29 Feb 2012

As I've mentioned before, I am a big Flight Simulator X (FSX) fan and am quite familiar with the hardware dependencies of that platform and have built a beast of a machine to run FSX to the full tilt.  Many are welcoming Microsoft Flight on less stringent hardware requirements alone, which should fly with better frame rates on lesser hardware and use DirectX 11, but will this be enough to enchant flight sim enthusiasts?  Microsoft has decided to make the base platform of Microsoft Flight a free-to-play model.  The profit will come from their premium plane and scenery add-ons.

You can download your very own free copy of the simulator from this link.  The download is just a web installer file.  The web installer file will then download the entire program, around 1.5 GB to your machine.  It installs as a Games for Windows Marketplace game.

At least as of now Microsoft Flight is land locked in Hawaii, which compared to the Microsoft Simulators is extremely limited.  One would hope these scenery add-ons will expand the options into the rest of the world.  The only option you have in the free-to-play initial release is to fly a mission around some balloons in the default Icon A5 aircraft.  If you stray too far or take to long they force you to start the mission over.  This initial version feels too much like an arcade to me because of its mission orientated play and stripped down controls.  No where in any of the options could I find a way to break free of the mission(s).  You are very limited on planes and ATC at this point as well, disappointing.

There are other add-on missions that can be had for a fee, as well as challenges and aerocaches.  Aerocaches are like an airborn scavenger hunt.  The other challenges (some that are part of the free version) are unlocked as you play.  I did not take it that far with what I tested, only the initial mission that you are otherwise stuck in.  You unlock those other features by gaining XP points.  Once you complete the balloon mission, it moves on to the next mission and so forth.  UPDATE:  Once you finish the first two missions, you unlock free-play/flight, still this seems like a bad move by Microsoft to force veteran flight simulator users to do the missions before the regular play is unlocked.

The graphics are not bad out of the box, though not quite as good as some of the better add-ons that exist for FSX.  The out of the box performance is better than with FSX.  However, cloud details look rather bland compared to some FSX add-ons like Real Environment Xtreme (REX), at least on my benchmark/baseline machine that I am using just for this first look article.  I did notice some of the water textures looked pretty good, however, actually comparable to REX in some cases (water only).  I'd call these "default" initial scenery graphics to be at least better than the original FSX ones, before you add any of the add-ons.  In my testing machine, I cranked up the graphics to maximum, the results you can see below.  This base reference machine has modest hardware, an i7 at 3.6 GHz and an ATI 5750 GPU on Windows 7 x64 with the resolution set to 1280x1024.

Listed below are the minimum and recommended hardware requirements for Microsoft Flight (Free-to-Play base package):

Initially Microsoft had the recommended video card as an ATI 5870, they appear to have lowered that slightly and now have the ATI 5670 1GB instead.

 

Below is a brief video clip of actual game play that I took, again at maximum graphic settings (set the YouTube clip to 720p):

This video below, is the Microsoft Flight Trailer from Microsoft:

You can go to the online marketplace to buy other planes and the Hawaiian Adventure Pack ($19), but the initial base product is so stripped down, it will take many many add-ons to even come close to what we had out of the box with Flight Simulator X.

For one other test, I used my master FSX setup, my i7 3.6 running at 4.8 GHz with an ATI 5850 graphics card and 16 GB of memory.  I set the graphic quality to high, instead of maximum.  The resolution was eyefinity 5040x1050, as with FSX.  I have three 24" screens that give me this resolution.  Eyefinity basically spans all three screens as if it is one big wide screen.  The Fraps framerate was averaging 22-27 for this initial mission, from within the virtual cockpit (compare this to around 60 for single screen maximum quality above).  In FSX under most scenery I hit 40 FPS easily, with the exception of KSEA (Seattle), where it can dip into the mid 20s near the airport.  Another downside, is if you have TrackIR, at least as of now the head tracking software doesn't work with Microsoft Flight.  I ran the latest game updates in the TrackIR software, but I could not get the integration to work.

So in summary, at least the way things stand right now with what you get out of the box, its my opinion if you are a hard-core flight simulation fan, stick with FSX or X-Plane for the moment.  This release feels very much like a step backward in terms of "simulation" design for Microsoft.

Overall Rating:  6.5 / 10
Verdict:               SKIP


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