Competition is good. Microsoft Flight Simulator has long been the undisputed champion of the civil aviation sim scene, and the last four years' worth of halfhearted upgrades led some to think that the flyboys in Redmond had given up even trying. Now, with two highly anticipated contenders on the way - Sierra's Pro Pilot and Looking Glass's Flight Unlimited 2 - Microsoft has proven itself fighting fit with a thorough retooling of the classic.
While flight scenery under standard hardware has been tuned, with a graphics accelerator card - the game supports Direct3D compatible cards - the graphics have become breathtaking, and it's no surprise that the illusion of flight is all the more convincing. Gone are the shimmer of distant scenery and the flicker of ground lights at night. Clouds are wispy and transparent, and the aliased patchwork terrain of earlier versions is now smoothly blended and vastly more realistic. Devotees will also notice more subtle graphic embellishments: Runways have skid-marks, and dawn really does now rise in the East. With the release of Windows 98, this version of Microsoft Flight Simulator will even support multiple monitors, making homemade wraparound cockpits a real (and, for spouses, terrifying) possibility.
Not only does the view out the window look better, there's more to see. Thirty North American cities are now rendered in detail, along with 15 others in Europe and Asia. Perhaps the most stunning is Hong Kong, which is faithfully represented right down to the checkerboard approach (which requires of pilots a last-minute sharp turn before landing). The Las Vegas, Hawaii, Japan, and Caribbean scenery expansion packs have been subsumed in this release, and the detail of the New York and Paris graphics exceed those of the retail enhancement add-ons. Microsoft has also made available a conversion utility for shareware scenery from earlier versions.
More than 3,000 airports are available for takeoffs and landings, but planning the flights in between is impossible without resorting to third-party tools; the "database" of navigational aids is merely a text listing of transmitters and beacons, and detailed area maps are provided only for the 45 major metropolitan airports. While this is an improvement upon the previous version - which offered no maps - it's still a notable shortcoming.
The stable of available aircraft has evolved to include fixed- and retractable-gear versions of the single-engined Cessna 182, the new Learjet 45, plus enhanced versions of the 737-400, Sopwith Camel, Schweitzer sailplane, and Extra 300S for aerobatics. For the first time, a helicopter is included: the Bell 206, which fixed-wing pilots will find an unfamiliar (and initially frustrating) flight experience. Instrument panels and controls are rendered in greater detail, right down to the realistic throttle knob on the Cessna, and the fully user-configurable keyboard layouts and joystick button assignments are a welcome addition.
The flight models of the aircraft are as realistic as ever, and Microsoft's association with FlightSafety International - a major training organization - will presumably speed acceptance of MSFS as a flight instruction tool. Included in the manual is even a coupon for a cut-rate first flying lesson from Cessna.
Other technical innovations include support for Force Feedback joysticks, bringing a new sensation to the PC flight sim. The experience is disconcertingly realistic - runways really are bumpy - and the rattle of the stick in a stall will send a shiver down your spine. Multiplayer support also returns, via LAN or the Internet (hosted free to players at Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone).
Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 is an impressive feat. With a few exceptions, gone are the glaring flaws of the previous version; coupled with its technological innovations, the sum of the parts is a unique flight experience of unprecedented realism. Although the flight sim skies will soon be crowded, Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 will prove an able contender with the best of what the competition offers.