I’m two weeks into playing the new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 and in general, it’s awesome. Completely awesome. The graphics really are eye popping, however there’s a surprising number of scenery glitches, annoyances and other bugs. A lot of bugs. But is it still playable? Yes. Definitely. Issues and bugs aside, it’s incredibly good.
First, what’s good?
A lot. Too much to summarize really. Here’s a few key features:
The new globe map
… is awesome. I’ve no idea why FSX still used the incredibly simple map that wasn’t even draggable with your mouse; you needed to move it around clicking 4 cursor icons. This was probably my biggest pet peeve with previous MS FS versions. Dragging the globe around to select an airport to depart from or even a flight plan is quick and easy. One minor issue, given that the maps and scenery are based on Bing maps it’s odd that if you zoom in on the globe to even citywide level the map displays as a blurry nondescript mess with zero detail. At a much higher regional level there is a satellite level of landscape detail and real weather patterns fly by – which is also a very nice touch.
Low level flight detail
The level of detail in the scenery at ground level and even flying 100 feet from the ground is incredible. I’ve never seen this level of detail close up in a flight sim before and it opens up a whole new aspect of low level game play and realism that just wasn’t there in any previous flight sim. In FSX, above 2000 feet or so most scenery looks ok, but flying anywhere lower than 1000 feet it gets blurry. Land on the ground in a random location and the ground texture is just a blur with smeary and pixelated detail.
In FS 2020 however, the textures at ground level are rendered with an amazingly high level of detail. There’s short grass, long grass, and other bushy vegetation. The grass moves around in the wind. Trees around you look believable up close. You can fly from field to field barely above the ground, inbetween trees, over the tree tops and it looks great.
Here’s a couple of shots from landing on the surrounding mountains in the Lake District UK:
This doesn’t always work as planned though. The photogrammetry approach of rendering aerial photography on top of 3d elevation data sometimes results in some terrifying scenery glitches that look like the world has been melted by a nuclear blast. More on that at later.
Global photorealistic detail everywhere
In the past, if you wanted photorealistic scenery you could purchase add-ons for FSX and other sims, e.g. VFR Photographic Scenery from JustFlight. It’s incredible to think that we now have photorealistic scenery everywhere, for practically the whole world, without needing to purchase or download location specific addons. The combination of a massive 100GB initial install plus constantly streaming scenery as you play achieves something that only a few years ago would have seemed impossible.
If you have enough bandwidth the game will download scenery as needed, but if you don’t have enough bandwidth the game will give you a warning that it’s unable to download fast enough. You can carry on anyway, or in the menu settings you can define preload cached scenery areas and download them and cache them for when you fly into those areas. There’s 3 different scenery detail levels, low/medium/high, and you can select the level of detail depending how far you are zoomed in on the map. If you are zoomed in close you can select squares on the map to download at highlevel. If you are zoomed out at a region level, you can select large squares of area to cache at a lower level.
Ok, now on to the issues…
Scenery and rendering issues
Tall palm trees appear to get rendered as abstract rock sculptures. In areas with a lot of palm trees, the areas tend to look like some futuristic apocalyptic nightmare where trees have turned to stone:
A lot of bridges are not modeled as 3d objects and appear under water. Satellite scenery of rivers or coastlines that include boats and ships get rendered below the animated water:
Along rivers and coast lines where you’d expect to see boats and jetties, they’re rendered a few feet underwater which makes for some weirdly apocalyptic scenes:
There’s no modeling of the physics of landing on water. Yes, you can land on and take off from water with the A5, but there’s no effects that show the water reacting to the aircraft, so no splashes or wakes that we even had in FSX before. Hopefully this gets added later. Your aircraft doesn’t appear to float either. The animation of stormy sea looks completely awesome, but when landed on water the animation of the waves appears to occur in the background and you’re just greenscreened on top of it.
You don’t have to go far, especially in cities, before you come across some bizarrely wonderful scenery rendering glitches. Here are some of my favorites from 30 mins flying around the SF Bay Area:
Fisherman’s Wharf in ruins:
Melted ships and cars that look like they’re burnt out and abandoned:
A car crashed through the entrance of the Hyatt – what’s interesting about this one is the driveway and entrance goes underneath the building at street level, so I’m guessing the rendering engine (or Bing) doesn’t know how to handle that imagery and just pasted in vertically on the surface of the building:
Tall structures like cranes and tall bridges get rendered like the scenery is draped over a solid structure, that leads to some weird abstract buildings:
More solid cranes:
Areas with docklands are full of issues, as you’ve got tall cranes and large ships where the game doesn’t really know if it’s a building or a ship, and in some cases fills ships full of autogen shrubbery, with amusing results such as these:
Most of these ‘melted’ and unusual scenery issues seem to be in areas where the photogrammetry scenery is used, in other areas where there’s only autogen buildings they don’t seem to have the same issues.
This latest version of Microsoft Flight Simulator is incredible in how far modern technology has progressed the flight sim genre from what we became used to in predecessors like FSX. However, it’s also quite alarming how many issues there are in the game on release. Given that Microsoft and Asobo are committing to a 10 year support lifetime for the game, there will be fixes and updates coming, but it will be interesting to see how often these come and how they chose to prioritize the types of issues they fix.