The best flying games ever

Get ready for the Red Bull Air Race by playing some of the best flying games of all time

A screenshot of Ace Combat 6
Ace Combat 6© Namco Bandai

Renowned as one of the homes of horse racing, Royal Ascot will play host this weekend to a race of a very different kind. The Red Bull Air Race is coming to Britain, and the UK leg of the 2014 World Championship will see current champion Paul Bonhomme attempt to be first past the post as he aims to recover from his recent disappointing 5th place finishes in Malaysia and Poland.

The action starts at 4pm this Sunday 17 August, but in the meantime, why not prepare yourself for this thrilling showpiece by taking to the skies from the comfort of your living room? We’ve picked out five of the finest flying games ever made - so if you fancy yourself as the next Hannes Arch, here’s where to start.

Microsoft Flight Simulator X (PC: 2006)

A screenshot of Microsoft Flight Simulator X
Microsoft Flight Simulator X© Microsoft

Microsoft Flight Simulator has come a long way since version 1.0 was released way back in 1982. There you could only fly a single plane and there were just four airports featured: Seattle, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. The tenth and most recent instalment is more dauntingly true-to-life than ever, with 18 authentically rendered planes, 28 famous cities reproduced in fine detail and a staggering 24,000 different airports to land at. Free-to-play spin-off Flight crashed and burned somewhat, and so this still represents the best way to get your fix of ultra-realistic air travel.

Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation (Xbox 360: 2007)

A screenshot of Ace Combat 6
Ace Combat 6© Namco Bandai

This arcade sim eschews realism in its controls for a frantic, intense bout of Top Gun-style airborne combat, and is all the better for it. A melodramatic story follows a fictional cold war between two made-up nations, with the narrative switching between a number of characters. But none of that matters when you take to the skies and blast rival fighters out of the air, or evade an incoming missile with a split-second to spare. Best of all is the free flight mode which unlocks once you’ve completed a mission, allowing you to pull off daredevil manoeuvres at your leisure.

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, PSP, DS: 2009)

A screenshot of IL-2 Sturmovik Birds of Prey
IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey© 505 Games

This semi-serious WWII flight sim had been rattling along under many radars on PC for eight years before developer Gaijin Entertainment attempted to bring it to a wider audience on console, without compromising what made it a cult favourite on PC. It defaults to a more accessible handling model, but the game’s Simulation mode strips away your assists until simply keeping your plane in the air is a challenge. Whichever option you choose, the game’s generous array of missions take you from the Battle of Britain to a bombing raid on Berlin’s Reichstag. The latest entry, Battle of Stalingrad, is currently in beta and set for a full release next month.

AfterBurner Climax (Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Android, iOS: 2010, 2013)

A screenshot of AfterBurner Climax
AfterBurner Climax © Sega

Sega’s arcade classic is a blisteringly quick and gobsmackingly beautiful trip through some of the most gorgeous skies in all of gaming. Imagine the Ferrari in OutRun somehow sprouted wings and you’re halfway there; as in that game you’ll get to select your route when you complete a stage, though in some cases you’ll need to complete specific objectives first. Finish it, and dozens of options allow you to adjust the difficulty, giving it incredible replay value. It’s more shooter than flying game, perhaps, but no game better captures the breathless thrill of zooming above the clouds at frightening speeds.

Aces High (2000: PC)

A screenshot of Aces High
Aces High© HiTech Creations

Part flight sim, part MMO, Aces High might be 14 years old this year but it’s still going strong. Developer HiTech Creations has kept the game’s subscribers happy by constantly updating and upgrading the game – currently it’s about to begin alpha testing  the game’s brand new graphics engine, which features light scattering effects, improved terrain detail, and realistic water. Focusing chiefly on WWI and WWII aircraft, Aces High features accurately modelled planes and ground vehicles from six different nations, while its regular special events - from historical battles to air races - attract hundreds of players.