Top Gun: Maverick’s challenges add a whole new dimension of fun

In a world full of action RPGs, first-person shooters, and other twitchy, fast-paced games, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is somewhat unique: a slow-paced sim that’s as much about the journey as the goal. But the free Top Gun: Maverick adds something in between: a genuinely fun ridge-hopping challenge that you’ll be tempted to replay a few times.

First off, while I haven’t seen the new Top Gun movie, there are what feel to be a couple of spoilers. The first, a relatively minor one, shows up when you roll your F/A-18E/F Super Hornet through an especially sharp turn or climb, pushing G-forces up above 9 Gs or so. It’s then when your pilot starts gasping for breath, leading me to believe that a movie plot point just might be that Tom Cruise’s character isn’t as up to the physical demands of flying military aircraft as he once was.

The other potential spoiler is unavoidable: a challenge to fly a particular experimental aircraft that feels very much like a mission Maverick would be asked to fly in the movie. I have no idea if this true, but I avoid showing it to you here out of caution.

In my mind, the latter mission isn’t the selling point of the new Flight Simulator expansion, anyway: It’s the five low-altitude ridge-hopping challenges that you’ll fly behind the stick of the FA-18A Super Hornet. Set in various American locales from Alaska to Nevada, the challenge is simple: Get from the start to the finish as fast as you can, flying as low as you can.

Note that while Top Gun: Maverick is a free expansion for Flight Simulator, you’ll need to either sign up for Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass (which gives you the game “free” with its subscription) or buy Flight Simulator itself for $59.99.

Flight Simulator: Top Gun Maverick
Here’s the start of the low-altitude missions in Top Gun: Maverick. How you get to the goal is up to you.

Mark Hachman / IDG

The way the game scores you is by splitting the journey into 10 sections, then taking your average altitude and adding it to a time multiplier. Flying as low as you can is the order of the day, but take too long and your points won’t be as high as a more direct route. Throttle controls seemed to be inoperative, so you won’t be able to kill speed as you crest a ridge, dropping down and then hitting the afterburners.

Nevertheless, the whole challenge is strangely compelling. There are absolutely no checkpoints or rings or flags to try to hit, unlike a game like Forza Horizon. The challenge is navigating the terrain: Do you break off into a canyon to the left to zoom as low as you can go? Hop the ridge? Decisions are always being made on the fly, based upon your knowledge of the terrain and what you can see ahead. Choosing the optimal route is as important as actually flying it.

The challenge is complicated, too, by a “ghost fighter,” which chooses its own route. You’re not judged on whether you beat the ghost’s score, but at the conclusion you can see its route, its time, and its score on the various segments. Did that ghost pick the best route, or can you do better? Making those decisions, then trying to thread the needle as you fly through islands and rocky peaks is what makes the expansion fun. If you crash, you’re put back in the air immediately, a little higher and a little further back than where you met the earth.

When you complete the challenge, you’re assigned a grade: crash once and you’ll likely receive a “C”; fly aggressively and you’ll receive a “B” or better. There’s a global leaderboard that’s also filling up fast. Unfortunately, there are no Xbox Achievements for the expansion, yet. The other training exercises (such as takeoff and landing) are also assigned grades. Did we mention that there’s a carrier landing, too?

Flight Simulator: Top Gun Maverick
Selecting and flying the route is the real challenge, especially as diversions can pay off in the long run.

Mark Hachman / IDG

One note: Given the enormous size of the Flight Simulator game, I’d recommend flying using Microsoft’s Xbox cloud gaming, either in the Xbox app on the PC or else via the cloud gaming option in Xbox. Weirdly, I still had to “download” the expansion to my cloud Xbox, which fortunately just took a minute or two. The cloud gaming graphics won’t be quite as sharp as a powerful PC or even an Xbox, but the game is slow-paced enough that latency shouldn’t be an issue.

Top Gun: Maverick certainly won’t put as many demands on your time as, say, Elden Ring, but it’s absolutely worth spending a couple of hours in it. And when the electronic guitar of the original Top Gun theme kicks in, it’s like returning to the 1980s for an hour or two.

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