroom before a flight, but I haven't found it yet.

The initial game is free-to-play, but you can spend $20 on opening the game world up from the island of Hawaii to the entire island chain of Hawaii. You start off with only an Icon A5 (an airplane/seaplane that looks like a car and flies about as easily), a Boeing Stearman (a biplane), and a Van's Kitplane (one that real people order the parts for then build at home, but no one in the game will shut up about how fast and powerful it is). You can then purchase a Maule bush plane (the coolest little plane from Flight Simulator X) and a P-51 Mustang (WWII fighter). The Maule and P-51 cost approximately ten times too much at around $15 and $5, respectively. They add to the game, and are both neat planes, but Jesus Christ, $15 for one stupid plane with only two paint configurations? And the Mustang doesn't even have a cockpit for some reason, so you can only fly while viewing it from outside, which ruins whatever cool factor it had as DLC.

There's no story or career mode or anything, but you do need to complete missions to unlock the next ones, and you level up and earn experience points based on how well you do in each mission. So it takes some effort to reach the Aerobatic competition mission or missions in which you deliver secret clandestine cargo for some reason.

There's not honestly a ton to do in Flight just yet, but it's an attractive game that's well-optimized and runs pretty well, and it's certainly worth the initial admission price of "free." But if I didn't care about planes that much, the DLC is too costly to justify sticking around any longer. When the game adds new free content, it'll be worth loading up again, but besides that, the experience is done after about a week.

For Simulator Fans:

You might not wanna get out your whole simulator rig right off the bat. The game doesn't support TrackIR, first of all, so no need to put that on. The game doesn't support axis controls for about a million things that should have axis controls, like brakes and trim, so have fun mapping everything to buttons, instead. And if you set all the realism settings up as high as they can go (which isn't very high) then you might be missing out on the action-y challenges, which are clearly made for people who don't have to worry about yaw dynamics.  This game is not made for you. The simulator engine is still there, but good luck finding and programming in your ILS approaches (which I think is still possible, if you can find out the real world frequencies), because this game doesn't even mention the radio at all.

I used to like a little FSX add-on called FSEconomy, which populated the world with little transport jobs to do. The missions in Flight are like that, except with only five planes, no job variety, no cash to worry about, and it's not very fun. I don't fully understand why this isn't fun and that third-party add-on was. Maybe it was because I was able to worry about ILS approaches and optimal routes and stuff in FSEconomy. Maybe it was because I could fly anywhere in the world, and not just Hawaii. Maybe it was because I could fly jets and turboprops. Or maybe the cash to buy new planes was the motivator. In any of these cases, FSX with the add-on was the more fun and complete experience, and Flight's got a lot of work to do in order to catch up.

The weather effects in Flight are nice-looking, but limited, and completely static. And if you happen to look in the wrong direction from any height, the clouds all sit in a very noticeable repeated pattern.

The terrain is legitimately very well done, very detailed and satisfying to fly by. However, it's just Hawaii, even if you spend $20. The amount of detail in these islands is almost worrisome, because I can't imagine how much more work they'll have to do to expand the world out a little more. Flight Simulator games have included the entire world for years and years, so Hawaii feels awfully claustrophobic.

I hope you like little General Aviation planes. There is clear evidence that we will get more powerful planes at some point (there's an achievement for hitting Mach 3 when you have to cheat the lack of plane-ripping-apart-at-high-speed physics to even break the regular sound barrier with any of these planes) and that's generally how this game feels. It could be okay, but there needs to be more content. This is a decent start, but it feels like a Beta.

The game looks good, but I want to post this video from another flight simulation work in progress, just to show that people are doing much, much better without any sweet Microsoft money.

Basically, Microsoft Flight is okay, but it's such a step down in terms of content from Flight Simulator X that it's disappointing. You can't even argue that the game is free, because if you want all the content available (five planes and an island chain) you're already up to spending about $40. That's bordering on the real price of FSX. Hell, you can buy FSX right now for $20. It won't look quite as good, and it won't run as well on your system, but you'll get the entire earth with a few dozen planes (including, you know, jets) and about as many missions as Flight offers, including the good old Rod Machado learn-to-fly missions. 

In fact, that's one major problem I have with Flight. The game's missions are almost entirely divorced from anything a General Aviation pilot might do. You learn to fly by making a water landing outside a cruise ship, then head straight into aerobatics competitions. There's nowhere to grow! The game doesn't ever teach you anything about flying! When I was younger, I played FS2004 and flew strict traffic patterns so I could earn virtual pilot's licenses like the dork I was. If you are new to aviation and you load up Flight, don't become curious about all the crazy dials in front of you, because nothing in the game will let you know what they are. You can fly at night in Flight, but without the instrument-reading tools to actually be successful without seeing where you're going. Basically, Flight is fun at times but frustrating as hell, which is exactly what we expected and exactly what we got.