I came to review Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight from the standpoint of a casual gamer, and without having played a game in the series since Flight Simulator 2000. Despite that, after skipping through the introductory videos as if they were a passenger's emergency information card, I found that I immediately knew the key sequences to release my brakes, drop the flaps and apply some throttle, and none of the other controls had changed a great deal either. It wasn't until about half an hour of déjà vu that I realised what a great metaphor for the whole Flight Simulator 2004 experience that would be. There are several good improvements over previous versions, but to the eyes of the casual gamer at least, this is an iterative improvement. Maybe the subtitle should have been A Decade of Flight Simulators?
Probably the single biggest overhaul has been to the visuals - both the presentation of the introductory menus and videos, and to a slightly lesser extent the in-game graphics. Although the video clips teaching the would-be pilot the basics are dreadfully over-enthusiastic and the presenters make you long for the good old days of dry, factual 500 page manuals, they are consistently well produced, succinct and reasonably informative.
The in game graphics are more muddled - simulator or not, gamers in 2003 can rightfully expect a bit of Rayban Aviator style eye candy, especially in a game with no real objectives beyond enjoying the feeling of flight and the beauty of the surroundings. In some ways, it's delivered - watching the sunrise over a beautifully mirrored sea, or looking at fluffy clouds, or rain running over the cockpit window, it's hard not to be impressed. But there's no longer any excuse for a game engine that the player can "trick" by turning around suddenly, leaving the computer struggling to draw things quickly enough.
The real subtitle of this game is A Century of Flight, and it does give a clue that even the developers realise the series needs a new selling point. The idea here is letting the gamer recreate historic flights spanning the last 100 years, and for the most part it works well. If you have a little imagination, it's hard not to wonder at the fantastic feats of bravery and stupidity that have occurred since 1903. To help your imagination along there are short essays describing the historical flights being recreated, but in some cases the flight itself requires a little too much imagination. I know this is a serious simulation and not an arcade game, but couldn't we have had some cheering crowds or some kind of other reward when you reach your destination?
Flying too close to the sun
In fact, the player is given an overriding impression that Flight Simulator is unashamedly a simulator first and foremost and therefore details incidental to the actual flying experience are brushed over. For example, there is really no excuse when you perform a gut wrenching, dramatic, and of course deliberate inverted nose dive into the ground at 120 knots - only to be greeted with a naff crunching noise, a text message, and a plane that inexplicably stays in one piece.
The flying lessons in this version, on the other hand, are very well implemented. They are filled with well-scripted instructions that relate closely to the situation, and as a result it feels like you're really interacting with an instructor. It would have been better if the lessons didn't sometimes end immediately when you drift too far from your course though, as when do you learn better than when you're correcting epic mistakes?
There are a lot of positive points to be made here. The sheer scale of the project is amazing, with apparently faithful replication of countless different aircraft, great weather, recognisable locations all over the world, and some really well implemented ideas like drawing real-time weather information from the Internet. It all feels incredibly like real life, at least, to non-pilots like me. But then, washing dishes feels a lot like real life as well, so it really depends what you're after. It's definitely a great experience for an enthusiast - a game by propellerheads, for propellerheads.
In all honesty you probably know without any help whether this sounds like the kind of game that will appeal to you or not. If you like the sound of flying around for half an hour on the odd occasion, I would only suggest buying this game if you've got money burning a hole in your pocket. (Smoking on a plane? For shame!) Or, if you enjoy digging deeply in to a game there's no contesting that there is a great deal of depth on offer here. Even if you've got the hang on flying a Cessna, there are enough controls in a 747 to keep even the world's finest obsessive busy for days. It's also almost infinitely expandable, so if you do feel like you've mastered everything, there are plenty of add-on packs available to experiment with. I played around with Just Flight's B-17 "Memphis Belle" expansion. Strangely I couldn't seem to get very far even without enemy fighters. Must be some kind of technical fault.
For the most part, Flight Simulator 2004 has much the same strengths and weaknesses as all of the previous games in the series did. If you own an older version and you find you've finally got a PC it runs smoothly on, perhaps it's time to move to Microsoft's latest and greatest?
So - here's a rating for the casual gamer. Add one point for every air show you've ever attended.
6 / 10