For more than a century, human beings have used engines to pull, push, or lift themselves into the air, and for the past two decades, Microsoft Flight Simulator has let armchair pilots explore the exciting world of aviation on their PCs. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight commemorates this double anniversary by offering more planes, better graphics, and more options than ever before right out of the box, but the game will likely reach its full potential only if it receives great support from its player community.
These clouds aren't just for show. A violent thunderstorm brews within.
Fans of the previous games in the series will be up and running in no time thanks to the new game's familiar interface, but Flight Simulator 2004 also happens to be the most beginner-friendly game in the series. It's easier to access game options, and each option is actually explained by the game. There's also an excellent interactive flight school hosted by aviation veteran Rod Machado that serves as a surprisingly deep training tool.
There is enough written material included about the planes, the history of flight, and flying tips to fill an encyclopedia. As such, Flight Simulator 2004 represents one of the rare instances in which online documentation is wholly superior to a printed manual. The documentation includes articles that are supplemented with Web-page-style hyperlinks, which lead to more detailed information about a particular topic. Some even whisk you directly into the cockpit so you can actually re-create the particular flight (or series of flights) discussed in the article. While the fascinating historical articles by Flying magazine's Lane Wallace were commissioned by Microsoft, many of the other articles included are reprints from magazines like AOPA Pilot, and it is amazing to see how the real-world tips provided in these stories can be directly applied in the simulator.
And you'll need all the information you can get, because most of the new planes in Flight Simulator 2004 are cranky old antiques that require your undivided attention. The entire history of civilian flight is represented in the game, from the original Wright Flyer that can't even struggle its way out of ground effect to a Boeing 747-400 that can haul hundreds of people higher than 40,000 feet at Mach .85. You can retrace Lindbergh's steps across the Atlantic in a re-creation of the Ryan NYP "Spirit of St. Louis," see what Amelia Earhart's trip across that same ocean was like in a Lockheed Vega, and haul freight over the mountains in a Douglas DC-3, among other things. The Sopwith Camel was not brought over from the previous game into the new game--this is strictly a civilian flight simulator, without any military prop planes or jets, but it still offers plenty of different aircraft to fly.
If you plan to fly any of the vintage aircraft, be sure to invest in some good controller peripherals, specifically rudder pedals or a joystick with a twist handle. It's impossible to take off and land in taildraggers like the Piper J3 Cub and Curtiss Jenny without a lot of dancing on the rudders. And once they're airborne, ponderous antiques like the Vickers Vimy biplane can barely turn unless you stomp on the pedals. Rudder controls also are a must for flying the two helicopters modeled in the game, which include the familiar Bell JetRanger and the new Robison R22 Beta. The Beta is a skittish little chopper that is hypersensitive to controller input and offers a wholly different flying experience from that of the heavier and more stable JetRanger.
The overall flight model feels very similar to that of Flight Simulator 2002 and is well suited to capturing the nuances of the game's slow and underpowered historical planes. For example, when landing a taildragger, you should be able to float in slowly at a steep angle for a traditional three-point landing or come in more quickly at a shallow angle to land on the main wheels, keeping forward pressure on the stick until the tail gradually loses lift and the tailwheel gently settles on the runway. The latter option is essential for landing a small plane like the Piper Cub in high crosswinds, and the new game models it perfectly.
Flight Simulator 2004's virtual cockpits are interactive, so most of these switches can be adjusted with your mouse.
Aside from the historical aircraft, Flight Simulator 2004's big news this time around is its weather effects. You can set up in-flight weather any way you like or go for the ultimate in realism by having the game automatically download real-world weather reports from the Jeppesen database every 15 minutes. We tested this feature in a variety of weather conditions flying out of a hometown airport, and sure enough, the conditions depicted onscreen corresponded with what we saw from the window, for the most part.