Flight simulation games have been around since electrical engineer Bruce Artwick introduced the prehistoric Microsoft Flight Simulator on the 8-bit Apple II back in the late ’70s, kicking off decades worth of commercial software. As PC processing power advanced, flight simulators became increasingly realistic, letting users experience what it’s like to be a pilot from the comfort of their homes.
The flight simulator genre has been somewhat neglected in recent years, but Microsoft will be releasing a new game in its Flight Simulator series in 2020, the first since 2006’s Flight Simulator X. Simply called Microsoft Flight Simulator, it may reinvigorate the genre and compel more studios to make new flight sims.
While flight simulators can cost an inordinate amount of money, there are numerous viable options that won’t cost you any money. From traditional flying sims to those that throw a bit of combat into the fray, take a look at the best flight simulators available that don’t cost you a dime to fly.
Old-school civilian flight sims
GeoFS (Web browser)
Why let something like not being able to download a game get in the way of you enjoying a flight simulation? GeoFS runs entirely in your browser, and you’re literally only two clicks away from flying an airplane right now. Using either a joystick, your mouse, or your computer’s keyboard, you can take off and fly across the world in one of 20 aircraft, and if you’re on the go, you can even fly with your mobile device.
Setting the throttle and taking off for the first time is remarkably simple, and you can customize the controls quickly at any time, as well as pull up helpful instructions to aid you on your maiden voyage. If you aren’t having any luck with multi-engine planes, you can always switch to a more traditional propeller model, instead, and the simulator also includes a hot air balloon, helicopter, and even a paraglider. We don’t suggest starting in a paraglider from 30,000 feet in the air.
The paid version of GeoFS does include better imagery with higher resolution, but the free version still supports massively multiplayer interaction. At any point, you could run into another player flying through the sky, and you’ll even find commercial airliners moving in real-time, along with changing weather conditions. These conditions are based on real-time data from Open Weather Map, so the rain or sleet you experience will be exactly what actual pilots are dealing with. It certainly isn’t the prettiest-looking flight simulation on our list, but that’s the trade-off when your game is capable of running on virtually any machine.
Want to see where you’ll run into other players? GeoFS has a live map that keeps track of everyone in the air at any given moment. All you have to do is right-click on any of the planes, select an altitude to start from, and you’ll instantly be in the air at the same location. Soaring above the African desert is truly beautiful, even when your plane is stalling out and you begin plummeting thousands of feet to your doom. More than 30,000 different runways are available for takeoff, so you’re unlikely to ever run out of places to see.
YSFlight (Windows, MacOS)
Sometimes it feels as though YSFlight has not evolved much from its humble beginnings, but that is not such a bad thing. The software is incredibly light on system resources — that is no surprise given the simulator’s basic design and less-than-impressive visuals — yet it still offers a robust set of built-in features. And for just a few megabytes, who can really complain?
The sim provides more than 70 aircraft to choose from, spanning everything from the Blue Angels F-18 Hornet to an Apache helicopter, along with a wide array of maps that encompass a host of well-known regions from around the globe. Additional features, such as wind variables and a day-night component, can also be tweaked with relative ease.
It’s a very customizable piece of software, allowing you to do anything from flying in Delta formation with artificial intelligence wingmates to engaging in aerial dogfights with your friends. While you do so, the Atari-esque HUB delivers details on in-flight speeds, elevation, direction, and other essential information. Gameplay footage can also be recorded and replayed directly within the program and YSFlight also includes joystick support as well as standard controls for your mouse and keyboard.
The most incredible aspect of the game, however, is its homespun history. Soji Yamakawa, aka Captain YS, created the simulator on his own as a university project in 1999. He continued to develop the project as a hobby over the ensuing years, though the software hasn’t received a substantial update in quite some time. There are far more beautiful flight sims out there, but YSFlight keeps it simple and is still welcoming.
FlightGear (Windows, MacOS)
FlightGear is the undisputed champ when it comes to advanced settings and pure, unrestricted customization. The open-source software’s roots date back to 1997, but the developers and the rabid community of users have been expanding and tweaking the freemium title’s extensive map and feature-set ever since. More recent updates have brought the program up to current computing standards. However, quality and customization come at a price: The software is the most resource-intensive option on our list.
Once installed, a process that can be a hassle if you’re unused to the barebones nature of open-source software documentation, users can navigate the beautiful, 3D-rendered environments in a Cessna 172 or choose from a deep variety of virtual aircraft that includes a Boeing 777, an A6M20 Zero, and even a Zeppelin NT07 airship.
The software makes use of a limited amount of built-in scenery, but you can download various regions of the globe and more than 20,000 airports directly through FlightGear‘s website, via BitTorrent, or by purchasing an optional Blu-ray disc. The daunting installation process and interface are also easier to deal with if you’re willing to spend some time using the FlightGear wiki, which walks you through the setup process and helps you with taking off, landing, and other basic flight procedures.
FlightGear is consistently praised for its ongoing dedication on the part of the development community and its realism, earning high marks for everything from the overall flight controls to minute details such as lighting. And while it may be big, bulky, and full of high-flying muscle, the abundance of user-curated documentation and stellar support functions are enough to keep any newcomer afloat.
X-Plane 11 (Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, iOS)
Laminar Research’s X-Plane 11 is not for the faint of heart. The game features more than 3,000 different airports, all meticulously detailed with hangers and terminal buildings. X-Plane takes itself seriously, so much so that the developers claim that it’s “… not a game, but an engineering tool that can be used to predict the flying qualities of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft with incredible accuracy.”
This accuracy is achieved, in theory at least, through a unique aerodynamic model known as “blade element theory.” This theory simulates flight by modeling forces on each component of the aircraft simultaneously, rather than using the predefined lookup tables that have become the standard for simulating aviation. The blade element theory is often used to pre-compute aerodynamic forces for simulations that have not been run. This affords X-Plane users more freedom when designing potential aircraft to add to the game, though it can be more finicky (and less accurate) when piloting existing aircraft.
X-Plane is incredibly detailed, with little touches such as detailed weather modeling and the potential for system failures. Nearly every component of a plane can fail randomly, which, while frustrating, helps create a more realistic simulation experience and goes to show just how much work was put into the program. Users can also pilot anything from a B-2 Bomber to a space shuttle, and there are hundreds of additional aircraft available via both freemium and premium add-ons. X-Plane can be a bear at first, but you will be doing barrel rolls with a little practice. And a plane that can do barrel rolls.
Though the full version of X-Plane 11 is not free, a demo is available to download on the game’s website. If you prefer to play on the go, X-Plane 10 is available on iOS and Android, and older versions of the software are available to purchase as downloads or USB sticks.
Flight sims with a side of combat
War Thunder (Windows, MacOS, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
No war stirs as much fascination in the public consciousness as World War II — blame it on the memorable battles and the stirring narratives of good and evil. However, for as much suffering as the war caused, WWII fiction tends to lean toward romanticism.
For flight enthusiasts, the war is notable for bringing air superiority to the forefront, with aircraft carriers extending the reach of air forces across entire oceans. Set during this period of aerial innovation, War Thunder offers a more action-oriented flight experience, allowing players to fly any of hundreds of different planes for the five great powers (United States, Germany, Britain, U.S.S.R., and Japan). The game features a few different modes, too, allowing for both hardcore simulation and relaxed, arcade-style gameplay. As such, newcomers and veteran aces will feel at home.
War Thunder is also an online multiplayer game, with most battles pitting two sides of 16 players against one another. These battles often emphasize dogfighting, with the goal being to reduce the enemy numbers, or incorporate ground-based objectives. Players can also participate using land vehicles, including tanks and anti-aircraft vehicles. War Thunder operates under a “freemium” model, too. There is no cost to start playing, however, not all of the content is available to begin with. The game also supports cross-play, with the PC players able to compete against those on Xbox One or PlayStation — though not both at the same time.
Players gain points that they can then use to increase their pilot’s stats as they complete objectives and win battles, thus allowing them to unlock new planes and adjust components such as vision range and G-force tolerance. Of course, dedicated players can also spend money to acquire these in-game perks faster, though they won’t have any inherent advantage over those who unlocked them through sheer persistence.
The game’s planes come in three broad archetypes: Fighters, agile warbirds good at dogfighting; attackers, somewhat slower planes with huge weapons designed to take down armored targets; and bombers, heavily armored planes with huge payloads that can wipe out clusters of ground forces. These categories all have their own strengths and weaknesses, and victory will depend on teams using a healthy mix of the three.
Rise of Flight (Windows)
Despite the ongoing success of EA’s Battlefield 1, the first World War tends to live in the shadow of its successor. Perhaps this is because the war took place 31 years prior, or perhaps because Kaiser Wilhelm doesn’t make for as nefarious a villain as Adolf Hitler. Whatever the reason, the Great War tends to be overlooked outside of the occasional Ernest Hemingway novel. That’s a shame because WWI is strewn with iconic technological advancements, particularly when you consider that it was the first major war in which planes were used.
The ace pilots of the era — like the Red Baron — were international celebrities, fighting aerial duels that became the stuff of legend. Recognizing the gallantry of old-school dogfights, Rise of Flight puts players in the pilot seat of classic WWI planes, including the iconic Fokker DR.1 triplane.
The first thing players might notice about Rise of Flight is its exceptional commitment to authenticity. The planes are depicted in meticulous detail, from the chassis down to the gauges lining the cockpit. This attention to lush detailing extends to the title’s various levels, too, which function as massive re-creations of actual locations on the Western Front. While combat is the main draw, it’s tempting to simply fly around and take in the view of Verdun.
The game also features a few different modes, including custom scenarios, multiplayer battles, and a campaign that re-creates several historic battles. In addition, there are numerous ways to customize the controls, so whether you prefer mouse and keyboard or the tactile authenticity of a flight stick, you can play Rise of Flight the way that feels most comfortable to you.
World of Warplanes (Windows, MacOS)
An aerial spinoff of World of Tanks, the aptly titled World of Warplanes puts players in large battles against one another, allowing them to pilot everything from the wooden biplanes of WWI to modern jets. Like World of Tanks, Warplanes follows a “freemium” model — you can start playing for free, but a number of the planes require players to purchase them with real money or in-game currency.
In the beginning, players only have access to the primitive warbirds of the Great War. Players can earn currency through winning, and they can later spend this currency to unlock more advanced aircraft. Earning enough to buy a new plane can take a while, however, and there are scores of vehicles to unlock.
Warplanes is probably the most arcade-focused game on our list. The controls are streamlined down to the essentials, so there’s no need to fiddle with dozens of gauges. While this makes it easier for rookies to learn, it removes a good deal of the depth and authenticity that many people value in flight sims. It is easy to start dogfighting, but the combat lacks the hallmark nuances of more realistic simulators.
The game’s various locales — all of which will be familiar to history buffs — are splendid to look at, so players will be able to enjoy the view even if they aren’t blown away by the title’s inherent lack of depth. The hearty selection of planes, and the progression system used to unlock them, will keep many players striving to unlock new tools. For those who want a more casual combat game, especially one they can play with friends, World of Warplanes is an accessible option.
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