Editorial: Why I’m excited to be in the Flight Sim 2020 closed beta

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I’ve always tended to lean towards simulation experiences when it comes to PCs  – yes I’ve had the odd dabble with things like Apex Legends (more than a dabble really, took me three seasons to finally get bored).

Predominantly though I prefer a slightly more sedate pace to my downtime. Now we don’t cover the gaming world extensively here at PC Guide, we leave our sister site WePC.com to get their hands dirty with the ins and outs but when there is a product on the horizon that is clearly going to be around for perhaps the decade, we are all in on that.

I played my first flight simulator on the old 8-bit British computer the Amstrad CPC 464 I’m guessing around 1985. It was called Flight Path 737 by Anirog and it was, to a kid at least, rock-solid difficult.

There was only one flight you could do and that was over a mountain range to another airport and land. My brother and I played it a lot from memory but only ever managed to land it once, and that was playing together on the same keyboard, one controlling speed and controls, the other direction. Even though it was archaic by today’s standards it still seemed really exciting, you never knew if you were going to get an engine fire or some other deathly disaster might loom over the horizon.

I didn’t realize until researching for this article it actually came out again for the 16-bit computers the Amiga and Atari ST, and now I’m going to have to dig that out for a look, but it would have been around this time when flight sims began to have their heyday.

Companies like MicroProse released a torrent of hardcore sims like Falcon 4.0 that are still just as tough to get into today as they ever were, complete with their 300-page physical manuals. Falcon also made it to the early PCs that people were just starting to game on via MS-DOS.

In the main, though flight sims were combat sims. Classics such as Knights of the Sky took you back to the World War eras whereas there were plenty of jet-based sims about covering either side of the NATO/Warsaw Pact era.

Bubbling away in the background of all of this, crazily since 1980, long before I encountered Flight Path 737, Microsoft had a Flight Simulator out in the wild that was based around general aviation rather than combat. It was aimed at a niche audience. One that could let their imaginations run wild, as photo-realistic graphics were still about 40 years away!

They kept developing it over the years. It wouldn’t go away. The audience, while always staying firmly on the hardcore side of the fence, grew and grew and by the mid-90s there were third-party companies doing very well on selling add-ons such as new planes, airports, and the like, often for quite high prices.

By now we are in 2006 and Microsoft debuted Flight Simulator X into the world and it was, relatively speaking a hit for them. Despite its position on the PC, massive home-grown game-sales had generally alluded them but Flight Simulator with it’s seeingly guaranteed niche market bucked the trend.

Until 2009 that is when a raft of job cuts at the Seattle company included the shuttering of Flight Simulator dev team Aces Game Studio and that was more or less that.

Flight Simulator X continued to twitch and not die, however, five years later current SIm darlings Dovetail Games announced they had the rights to develop a new FS game and also released Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition, which was an overhaul of the last classic but set up to work on Steam and more modern PCs. Bringing it to Steam opened things up a huge audience (including me) and is probably a decision that has lead to all the latest developments around Flight Simulator.a

There were plenty more dabbles in the flight sim market to keep people keen during the Microsoft absence. Titles such as Prepar3d, X-Plane (now on version 11) and Aerofly have filled the gap, but when Microsoft announced that they were back in the pilot’s seat last June and rumors of Flight Simulator 2020 were true, things got exciting. For me.

History lesson over. You see flight sims have been something I have always wanted to get into. And I mean into properly. I have a friend who’s a pilot and I am jealous of his playtime set-up. I like building things and modding things, and I like the idea of making my own controller panels with switches and the like on them to control in-game actions.

I even got as far as buying some gear from renowned sim hardware guru Leo Bodnar and knocked up a switch panel that I used quite successfully in my Elite Dangerous VBR setup.

For some reason, mainly cost and always having something more pressing to buy though, I would say the one thing I have looked at more than anything on Amazon and never pressed Add to Basket is a set of Flight Controls and pedals for a flight sim. I almost convinced myself that I needed them for Elite, even though I had a perfectly good HOTAS setup.

As I dipped out of Elite after a year of non-stop playing I installed X-Plane 11. Again, being a massive mod-head I added things to my set-up, flight maps on my iPad, photo-realistic terrain taking up terabytes of space generated from Google Maps using nerdy third-party programs, realistic air-traffic control and so on.

One problem, I didn’t actually know how to take off. So I made a concerted effort to learn how to fly X-Plane’s Cessna light-aircraft. I pottered around in the skies above the various areas where I have lived. I flew over the resort where I got married in Jamaica ten years earlier and it was cool. Relaxing and cool, me and the noise of my Cessna droning away.

And I still didn’t order the yoke and pedals. Nor did I ever manage to progress to flying a jet. I never felt confident enough in my little two-seater to suddenly thunder down a massive runway in a 737. I loaded one once and couldn’t even work out how to start the engine

Then, all of a sudden and I don’t know why. I haven’t played a flight sim for maybe two years. I repurposed the external hard drive that had all my terrain data on. It’s still called FlightSim (D:) in my Windows install, and I hung up my pilot’s pants.

Then last June Flight Simulator 2020 got announced. I raised an eyebrow but no more. However, over time as more and more of the gameplay videos have come out and I have watched how astonishingly good it looks, steaming in highly accurately terrain data from all over the globe and flying in the sky with other pilots and I suddenly find myself being unable to wait for the Closed Beta to start on July 30th. I’m in the program and ready to give it a go.

I know chances are it will be a bug-ridden mess to start with. I’ve done enough betas in my career to know not to let it put you off, but I don’t want to spoil it for myself. B ut I do really want to play it. Dilemma time.

There’s no doubt if I can finally get myself hooked on it it’s a  game that will undoubtedly drain my time and wallet, although I don’t see it as a game. I think like most flight simmers I’ll actually see it as more of a hobby in itself.

I might just order those pedals though just in case.