The endless appeal of Microsoft Flight Simulator

I’ve been hooked on Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) since the game debuted on Series X consoles a few months ago. It’s honestly a surprise: unlike most games I gravitate towards, the simulator has few concrete objectives or “win” states. I spend 95% of my game time on direct flights between two airports with autopilot doing the heavy lifting. But it’s still an enormously compelling game. MSFS is competence porn on a sandbox of infinite replayability and high realism.

I use the word infinite without exaggeration; the game is dynamic in a way frankly no other modern title could hope to match. MSFS uses Bing maps satellite imagery and 3D photogrammetry to recreate the look of virtually any point on earth, streaming data in real time on a fast internet connection. The results are stunning, at least based on the recreations of places I’m familiar with.

The net effect means in MSFS I can take off, fly, and land practically anywhere in the world. As long I’m game enough to sightsee, it’s hard to get bored. I spent a few hours across several weeknights exploring the rural U.K. and Ireland. I’ve run acrobatic flights around Chicago and San Francisco to fly around skyscrapers and under bridges. One evening I flew up the Las Vegas strip, watching the mega casinos below pass by. And that’s only a fraction of what I could do; there are many countries on my shortlist to explore next.

MSFS also has live weather conditions, with complex cloud layers, precipitation, wind, and sun position mapped out according to GPS and time of day. Thanks to a partnership with FlightAware, it’s possible to listen to live air traffic control communication during the voyage; when I ask for landing clearance from a busy airport like Chicago O’Hare, I’ll hear requests and acknowledgments from airlines from all over the globe.

That dynamic atmosphere means no two rides from point A to B ever feel quite the same. Weather changes from day to day, even mid flight in a way that’s especially noticeable over longer distances. Time and weather also have a direct effect on the scenery and flight handling.

For instance, I repeated a short route multiple times to practice landings, taking off from Nice in southern France with a landing in Montpellier about 150 miles away. I purposefully kept the same aircraft, takeoff runway, landing runway, and GPS route across flights. On my first flight, I took off on a crystal clear day early in the morning. The landing was straightforward, where I could rely heavily on visuals with only a slight headwind and some sun glare to contend with. I had moderate crosswinds and heavy fog on my last effort, creating a white knuckle experience to bring the plane down. The visibility was poor to the point I could only rely on my onboard instruments to navigate. The runway emerged in front of the cockpit a mere 200 feet above the ground.

However, even the most dynamic world can lose its immersion from unrealistic gameplay. Thankfully, MSFS has had over a decade of experience to deliver what one would expect from a proper flight simulator: functional, highly detailed cockpits. True to life autopilot, navigation, and flight models. Realistic looking airplanes and cloud coverage. Also, unlike some other game genres that aim for high levels of realism, flight simulators benefit from controls that can more closely approximate the real life experience. Granted, I’m only using an Xbox controller, but an analog stick has similarities to a pilot’s yoke. And while it’s driven effectively via mouse cursor, I’m turning knobs and pushing buttons the same way a pilot would on the actual aircraft.

If a realistic, dynamic sandbox somehow wasn’t enough, working through a varied list of airplanes to pilot and fly aids to toggle only adds to the game’s longevity. While the initial list of fifty plus “assistance options” feels intimidating at first to wade through, it allows a lot of flexibility in terms of gameplay difficulty. I started with quite a few helper aids turned on, including adding visual waypoints on screen, no plane damage, and having the A.I. step in to fly whenever conditions got challenging. By now, I mostly play the game without any assists.

Each plane available for flight has a learning curve. Flight handling, controls, and instrumentation, even across what should be planes of similar utility (e.g., the Cessna 172 and Diamond DA40NG), varies widely. You benefit from higher-end autopilot and navigational systems by stepping up from prop engines into faster turboprops, jets, and airliners. However, that extra power comes at the cost of less agility and a smaller margin of error during takeoff and landing.

MSFS‘s primary joy comes from learning and mastering the next thing. Yet even when I’m not looking for another system to master, the game is a great “lean back” experience alongside podcasts. I’ll control the aircraft when things get exciting and lean on autopilot for the rest, sightseeing along the way with the external camera.

That versatility, mixed in with a dynamic world, realistic gameplay, and a high natural difficulty curve, make for virtually endless entertainment for me. MSFS is genuinely singular in its appeal; I know other games will reach higher highs, but I expect this venerable simulator will stick around on my Xbox hard drive for years to come.