The freedom to fly has near-universal appeal. Unless you’re afraid of heights, of course. But for most, the proposition of piloting your very own aircraft and soaring through the clouds is simply out of reach. Then came VR, which savvy developers quickly identified as an opportunity to make some dreams come true. Not even the surly bonds of Earth can hold you back, with plenty of spaceship sims to choose from as well.
Ready to start flying? Here are our picks for the top 5 VR flight simulators for air, space, and beyond.
5 Best VR Flight Simulators of 2020
We’ll start with #5 and work our way to the best VR flight simulator overall. Introducing…
5. Sopwith VR
- Website: store.steampowered.com
- Platform: Windows (Valve Index, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift)
- Developer: David Mohr Gould
- Release: Dec 26, 2018
If you’re like me, you were born just in time to browse dank memes — I mean, you had the opportunity to grow up just as PC gaming was taking off. Remember learning just enough commands to run games on DOS, or playing simple titles on early versions of macOS? If you do, you probably played a primitive yet visceral flight simulator called Red Baron. What it lacked in graphics, it made up for with chaotic World War 1 era dogfights (and even a zeppelin or two).
Sopwith VR is a modern take on the classic gameplay, offering more biplanes than you can shake your flight stick at. The Red Baron is still haunting the skies, and you’re the ace pilot who’s going to bring him down. Older planes weren’t as maneuverable as the sort we have today, and Sopwith nails the sense of barely hanging on to the winds — for better or worse. The terrain is sparsely decorated, which can occasionally pull you out of the game. But for the low, low price of “free,” it’s hard to complain about the graphics, especially when it feels so strongly like the game your imagination made the original Red Baron out to be. Good hunting.
- Website: playoverload.com
- Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One
- Developer: Revival Productions
- Release: May 31, 2018
Another classic title from the mid-90s, Descent made waves with its “six-degrees-of-freedom” (6DoF) flight model and 3D environments. Overload is the studio’s latest iteration of flight sim, and it takes more than a few cues from its iconic ancestor. But the addition of VR elevates the experience to wild new levels of intensity.
Just as before, there are miles of subterranean tunnels for you to explore, packed with a diverse assortment of rampaging robots for you to dispatch. Bring your missiles and lasers to bear as you bank, slide, and barrel roll out of harm’s way. The graphics are a definite step up, making good on the years since Descent and fully immersing you in the experience. Laser bolts light up the rocky walls of the cavern as they streak towards their target. Explosions are fountains of fire and molten metal. It’s poetry in motion, and the VR headset makes you feel like you’re right in the thick of it. There’s nothing quite like Descent on the market right now, so when an obvious spiritual successor like Overload brings more 6DoF combat while also putting you right in the cockpit? That’s a rare and beautiful marriage of old and new that you’d best not pass up.
3. VTOL VR
- Website: vtolvr.bdynamicsstudio.com
- Platform: Windows (Valve Index, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift)
- Developer: Boundless Dynamics
- Release: Aug 3, 2017
Flight simulators aren’t all about space and Sopwiths. Sometimes, you just want to step into the near-future and fly something with afterburners. If modern military planes are your thing, VTOL VR is the game for you.
The focus here is on authenticity — at least, as much authenticity as you can derive from piloting fictional jets. You have your choice of piloting a plane capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), or a plane modeled after modern dogfighter jets like the F-16 and the F-22. The cockpit is fully modeled and interactable, giving you the freedom to flip switches and toggle displays to your heart’s content.
No matter which aircraft you choose, be sure to crank up some Kenny Loggins as you tear the skies asunder with your mighty sonic booms. Oh, and there’s combat as well — those missiles hanging from your fuselage aren’t just for show. Make it rain steel and fire!
2. X-Plane 11
- Website: x-plane.com
- Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux
- Developer: Laminar Research
- Release: Nov 25, 2016
Sure, it’s fun to blow stuff up. But what if you just want to kick back, relax, and take in the scenery? Allow me to introduce you to X-Plane 11, the premier simulator for roleplaying as a recreational pilot or airline captain.
As of this writing, it doesn’t get more real than this. The graphics are incredible, with magnificent burning sunsets, lovingly rendered real-world locales, and dynamic weather conditions. Fly a wide array of aircraft, from fixed-wings to jumbo jets and even helicopters. Like VTOL, the cockpits are all fully modeled and interactable, meaning you never have to take your eyes off the action (or use awkward control binds) to keep yourself aloft. There are even emergency scenarios to keep you on your toes and test your knowledge. And I don’t know what a de-icer does, but you’ve got one of those too — that’s the level of detail the developers of X-Plane 11 bring to the table. This is the closest you can get (for now) to flying around the world from the comfort of your living room.
1. Elite: Dangerous
- Website: elitedangerous.com
- Platform: Windows, Mac, PS4, Xbox One
- Developer: Frontier Developments
- Release: Dec 16, 2014
Seeing the world from your very own aircraft is one thing. Seeing the galaxy from the helm of your very own spaceship is quite another. Elite: Dangerous is a space-based flight sim with one of the loftiest goals in the gaming industry: procedurally generate the entire Milky-Way galaxy, fill it with activities and dangers, then turn the players loose to do whatever their heart desires. And for the most part, it succeeds — due in no small part to the immersive boost it gets from VR.
You’re not the only one sailing the stars in Elite: Dangerous. Dropping into Open Play makes the experience into an MMO that comes with all the potential benefits (and risks) you might imagine. But even if you choose to play offline, there are thousands of procedurally generated NPCs for you to encounter as you travel from system to system. Just like the players, some NPCs may play nice — but others might want to collect any bounties on your head or cargo in your hold. Tread cautiously, it’s a dangerous galaxy out there.
You can play any way you like. Become an explorer, charting the undiscovered reaches of space then selling your data when you return home. Mine asteroids or engage in trade between star systems, buying goods low, and selling high. You can even become a bounty hunter yourself. Whatever you choose, there is an entire galaxy of planets, stars, and rare phenomena for you to discover. Just steer clear of the Pleiades. I hear CMDRs go missing there…