Reviewed: August 31, 2003
Released: July 29, 2003
What better way to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Aviation than with a brand new version of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight. My how times have changed, and not just since Orville and Wilbur Wright took their first joyride in 1903. Even though man has been flying for a hundred years, we have only been simulating the experience since 1979 when SubLOGIC released one of the very first graphical flight sims for the Apple II and TRS-80 computers. In 1982 Microsoft entered the picture and started publishing SubLOGIC’s flight sim on the PC and the rest is history.
Over the next two decades Microsoft would release more than nine unique versions of the program, each one representing the latest in graphical and computing technology. There were also countless expansion packs including scenery, new planes, and peripheral add-ons like TRACON.
I’m not sure if anyone can really explain the phenomenon that is Microsoft Flight Simulator, but for whatever reason people flock to this game as each new version is released. Perhaps it is man’s fascination with flight that had us flying crude wire-frame simulations with the arrow keys back in the early 80’s. FS 2004 is as much a celebration of flight as it is flight simulators.
I must admit, it’s been a few years since I played an installment in the MS Flight Sim series, 2000 to be exact. The one thing that had always bothered me about the series was that it was simply “flying for flying’s sake” with no real objectives. Sure you could fly from New York to Los Angeles in real-time but what fun was that. The underlying premise in 2004 is still the same but now there is enough visual eye candy, fancy gadgets, and historical material to keep you from hitting the autopilot and seeing what’s on TV.
To celebrate A Century of Flight Microsoft has created a virtual encyclopedia of just about anything having to do with aviation including nearly two dozen aircraft dating back to the 1903 Wright Flyer. But fancy airplanes don’t mean a thing without interesting places to fly them. Fear not; with 219 countries, 15,416 cities, and 23,760 airports there are more locations than you could ever hope to fly to in this lifetime.
Microsoft Flight Simulator has long been a tool of flight instructors for teaching aspiring private pilots some of the basic principals of aviation. Flight Simulator 2004 comes complete with amazing tutorials that encompass all aspects of flight training beginning at the student level then gradually adding more complex lessons as you move through Private Pilot, Instrument Rated, Commercial, and Airline Transportation training.
As a 1981 graduate of private pilot ground school I can attest to the fact that this training is spot-on with what you would get if you paid for a real class and includes a lot of new technology that simply wasn’t available when I took the course. Everything is presented in organized lessons complete with video demonstrations. When you are ready you can hop into the plane with world-famous instructor, Rod Machado and test everything you have learned. This is by far the most comprehensive flight training you can take without spending thousands of dollars and years of flight school. You might not have the FAA license in your wallet when you are done but you’ll be more than capable of flying whatever planes you have been tested on.
Once you have learned to fly you can explore the rich history of aviation with Lane Wallace, noted columnist who will guide you through the vast history of flight including the Wright Flyer, Spirit of St. Louis, and dozens of other classic and modern day aircraft. This is quite educational, as you actually get to “meet” the pilots through historical photos, interviews, and are even given the chance to recreate their historic flights. Can you beat the Wright Brothers original 12-second flight? Find out.
Of course learning is only half of the FS 2004 experience and sooner or later you are going to want to pick a plane and just fly somewhere. While I’d hardly call FS 2004 a game, I have to discuss something in the gameplay section, so let’s talk about what you can actually “do” with this title.
Your main options are to pick a pre-generated flight or simply pick your plane, location, weather, and time of day and just start flying. The included scenarios actually let you recreate historic flights such as the 1903 flight of the Wright Brothers, or make the New York to Paris hop that Lindbergh made in 1927. Women might enjoy recreating Amelia Earhart’s 1932 or 1935 historic flights; there are more than 20 in all, not including another 10 modern scenarios.
But perhaps the most fun you can have with FS 2004 is simply picking one of the available planes and a location and just start flying. After a quick refresher course through the private pilot school that is exactly what I did and nothing could prepare me for the adventure I was about to have.
You probably can’t appreciate the sense of wonder I experienced while playing this game unless you know a little about my Flight Simulator history. I was playing this game back in the early 80’s when it was in 3-color CGA wire-frame graphics. It quickly evolved into solid shaded EGA graphics and cities like Chicago, and New York came to life in brilliant 16-colors. Cities included three or four major landmarks popping off the otherwise flat terrain and one or two airstrips.
I still remember taking off from Meigs field, banking to the left and circling the Sears and Hancock buildings – nothing more than flat-shaded polygon constructions - then landing at O’Hare, which was basically a painted runway on a brown surface. My how things have changed.
After a quick flight through a now-stunning Chicago cityscape, complete with Navy Pier, Soldier Field, Wrigley, and more than two-dozen authentic skyscrapers, I decided to push this simulation as far as I could and see just how much of the world Microsoft managed to pack onto the 4 CD’s. In the “old days”, when the game shipped on a single 5” floppy you had to buy scenery disks, then when CD’s became popular the scenic boundaries kept getting pushed. Now, 20 years later you literally have the world at your fingertips.
I went on a four-hour mission to try and stump the game by picking cities and landmarks from all over the world and not once did the game fail to deliver. I flew over Niagara Falls, Miama, Seattle, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, Athens, London, Alaska, Hong Kong, Dallas, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Cairo, Giza, and at least a dozen other locations. The game answered each of my requests with a nicely detailed city featuring several noted landmarks and multiple airstrips. I even plugged in Lafayette, Indiana and sure enough, they had an airstrip, even though it was a dirt runway out in some pasture.
You can pick various weather types, which not only alters the challenge of flying your particular plane but also changes the scenery and visibility appropriately. You can also pick the time of day, choosing dawn, day, dusk, or night flying. The game is in real time so you can pick a dusk flight over Las Vegas and watch the strip come alive in sparkling lights. The weather is also dynamic and you can even have it check the Internet for live weather updates for the area you are flying at that particular moment. How real is that?
Cockpits range in complexity from the simple instrument cluster and flight yoke of a Piper to the dizzying array of digital readouts, switches, knobs, buttons, and dials on a Learjet or 737. The training courses will instruct you on what all of these do and when to use them but putting them into action has never been easier thanks to a new virtual and totally interactive cockpit. That’s right, every button, switch, and knob you see on the screen is now fully functional. Hover your mouse over anything for a description and click to operate. You can program your autopilot, change your course heading, reset your altimeter, or change radio frequencies with the mouse. No more keyboard overlays or memorizing complicated keyboard commands.
Serious pilots are going to want a joystick and FS 2004 supports everything from the simplest of sticks to the more complex multi-button, force feedback models. I played the game using my new Saitek Cyborg 3D Force Joystick and it performed flawlessly. The feedback effects were quite authentic giving me a “dead stick” in a stall and ripping the stick out of my hands in high-G pull-ups. You’ll definitely want a stick with a POV hat so you can rotate your views, both in the virtual cockpit and in the exterior views. If you are playing in a standard cockpit mode the hat will look in increments of 90-degrees. You are free to assign any buttons to whatever commands you wish. I had camera view, flaps and landing gear assigned to buttons, and the brakes default to the trigger since you won’t be firing any guns in this game.
Those of you who actually fly planes will appreciate some new modern conveniences such as the Garmin GPS that shows terrain maps, nearby airports, and other information I have yet to learn. I’m pretty much a VFR (visual flight rules) pilot but I plan to tackle that training course and get my instrument rating as soon as I finish this review. You’ll definitely need instruments to fly at night or in bad weather. One minor annoyance is that you cannot access (or even see) the GPS in the virtual cockpit mode.
As always, you can tailor the level of realism to your liking ranging from simple stuff like turning crashes off, to dialing down the realism of the physics, toggling torque effects or setting the rudder to auto. It’s this level of customization that makes FS 2004 accessible to gamers of all ages and skill levels.
While computers have always been able to handle the mathematical concepts and laws of physics that keep a plane in the air, only now has the graphics technology actually allowed us to experience flight with a visual accuracy previous reserved for million-dollar military flight sims. Simply put, FS 2004 is a work of art.
While no single element is truly outstanding, it is the sheer amount of objects and texture details that boggles the mind. Planes are excellent from the exterior but the cockpit and controls are simply overwhelming in complexity and authenticity. At night you can flip on the lights and see your red, green, and white blinkers click on and the cockpit is cast in a pinkish glow.
Naturally, the scenery is what will keep you coming back and there is more to see here than in an entire season of National Geographic Explorer. You’ll see nearly every famous building and landmark you would expect in any city or country you can come up with. I buzzed the pyramids of Giza, circled Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Acropolis, and barnstormed the Vegas strip. It all looked very authentic. Unlike previous versions, there are many more 3D objects other than the major landmark buildings, and all of the terrain is textured from satellite photography so it is all quite stunning.
Even when you aren’t flying over the visually simulating population centers you will enjoy rolling hills, jagged mountains capped in snow with fluffy clouds at the summit and rolling fog in the valleys. One of my most memorable flights was in Alaska as I went from green meadows to huge glaciers and snow-covered mountains, all in a matter of a few minutes.
The time-of-day effects are quite spectacular creating dark shadows, brilliant lens flares, and subtle changing skies with pink sunrises and purple sunsets. You’ll see the stars flicker to life as the sun sinks below the horizon. Cities look amazing at night ranging from the colorful lights of cities like Miami, Dallas, and of course, Vegas, to the colorful patterns of blue, white, green, and red lights on the airport runways.
Weather effects are incredible. Even on pleasant days you will have some of the most stunning cloud formations you’ve ever seen, and they are not just background art, they actually exist and can be flown through. The variation in visibility is perfect as you break out of a cloud and the world slowly materializes in front of you. Snow, fog, rain, and even thunderstorms are both dangerous and welcome additions providing some of the most challenging aspects of the simulation. Lighting flashes across the sky in jagged streaks and highlights dark banks of clouds, and rain streaks through the sky and spots your windshield slowly pushed to the sides by the wind.
There isn’t a lot of sound in FS 2004 but what effects are present are all outstanding. You have the wonderful and authentic sounds of the various engines ranging from the hiss of the Learjet to the harmonizing twin props of the Baron or the throaty roar of the rotary engine on the Ryan NYP. Even the relative silence of the sailplane is refreshingly soothing.
There are some improved voices for air traffic control and the dialog for the opening tutorials and training lessons is all excellent quality. A bit of the humor in the training seemed forced and out of place – almost condescending, but I guess they are trying to appeal to total novices, so I’ll let it slide.
FS 2004 is the epitome of endless addictive gaming. After my initial installation I spent about three hours doing the lessons. Then I spent another six hours trying to find a location that Microsoft failed to include, without success I might add.
There is easily 20+ hours of education material in this package and beyond that the gameplay is limited only by your desire to see the world. Assuming you took off from every airport included with FS 2004 and flew for only five minutes you would spend 1,980 hours with this game. This is quite possibly the first computer game that might actually be impossible to finish, not that it has a defined ending, but there is literally a complete world here for you to explore.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight is a landmark achievement in computer simulations and gaming in general. I can’t think of a more perfect product to celebrate 100 years of aviation or 20 years of simulating flight on the PC. There is so much to learn and so much to do, and you’ll have weeks, months, and even year’s worth of fun doing it. This is one of those rare titles that will probably never leave your hard drive and should be experienced by anyone and everyone who has ever had a yearning to fly a plane or simply see the world from the comfort of your PC.