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With Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight, Microsoft has provided us with one of their most solid products to date. Though, unfortunately, and again, for the most part I don't believe they have made any major leaps in the genre with this release; rather, they've created a solid product with a few improvements and a couple of new frills. And that is why I'm so thrilled about the inclusion of the historical aircraft. Not only is it appropriate, but it's bringing something a little bit new.
The historical aircraft provide challenges of a sort that flight simmers never get. We usually get our thrills out of flying high performance aircraft that will fly at nearly any attitude. Now we can get our thrills from aircraft that don't climb, turn poorly, and are extremely underpowered. We all know that there is a plethora of additional aircraft available out there for the Flight Simulator franchise, but they very rarely achieve the standards of realism in appearance and flight physics set by Microsoft's programmers with the aircraft included in the game.
FS2K4's historical aircraft include: the Wright Flyer (doesn't turn), Curtiss JN-4D Jenny (too slow), Ryan NYP "Spirit of St. Louis" (can't see a flippin' thing), de Havilland DH-88 Comet (hope you got some runway), Douglas DC-3 (them gear are really slow), Ford Tri-Motor (why can't I loop that bugger?), Lockheed Vega 5B and 5C (them gear are narrow), Piper J-3 Cub (could whip the Jenny in a slow race), and Vickers F.B.27A Vimy (really, really doesn't want to climb).
I'm sure that most everyone out there familiar with aviation's past has their own opinion as to which aircraft should included in the representative sample of the most significant aircraft of all time. And this argument could go on for a long time, as I imagine it did when the Microsoft staff was kicking around the idea of including historical aircraft. Since I'm writing this here review allow me to put my two cents in: If you're going to include race aircraft where's the Gee Bee R-1, the Hughes H-1, the Travel Air Mystery Ship, or any of the Schneider Cup racers. I would like to have seen some of my favorite aircraft like the Beechcraft Staggerwing (a luxury cabin biplane that also happened to be a very accomplished racer), the Cessna 195, and how about the Curtiss Robin, both civilian aircraft that would do excellently at representing their respective eras of general aviation? Anyway, I'm sure you have your own feelings about this as well.
Adding to the historical aircraft, FS2K4's contemporary aircraft include the Beechcraft Barron 58 and King Air 350, Boeing 737-400, 747-400 and 777-400, Bombardier Learjet 45, Cessna C172SP, C182S Skylane, C208 Caravan Amphibian and C208 B Grand Caravan, Extra 300S, Mooney Bravo, Schweizer 2-32 Sailplane, and, the Bell 206B JetRanger and Robinson R22 Beta II helicopters. I have still yet to see a good taildragger included in the game (the Extra doesn't really count as it's as much as a rocket as anything). Come on guys, hook me up here, not all of us like to fly tricycles.
With all those planes you certainly need somewhere to go. And there are over 24,000 airports included with FS2K4. I'm still enamored with the ability to fly all of the little airstrips that I'm familiar with. Since Microsoft brought about this feature with flight Simulator 2000, I have simmed into almost every airport that I have flown into in reality, just to see their resemblances. And, since Idaho has the most active backcountry flying scene in the world, excluding Alaska, there are a lot of really cool little strips to fly into, and a lot of them are included in FS2K4.
Among the improvements made here is the dynamic weather system, which can be updated live via the Web to "mirror" your locale's current weather. Graphics have also made a noticeable improvement. The areas that I'm familiar with are picking up uncanny resemblances to the real world. However, something went horribly wrong with the Teton Range in Wyoming. Anyone who has flown around the Tetons will be sorely disappointed by their showing here. Oh well, there's bound to be some oversight in a project of this scale; they can't get everything perfect.
I really, really dig the inclusion of virtual cockpits, which allow you to operate most of the aircraft's controls within the cockpit screen via the mouse, as it adds another excellent layer of realism to the flight simulator. Unfortunately, it can be really difficult to juggle the stick, the keyboard and now the mouse. The virtual cockpit does relieve the keyboard of some of its duties but it is still required in the clutch, and the virtual cockpit does take some time to get used to, however natural it looks.
Microsoft has also backed up the FS2K4 package with some excellent supplementary materials, flight lessons, articles, and assorted applicable stuff. Without the addition of the historical aircraft is it worth it? In my opinion, not particularly. However, I have had so much fun, and encountered so many new challenges flying the historical aircraft that, overall, I believe the game to be outstanding. MS Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight is Microsoft's best flight offering to date.
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