Until this week, the largely fanciful race for "Game of the Year" seemed to have two clear leaders, with one other contender hulking in the shadows.
In March, Half-Life: Alyx surprised nobody by being an excellent game from Valve, and everybody by redefining the limits of virtual reality in myriad different ways. In June, Naughty Dog actually made good on a quite dizzying amount of games-as-art hype with The Last of Us Part 2, an experience that many (if not everyone) regarded as a new pinnacle for interactive storytelling. And out there in the hazy landscape of November is Cyberpunk 2077, which has a fighting chance of stealing a march on both.
Until this week, that is, because this week has seen the emergence of the darkest of horses; a series with roots stretching back to the early '80s, with no blockbuster set-pieces, no characters, and no story of any kind. This week saw the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and but for a few performance issues, critics are utterly delighted with what Asobo Studio has created.
"The game is obsessed with authenticity, but also embraces accessibility"
With a Metacritic average comfortably nestled at 93 at the time of writing, it's fair to say that Microsoft Flight Simulator's achievements are legion. However, for VG247's Alex Donaldson, the most impressive is its accessibility. This is a series used to train actual pilots to fly, and yet Asobo Studio has found a way to make it an experience for everybody.
"The training aids are what make this a palatable video game and not just a simulator," Donaldson wrote in his five-star review.
"The game is obsessed with authenticity, but also embraces accessibility. If you want to taxi from the runway and go through the full pre-flight rigmarole, you can. You can also spawn right on the runway or even in the air, mid-flight. It's incredibly smartly crafted to make sure you can always easily access the parts of flying... of the most interest.
"Over time you strip away the assistance. Seasoned pilots can remove it all right away, if they wish. In ways it reminds me of the deeply granular difficulty settings that have become common in simulation racing games like Microsoft's own Forza Motorsport: it's not just easy, medium or hard, but a whole range of assists and settings that combine to make things more realistic and therefore more difficult. Flick everything off and you have staggering, terrifying full authenticity and realism."
That realism is both terrifying in its complexity, and awe-inspiring in its scope and detail. Microsoft Flight Simulator's world is a recreation of the Earth itself, crunched together from a huge amount of data taken from Bing Maps, photogrammetry, live weather reports, all fed through Azure servers. It is arguably a feat only achievable with a company like Microsoft at your back, and the effect of all that technical wizardry is suitably spellbinding.
As Eurogamer's Martin Robinson explained in his "Essential" review for Eurogamer, Microsoft Flight Simulator has only a handful of the features and modes typically found in a video game.
"This is a sandbox in the more traditional sense of the term, where you're given all the tools from the off and invited to explore an open world," Robinson said. "And it is, of course, the entire world, in all its beauty and all of its strange glory. Microsoft Flight Simulator's biggest trick is its representation of Earth in as much detail as possible, an alchemy of map data, streaming technology, photogrammetry and procedural generation making for something that's mighty convincing, and frequently breathtaking.
"There's a heady sense of exploration here, and a pleasure in pursuing your own path"
Robinson added: "There's a heady sense of exploration here, and a pleasure in pursuing your own path. I've taken a tour of the world's great race tracks, heading out from Biggin Hill to Brands Hatch over the lavender fields I cycle to most weekends, from La Sauvenière to the skies above Spa-Francorchamps, conjuring showers along the way to give it that extra authenticity.
"I've a friend who's about to embark on some of Pablo Escobar's early drug-running routes, from Colombia to Miami and criss-crossing the Caribbean. Last night I had a sudden pang to see LA again, so I toured it from the seat of a Cessna to witness the city's sprawl slowly light up under the hazy perfection of a California sunset."
This is, of course, all the more seductive for arriving at a time when travel to far-flung lands is beyond the reach of most people. Microsoft Flight Simulator's success in capturing that sense of exploration is at the root of all this praise, and IGN's Seth Macy called upon his own experience in the US Air Force to substantiate his belief that this is "the most incredible experience I've ever had on a computer."
In a 10 out of 10 review, Macy marvelled at recreations of landing strips in Pakistan and Oman that were so precise as to evoke memories of using them in real-life. The airports that Asobo Studio created by hand -- 32 in all, with the remainder of the 37,000 airports in the game procedurally generated -- approach a degree of accuracy that Macy described as unprecedented in any previous flight simulator.
"In a similar vein are the airplanes themselves -- the level of detail is astounding," he said. "I can say from real-world experience the cockpit of the Cessna 172 Skyhawk is perfect. You could snap a screenshot and share it online as a photo and, unless your PC is a complete potato, it would easily fool a lot of people.
"Asobo not only flawlessly recreated the look of the interiors and exteriors of the available planes, but the instruments are also fully operational... This is the first game I've ever played where I downloaded a .PDF manual from a real-world piece of equipment to reference during play -- and everything in the manual checks out to the virtual hardware. It excites the absolute nerdiest parts of my core."
"Despite the game's best efforts to make me yank the eject lever... I can't stay grumpy at MSFS for long"
With 34 reviews of Microsoft Flight Simulator currently available and every single one an 8 out of 10 or above -- only three below a 9, for the record -- you can read any selection and find the kind of lavish praise quoted above. It is not without flaws, however, and virtually all of them appear to relate to its status as a long-term project that will be tweaked and embellished over years and years to come.
For Vice's Rob Zacny, the price paid for all that limitless exploration and beauty is the occasional glimpse through the curtain to the machinery working away beneath.
"There are times the technological tricks undergirding this game work astonishingly well," he said. "On the other hand, in a lot of places, Flight Simulator looks like exactly what you'd expect from a game built on satellite imagery: smears of flat, poorly differentiated terrain carved up by thin lines of road, or slamming into narrow strips of beach. More surprising is the way even well-known landmarks are sometimes mangled in the game's rendering. Flight Simulator has a way of making every single city look like the end of Inception."
Zacny also highlighted more prosaic performance issues -- "long load-times, inconsistent framerates, and the occasional crash" -- which bothered several other reviewers. PCGamesN's Ben Maxwell, for example, described the ambition of Asobo Studio's simulation as "astonishing," but its qualities are undermined by long stretches of waiting for departure.
Fortunately, even at launch and with healing patches no doubt incoming, the rewards when you do make it into the air are worth the wait.
"It's a crushing shame, then, that the loading times of my review build so accurately simulate the tedium of waiting for a delayed flight to begin," he said. "They're excruciating -- around 5m 30s from desktop to main menu by my watch, and then maybe another minute or four before you're actually sat on a runway. And that's on a good day. Things get a little better if you swallow your pride and plump for graphics settings a notch or two down from ultra, but you're still going to have time to make a cup of tea, finish it, and then make another one.
"Even so, despite the game's best efforts to make me yank the eject lever... I can't stay grumpy at MSFS for long. Sure, at this point I've probably spent more time staring at beautiful loading screens than I have in the air but, well, gosh -- it's pretty special up here when you do arrive."