Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight is the 20th anniversary release in the Microsoft Flight Simulator Series. Released in a hinged tin box, A Century of Flight includes an additional 2,000 functioning airports and nine new aircraft, including Charles Lindbergh's Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis, the Douglas DC-3, and the Wright Flyer (the first successful airplane). A collection of articles provides information on the history of flight, the Microsoft Flight Simulator, and the featured airplanes. New features include enhanced scenery and 3D interactive cockpits.
As with previous versions, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 contains sections on creating or selecting flights, expanding the experience by downloading add-on packs of scenery and aircraft, and a detailed on-CD manual. Additional aircraft featured in the 2004 edition include the Curtiss JN-4D (Jenny), Vickers F.B.27A (Vimy), Ford 4-AT Tri-Motor, Model 5B and 5C Vega, de Haviland DH-88 "Comet," Piper J-3 Cub, Robinson R22 Beta II, Schweizer SGS 2-32, Extra 300S, Cessna Skyhawk SP Model 172, Cessna Skylane Model 182S, Cessna Grand Caravan C208B, Cessna Caravan C208 Amphibian, Mooney M20M "Bravo," Beechcraft Baron 58, Beechcraft King Air 350, Bell 206B JefRanger III, Bombardier Learjet 45, Boeing 737-400, 747-400, and 777-300.
No one would blame you for worrying about how Microsoft would handle the latest iteration of Flight Simulator. The first cause for concern is that the last version, Flight Simulator 2002, was so good. It improved the series by leaps and bounds in terms of creativity, technology, and accessibility. It's a tough act to follow. The second cause for concern is that Microsoft doesn't have any competition anymore. Both Looking Glass's superlative Flight Unlimited and Terminal Reality's troubled Fly! sims are a fading memory. So not only is there not a lot of room for Flight Simulator 2004 to improve, but there doesn't seem to be much motive to improve.
Fortunately, no one told Microsoft. It has blithely improved an already great sim by giving it a new angle, bringing in some really sweet technological improvements, and making it even more accessible.
You can tell the new creative angle by the subtitle, A Century of Flight. As a hundred-year commemoration of the Wright brothers' first successful powered flight at Kitty Hawk, Flight Simulator 2004 re-creates significant events in the history of aviation. On one hand, this lends it a great time-bending twist, much like Papyrus was able to do with its masterpiece racing sim, Grand Prix Legends. Rather than throwing in a bunch of shiny new toys, the franchise takes a thoughtful look backwards and discovers something refreshingly unique.
On the other hand, a lot of the significant events in the history of aviation just aren't that exciting. Trying to keep the Wright flyer aloft for its historical 12 seconds is entertaining for all of about, say, 36 seconds. It's no wonder the Wright brothers trashed that frustrating thing after a few flights. Most of Flight Simulator 2004's other historical events were long-distance records in hard-to-fly aircraft. Part of the problem is that although you can accelerate time, you can't put many of these primitive aircraft on any sort of autopilot. This changes as you progress to later planes, like the DC-3 that lets you lock-on a heading. But I can't imagine anyone wanting to re-create Lindbergh's 33-hour transatlantic flight in a plane that didn't even have a proper windshield (Lindbergh sat behind the fuel tank and could only see by looking out the sides of the plane or by opening a tiny periscope). Not that there was much to see, since most of the flight was apparently spent over an expanse of hardware-accelerated water effects. Then there's the fact that when you land, there's not so much as a 2D bitmap of a cheering crowd waiting to greet you.
Furthermore, these re-creations don't even try to simulate the actual historical events. You're simply retracing routes in the original aircraft, with the convenience of a handheld GPS unit. Many of the flights originate from airports that are long gone, so the starting points are relocated to modern airports. For instance, the record-breaking 1920 flight from London to South Africa in a Vickers Vimy begins on the tarmac of modern-day Heathrow. So much for the suspension of disbelief.
But to be fair, these are minor complaints. The new historical aircraft feel unique and look great with their wires and open machinery and odd shapes. They're each lovingly complemented (and complimented) by Lane Wallace's essays. Her insight as a writer provides a welcome change of pace from traditional Flight Simulator flight instructors like Rod Machado with his bad jokes, or John and Martha King with their avuncular goofing around. For instance, in detailing her ride in a Ford Tri-Motor, Wallace describes the smell of smoke and oil from its uncowled radial engines. She describes what the chair feels like in Amelia Earhart's Vega. These are the sort of details and the sense of reverence that brings these planes to life beyond simply presenting 3D models.
The basic terrain engine and aircraft models aren't terribly different from Flight Simulator 2002. There's a new helicopter in addition to the old Bell JetRanger, and the new rotary wing flight model makes helicopters a bit more stable to fly. The airports have been redesigned with new taxiing information, as well as a handy onscreen overlay to guide your through your taxiing waypoints. Some of the areas of scenery have been reworked and there are some new high-detail regions. The new GPS interface looks and feels more like a GPS unit and less like an inset window. But overall, the basics of terrain and aircraft are the same.
But what is completely revamped is the sky. There's a new weather model, new clouds, and new lighting. Flight sims have long been about how the ground looks. Finally, someone has paid just as much attention to the sky. The different types of clouds are all volumetric and they interact with various lighting conditions. There are brilliant blues, purples, and oranges, with actual sunsets and sunrises worth watching. The weather is more dynamic now (the ability to periodically update real-world weather conditions from the Internet is a great gimmick), as you can see by just sitting in one place and cranking up the time compression. These aren't just the white cotton balls we've been seeing in every sim since Jane's World War II Fighters five years ago.
If you're not going to include a printed manual, which FS2004 doesn't (the "manual" is basically a promotional pamphlet that refers you to the in-game reference materials), you can at least make up for it by making the in-game documentation comprehensive and easy to navigate. Flight Simulator 2004 does an excellent job in this regard. All the supplemental and reference materials have been gathered in one place, cross-linked, and are easily accessible from within the sim. So, if you need to know how the GPS works or what your air traffic control instructions mean, you won't have to alt-tab out, load Adobe Acrobat Reader, and try to figure out which file has the info. You simply open the help screen and the information is right there. There's also a new kneeboard with more helpful information, including a log of all radio communications. Even the flying lessons and their associated reading material are better integrated now.
There's still a lot of content carried over from the last game. For instance, there aren't any new missions for the modern aircraft. With a $55 price tag and a mere $10 rebate, it's going to be a bit costly if you've already got Flight Simulator 2002. But if you're new to civil aviation simming, there's never been a better time -- or sim -- to give it a shot.
People who downloaded Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight have also downloaded:
Microsoft Flight Simulator X, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000: Professional Edition, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater, Microsoft Flight Simulator 98, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator: WWII Europe Series, Combat Flight Simulator 3: Battle for Europe, Microsoft Train Simulator, Microsoft Flight Simulator (v5.1)
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