“What is the best VR flight simulator?” This is a question we get asked all of the time, but unfortunately it is a very difficult question to answer, because it depends on what kind of flight simulator functionality you prefer and what platform you prefer to run it on.
In this brief overview, we will try to give you a straight answer on what we feel is the best VR flight simulator environment overall, but we recognize that we can’t please everyone, and that the underlying engine technology is often the critical factor. So we will take a look at all of the top contenders, and try to evaluate them on their merits, without regard to technology or platform compatibility. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from trying any and all of the best VR flight simulators on our list. Just remember to check specs against your VR device and gaming PC, as applicable, before making your purchase.
Microsoft Flight Simulator FSX (PC/Mac)
Despite it’s last major update in 2006, Microsoft Flight Simulator is the great granddaddy of flight sims. It began back in 1977 as a game project from a small company called subLOGIC. This game was later sold to Microsoft, who released versions from 1982 through 2006. Microsoft subsequently licensed the IP to Dovetail Games to create a new release version of Flight Simulator 10 (FSX). That came out in December 2014 as the FSX: Steam Edition. It’s not a VR flight simulator, strictly speaking, with no native VR support. However, there are several mods and third-party projects that can render in in VR, including FlyInside, which we profile later in this guide. It remains the de facto standard in consumer grade flight simulators today.
There’s also hope on the horizon, with the recent E3 announcement from Microsoft of a new chapter in the Flight Simulator franchise. Specifically:
“Coming 2020, Microsoft Flight Simulator is the next generation of one of the most beloved simulation franchises. From light planes to wide-body jets, fly highly detailed and stunning aircraft in an incredibly realistic world. Create your flight plan and fly anywhere on the planet. Enjoy flying day or night and face realistic, challenging weather conditions.”
It is widely believed that, in addition to modern technology upgrades to the engine, that the next incarnation of Flight Simulator will enjoy full native VR support. This would, without a doubt, rank it as the head of the class in terms of best VR flight simulators around. For now, we wait, and hope, and satisfy ourselves with jury-rigged versions of FSX to run on popular tethered headsets.
Ace Combat 7 (PS4/PlayStation VR)
Ace Combat 7 is widely touted as a great example of VR flight simulation for the PlayStation 4 and PSVR implementation. But, in reality most of the actual game is delivered arcade style, with only a few elements delivered as a full VR experience. So you can sit and look around the cockpit in VR, though the detail is not that great. You can track incoming attack waves in a VR set-up, but all the actual game play is delivered in a console view. Effectively, there is no obvious advantage to playing it with a headset on. If anything, large screen and multi-screen setups provide a wider and more detailed view of what is happening, without the narrowing and foreshortening effects common to headset play.
Ace Combat 7 was originally promoted as a major VR advance, but its actual implementation on the PS4 shied away from all the extra development that would have been needed, and in fact restricted VR to a few small side missions within the game. As such, it’s a fun game, but probably not what most would call a full-fledged VR flight simulator or even a flight-simulator-like experience.
X-Plane 11 (PC/Mac, Steam)
The best VR flight simulator at the moment appears to be X-Plane 11 from Laminar Research. A quick glance at Reddit threads and owner forums will show you that many professional pilots praise the implementation or VR here as the “closest to the real experience” they’ve seen outside of professional, several hundred thousand dollar flight simulator/trainers. At its core, X-Plane 11 is effectively similar to FSX, but with re-engineering and upgrades that make it significantly more powerful. This includes a new system of drag and lift modelling, which (in the professional version, at least) allow for design iteration and other tasks that aren’t possible in the more recreationally-oriented FSX.
X-Plane 11 includes VR support through the SteamVR interface, meaning it will work with any SteamVR compatible headset (the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, for sure). Suffice it to say that Laminar has significantly raised the bar, both in terms of functionality and in terms of customizability. It will definitely be necessary for Microsoft to significantly raise their own game to retain or regain the top spot from X-Plane 11 when their new Flight Simulator title releases next year.
DCS World (PC)
DCS (Digital Combat Simulator) World isn’t a true VR flight simulator. Rather, it’s a free-to-play/freemium digital battlefield sandbox game. It strives to provide “the most authentic and realistic simulation of military aircraft, tanks, ground vehicles and ships possible.” The base game comes with a fairly limited range of initial options, including the Su-25T, TF-51D Mustang, and similar vintage craft. This is enough to give you a taste of what’s possible in the game, however, and encourages you to branch out and purchase some of the additional craft and features available. Those can come at quite a cost, however, especially if you want the full VR versions, scenery packs, and other add-ons that they offer. It’s worth a go on the free-to-play base game, however, regardless of whether or not you intend to make any purchases later on.
Aerofly FS2 (PC/Mac/iOS/Android)
Aerofly FS2 is a relatively new entrant to the VR flight simulator scene, and does seem to lag behind the competition in various important ways. It has relatively few planes available and those that are there seem to be very simplified versions compared to other sims. This makes for a high frame rate which is good, but the simplicity of the model probably won’t suit experienced flyers. The sim does model moving crowds of people well, but water is a rather blurry mess which in no way builds the feeling of immersion in the game. So for beginners, this might not be a bad place to start because the planes are simple to learn and control, and it works on mobile devices. But for those with more experience in flight simulators, Aerofly is probably not yet a serious contender.
FlyInside offers both their own VR flight simulator, as well as add-ons to enable VR content with all three major flight sim platforms – Microsoft FSX, X-Plane 11, and Prepar3D. While all of the more modern flight simulator software titles include native VR support, some of the older titles don’t. FlyInside helps make these titles VR-compatible and interoperable with the popular tethered headsets on the market. In addition, their own VR flight simulator was clearly designed from the ground-up to include and support VR. They execute control, menus, and performance in a much better way than most of the other top VR flight simulator titles.
In VR, low frame-rate can leave the user feeling groggy and nauseous, so good FPS performance was always a primary goal for the ‘custom engine’ development team at FlyInside. Indeed, overall performance was always the primary focus for the team, and a brief test found performance on a mid-strength, mid-price PC with a hi-spec nVidia card to be more than adequate – with only a few VR glitches on the run through.
The FlyInside sim allows users to decide which input devices they will use, giving the option of using the VR controllers as virtual hands, or the traditional option of a hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS). Flicking a switch on the console, adjusting push-lever controls, and even controlling the joystick itself can now all be done by hand. FlyInside is a leading new contender in the flight sim market, but we will need to see how much interest it attracts from both users and developers. That will determine if it stays on the ground, or really takes off (sorry, we couldn’t help the obvious puns).
Prepar3D is basically FSX taken to the next level, re-imagined and re-engineered by Lockheed Martin to be truly professional grade. Indeed, it’s designed to be used by professionals, though is perhaps the gold standard in flight simulators for enthusiasts today as well. Prepar3D v4 is the next step in flight simulation, while maintaining compatibility with the FSX platform. As more companies drop their old 32-bit sims, all those users who are already familiar with the basic FSX platform can easily move across to this Prepar3D version.
P3D doesn’t look very different to FSX in terms of interface, except that it comes with a bolder menu structure, but the move to 64-bit gives both players and developers a lot more space to play around in! The visual quality is frankly stunning, with near cinematic-quality models, backgrounds, and lighting that does an exceptional job for a sim. In the last few years, older platforms like FSX inevitably started to fall behind, as players like Aerofly attempted to break into the market with new ideas and a new look and feel. However it is the FSX-based Prepar3D and X-Plane 11 models which have remained dominant, largely because so many people were familiar with the old Microsoft platform, and it simply made sense for them to move to a familiar simulation environment.
So, If you’re looking to adopt a new flight simulator, because your old familiar one is way out of date, then it probably makes sense to look for one that keeps close to the original platform that defined this genre. In that case, Prepar3D may be the way to go. Just note that it comes with a hefty price compared to a consumer-grade software title, at $200 for a standard Professional License. But boy does it look slick, and fully supports VR, making it the top VR flight simulator available on the market today.