The newest version of Microsoft's extremely popular flight simulation game, Flight Simulator X, is set to release this Holiday season. Even without the massive list of new features and updates, this game would still be highly-anticipated by fans of the series. But, is it worth the price for those who are still enjoying 2004's A Century of Flight? We put the preview build through a pre-flight checklist in an attempt to answer this question, and to shed some light on what exactly the new version has to offer.

While we did get a chance to take a quick peak at FSX during E3 this year, we unfortunately did not have the time to sit down and check out what it really has to offer. Thankfully, and to my extreme surprise and excitement, the preview discs recently ended up on my desk. Although by no means completely finished or optimized, this build does contain more than enough to make its not-so-distant release date seem as far away as London Heathrow from Chicago O'Hare.

The major new features in FSX can be placed into three general categories: living world, missions and shared skies. Examples of the living world concept are abundant; from the immersive environment that includes weather, time of day and seasons, to the interactive airports containing moving fuel trucks and baggage carts. Also noticeable are more environmental objects, including cars, more detailed buildings and wildlife. These will all be instantly obvious to any fan of the series, and they add to the realism and excitement that the Flight Simulator series is known for. Although the visual elements are always more than just appreciated, but what about the gameplay?

The first of the changes in the gameplay comes with the introduction of the new mission-based mode. With this, Flight Simulator X takes the series where it has never gone before. Players can still choose the classic free flight mode, but they can also choose from over 50 missions in many different categories, depending on their preferred game experience. These include Just for Fun, Emergency, Challenges, Tutorial, The Good Life, Backcountry, Pilot for Hire and Airline Pilot. Each category varies in its level of difficulty, and although they are all interesting, the Tutorial missions are probably the most noteworthy of them all. One of Microsoft's goals with FSX was to make the game easier to learn for all kinds of players, since previous versions were known to have a steep learning curve. The tutorial missions are fairly simple and allow the player to step into the complex world of flying aircraft fairly quickly.

The other major gameplay change comes in the form of an online capability through GameSpy. Here players can choose to be either an air traffic controller, a pilot, or a co-pilot, and can play alongside other players interacting with them through their flights. How this mode turns out in practice is yet to be seen, but it does sound like it could be an exciting innovation for flight simulators.

Flight Simulator X will ship in two different DVD versions, Standard and Deluxe. The exact differences between the two versions are not all clear, but we do know that the Deluxe edition will feature more missions than the Standard offering, as well as aircraft using the bleeding edge Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. On top of this, the game will initially be available for Windows XP, but will also support Windows Vista once it releases. For the latter, the game will use DirectX 10 features to provide graphical improvements to players with Vista over those who have DirectX 9 and Windows XP.

After the last release, Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight, and its major improvements on this long-running series, it was hard to see how Microsoft could come up with a new version that was worth the update for fans. However, from the additional elements present in the environment, to the new aircraft, missions and online play, it appears that FSX will do just that. And, with the improvements and additional tutorial and learning options, Flight Simulator X may be the easiest game in the Flight Simulator series for new players to jump into.