Microsoft Flight Is the Flight Simulator for the MassesS

Microsoft's Flight Simulator has for years been the most successful and prominent flight simulator worldwide. Microsoft Flight is a completely different take on the franchise, so much so that it isn't part of the franchise whatsoever.

Hell, it's free.

You read that right, free. Microsoft Flight, currently in closed beta (signups here) is a flight simulator that isn't specifically designed for flying enthusiasts who want to practice their piloting without the potential for crashing to a bloody doom. Instead, Microsoft Game Studios is making the game specifically for larger audiences, so that anyone can play without serious limitations.

That said, the game is just as fully featured as the past Flight Simulator games, just aimed at a broader audience. Long-time flyers will only be missing the option to use multiple monitors, at least when the game releases. According to Microsoft, that is likely to change in the future.

Taking place on the big island of Hawaii, Microsoft Flight features a long list of flying missions, challenges, and a light "story" mode. These are all essentially the same; challenges are singular objectives while missions have some backstory. One mission I played required taking off, doing a fly-by at a boat, then performing a water landing near said boat. Challenges are simpler, like to land on a short landing strip or collecting airborne rings. The story mode acts more as a tutorial with simple missions that increase in difficulty and a trainer who walks players through how to fly.

"Everyone has a passion for flying, so we really wanted to enhance that," a Microsoft spokesperson told me. I played a few missions and spent some time in the free fly mode, and it certainly is a simulator. The controls and piloting hasn't been dumbed down for users. It's not Ace Combat either with hyper-realistic flying. Piloting a plane is a slow and patient process, and that hasn't been adjusted to meet the mass market shoot-em-up standard.

I played using an Xbox 360 controller, which works especially well, even more conveniently than a keyboard and mouse. Like Microsoft Flight Simulator, MS Flight will work with all 3rd party flight controllers.

Along with the single player missions, challenges and story modes, Microsoft Flight includes a 16-player multiplayer free fly mode. Up to 16 players can play together, though it's still a flight simulator, so no dogfights or shooting each other down. Players can, however, fly in formation and have cooperative flying time. There is some competitive play with a pseudo-leaderboard based on the single player challenges as well.

Hawaii was chosen for two reasons: it is very different with tropical areas, waterfalls, a number of different climates, etc., and because Microsoft will rely on micro-transactions for future updates. MS Flight will ship in spring with access to the full island of Hawaii and one plane (plus a second plane received for logging into Xbox Live, which is an amphibious light-speed class Icon AS). In the future additional islands may be added, or potentially other countries (depending on user demand), as well as additional planes and missions.

Currently Microsoft Flight is set to release for the PC, but may potentially reach the Xbox 360 in the future. The requirements are fairly light: minimum requirements are a dual core 2GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM and a 256MB videocard. There are no plans for Kinect tracking, but knowing how crazy flight Sim users can get to make the most authentic flying experience, it won't be long before we see some.

When he isn't writing about games, James Pikover plays with new cellphones and uses them as theft deterrent. You can follow him on Twitter at @jamezrp.