Well that wasn’t as traumatic as it might have been. No-one swiped my dinner money or pushed my head down a toilet. No-one made fun of my handknitted jumper or frayed trousers. At no point did I lose my temper and unwittingly reveal my secret super power*. Ignore a couple of bungled emergency landings and a fatal brush with a fir tree and my first day at Dovetail Games Flight School passed without drama of any kind.
*I can turn a Tunnocks Caramel wrapper into a convincing model of a dazzle-camouflaged WWI warship in under five minutes.
Going by the preview build, the standalone Flight School (ETA May 24, pre-order price £12/$15) won’t have a lot to offer seasoned flight simmers, but may justify its existence by helping a few fluffy fledglings to quit warm, wool-lined nests.
Of the fifteen included lessons, the first six are flown from a fairly crude recreation of White Waltham, the Berkshire airfield that was home to the RAF’s hardworking Air Transport Auxiliary from 1940 to 1945.
More advanced instruction takes place in the balmy skies above Prescott, Arizona. At any point in the freeform syllabus, you’re free to play hooky, nine reality-rooted missions and a free flight mode encouraging exploration of the rest of the sim’s generously airported and Orbx-enhanced global scenery.
At DGFS there are no stuffy portacabin classrooms or arrow-and-aerofoil-daubed whiteboards. Within seconds of clicking the first lesson you’re bumping down one of White Waltham’s runways in a Piper Super Cub while an audible but invisible instructor dispenses pithy take-off tips. Guided tour of the cockpit? Quick explanation of the camera system? Sorry mate, no time for boring basics like that.
Although you’re rarely in the air for longer than ten minutes at a time, well written and delivered scripts and talkative dynamic tutoring means every second aloft is fully utilized and potentially illuminating. Shunning gamey sky hoops in favour of spoken altitude, speed, and heading instructions, the lessons, though condensed, have a plausible feel to them. Most of the time your incorporeal companion seems to be watching the gauges and horizon just as keenly as you are. “Add a little power… you’re too low… you turned onto finals too late” the observations, criticisms, and nuggets of wisdom can come thick and fast. Fail to heed them and eventually the exasperated/alarmed tutor will call a halt.
Only once or twice during my Piper rambles did the instructor doze or demonstrate exasperating fussiness. During the trim lesson I felt I’d done a pretty good job of setting up the Cub for level flight, but his entreaties to ‘keep tweaking’ kept coming. And while practising circuit flying in AZ I came horribly close to decorating a hill with Cherokee fragments and he didn’t say a word.
The nine missions are almost as brief as the lessons. A rather unimaginative mix of taxi jaunts and emergency landings, they come with custom audio but disappointingly little in the way of bespoke scenery. Anyone with memories of poacher pursuits and flour bombing in FSX, and aero-caching and ‘clandestine cargo’ jobs in Microsoft Flight probably won’t be hugely impressed or massively entertained.
I suspect many Flight School reviews will end with an FSX recommendation. Dovetail may have added a set of solid instructional challenges to Microsoft’s cast-off, reduced the price, overhauled the flight planner, and scrubbed a little surface rust from the graphics engine, but they’ve also chosen to asset-strip the aircraft selection, lock out modders, and remove functionality in certain areas (weather, for instance, is much less malleable).
Even the most inexperienced and inept fliers will probably have exhausted Flight School’s educational potential by the end of their first week, at which point they’ll find themselves in possession of a sim with many of FSX’s disadvantages (quirky key assignments, occasionally frail famerates, unsophisticated lighting…) and few of its advantages (infinite expandability, good selection of default flyables and missions etc.).
I’m not sure I understand the thinking behind Flight School. As the sad saga of Microsoft Flight proved, combining beginner-friendly tuition with closed architecture is self-defeating. A new ‘Flying School’ edition of FSX: Steam, now that would have made sense. Train new pilots with care and flair then let them loose on the fecund FS add-on scene. Flight School as the Early Access version of Dovetail Games Flight Simulator (the studio’s in-the-works FSX replacement due later this year) is another option that DG surely must have considered.
Is there still time for a rethink – the addition of extra missions and a free plane or twelve – before Flight School throws open its doors on May 24? I sincerely hope so. Without some extra content, a nod or two to the marvellous MSFS modding community, I fear Flight School will vanish as swiftly as Dovetail’s stripped-down train sims Engine Driver and American Powerhaul Simulator.
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