I'm going to get something clear right off the bat. I've never played a MS Flight Sim game before. I'm not really sure why, perhaps I was intimidated by the realism, or perhaps I'm just not pilot material. Something about spending hours watching autopilot do its thing from Paris to Boston never really turned my head. However, it is about time I put this behind me and had a taste of what has always been the PC's best flight simulator series, Microsoft Flight Simulator. Latest in this series will be MS Flight Simulator 2004: A Century Of Flight, and we managed to get a hands-on with the latest beta copy.
When I first got into the game I was overwhelmed for sure, but thanks to the inbuilt learning and tutorial modes, I was doing country to country flights in no time. It is amazing how detailed this game really is, and the beginners section covers just about everything. If you have the patience, you can also learn about the history of aviation altogether, with a detailed collections of articles spanning the last 100 years or so. This isn't just a flight sim game, it is the total flight experience.
Included In 2004 is 24 different aircrafts, and on top of that, most have a few skins to chose from, like plain white to company logos. A few of the notable aircrafts include the infamous Wright Brother's 'Wright Flyer', to the modern domain of the Boeing 747's. Also included is the ability to fly a helicopter, which is quite challenging to say the least.
Each plane can either be involved in "Create a flight" mode, or "Select a flight" mode. In Create A Flight, you chose everything from location, to weather and time, and of course which plane. The combinations are limitless, even if you're simply intending on flying around famous locations like the Sydney Opera House or Empire State Building you will find hours and hours of gameplay to come.
Select a flight mode is probably the closest you'll ever get to 'campaign' mode in a flight sim game. Inbuilt are a few missions for you to complete, including the very first Wright Brothers flight, the Spirit of St Louis flight and many, many more. Each mission comes with everything needed to get up in the air as soon as possible, like premade flight plans, with other aspects like weather and time determined by the mission itself.
I'm not equipped with any flight sim built accessories, all I had was my trusty FireStorm Dual Analog control pad. Luckily for me, this game plays just fine with this control pad, however I did use the two analog sticks for all movement which certainly allowed for more precision. If you plan to purchase this title when released and you don't have atleast a control pad with two analog sticks, you may want to invest in one, or ideally a joystick.
Speaking of controls, as far as the realism goes, Flight Sim 2004 really shines. Besides the basic functions used to pitch and turn your plane in flight, MS have incorporated a thing called a 'Virtual Cockpit'. Just as it would be in a real plane, changing your view to cockpit mode will give you a perspective of everything on your control panel in front of you. However the sheer fact everything from autopilot to radio frequency control isn't the best part, the real improvement of the Virtual Cockpit mode it is that everything can be interacted with. If you want to turn autopilot on while communicating with a tower and change your rudders at the same time, it can all be done in the Virtual Cockpit. It doesn't get much more realistic than this!
I live in a rural city of Australia, population around 40,000, and although it's not really remote, the last thing I expected was our airport to be featured in a world wide available computer game. To my surprise, however, not only was our airport featured in Flight Sim 2004, but an airport a few miles from here in a small town was also featured. This simply stunned me, it hurts my head to think just how much time was spent getting airports programmed into this game, infact the official count is a little over 23,000 airports from around the world, each hosting the ability to take off from and land on. Flight Simulator 2004 really does put the 'real' in ultra-freakin-realistic.
Another new realistic feature in 2004 is Dynamic Weather effects. Say you're on a long flight from London to Berlin, chances are on the way, in real life, you will come across different weather, right? well this is what dynamic weather is all about. During flights you will most probably experience different weather as you fly along, including rain and storm patches. Large cloud fronts are also a nice touch making flying conditions a variable rather than a constant. On top of this, it is said Flight Simulator 2004 will feature the ability to update the in game weather to real conditions in the current time around the world, which would be simply amazing if done correctly.
When it comes down to it, I came into this game as the world's biggest flight sim newbie with no intention of becoming a flight sim fan. For this game to grab my attention like it did, however, is truly amazing. Not only did the gameplay grow on me, but it was made possible by the extensive ingame learning center, which really does teach you EVERYTHING - not just on how to fly in the game, but it also takes you through the history of air travel. The overall game needs polishing before it goes retail, especially in the performance optimisation department, but I have a feeling there will be a lot of praise in the flight sim enthusiast community when it is finally finished. Who knows, I may just end up being a real pilot after this one!