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Microsoft Flight Simulator latest mode doesn’t take full advantage of VR’s potential

I still remember my first plane ride. It was a two-hour journey from the U.K. to Menorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands, for a family holiday. The entire trip was a profoundly new experience for a then-six-year-old me that created sun-soaked memories to last a lifetime. Yet, for my parents, the one memory that gets called back the most is my childish mispronunciation of “turbulence” when my then short, short life flashed before my eyes on the way there.

For many, their first trip up in the skies would be the ideal route to retread for a Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 maiden voyage. I instead opted for a blissfully uneconomical eight-minute cruise from my hometown of Manchester to the neighboring city of Liverpool to the west. I wasn’t expecting to make it off the ground, and while I did, the experience gave me a crash course in how VR both helps and hinders the experience in a way only emerging tech can.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 cockpit view
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Troubleshooting time

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 was a massive launch title last year, but it came without the VR support that seemed like such a natural fit for the return of the long-running franchise. But Christmas came early for immersion lovers as the promised addition arrived just three days before the big day (maybe Santa even used it to optimize his COVID-dodging route).

While the vast majority of PC VR headsets are simple plug-and-play affairs,  the same cann’t be said for my Oculus Quest 2. For the most part, a USB cable is all you need for the Oculus Quest to retain its position as the best budget VR headset out there. Virtual Desktop spits out better visual clarity compared to the USB method, making it the cheapest wireless headset by far.

Even with that ease of use, a fair amount of troubleshooting is required. I’m used to fiddling with games like Euro Truck Simulator 2 in VR mode, so I was expecting the same problems here. Thankfully, slivers of progress (i.e., different error codes) mean the game is at least acknowledging my efforts — whatever they were — so I kept at it.  I’ll never actually know what eventually got my game to work, so now I live in fear that any attempt to dive back in will require a 20-minute troubleshooting session. I could just compare it to a pilot thoroughly checking their instruments before they take the responsibility of ferrying a few hundred precious lives 5,280 feet in the air, but as life has taught me, I’m just not that patient — and my task is not as vital.

While the Oculus Quest 2 seems like the most user-friendly option on the market, the situation displays how complicated even the most basic version of the tech becomes when paired with a game as ambitious as this.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 setup
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Frightening first flight

Once the game was magically projected into my eyeballs — which is a visual feast, I might add — I grabbed a cheap Thrustmaster T.Flight Hotas X throttle-and-stick controller from the PlayStation 3. Against my usual judgment, I elected to make my first-ever Microsoft Flight Simulator experience a tutorial in controls. Madness, I know, but when you’re trying out a groundbreaking VR experience, you want to get right into it, not be tossed onto a runway without any knowledge of how to take off. That ended up being the least of my problems.

After a daunting trip up in the air with a co-pilot protecting me from certain doom, I made the ultimately premature decision to head into the skies on my own. Rather than flying in pitch-perfect conditions, a 6 p.m. flight out of Manchester in the middle of winter meant my short maiden voyage was to be an expedition in total darkness. Do planes not have headlights? I’d genuinely never thought about it.

All of a sudden, I was tossed right into the deep end. The screens in my cockpit were mostly alien — the two dozen or so dials and buttons were hidden by the void, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to disable my parking brake. The in-game tips clamored on about pressing “6” to disengage it, but with a keyboard sandwiched between my throttle and flight stick, no amount of peeking through my headset’s nose hole to hit the button resulted in sudden airborne freedom.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 cockpit view 2
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Turns out there’s a tiny “6” button on the side of the throttle. I couldn’t see it with a headset on and, as the cockpit peripherals never line up with your own, I didn’t stand a chance of finding it through blind exploration. Natural ergonomics can’t replace proper familiarity with the tools you trust to keep a metal bird high in the sky, but my need to then find and click the brake off with a mouse as if I were playing a Nancy Drew game provided an interesting anecdote on the shortcomings of the game’s VR mode.

In VR, the point is to surround yourself with the game. Total immersion is the mission. Your desk, which would represent your cockpit in traditional gameplay, should become an invisible afterthought. My 15-year-old flight stick is recognized perfectly by the game, but with just a stick and a throttle, it’s far from the complicated dials, toggles, and wheel I see in the cockpit view pressed against my face. Unless I’m willing to break the core aspect of VR to find yet another button on my desk, I’m reaching for the mouse to click the in-game equivalent.

The game’s lack of VR motion controller support is a missed opportunity that holds the game back by forcing players to break from VR immersion unless they have a full flight setup.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 hand tracking
Image used with permission by copyright holder

‘Turr-blee-urnse’

Fortunately, my particular choice of headset comes equipped with a stopgap solution: Hand tracking. The Oculus Quest’s surprise gimmick, which arrived through a simple software update on the original model, may be the game’s only saving grace. The mode shows how much more intuitive the game could be with proper VR control support.

Rather than attempt to mash buttons on a keyboard I can’t see, I should be able to use the headset to scan my control panel and use my mortal digits to poke and prod buttons like in a real aircraft. Would they be tactile? Absolutely not. They’re made of thin air in this scenario. But with a click coming through my appropriately immersive noise-canceling cans, I’d have been able to toggle the parking brake hidden in the darkness beneath my nonexistent wheel and be free to feel the virtual “turr-blee-urnse” that continues to give my family a laugh to this day, all without ever breaking immersion by removing or peeking through my headset.

I’d likely still crash into an eerily dark airfield, as I eventually did, but while it lasted, the experience was equal parts horrifying and downright magical — as I imagine any first-time pilot’s should be. It just could have been so much more with simple VR controller support that, by extension, would have enabled hand tracking automatically.

VR is far from necessary to enjoy Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, but with Xbox Cloud Gaming coming to PC in the near future, the possibility of using the cheapest wireless VR headset around to stream such a graphically demanding title — in full VR, no less — could only be made better by properly embracing everything the tech has to offer.

There’s a hodgepodge of tech out there that could be used by players with zero gaming experience to intuitively push the myriad other dials and doohickeys that keep these impressive marvels of engineering cruising at high altitude. It could go a long way to inspire a new generation of pilots without demanding they shell out for the upper echelon of simulation gear right off the bat.

Josh Brown
Josh Brown is a UK-based freelancer with devoted interests in video games, tech, film, and anime/manga. Just don't talk to…
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