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Flight Simulator 2020 is as much a zen masterpiece as it is a hardcore sim

(Image credit: Microsoft)

It's almost exactly a month since we would have completed the round trip to Los Angeles for E3, and yet – despite the current state of 2020 – I still find myself barrelling down the runway at LAX. It's a world away from attempting to settle down for a long-haul flight in economy class of an Airbus A380 this time though. Instead, I'm piloting an Airbus A320neo down the runway myself from the arguably more comfortable - and less life-threatening - position of my desk chair at home thanks to Flight Simulator 2020. I don't know where we're going yet, but it isn't home.

Ahead of the game's launch in beta via Xbox Game Pass for PC on August 18, I've been given early access to a preview build of the game at what feels like the perfect time. As no doubt many of us are feeling right now, I'm getting serious cabin fever as we progress through this continued working from home state. Getting on a plane feels like a million miles away, and yet here I am soaring over Sydney Opera House. 

Digital tourism has been a phrase we bandy about regularly when it comes to video games, especially with open-world titles such as Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, GTA 5, or Ghost of Tsushima. While Flight Simulator isn't going to let you roam the streets of these locales, touring the world via the air is something rather spectacular. This is aerial tourism at its finest, and the fact the game allows you to drop in at over 37,000 airports across the entire planet means that Flight Simulator is the most accessible form of digital travel ever constructed. 

Fly the world

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Flight Simulator for Windows 10, as the game is officially called, presents you with a 3D globe that you can literally spin around and see the real-life day and night cycle as it is across the world right now. The game also comes with an accurate worldwide weather simulation, meaning you can fly anywhere in the world using the actual current weather conditions. 

What's more, the game also uses satellite data from Bing Maps to bring over 400 cities to life perfectly, while other locations are mapped out accurately, in terms of basic layout and elevation, with the game filling in the gaps using procedural generation. So while I could fly over my town, it's not quite a case of "Hey, I can see my house from here!" but rather "that's my street" or "this is vaguely where I live". That's not a gripe though, because the graphical and technical achievement here is ridiculous. 

Procedural generation is also used to bring the landscapes to life, adding trees, bushes, gloriously lush grass, and gorgeous waterscapes to locations. This might not always be the world as we know it brick by brick, tree by tree, but it's a fantastic rendition of our little planet that you'll be able to explore for yourself. Of course, big landmarks are there for you to discover too, like the aforementioned Sydney Opera House or the Statue of Liberty in New York, and the Houses of Parliament in London. If you enable it, you can have these landmarks pop up as you fly too, although it can get a little distracting – particularly if it's a location you know well, but it's still a nice way to centre your map as you fly. 

(Image credit: Microsoft)

All that freedom is great and a core part of the Flight Simulator offering, but there are challenges to be had too. For those looking for something focused and longer-lasting, there are fantastic Bush Trials, one of which saw me undertaking a seven-hour flight (in real-time) through Breckenridge to Mariposa Yosemite in Nevada. There are also some fantastic Landing Challenges too, which range from famous strips to challenging runways that you'll need to attempt to touchdown on safely in strong winds to succeed. These optional modes are great for giving you something a little more guided to do, rather than that almost daunting freedom to fly wherever you want to. 

And yet, the peaceful nature of taking off, setting a course either to a destination or simply just to fly, has proven to be an incredibly peaceful experience. As someone who hasn't played a flight sim since circa Flight Simulator '95, it was also surprisingly easy to jump into. There are some basic tutorials, which I wasn't able to actually complete thanks to a pesky bug, but otherwise, you can choose the level of assistance you require as you play, making it not too daunting a challenge for a total beginner. It all comes together to create a Flight Simulator that fits perfectly into 2020, providing a high-end flight simulator for those looking specifically for that, but also a surprisingly zen, almost meditative digital tourism experience for others. 

Look out for turbulence

(Image credit: Microsoft)

However, that's only when it works. Sadly, the build I currently have access to is plagued with bugs and glitches that seriously dampen your ability to just jump in and take flight. The loading screens just to get to the title screen and then into a flight last a good five minutes, which is exceptionally frustrating when the game proceeds to crash the moment you're expecting your aircraft to appear. I've had crashes that have completely reset my computer, others that cause regular audio dropouts. Errors claiming I've lost internet connectivity despite the fact I'm running on an Ethernet connection mean I'm booted back to the main menu screen. Elsewhere, simpler quirks mean changing the time of day or using the plane's GPS is out of bounds. It's been an incredibly frustrating experience trying to play Flight Simulator at times, with literal hours lost just trying to get a flight running smoothly. 

I really hope, despite the fact Flight Simulator is launching in beta on August 18, that the majority of these early access quirks can be fixed in good time. The patience it can require to get to the eventual reward could mean many miss out on the real treats the game has to offer. 

Hopefully, bugs squashed, everyone who wants to find a slice of peace will get to experience this phenomenal achievement. Oddly enough, despite the series' history, this feels like a Flight Simulator title everyone can enjoy. Graphically gorgeous, controls that are accessible but ramp up to ultimate hardcore, and a whole world to fly across. There's something here for everyone – if you can get it flying without encountering any turbulence.

Previewed on a PC with Nvidia RTX 2070 Super, 16GB RAM, Intel i5-6600K CPU @3.5GHz.

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