The latest chapter in Microsoft's long-running Flight Simulator series will knock your windsocks off. Flight Simulator X is the prettiest and most ambitious edition in the franchise's 25-year history and it'll transport you to a stunning new world of photorealistic scenery and marvelously detailed aircraft… if you have a liquid nitrogen-cooled Cray supercomputer tucked in your tower.
We'll get to the technical stuff later. FSX ships in two flavors, with the pricier Deluxe version packing some additional aircraft outfitted with a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit, 20 more missions, ten extra high-detail cities and five high-detail airports, and a new tower controller multiplayer option. All of this aeronautic goodness comes on two DVDs that jointly usurp a whopping 14GBs of hard drive real estate.
Crammed into that space is the most user-friendly FlightSim to date. Microsoft's ACES Studio built FSX as much for newbies as for hardcore devotees and that's evident in the new mission-based gameplay component. Instead of just hopping into a plane for some aimless sightseeing or advanced, ATC-assisted flight planning between the sim's 24,000 worldwide airports, casual and veteran flyers alike can tackle a series of diverting and increasingly challenging missions.
These range from five-minute aircraft acclimatization exercises in different planes, gliders and helicopters to demanding air race events and protracted search missions. There are currently over fifty missions in the Deluxe version (expect the mod community to add more) and - whether you're trying to land an Extra 300S stunt plane on a moving bus or rescue stranded workers from a burning offshore oil rig in a Bell JetRanger helicopter - most are addictive and compelling. New aircraft like the de Havilland Beaver and Grumman Goose bush planes, Maule 260C Orion, Airbus A321 and AirCreation Ultralight inject additional flavor into the challenges.
The biggest upgrade from past editions, however, is visual. FSX boasts ten times the graphic detail of FlightSim 2004 and this new artwork will severely test your PC whenever you overfly enhanced scenery areas like Seattle or Manhattan.
Formerly stick-straight rivers and coastlines now curve realistically; dynamic vehicle and boat traffic navigate major roads and waterways; migratory animals roam open spaces; and the sim's automatically generated vegetation - acacia trees in Africa, evergreen forests in Canada - correctly match the local geography. Some gorgeous reflective water effects and animated airport ground activity (fuel trucks, baggage carts, AI-controlled jetways) add further luster to this already impressive environment.
The ramped up multiplayer options are also noteworthy. FSX 's "Shared Skies" lets you assume the role of pilot, co-pilot, or tower controller with built-in voice-over IP support through a LAN or GameSpy-powered Internet connection and - better yet - you can hot-swap aircraft controls with an online buddy for the ultimate in hands-on flight instruction.
As stated earlier, all of this aeronautic ambrosia comes at a cost - one that goes well beyond the Deluxe edition's $70 sticker price. Load times are sluggish and blurred aircraft and scenery textures can emerge when the high-calorie visuals overload your GPU memory. With all graphic sliders turned way down, most mid-range PCs will struggle to produce double digit frame-rates and, even at the top end, there's likely not an affordable computer built today that can deliver "flyable" frame rates with all of the sim's eye candy cranked up.
Flight Simulator X looks to have touched down six-to-twelve months too early for much of its target audience but, as its score reflects, it's an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of software and one of the most significant releases in flight simming history. Until we're all running dual-core CPUs with half-gig DX10 video cards, however, it's also quite the little prop-tease.