Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight Review

You could say that Flight Simulator 2004 is still a straightforward simulation, but if you have even a passing interest in flying, you'll definitely get your money's worth from it.

For more than a century, human beings have used engines to pull, push, or lift themselves into the air, and for the past two decades, Microsoft Flight Simulator has let armchair pilots explore the exciting world of aviation on their PCs. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight commemorates this double anniversary by offering more planes, better graphics, and more options than ever before right out of the box, but the game will likely reach its full potential only if it receives great support from its player community.

These clouds aren't just for show. A violent thunderstorm brews within.

Fans of the previous games in the series will be up and running in no time thanks to the new game's familiar interface, but Flight Simulator 2004 also happens to be the most beginner-friendly game in the series. It's easier to access game options, and each option is actually explained by the game. There's also an excellent interactive flight school hosted by aviation veteran Rod Machado that serves as a surprisingly deep training tool.

There is enough written material included about the planes, the history of flight, and flying tips to fill an encyclopedia. As such, Flight Simulator 2004 represents one of the rare instances in which online documentation is wholly superior to a printed manual. The documentation includes articles that are supplemented with Web-page-style hyperlinks, which lead to more detailed information about a particular topic. Some even whisk you directly into the cockpit so you can actually re-create the particular flight (or series of flights) discussed in the article. While the fascinating historical articles by Flying magazine's Lane Wallace were commissioned by Microsoft, many of the other articles included are reprints from magazines like AOPA Pilot, and it is amazing to see how the real-world tips provided in these stories can be directly applied in the simulator.

And you'll need all the information you can get, because most of the new planes in Flight Simulator 2004 are cranky old antiques that require your undivided attention. The entire history of civilian flight is represented in the game, from the original Wright Flyer that can't even struggle its way out of ground effect to a Boeing 747-400 that can haul hundreds of people higher than 40,000 feet at Mach .85. You can retrace Lindbergh's steps across the Atlantic in a re-creation of the Ryan NYP "Spirit of St. Louis," see what Amelia Earhart's trip across that same ocean was like in a Lockheed Vega, and haul freight over the mountains in a Douglas DC-3, among other things. The Sopwith Camel was not brought over from the previous game into the new game--this is strictly a civilian flight simulator, without any military prop planes or jets, but it still offers plenty of different aircraft to fly.

If you plan to fly any of the vintage aircraft, be sure to invest in some good controller peripherals, specifically rudder pedals or a joystick with a twist handle. It's impossible to take off and land in taildraggers like the Piper J3 Cub and Curtiss Jenny without a lot of dancing on the rudders. And once they're airborne, ponderous antiques like the Vickers Vimy biplane can barely turn unless you stomp on the pedals. Rudder controls also are a must for flying the two helicopters modeled in the game, which include the familiar Bell JetRanger and the new Robison R22 Beta. The Beta is a skittish little chopper that is hypersensitive to controller input and offers a wholly different flying experience from that of the heavier and more stable JetRanger.

The overall flight model feels very similar to that of Flight Simulator 2002 and is well suited to capturing the nuances of the game's slow and underpowered historical planes. For example, when landing a taildragger, you should be able to float in slowly at a steep angle for a traditional three-point landing or come in more quickly at a shallow angle to land on the main wheels, keeping forward pressure on the stick until the tail gradually loses lift and the tailwheel gently settles on the runway. The latter option is essential for landing a small plane like the Piper Cub in high crosswinds, and the new game models it perfectly.

Flight Simulator 2004's virtual cockpits are interactive, so most of these switches can be adjusted with your mouse.

Aside from the historical aircraft, Flight Simulator 2004's big news this time around is its weather effects. You can set up in-flight weather any way you like or go for the ultimate in realism by having the game automatically download real-world weather reports from the Jeppesen database every 15 minutes. We tested this feature in a variety of weather conditions flying out of a hometown airport, and sure enough, the conditions depicted onscreen corresponded with what we saw from the window, for the most part.

Even if you don't choose to use the real-world weather option, the game can dynamically change its weather conditions so that a flight that begins in clear blue skies might end up in pure instrument conditions as you try to feel your way down to the runway in a violent thunderstorm. The addition of true 3D clouds that drift through the sky and merge into one another as weather conditions change adds a realistic touch to the game that static screenshots simply can't convey.

Flight Simulator 2004's graphics are improved over those in the previous game, but they're not exactly photo-realistic just yet. Buildings still use low-resolution textures, and the ground looks much better from a high altitude than it does when you're flying low and slow. The game's interactive virtual cockpits are a great new feature, since the ability to control most switches, knobs, and dials with the mouse when the 3D cockpit is enabled adds some much-needed functionality to that view. Unfortunately, the textures used in the virtual cockpits are low resolution and very ugly--hopefully this is something that inventive computer artists among the Flight Simulator fan community will address. On the outside, the planes look beautiful, with vastly more-complex models adorned with gorgeous high-res textures that sparkle in the sun, and the game also sounds impressively realistic, since the developer recorded engine noises from actual planes for use in the game.

The planes might not look great on the inside, but they're beautiful on the outside.

Of course, whether you can enable all of these fancy new effects and maintain a reasonably smooth frame rate depends entirely on your computer. At 1600x1200 resolution with all the graphics settings cranked at their highest, our 2.66GHz test system with a Radeon 9700 Pro video card and 1GB RAM tended to slow down in thick cloud cover. Things smoothed out considerably as the fluff cleared from the sky and the buildings in dense cities faded into the background, but if you've got a computer that just barely meets the game's minimum system requirements, don't expect to run the game smoothly with all the graphical settings turned all the way up, unless you actually prefer to watch a slideshow.

Almost a thousand new airports have been added to the game's world database, providing more than 24,000 places to land ranging from quaint grass strips to bustling international airports complete with signage. The game also features an improved air traffic control (ATC) that works well for the most part. At controlled airports, ground control provides taxi clearances and instructions, and it is possible to follow the taxiway signs to your destination or turn on a handy overlay that visually displays your assigned route.

Once in position, you can tune the tower frequency with a single keystroke to ask for clearance for takeoff, and the air traffic controllers then answer air space transition requests, provide directions to the airport, and provide other information when you are airborne. It's also possible to request clearance to land, and the air traffic controllers respond with instructions for entering the landing pattern or simply tell you to come straight in to a specified runway. If you screw up, the controller will tell you to go around for another try. The system works well thanks to an improved ATC menu, but it's still far from perfect. For instance, when we tried landing a small Cessna at a large international airport in exact accordance with the provided instructions, an AI-controlled DC-10 jumbo jet thundered overhead with only a few feet of separation since it was landing on the same runway. Still, ATC works much better than it did in the past, and casual players can just as easily ignore it completely.

Another new feature in the game is the use of modeled Garmin GPS products--these can be helpful when interacting with ATC and planning approaches. They aren't easy for beginners to grasp, because they use the same buttons and knobs as their real-world counterparts, but a training video is included, and once you get the hang of it, the GPS becomes an indispensable tool for finding your way around Flight Simulator's vast world.

Historical markers are included for the Wright brothers' historic first powered flight.

Despite the addition of all the new planes and the excellent library of information in Flight Simulator 2004, longtime fans of the series will find it to be a rather conservative addition to the series. The core flight model and terrain graphics engine remain more or less untouched, and on the whole, the new game seems very similar to its predecessor. The new game's multiplayer is still rudimentary and allows only for basic formation flights and air races, though you can't expect much more from a noncombat sim.

Still, longtime Flight Simulator fans should definitely upgrade to the latest version. And the new game's flight school and interface changes may be just what's needed to bring in newcomers--especially those who were intimidated by the series' traditionally steep learning curve. You could say that Flight Simulator 2004 is still a straightforward simulation, but if you have even a passing interest in flying, you'll definitely get your money's worth from it.

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