I've made peace with the fact that I'll never be anything more than a casual Microsoft Flight Simulator player. I'm not a hardcore "simmer," as devoted fans of the series call themselves. I've played the game off and on since its release, and like Engadget's Jessica Conditt, I've found it to be a chill and meditative experience. It never really grabbed me, though, until I slapped on a headset to try out Flight Simulator's new virtual reality mode, which launched this week.
Now, whenever I close my eyes, I see myself in a cockpit, with the horizon in the distance and the world far below me, slowly passing by. I've spent so much time flying in VR, I've started dreaming about my adventures -- gliding across the Balkans with picture perfect coastal towns beneath me, or landing on a lonely strip of land in Patagonia. I suppose that makes sense: in a way, dreams are the original virtual reality.
As wondrous as the experience is, though, it's clear that Flight Simulator's developer Asobo is still getting a handle on virtual reality. For one, there are a plethora of bugs. When I launched it on an Oculus Quest 2 running over Oculus Link, everything ran fine for a few minutes, but eventually several distorted in-game windows crowded the virtual cockpit. After restarting the game (a process that typically takes around two minutes) and rebooting the Quest 2, it refused to launch in VR mode altogether. At that point, I just gave up and plugged in HP's recently released Reverb G2.
These are early days for Flight Simulator's VR mode, so I'll temper my judgement. Microsoft and Asobo also deserve credit for opening up the game to every OpenXR headset (which includes most SteamVR models). Originally, the companies planned to make VR exclusive to the Reverb G2. Oculus headsets are officially supported as well, so I'm hoping Asobo sorts out the Link issues soon.
According to Jorg Neumann, Microsoft's head of Flight Simulator, the company has been considering how virtual reality could play a role in the long-running franchise's reboot since 2016. But since the game was complex enough already -- especially considering how it taps into Microsoft's Azure cloud and Bing maps -- they only began concerted VR development in June 2019.
As an experienced pilot himself, Neumann says the VR mode is so accurate it makes it tough for him to go back to the 2D version of the game. Everything, from the way he's situated in the cockpit, to how he looks out the window to check traffic, works the way he expects. "It's just so close to reality, it's kind of shocking," he said.
I went into the game without any real-world flight knowledge, 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 into panels and dials to see them more clearly. To take in the scenery, I just look out the window -- something that's particularly helpful when landing and navigating tricky terrain. You can even break the game's reality a bit by sticking your head completely through the plane's window for a literal birds-eye view of the world.
Switching between the game's 2D and VR modes is pretty simple: hit Control and Tab at the title screen, or click the VR mode option in settings. I would have liked to see a shortcut for headsets that lets you launch directly into VR mode. Oculus and Windows Mixed Reality devices let you easily access your Windows desktop, so you could always start the game that way too.
Unfortunately, Flight Simulator doesn't support VR controllers yet, which is a bit disappointing. I was looking forward to grabbing the yoke and fiddling with dials realistically. Instead, I had to use my Xbox One controller as always, and keep my keyboard and mouse nearby. Of course, if you're lucky enough to own a flight stick, you can continue using that as usual. But you'll still need a mouse around to control the virtual pointer, which is how you can hit the various switches, buttons and manage the game’s virtual tool windows. As a casual player, I never really saw the need to invest in a flight stick, but I'm certainly considering that now as I fall more in love with Flight Simulator VR.
Given how demanding the game already is, you'll need to have a beefy system to truly enjoy the virtual reality experience. VR titles typically need to hit 90fps to effectively fill the 90hz screens on most headsets, which is far beyond the 60fps standard for 2D games. Flight Simulator ran smoothly at 90fps with medium VR graphics settings on my PC, which is equipped with a Core i7-8700k, RTX 3080, 32GB of RAM and a Samsung 980 NVMe. I couldn't crank the graphics all the way up to "ultra" levels, which is how I normally play in 2D. Your experience may vary, though. (Sam Machkovech at Ars Technica had more trouble getting it to run consistently on the Valve Index, even though his system is almost identical to mine.)
Looking ahead, Neumann expects the VR mode to evolve much like Flight Simulator itself. He’s intrigued by the possibility of advanced haptics, which could make the game even more useful for flight schools as a replacement for bulky training machines.
“I think the pilot crisis that the planet is facing is real,” Neumann said. “You know it’s a very global world and airplanes are critical, but there’s just not enough pilots…. Having more sophisticated home-based devices is actually going to be critical to making all this work. [Flight instructors] are keenly interested that our simulation helps them essentially create a funnel for future aviators.”
I'll admit, Flight Simulator is far from perfect in VR. But when it works, it makes you feel like a truly capable pilot. During my hour-long flight around the Balkans, I buzzed over towns and imagined how those coastal communities lived. I crested mountains just to see what's 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's absurdly dangerous in real life.
At one point, I landed in a flower-filled Croatian field. A lone prairie house sat in the distance, the sun setting over the mountains to the west. I cut the engine, and just sat there, soaking in the silence and gentle wind. I'm not sure how long I stayed there, but it was a genuine moment of peace, which have been exceedingly rare this year. Later that night, I dreamt about hopping out of my plane, exploring that strip of land and camping out while the sky grew dark. I woke up hoping that I’d actually be able to see that field one day. Maybe I could actually meet the person who lives in that house.