Monday, 5 October 2020

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

Let's have a look at Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, a game that asks the questions "should I turn on the pitot heater" and "what does inert sep on mean" and "why does the plane keep stalling" and finally "I'm going to die here" and "it was all my fault", which technically aren't questions, but they did go through my mind as I flew through a storm over the glaciers of southern Chile.

In real life I've never done that. I've never flown through a storm over the glaciers of southern Chile. After trying it out in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 I'm not keen on repeating the experience, but at the same time I do want to experience it again because it was fun. There was a certain frisson of excitement. It was dangerous, but fun.

That's why people get themselves killed, isn't it? That frisson of excitement. It's a primal thing. After escaping from tigers our ancestors were flooded with a sense of relief; they wanted to experience that sensation again. Old men hanker for it.

Alternatively you can turn off MSFS2020's damage model and use the computer autopilot to explore the world risk-free, but come on. Amelia Earhart didn't have the option of turning off the damage model. Her autopilot was a bunch of gears attached to a cable. She could fly a plane just fine, and she was a girl.

You don't want to be beaten by a girl, do you? Admittedly Earhart did actually die. She must have hankered for that frisson of danger too, and that's what killed her. Perhaps men and women aren't so different in that respect.

Lost over the ocean in a Lockheed Electra. That's pretty manly. In another world she made it home safely, and when the Second World War broke out she offered her services to the US Army Air Forces, who completely ignored her because she was a girl, and then she retired into relative poverty in the 1950s and spent the rest of her life dreaming of planes.

Say again, this place

I'm digressing here. MSF2020 is a reboot of the venerable Flight Simulator series, which dates back to Sublogic's original game from 1982. Back in the 1980s and 1990s the IBM PC was very bad at moving sprites around the screen, so it was rubbish at Street Fighter 2, but it could crunch numbers like nobody's business. Therefore it was the go-to platform for flight simulators. Not just civil simulators but also the WW2-themed Air Warrior, which was one of the first massively multiplayer online games.

The flight simulator market thinned out in the late 1990s, and by the time of Flight Simulator X in 2006 Microsoft's product was essentially the only mainstream franchise left standing*. It had a vibrant market of add-on scenery and aeroplanes, which was in some respects ahead of its time, but in an age of Grand Theft Auto and Crysis flight simulators fell out of fashion and Microsoft seemed to lose interest in FSX. People just didn't buy joysticks any more.

* As of 2020 the surviving competitors in the civil flight simulator market are Lockheed's Prepar3D, an extensive modification of Flight Simulator X intended as a professional flight training tool; FlightGear, an open source simulator that tends to be sold by eBay and Amazon sellers in packaging that makes it look like Flight Simulator, and XPlane, which isn't open source. Are they any good? I have no idea, I haven't tried them out. I love you, dear reader, but I feel that my time is better invested elsewhere.

The game uses a mixture of hand-made scenery and autogenerated models synthesised from Bing Maps' top-down views of the world. On the one hand the synthesis is very impressive, and it was the only way the developers could recreate the entire world, but on the other hand there's still a lot of room for third-party handcrafted models. They've obviously modelled Ponte Vecchio, but not the other bridges. In general bridges and viaducts are a weak spot.

A later patch reworked the water, which at least in early versions of the game looked out-of-scale. The buildings however are uncanny.

Microsoft tried to reboot the series with Flight, an online-only title that was launched in 2012. It only had two planes, and the only scenery was Hawaii. It failed to set the world afire and so Microsoft shut it down just a few months later. It's no longer available.

I took a trip over the Aral Sea, although it's now a large lake because the water was diverted for irrigation back in the 1980s. Some of the land textures are jagged - the area isn't high on Bing Maps' list of priorities - but nonetheless I still had the sensation of flying over a parched desert.

Some aircraft have weather radar. In this screenshot there's a lot of weather, and I'm in the middle of it.

The June 2019 announcement that Microsoft was working on new Flight Simulator came as a pleasant surprise. The developers - a French company called Asobo - were obscure, but the pre-release screenshots were very impressive. After a brief public beta period the game was released in August 2020 to generally strong reviews. The major criticisms are that it has a lot of bugs and the airliner flight models don't feel realistic, and it needs a very powerful PC to run at 4K, but otherwise the critical consensus is that it's a visually stunning first effort.

Each of those white dots is an airfield. Some are major airports, some are just grass strips. You can fly from any one of them.

In this flight I did a circuit of Easter Island, looking for Moai. I couldn't find any. As mentioned elsewhere in the article the game has fewer hand-made models than FSX, but compensates for it with a much better building-generation engine.

In the first month of release it has apparently sold a million copies, no doubt helped by the fact that actual real-life air travel has been disrupted by the plague. The developers promise to support it for at least ten years, which is nice to know, although given that so much of the game is streamed from the internet there's an ever-present worry that Microsoft will turn off the servers, rendering most of the world an undetailed husk. The entire world map apparently takes up around 2-3 petabytes of data - that's 2-3 million gigabytes - so there's no chance whatsoever you'll be able to backup the entire world. The game will run in offline mode but with low-detail scenery.

One popular pastime is to fly over your local neighbourhood. I've walked up to the top of that hill, past the badges, and it's more or less spot-on except for a couple of spurious houses.

What's it like on modest hardware? Let's have a look.

Flying through fog is surprisingly easy once you learn to use the autopilot. But what if the autopilot fails? Supposedly it takes an average of 178 seconds for visual flight pilots to become disorientated when flying through instrument flight conditions, and I can believe that. You have to train yourself to see with an attitude indicator, speedometer, and compass instead of your eyes.

Shek Pik reservoir in Hong Kong, in the game and real life respectively. As you can see the terrain elevation is spot-on.

Bad stuff first. The game is a 120gb download, and although it's available with Steam it downloads its own client first, then asks you to leave the client open while it downloads the game. It's not much fun if you have a data cap. The game is available as a 10-DVD set - this is the version I have, and I wrote about the installation process here - but it still has to download several gigabytes' worth of patches, and the terrain is streamed from the internet.

Twilight of LGA 1155
LGA 1155 is a socket released by Intel back in 2011. It remained competitive for an unusually long time, but a number of modern games have overwhelmed it, MSFS2020 among them. It's actually one generation older than MSFS2020's minimum requirements, but my machine is at the upper limit of what LGA 1155 could do so it runs the game. Confusingly LGA 1155 was replaced by LGA 1150, and then LGA 1151 and LGA 1120 (they're named after the number of pins; a bad idea).

LGA 1155's star chip was the i5-2500k, a neat little quad-core 64-bit chip that ran at 3.3ghz but could be easily overclocked to 4+ghz. The i5-2500k remained state-of-the-art until the middle of the decade and only really hit a wall when 4K gaming became mainstream in recent years. With a good graphics card, lots of memory, and an SSD, an i5-2500k system will still run most modern games at 1080, but at moderate settings and not at a steady 60fps.

If your aircraft starts to ice up you have a number of options. Dive below the clouds, where it's warmer; turn on the anti-ice system; keep going and hope for the best; climb up into the sunlight.

I have always loved you, though I was born a galaxy away

I mention LGA 1155 because it was the last Intel chipset that supported Windows XP, so for a lot of PC owners it was the point at which they upgraded from a dual-core, 32-bit XP system with a 4gb memory limit to the modern age of 64-bit chips with four or more cores fitted to motherboards that can address 32gb of memory or more. I built my own PC from parts back in 2011, with an i5-2500k at the core, although I've since upgraded it to a Xeon 1275, which is the server analogue of the i7-3770k.

The i7-3770k is essentially the most powerful CPU available for LGA 1155, the end of the line for that platform. It has four logical cores and four virtual cores generated by a technology called hyperthreading. It benchmarks 50% faster than the i5-2500k, but for a long time the cost didn't justify the upgrade; as of 2020 however they're cheap on the used market.

The game uses a form of megatexturing, as with Id Software's Rage, but on a planetary scale.

My machine's weak link is the GPU, a Geforce 1650 with only 3gb of memory, but MSF2020's built-in frame counter often says that I'm limited by the CPU, because MSF2020 taxes the whole machine. Most games can be solved by throwing a better GPU at them, but not MSF2020. It streams the world from the internet, so it benefits from a fast, stable internet connection; it has to load a lot of cached data, so it benefits from being installed on an SSD; the CPU has to instruct the GPU do draw potentially thousands of buildings, while simultaneously running flight and weather models, so you need a good multicore CPU. A good GPU is of course essential, but with MSFS2020 it needs to be part of a strong system.

Therefore if you have an LGA 1155 machine you really have to max it out. In my experience the game is perfectly playable and good-looking at 1080 on my machine, but even so it occasionally stutters, and at low altitudes over detailed cities - Tokyo and New York, for example - it chugs. 4K would overwhelm it. I get around 40fps flying over bare terrain or in cloud, 25-35fps over New York, with autogenerated traffic turned off. I find that putting most of the sliders at medium, with reflections at high, clouds at ultra, anti-aliasing at TAA, texture resolution at high strikes a good balance between performance and looks.

Bugs? To date the game has only crashed once, during a period of high multiplayer activity after the release of a reworked Japan. Some of the terrain looks awful, in different ways:

Victoria falls really doesn't work. The photogrammetry engine got confused.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is simultaneously a flat texture map and a model, each with a different shadow. The surrounding buildings are 3D but the Duomo and Battistero are flat.

This is the island of Miyake, south of mainland Japan. The volcano isn't filled in, so the game generates ghosting inside the crater.

The autopilot occasionally seems flaky, but that might just be me. I now set HDG and VS speed modes at the beginning of flight instead of trying to use ALT HOLD, which tended to make the plane crash. The game has two pause modes - active pause keeps the simulation running but holds your plane still in the air, normal ordinary pause-pause freezes the game. Active pause is nice if you want to see the world move around you, but curiously your plane still accelerates and decelerates, even though it's standing still, so you can overspeed if you activate active pause while in a dive, in which case your plane falls apart in mid-air for seemingly no reason.

The airliner and its contrail is part of the ground texture. Occasionally Bing Maps' satellite coverage has cloud cover, which the game is generally smart enough to turn into green grass.

There are grumbles on the internet that the modelling and avionics of the game's two airliners, the Airbus A320 and Boeing 747, are only approximations of the real thing, but I can't tell, I haven't flown either. The 747's in-game cockpit seems unusually bare - a lot of switches are "inop", and some of the navigation panels are just cosmetic - and on my first flight the aircraft seemed keen to turn the autothrottle on immediately after takeoff, which made slowing down to land difficult.

One of the game's strongest elements is the real-time weather / time model - you can switch from live weather to a number of presets while the game is running and also alter the time of day. In the shots above I didn't like the look of that huge cloud, so I made it go away!

Incidentally I have flown in a A320, but sadly not a 747. The 747s are rapidly being withdrawn from commercial service. Even in The Before Times they were an endangered species, but there was still a chance I might be able to fly on one. No longer.

On an unrelated note the AI air traffic controller will clear me to land on a certain runway, but there doesn't seem to be a way to cancel that instruction and pick another one. The in-game map also doesn't point out which runways have an ATC and which are unstaffed, so I worry that I've wasted time trying to talk to ATC staff who aren't there. The in-game map is somewhat akin to Google Earth, but at a much lower level of detail, and when you zoom in it just turns grey, so planning a sightseeing flight is unusually difficult.

Of course the game has only been out for two months and there have only been a couple of patches. The general critical consensus is that the game was released too early, but in Asobo's favour it's obviously a very difficult undertaking; simply clearing the rights to all the in-game textures and building models must require a team of full-time staff (some military airports are censored on Bing Maps, for example).

To date there doesn't seem to be a killer add-on in the marketplace. There are lots of ports from FSX, but no detailed model of a Concorde, for example, or a Second World War fighter plane, but it's still early days.

That's enough gripes. Even at 1080, sub-60fps, the game is visually stunning. Sometimes the ground textures have obvious seams, but on the whole the game renders the world out to the horizon without obvious tiling. The weather model is excellent, the in-cockpit lighting looks very realistic, and there are nice touches such as the reflection of instruments in the cockpit windows at higher graphic settings. The high-temperature exhaust from the turboprop aircraft makes the air shimmer. In the following images the iced-up windows were simultaneously attractive and disconcerting:

There doesn't seem to be a way to open the windows and scrape off the ice so I turned on the windscreen anti-ice feature, and for good measure the engine anti-ice, which sapped some of the power. The game models cars and boats, and the little people who wave signs at the airport, what are they called? aircraft marshals, and the cockpit has an avatar for you and your co-pilot, but you can't get out and walk around. The game doesn't have "space legs". It's not Microsoft Everything Simulator 2020. If you want to have a beer after a strenuous flight you have to have an actual beer in real life.

On one level MSFS2020 is a hard sell, because it's not a game in the conventional sense. It has a number of landing challenges and bush aircraft tests, albeit not to the same extent as FSX - and there are no helicopters, so you can't rescue people from an oil rig (for example) - but for the most part the gameplay consists of generating a flight plan and then navigating between two airports. The game doesn't penalise you for just flying directly between the two locations without using waypoints. You don't have to learn about the downwind leg, whatever that is.

And yet there is something magnetic about navigating through freezing clouds above the Andes, or checking out the Alps at close range, or flying around Easter Island, or buzzing the Golden Gate Bridge etc. Back in 2006 FSX captured some of the sheer visual beauty of flying around, but MSFS2020 trounces it.

At top MSFS2020 (2020), at bottom FSX (2006). Curiously FSX has a few buildings that MSFS2020 doesn't (the Bank of China Tower, just visible at the tip of the Cessna's right wing in the FSX image). In its favour FSX captured the topography of the distant hills accurately, but the lighting obviously belongs to an older generation.

Aircraft? The standard version has two jet airliners, plus a small Cessna business jet, plus a mixture of stunt planes, two-four seat piston aircraft and a couple of smaller turboprops. There's a Cessna Grand Caravan and a Beechcraft King Air, but on the whole the game majors on smaller aircraft; there's no Twin Otter, no Skymaster, and none of the various Fokker / Dornier / Embraer / Bombardier regional turboprop / jetliners. To be honest I don't miss them, but a floatplane or tundra-tyres Twin Otter would be neat.

Uniquely the Icon A5 can land on water. It's unspectacular - there's no wake.

Antarctica was flaky in FSX. Something about the coordinates so far south messed up the texture mapping. MSFS2020 is much the same. The real life McMurdo station is a sprawling little town, whereas here it's represented by a rectangular trailer park.

There are two variations of the Piper Cub, plus the unusual Icon A5, which is a small amphibian. The deluxe and premium deluxe editions add a Boeing 787, a third Piper Cub, and mostly light aircraft, with some variations of the basic models, but nothing particularly killer, so I bought the standard edition.

The game models some of the aeroplane interiors, although you have to use the drone camera to explore them.

The developer mode lets you turn off all the textures and even revert to wireframe mode, in which case the game vaguely resembles the earliest versions of Flight Simulator.

Is it worth the money? Reviewing MSFS2020 is hard. I can't evaluate it as a serious simulation but the 747 in particular has a lot of inoperative switches and the internet is of the opinion that if you are a serious enthusiast, with a mock-up cockpit, it's unfinished. There are grumbles that the flight model is unusually twitchy, and that the big airliners run out of fuel far too quickly, and that binding keyboard controls is needlessly obtuse.

At this early stage the marketplace is barren, and with a game such as this the third-party infrastructure is almost as important as the main event. Furthermore the game is still in active development, so as with No Man's Sky - although hopefully not to the same binary extreme - a year from now it'll be a very different title.

However for a novice such as myself who just wants to explore the world it's terrific, and I feel I got my money's worth. The ground textures aren't as detailed as Google Maps, but they're close, and as mentioned the topgraphy is spot-on. If they introduce helicopters or even a completely autonomous camera it might even develop a second wind as a world simulator, along the lines of Google Earth. The real-time weather / time-of-day slider is almost worth the price of... well, that's hyperbole for a game costing £60-£120 depending on the edition, but I can't think of anything quite like it. It'll be fascinating to see how it develops.