In Snakes on a Plane, after the pi lot gets bitten, a passenger jumps to the controls, claiming to have logged hundreds of hours in the air. Samuel Motherfuckin' Jackson is shocked to hear that the would-be pilot's hours were earned in a video game, but the passenger snaps back with "It's not a video game, it's a flight simulator!"
It's this kind of devotion that Microsoft hopes to inspire with Flight Simulator X, the 10th edition of a program that's been evolving for 25 years. The current version is staggeringly ambitious in terms of its scope and realism.
"We've got stuff like the entire world detailed to 30 feet of resolution, higher in some places, and we've got that overlaid with satellite imagery," says Microsoft spokesguy Ryan Bidan. "So what we've got now is a world that is 16 times more detailed than the previous version. As well, we've got 24,000 airports. We've now got traffic on the roads, 38 cities that were done in high detail. So with Toronto, what you see when you fly in the game is what you see when you fly by the skyline."
To prove the point, Microsoft offers me the chance to take a helicopter ride over Toronto, followed by a test flight in the game.
After experiencing both, I can tell you that by no means would you ever mistake the two, but what you're looking at is surprisingly close to the real thing. The crap weather we saw outside was bang on, and the in-game view gave the same sense of perspective as the actual flight.
Enough actual landmark buildings were included to give points of reference for even a rookie pilot to navigate by, even if they wouldn't allow you to land on the green inside the Rogers Centre.
But for most people, no matter how advanced Microsoft's flight simulators become, they will still hold about the same appeal as their spreadsheets.
That's why Flight Simulator X is the first in the series to come with the addition of missions. Along with training flights in the various aircraft, there are relatively simple challenges, from taking an ultralight over the African savannah to track down a baby elephant to more complex tasks like weathering a snowstorm in a Boeing 747 over the Swiss Alps. The truly ambitious can try rescuing oil workers from a rig during a storm over the North Sea.
A popular aspect of Microsoft's Flight Sim series has been its built-in room for expansion. A huge community has grown up worldwide of both hobbyists and companies producing add-ons and modules for new planes, instrument panels and even fully fleshed-out cities.
This makes the newest version similar to something like Google Earth, which allows you to design your hometown in 3-D to the tiniest detail. In doing so, the game becomes a sort of 21st-century version of the model train set, one that can be forever tinkered with before takeoff.
My own takeoffs, however, proved problematic. To harness the full potential of the game's detail requires one mother of a workhorse PC. Even on the best machine I could wrangle, the loading times were long, particularly since it had to reload between my frequent crashes.
And speaking of crashes, no matter how many times you knock your Cessna against the buildings, you'll never see a mark. Guess why?
"It was absolutely based on feedback after 9/11 and the feeling that we were no longer comfortable allowing people to crash into buildings in the games," says Bidan. "It's not what a flight simulator is about or should be about. We've still got the realism in the flight model, so if you hit a building you're still gonna crash and your mission is gonna be over. But you don't actually do damage to a building."
This is not the first time Microsoft has had to deal with this. An earlier version was going to launch in September 2001 but was pushed back a year after the World Trade Center attacks. Microsoft also took heat at the time for providing what some called the perfect terrorist trainer.
Sometimes I think we'd be better off with the snakes.