Microsoft Flight Simulator's new VR mode haunts my dreams
I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll never be more than an occasional Microsoft Flight Simulator gamer. I'm not a hardcore simmer, as avid fans of the series call themselves. I've played the game over and over since its release and like Engadgets Jessica Conditt, I found it to be a relaxed and meditative experience. However, it never really got me until I put on a headset to try out Flight Simulator's new virtual reality mode, which launched this week.
When I close my eyes now, I see myself in a cockpit, with the horizon in the distance and the world far below me, which is slowly passing by. I've spent so much time flying in VR that I've started dreaming of my adventures - gliding across the Balkans with quaint coastal towns below me or landing on a deserted strip of land in Patagonia. I suppose that makes sense: in a way, dreams are the original virtual reality.
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As wonderful as the experience is, it's clear that Flight Simulator developer Asobo is still getting to grips with virtual reality. For one, there are a multitude of errors. When I started it on an Oculus Quest 2 running on Oculus Link, everything went fine for a few minutes, but eventually several distorted windows in the game crowded the virtual cockpit. After restarting the game (a process that usually takes about two minutes) and restarting Quest 2, the launch in VR mode was denied altogether. At that point, I just gave up and hooked up on HP's recently released Reverb G2.
These are the first few days for Flight Simulator VR mode, so I'll tone down my judgment. Microsoft and Asobo also deserve credit for opening the game to any OpenXR headset (which includes most SteamVR models). The companies originally planned to make VR exclusive to the Reverb G2. Oculus headsets are also officially supported, so I hope Asobo solves the link issues soon.
Microsoft Flight Simulator VR
According to Jörg Neumann, Microsoft's chief flight simulator, the company has been thinking since 2016 about how virtual reality could play a role in the restart of the long-running franchise. However, since the game was already complex enough - especially given the way it uses Microsoft's Azure Cloud and Bing cards - concerted VR development didn't begin until June 2019.
As a seasoned pilot, Neumann says that VR mode is so accurate that he has a hard time getting back to the 2D version of the game. Everything from the way he is in the cockpit to the way he looks out the window to check traffic is working the way he expects. "It's just so close to reality, it's kind of shocking," he said.
I went into the game with no flight knowledge, but the VR experience still felt like a revelation. Instead of switching between different camera views with my Xbox gamepad, I could just lean into control panels and dials to see them more clearly. To see the landscape, I just look out the window - something that's especially helpful when I'm landing and navigating in difficult terrain. You can even break the reality of the game a bit by sticking your head all the way through the airplane's window for a bird's eye view of the world.
Switching between the game's 2D and VR modes is pretty straightforward: press Ctrl and Tab from the title screen or click the VR Mode option in Settings. I would have liked a shortcut for headsets with which you can start directly in VR mode. Oculus and Windows Mixed Reality devices give you easy access to your Windows desktop, so you can always start the game that way.
Microsoft Flight Simulator VR
Unfortunately, Flight Simulator doesn't yet support VR controllers, which is a bit disappointing. I looked forward to grabbing the yoke and playing realistically with the dials. Instead, as always, I had to use my Xbox One controller and keep my keyboard and mouse close by. If you are lucky enough to have a flying stick, you can of course continue to use it as usual. However, you still need a mouse to control the virtual pointer. This allows you to press the various switches and buttons and manage the game's virtual tool windows. As a casual gamer, I've never really seen the need to invest in a flight stick, but I've been thinking about it as I now fall in love with Flight Simulator VR more.
Given the high demands on the game, you need a powerful system to really enjoy the virtual reality experience. VR titles typically need to hit 90 fps to effectively fill the 90 Hz screens of most headsets, which is well above the 60 fps standard for 2D gaming. Flight Simulator ran smoothly at 90 fps and medium VR graphics settings on my PC, which is equipped with a Core i7-8700k, RTX 3080, 32 GB RAM and a Samsung 980 NVMe. I couldn't turn the graphics up to "ultra" levels like I usually play in 2D. However, your experience may vary. (Ars Technica's Sam Machkovech had major problems with it running consistently on the valve index, even though his system is almost identical to mine.)
Looking ahead, Neumann expects VR mode to develop in a similar way to Flight Simulator. He is intrigued by the possibility of advanced haptics that could make the game even more useful for flight schools as a replacement for bulky training equipment.
Microsoft Flight Simulator VR
"I think the pilot crisis the planet is facing is real," said Neumann. "You know it's a very global world and airplanes are vital, but there just aren't enough pilots ... Having more sophisticated equipment for home use is actually going to be critical to making all of this work. [Flight instructors] are very interested that our simulation will help them essentially create a funnel for future pilots. "
I admit, Flight Simulator is far from perfect in VR. But when it works you will feel like a really capable pilot. During my hour-long flight around the Balkans, I buzzed over cities and imagined how these coastal communities lived. I've climbed mountains just to see what's on the other side. And I flew so close to the sea that I could almost touch the water, a maneuver that is absurdly dangerous in real life.
At some point I landed in a flower-filled Croatian field. In the distance stood a lonely prairie house and the sun was setting over the mountains to the west. I turned off the engine and just sat there sucking in the silence and the gentle wind. I'm not sure how long I stayed there, but it was a real moment of peace that was extremely rare this year. Later that night, I dreamed of getting off my plane, exploring this strip of land, and camping outside while the sky went dark. I woke up hoping that one day I could actually see this field. Maybe I could actually meet the person who lives in this house.
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