Names in gaming generally don't mean a whole lot. Let's face it, many are cliche, vaguely embarrassing, or some incomprehensible amalgam of both dreamed up by a focus group. That is not the case when it comes to Microsoft Flight. This revival of the famous flight simulation series that has been dormant for more than half a decade drops the dreaded "S" word from its title in an attempt to draw in those scared off by the rather somber reputation of its exacting forebears. The name change is not just for show, either. The game refreshes what was once a frightening encounter with knobs, dials, and eventually terra firma. Diehard simmers won't like the changes, but Microsoft Flight is a success in its own right. It has converted a demanding simulation into a free, easygoing game where you get to play pilot in sunny Hawaii.
Aside from part of the name and the long association that Microsoft has had with flight sims, there are very few connections between the new game and 2006's Microsoft Flight Simulator X. That game was the last in the venerable series, which made its debut way back in 1982. Whereas the old series focused on the grueling realism of flying, right down to letting you take the helm in a 747 pulling the red-eye out of New York bound for Tokyo, this fresh start feels a lot more like a game, with many changes geared solely to make the experience more accommodating.
The global reach of the earlier franchise has been distilled to the much easier to handle Hawaii, with your tasks focusing on short hops between rural and small-city airports. There are just two planes to fly in the Icon A5 and the familiar Boeing PT-17, which was last seen dusting crops in old movies. Controls are now mouse based, although you can plug in a flight stick if you prefer. And, as noted, the game is absolutely free to download initially via Windows Live, although you soon need to look into the conveniently available downloadable content if you want to get the most out of your flyboy experience.
Most importantly, everything in MS Flight has been given a tight structure. While you can do the "slip the surly bonds of earth" thing and fly around for fun, the majority of the game deals with specific assignments that earn you experience points, achievements, and such goodies as jazzy plane paint schemes. Instead of the fantasy land of MS Flight Sim where you could pretend to be running long hauls for TWA or whatever, here, you're never anything but a freelance rookie pilot doing grunt work. Still, there is something to be said for being led by the hand, especially if this is your first time playing any sort of flight simulator. So after wrapping up the brief but informative tutorial flights, you're set free to take on challenges like flying through successions of rings, landing on ever-smaller runways (including a few barely there patches of asphalt surrounded by jungle), and even taking jobs offered up on the bulletin boards of Hawaiian airports.
There isn't a whole lot of depth here, though. Once you complete the couple of hours needed to wing through the stunt-flying and landing challenges, you're left with taking repetitive jobs at airports. You fly nervous tourists on sightseeing jaunts over volcanoes and waterfalls or run guys over to a neighboring airport for expensive burgers, but that's pretty much it. The jobs recycle over and over, so you fly to the same few locations and listen to the same three or four sets of canned passenger audio. Variety is lacking here, and the Hawaiian scenery is oddly dull. If not for the occasional bit of lava and the ocean off in the distance, you could be winging your way over central Illinois. Most of the landscape consists of nondescript trees and urban wastelands loaded with strip malls.
There isn't much life out there, with no other planes, pedestrians, or cars to be seen. Even crashes are boring. Planes always stay intact, so even the most horrific plunges into volcanoes take place without a satisfying ball of flame. Frame rates are good, at least, which makes the game a solid performer for midrange systems. Don't look for any excitement in the audio, though. While the basic sound effects are realistic and fitting, if a bit muted, you have to listen to the same three or four passengers ad nauseam during sightseeing runs. The sleepy music seems to have been stolen from an elevator ride in hell. You don't expect driving rock music in a game like this, but the developers could have done better than this audio barbiturate.
The tight focus of the game design and those always-available jobs keep you going for four or five hours, however, which is pretty impressive for a freebie. Aerocaches can add to the lighthearted fun and the longevity, too. These floating icons are a lot like their terrestrial geocache cousins in that they can be discovered by happenstance or by digging around for clues to their locations online. They add a scavenger-hunt element to gameplay that can keep you flying for many hours, scouring the landscape in an effort to collect them all. Multiplayer is also available, although there doesn't seem to be much point to it other than to fly around together and chat. Finally, flight-sim newbies can get more time out of the game by experimenting with its sim characteristics. If you shut off crutches like the heads-up display and aspects of the easy-on-you physics that keep you from slamming into skyscrapers, you could be playing gratis for days.
Still, being presented with the same milk runs over and over again eventually wears thin. After finishing that half-dozen hours or so, the game starts pushing you in the direction of the DLC, which at present includes a 1,600-point Hawaiian Adventure campaign that lets you fly over the entire island chain, a 1,200-point Maule M-7-260C Orion plane good for cargo and passenger jobs, and a 640-point P-51 Warbird geared for stunts. If you want to keep playing new stuff, you need to pony up some cash. You need to spend 1,200 points on that Maule Orion at the very least because you need it to fly any of the cargo and passenger jobs, even on the starting island. That's a little pricey for a single plane.
It seems kind of chintzy that you don't even get to do all of the activities on the main island as part of the free game, although you can't fault the progression here from a purely marketing perspective. You get a fair bit of free content initially, and then you get nudged into buying a plane for longer cargo runs (with the likes of cats and monkeys, strangely enough) or passenger trips for things like medical emergencies. Then you might start thinking about how cool it would be to take this ride on over to Maui. More DLC adventure packs are also on the way, including an Alaskan one.
As the old saying goes, the free initial version of Microsoft Flight is here for a good time, not a long time. Serious flight simmers may be turned off by the easygoing nature of everything, along with the game-first approach of the structured missions and stunt-flying challenges. But all gripes aside, Microsoft achieved its goal of making a (somewhat) realistic flyer for everyone. You also get top-quality content here for a freebie, providing a lot of aerial endeavors over the main Hawaiian island before you hit the end of the runway and need to either cool the engine or take off with the DLC.