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E3 2014 marks the return of the flight sim genre

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E3 2014 could mark the beginning of a renaissance in the flight sim genre.

Before the rise of the first person shooter the flight simulation genre made up a healthy part of the gaming ecosystem, enjoying a popularity that lasted decades.

But in many ways the era of the flight sim ended in January 2009 when Microsoft announced the closure of the Aces Studio. After 29 years the people behind the Microsoft Flight Simulator series were out of work.

For the last five years flight sims have struggled to remain relevant, spiraling off into niche titles like the X-Plane and the DCS series that, while they push the limits of modern computing power, strain the patience of most gamers.

That’s about the change.

The flight sim genre is coming back in a big way. This year’s E3 marks an inflection point where developers, publishers and hardware manufacturers are coming together to create new kinds of flight sim experiences. It’s a confluence that will push flight sims to the forefront of gaming for the next several years.

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World of Warplanes

One title that loomed large over last year’s E3 was World of Warplanes. Wargaming.net’s booth featured dozens of PCs running the game and giant screens attracted crowds as people passing by watched the action in real time, a display that generated a lot of buzz for the game.

Over the next year Wargaming.net has taken its massive player count from World of Tanks and used it to establish a healthy community for Warplanes. This year and the next will be all about Warplanes’ expansion, and the current generation of consoles are a likely target. Wargaming.net has already shown an interest in console gamers with World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition, and news of a console port of Warplanes can’t be too far away.

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War Thunder

Stepping into the ring this year is Gaijin Entertainment, who just last week launched its flight simulator, War Thunder on the PlayStation 4. The free-to-play title is a nearly direct port of the PC version, which has been in beta for the last several years. It even goes so far as to feature cross play, pitting PC players and console players against each other on even footing.

One thing that makes War Thunder unique is that players duke it out in the air and on the land, with tanks, on the same maps. The game also offers three difficulty levels ranging from arcade action to full realism, which limits the player’s view to the cockpit and makes increasing demands on the virtual pilot to actually know how to fly a plane.

Gaijin’s investment in Sony’s technology is strong. The game even features head tracking, allowing players to look around their aircraft by utilizing the Playstation Camera. Expect it to show prominently during Sony’s press conference.

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Elite: Dangerous

Frontier Developments is expected to have a big presence on the floor of E3 this year with its space combat simulation Elite: Dangerous. In stark contrast to the free-to-play titles mentioned above, Frontier is selling Elite right now as an early access game for a premium price of $150.

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Eve: Valkyrie

Finally, CCP will have its space combat simulation Eve: Valkyrie playable as well. The game began as a demo, built internally to utilize the Oculus Rift virtual reality kit laying around the office. But it’s grown into something much, much bigger this year. The team recently added actress Katee Sackhoff’s voiceover talent to the game, placing her in a prominent role in the game’s fiction. Polygon will likewise have hands on time with Valkyrie this year to see how the game’s development is progressing.

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Star Citizen

Two high profile flight simulators will not be shown at this year’s E3. The first, Chris Robert’s Star Citizen, has raised more than $43 million on crowd funding, proving that there is an audience willing to pay for premium content like exclusive ships. The dogfighting module has just been released last week and, after a few bugs, seems to be seeing heavy use by early access players.

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IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad

Also not present at this year’s conference is IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad. Announced in December 2012 and being published by 1C, developer 777 Studios is already well known for hard core flight sims like Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War and Wings of Prey: WWII Air Combat. The game is already open to alpha testers and has a stated release date of September of 2014.