Combat Flight Simulators offer some of the most diverse experiences in gaming. From story-driven arcade action to simulations so accurate that real world militaries use them as training aids, there’s a simulator for every taste and skill level. We’ve tried the lot to create this guide to the best combat flight sims on offer in 2023.
These days, it doesn’t matter how obscure your favorite aircraft is, someone’s put it into a flight simulator (even if that’s mostly thanks to War Thunder!) Chances are one of our top picks below will offer the right pair of wings for you.
The best combat flight simulators in 2023 are:
- War Thunder – best free combat flight sim
- Ace Combat 7 – best combat flight sim for beginners
- Project Wingman – best futuristic combat flight sim
- Rise of Flight – best WW1 combat flight sim
- Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad – best WW2 combat flight sim
- Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) – best realistic combat flight sim
Before we begin, a note on combat flight simulator peripherals. ‘Peripherals’ refers to all the joysticks, rudder pedals, Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, and similar that are available to enhance these games.
For some games, and for many users, peripherals are entirely unnecessary – but, as we go on through our list and complexity increases, these items become more and more critical to the experience.
Our advice: until you’re sure you want to invest, keep it cheap. A simple joystick that is a ‘twist stick’ (i.e. one that can control the rudder by being twisted) will see you through almost anything until you’re certain the high-end simulators are for you. Now, onto the sims!
1. War Thunder
The best free combat flight sim
|Peripherals required||None – until simulator battles|
War Thunder is the one-size-fits-all vehicle MMO for the modern age. Tanks, aircraft, even ships, it has them all. Whilst War Thunder is increasingly known for its tanks, it cut its teeth on aircraft, and War Thunder planes provide some of the game’s best experiences.
Grognards may grumble about flight models, and insist the 3D damage simulation on War Thunder tanks is more compelling, but the fact remains that there’s a decently detailed flight simulation underneath everything; one that manages to strike a balance between the nitty-gritty elements of classic air combat and being new player friendly.
War Thunder ranks among our all-time best WW2 games, and fans of classic World War II birds will appreciate that you can reach Spitfires and Messerschmitts early on in the grind.
2. Ace Combat 7
The best combat flight sim for beginners
The newest entry in an iconic series, Ace Combat 7 offers not so much a simulation of air combat, as a simulation of the fantasy of air combat.
Flying entirely realistically modeled modern fighters, players fight their way through a preposterously over-the-top story, set in an alternative 21st century world. MiG-21s? Check. F-35s? Check. Giant flying wings with parasite fighters? Er, check…?
3. Project Wingspan
The best futuristic combat flight sim
An up-and-coming rival to Ace Combat’s weird throne, Project Wingman offers a different take on arcade, ultra-modern air combat.
As opposed to the upbeat world of Ace Combat, Project Wingman is set in a more dystopian post-apocalyptic future, where wars are fought by mercenary companies.
Alongside the story campaign, however, is something rather different that sets it apart: a strategic territory control game mode.
4. Rise of Flight
The best WW1 combat flight sim
|Peripherals required||Joystick at minimum – anything else is a bonus|
Unpopular opinion: World War One dogfights are the most exciting. Nothing compares to flying frail, open-cockpit aircraft into frantic, unstable aerial battles where ranges are horrifyingly short – and Rise of Flight gets all this teeth-judderingly right. It’s one of our all-time favorite WW1 games for a reason.
Compared to the anonymous pixels of modern combat and the vague shapes of World War II, in a WW1 dogfight you see the enemy clearly – often because they’re about ten feet away, standing up out of the back of their goddamn airplane. It’s the one period War Thunder hasn’t explored yet – and it’s missing out.
Rise of Flight is somewhat long in the tooth these days. Active development has ended and its developers and player base have largely moved on. What remains, however, is an almost comprehensive line up of World War One classics.
The simplicity of these aircraft make even a fully realistic experience very approachable, with a large number of single player options to keep things interesting. Its age also means it’s on sale often.
5. Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad
The best WW2 combat flight sim
|Peripherals required||Joystick at minimum – anything else is a bonus|
The latest iteration of a venerable World War Two simulation series, Il-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad is approaching the more complex end of the simulation spectrum – we have a whole Il-2 Sturmovik tutorial to prove it.
Fortunately, however, it does its level best to make sure that no newbies are left behind. Split into a series of titles covering both Western and Eastern Fronts, Il-2 boasts an increasingly diverse array of Second World War warbirds.
You’ll encounter many old friends from War Thunder, but here rendered in far greater detail. As I recommended in my guide, it’s pretty much a case of finding the title that has your favorite aircraft and going from there.
All the intricacies of these classic fighters are here, with propeller pitch, mixture, radiator flaps (oil and water), boost, and superchargers all modeled and controllable.
For all that complexity, however, it still comes down to nail-biting dogfights fought 20,000 feet above the earth.
Mastering Il-2’s complexity – and then defeating your opponent – is deeply satisfying.
6. Digital Combat Simulator (DCS)
The best realistic combat flight sim
|Peripherals required||Joystick essential, Rudder Pedals strongly recommended|
If Ace Combat sells a fantasy of what we wish air combat was, then the infamous Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) sells the fantasy that, with enough playtime, you yourself could sit down in a real life jet fighter and know exactly how to operate it.
The DCS flight sim offers an ever expanding line up of exceptionally detailed combat aircraft, both historical and modern. Most of them come with the real craft’s every switch, knob, and button operable, and the systems they operate realistically modeled.
The manuals included with each aircraft are almost as long as the real thing, too – we’ve checked. A translated MiG-21bis manual runs to 224 pages. The official DCS MiG-21bis manual runs to 183.
Such attention to detail comes with a price. When not on sale, each aircraft costs as much as a modern AAA game (although, surprisingly, War Thunder retains the prize for most expensive single aircraft!) Each aircraft requires a short course to operate.
Matched against these concerns, however, is the sheer satisfaction of mastering a simulation that is the next best thing to the real aircraft. If you want the ultimate realistic combat flight sim, this is it.
Not found quite the flight you were looking for? Try widening the search to our favorite tactical shooters, or our picks for the all-time best RTS games and turn based games on PC. If budget’s tight, no worries – we’ve profiled the absolute best free war games and free strategy games in 2023, too.