I came to terms with the fact that I would never be anything more than casual Microsoft flight simulator player. I’m not fiercely “squeaking,” as dedicated fans of the series are called. I’ve been playing ever since going out, and like Engadget’s Jessica Conditt, I’ve found it to be a cold and meditative experience. It never really grabbed me, until I fired the headphones to try it out Flight simulator a new virtual reality mode, launched this week.
Now, whenever I close my eyes, I see myself in the cockpit, with the horizon in the distance and the world far below me, slowly passing by. I spent so much time flying in VR, I started dreaming about my adventures – gliding through the Balkans with a picture of perfect coastal cities below me or landing on a lonely belt of land in Patagonia. I guess that makes sense: in a way, dreams are the original virtual reality.
As miraculous as the experience may be, it is clear that the Flight Simulator programmer Asobo is still tackling virtual reality. First, there are a multitude of beetles. When I launched it on Oculus Quest 2 that crossed the Oculus Link, everything worked fine for a few minutes, but eventually a few distorted windows in the game filled the virtual cockpit. After restarting the game (a process that usually takes about two minutes) and restarting Quest 2, she completely refused to run in VR mode. At that point, I gave up and plugged in HP’s recently released Reverb G2.
These are the early days for Flight simulator VR mode, so I will soften my judgment. Microsoft and Asobo also deserve to open the game to all OpenXR headsets (which include most SteamVR models). Originally, the companies planned to make VR exclusive to Reverb G2. The Oculus headphones are also officially supported, so I hope Asobo will solve the connection issues soon.
According to Jorg Neumann, head of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the company is considering how virtual reality could play a role in relaunching the long-running franchise from 2016. But since the game was already complex enough – especially given how it enters Microsoft’s Azure cloud and Bing maps – coordinated VR development has only just begun in June 2019.
Like the experienced pilot himself, Neumann says the VR mode is so precise that it makes it difficult for him to return to the 2D version of the game. Everything from the way it’s housed in the cockpit, to the way it looks out the window to check traffic, works the way it expects. “It’s so close to reality, it’s kind of shocking,” he said.
I entered the game without any real knowledge of the flight, but the VR experience still felt like a revelation. Instead of using my Xbox gamepad to switch between different camera views, I could just lean on the panels and dials to see them more clearly. To enjoy the scenery, I just look out the window – something that is especially useful when landing and moving on tricky terrain. You can even break the reality of the game a bit by sticking your head completely through the plane window for a literal view of the world from a bird’s eye view.
Switching between 2D and VR game modes is pretty simple: press Control and Tab on the home screen or click the VR mode option in Settings. I would love to see a headphone shortcut that allows you to run directly in VR mode. Oculus and Windows Mixed Reality give you easy access to the Windows desktop, so you can always start playing.
Unfortunately, Flight Simulator it doesn’t support VR controllers yet, which is a bit disappointing. I was looking forward to grabbing the yoke and realistically fiddling with the dials. Instead, I had to use my Xbox One controller as always and keep the keyboard and mouse close. Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a flying stick, you can continue to use it as usual. But you will still need a mouse to control the virtual cursor, which is the way you can press various switches, buttons and control the virtual windows of game tools. As a casual gamer, I’ve never really seen the need to invest in a flight stick, but I’m certainly thinking about it now, as I fall more in love with Flight Simulator VR.
Given how demanding the game is already, you will need to have a solid system to truly enjoy the virtual reality experience. VR titles typically need to reach 90 frames per second to efficiently fill 90Hz screens on most headphones, which is far above the 60 fps standard for 2D games. Flight Simulator it ran smoothly at 90 frames per second with medium VR graphics settings on my computer equipped with Core i7-8700k, RTX 3080, 32 GB RAM and Samsung 980 NVMe. I couldn’t do graphics all the way to the “ultra” level, which is the way I normally play in 2D. Your experience may vary. (Machkovech himself from Ars Technica had more difficulty working consistently on the valve index, although his system is almost identical to mine.)
Looking ahead, Neumann expects VR mode to evolve similarly Flight Simulator myself. He was intrigued by the possibility of advanced haptics, which could make the game even more useful for flying schools as a replacement for bulky exercise equipment.
“I think the pilot crisis the planet is facing is real,” Neumann said. “You know that this is a very global world and airplanes are critical, but there are simply not enough pilots … Having more sophisticated home appliances will actually be crucial for all this. [Flight instructors] they are keenly interested that our simulation will basically help them create a funnel for future aviators. “
I admit Flight Simulator is far from perfect in VR. But when he succeeds, you feel like a really capable pilot. During my one-hour flight around the Balkans, I buzzed over the cities and imagined how those coastal communities lived. I lost the mountains just to see what was on the other side. And I flew close enough to the sea that I could almost reach out and touch the water, a maneuver that is in fact absurdly dangerous.
At one point I landed on a Croatian field filled with flowers. A lone prairie house sat in the distance, the sun setting over the mountains to the west. I turned off the engine and just sat there, absorbing the silence and the gentle wind. I’m not sure how long I stayed there, but it was a true moment of peace, which was extremely rare this year. Later that night, I dreamed of jumping out of my plane, exploring that strip of land, and camping while the sky darkened. I woke up hoping that one day I would really be able to see that field. Maybe I could really meet the person who lives in that house.