Microsoft's Flight Simulator has always been something special. It has always been a game that we used to describe what a simulation on a PC could be -- and should be.
For some time, Microsoft teased us with images about the new "Flight", which was released this week and is offered as a free 1.5 GB download. Free, of course, is a term I should be careful to use, because only the basics of Flight are free and Microsoft is evaluating its chances to sell a game via upgrades and in-app purchases. What you get with the free download is the ability to fly around Hawaii in two airplanes, the Icon A5 prototype and the Boeing PT-17 Stearman WW2 training aircraft. Adding the remaining Hawaiian islands as well as another small passenger airplane, a Vans RV-6A, will cost you 1600 Xbox Live credits. More aircraft are priced between 600 and 1200 credits. Buy the "Hawaiian Adventure Pack" and two airplanes and you will spend slightly more than $40. So, "free" is really a relative term if you want to play this game.
It is also noteworthy that this game is not called "Flight Simulator", but "Flight" - with good reason. The game is by far much less complex than any previous Flight Simulator. Every game can be controlled either by keyboard or by pointing the mouse cursor in the desired direction. Surprisingly, the mouse control is much more accurate that the keyboard control and the planes react much smoother to a change in direction with mouse movement than with key input. While some of us may have never learned to fly an airplane in Flight Simulator from airport to airport, Flight has a few lessons and "challenges" that teach a basic flying experiences within a few minutes. From previous teaser images, we know that the graphics of the game are a big deal; and in Flight they look fascinating especially with adjusted weather conditions. However, much of the surface is obviously pulled from satellite data and the joy of sightseeing is somewhat limited, especially in areas with graphics that have no 3D effects and are decidedly flat as a result. For hardcore gamers, the graphics don't break any new ground.
However, that may not be such a big deal, since Microsoft may not go after hardcore gamers after all. The feel of the game is much more "casual" than previous Flight Simulators and the in-app purchase model may also be an indication that Microsoft is trying to reach many more gamers with Flight than it did with Flight Simulator. It doesn't feel like the hardcore simulator it once was; it’s a casual game that you play when you have 15 or 20 minutes of time.
For a casual game, the graphics are impressive and Flight continues a trend we have been seeing for some time. Casual games increasingly require substantial hardware horsepower and a netbook won't cut it anymore. In this case, Microsoft recommends a dual-core 3.0 GHz CPU, a 1GB AMD Radeon HD5670 or 1GB Nvidia GeForce 9800GT, and 6 GB system memory. I personally felt this was a rather conservative guide.
Flight is definitely an enjoyable game, but it is tough to justify more than two or three hours in it without getting bored. The game lives through the extensions and is likely to convince plenty of people to shell out extra money for it. However, if we consider it an example of a new generation of high-end casual games, the prices Microsoft is asking for may be a bit high.