Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Up, up, and awaaaaaaaaaaaaay!

Today is my sister's 40th birthday. This is nice, but also brings with it a certain melancholy. Because, I realised that this means I am approaching what will be my 42nd birthday. I am basically middle-aged. Despite all my fighting the oncoming approach of age, (which has included but has not been limited to moisturisation, careful grooming of grey hairs, and outright denial of my age), I have been unable to remain as young as I would like to be.

41. It's a disquieting thought. I am completely out of the demographic that most games released are aimed at. What the hell do 41 year olds PLAY?

Thinking back, I remember what they played when I was a teenager. They played Flight Simulators. Ok, so "play" is not really the most apt descriptor of what amounts to sitting there watching two different shades of plain blue, but nonetheless for the purposes of discussion it is the one we shall be using. And, I freely admit that I may be oversimplifying, but when the best and most expensive computer available for the home featured 256 colour graphics at 640 x 480 resolution, then it having anything approaching photo-realistm is stretching things somewhat.

Flight Simulator was not a game in the traditional sense, being aimed at a non-gaming demographic. Whenever I tried my hand at one, I immediately paniced at the sheer amount of buttons that I had to press to do ANYTHING. What I wanted was a "Press this to fly" button, but what I had instead was a Throttle button, a Brake button, and even a button to turn the bloody engine on. 15 minutes later, I was still on the runway. 2 minutes after that, I had crashed into the tower. I never once dared to try an actual landing. I also never once thought, at any point in my entire gaming life since that original terrifying introduction, that I should buy any of the subsequent versions.

I have seen them, certainly, and always had nothing but admiration for the idea. I have tried playing on other people's PCs. I have even downloaded copies, and on one ocassion went as far as installing the thing, but have always given up shortly after destroying my first plane, which is generally in the first 5 minutes.

In short, whilst I don't dislike Flight Simulators, I don't play them because I DON'T KNOW HOW TO. I don't want to spend a small fortune on controllers to make them better, and I don't want to invest the time in learning to fly. There is a reason that I am not a pilot, and that is because it is HARD BLOODY WORK.

Microsoft, to be fair to them, know this. They also know that this is the reason that nobody has bought Flight Simulator in the last few years. The sheer incomprehensibility of it to beginners has meant that the barrier to entry has always been too high. ("What the hell does THAT dial mean?") Whereas, bearded older guys eventually stop needing updates, and so unsurprisingly the market has somewhat shrunk.

This is where Flight comes in.

Instead of being yet another upgrade featuring the entire world, only prettier, Flight comes at the genre from the angle of "How do we make this into a GAME?" first and foremost. So, instead of picking an airport that you hope you know but inevitably don't, you instead start out in the air over Hawaii. Get used to this, because the entire game is set on Hawaii. Streamlined, no? Further countries will probably come our way in the form of DLC, but for now all we are able to buy is the rest of the Hawaiian islands. So, no flying over your house, sadly. (Unless you live in Hawaii, of course!) The core game itself is ... free.

Yep, free. Won't cost you naught but a download, and a Games for Windows Live account. Those of you with XBox 360 gamertags already have this, those of you who primarily play PC games will probably decide this is too high of a cost and refuse to even give it a shot. I understand your reluctance, as GFWL is really quite shambolic at the best of times, however, the reticence will prove to be unfounded.

Because, and this is a quite important because, Flight is fun.

Stratight away, you feel like the game wants you to enjoy it. You start off IN THE AIR, for one thing, which is always better than having to work out the insanely complex and precise sequences required to start a plane, taxi along a runway (or more likely the grass near to a runway), and then take off. Next, a friendly female voice not only tells you where you need to go, but also how to do it. Control of the plane is handled via the mouse, which is so much less intimidating than having to remember which specific combination of the entirety of your keyboard you need to press to move an aileron the all-important couple of inches. (Or is it the rudder? Or the elevator? Or.. oh dear, I crashed again.)

I crashed 3 seconds later

So, you slalom through some balloons, come in to a landing, probably crash but at least get a nice achievement unlocked for doing so, and then you have completed the first mission. Within 15 minutes, you actually feel like you have accomplised something, instead of just finding out that all you can really be trusted to do is to change camera angles.

It doesn't take long before things get tricky, but the important thing here is that there is a learning curve that takes you there. It turns the genre into something accessible for the rest of us. I am sure that your Dad hates the idea, insisting that such things NEED the dedication that comes from spending a week's wages on whatever the hell a yoke is, but I love it. I applaud Microsoft in their attempts to capture me as a market. Inclusion is love, people, we are all just players.

What is most pleasant about it is how it is a game built around Flight Simulation, rather than a simulation with some vague game ideas put into it. This extends from the mission based structure, and carries on through the challenges. There are even daily challenges, with the aforementioned spinny icons (or Aerocaches) being available for limited times only. These caches are worth EXP, and are sometimes tantalisingly placed so as to make the likelihood of crashing even greater. (Which is crazy, because it really doesn't need to be easier to crash in Flight Sim!) Add in the option of multiplayer, and there can be no doubts as to the audience Microsoft are chasing with this one.


Honestly, I don't actually know what possessed me to download it in the first place, apart from the knowledge that it was free. And, even if all you get from it is the "Crashtastic" achievement, it still has to be worth giving it a shot, right? I genuinely think you will get more from it than that, though, as it has certainly made me want to play more. Yes, I am still rubbish. I still am able to literally tip my plane over ON THE RUNWAY. But, I now no longer feel like I will never be able to get that icon that was under that bridge, and I was positively thrilled when Mrs. Voice told me off for indulging my Top Gun fantasies and flying too close to that cruise ship. "We could get into trouble for that.", I was told. I giggled, and next time I am pretty sure I will shout "I FEEL THE NEED!" before doing exactly the same thing.

So, in summary: You'll crash, but you already expected that. What you didn't expect was that when you crash, you will know why. And you will know how not to do it next time. And, even if you do, it's still a good laugh, and you may even get a reward from it. And, since it is free, what have you to lose?

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