This year has been the year of the cloud in flight simulation. To be more accurate, it started back in 2019 when Microsoft Flight Simulator was first revealed and their new ray marched clouds blew us all away with their impressive visuals. Since then, we’ve seen everyone else aim to keep up with plugins for X-Plane 11, impressive prototypes for X-Plane 12, and DCS World use the same technology. IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles already had impressive volumetric clouds but this new technology takes that a step further. But it’s not just about the clouds and so in this impressions piece I want to talk about both the visual and non visual update that’s at play here.
The team at 1C Game Studios has overhauled part of their rendering pipeline in this latest update. The overhaul has generally been seen as a positive with some reporting enhanced frame rates and others holding steady despite the visual update. Of course the most visible change to this is the clouds themselves which are now using ray marching technology to create that visual effect.
The big change is that clouds now have more visual impact being both bigger and theoretically more detailed. The patterns that govern the clouds over a given area were actually quite small in the original IL-2 but that is now very different as the scale of those patterns is now approaching the scale of the map itself.
The result? You can have a heavy rainstorm in one area and bright sun in another. Stadium effect clouds and anvil shaped thunderstorms (sans the weather effects… for now) can appear on the horizon and you can then fly into them.
The density of clouds has changed too because of the size of these clouds with more realistic shading in and out of the cloud with realistically low but not always zero visibility.
What does it do to our flying?
With a World War II combat simulation like IL-2, the weather very much plays a role in how you approach the situation that you’re in. Big thick clouds in DCS World, since they have been introduced, have had an effect even on even the most modern of aircraft. Although some sensors can see through clouds and you can still operate as you did before albeit with some limitations. For WWII aircraft in both sims, however, visible target acquisition is essential and so the new clouds change not only the visuals but also how you fly.
In IL-2 Great Battles, we now have that scale of cloud that we just didn’t before. With some parts of the map largely clear of cloud while other areas are under thick clouds or even localized rainstorms, what might work in one target area may be exceedingly difficult in another.
And as these clouds move, the situation on the map can also change. You may have left home base with clear skies but a rainstorm is now over it as you return to base. The same could be said about a target area that you may be approaching that is in a vastly different cloud state than the one that you started out the mission with.
They also enable the ability to include weather like rain without it being a downpour over the entire map. Scattered showers change the visuals giving us adding to the look of moody European battlefields while also changing the tactics. Ducking into a rainstorm or dodging between them are now going to be part of the tactical situation.
They look really good too
Of course when they were announced, we did focus in quite a bit on the visuals and they do look really good. Inevitable comparisons to other sims are going to come up and I think here IL-2 is just a little bit behind DCS and Microsoft Flight Simulator in some visual aspects of the clouds. There is less detail in some areas and so sometimes the clouds feel rather undefined.
When I compare them visually, the DCS clouds have more details to be sure but the overall effect is quite similar on the flying area which is great. DCS clouds at the moment are also only staying in place while IL-2 clouds will drift over the flying area based on wind effects.
MSFS’ weather engine shows its superiority over all others in this comparison by generating a wider variety of clouds but again at the end of the day the effect is also quite similar. Meanwhile, X-Plane 11’s Enhanced Skyscapes plugin brings raymarched volumetric clouds to that sim as well, however, with a performance cost and a visual effect that doesn’t always quite match the rest of the sim. IL-2’s by comparison has clouds that match the overall look of the sim which is very good to see.
All of that said, these are still a step ahead for the series and so there it is still worth mentioning that I only see a net gain here. And, because 1CGS was able to overhaul part of their rendering process, the experience that I’ve had and that many others have reported has been that the new update has actually increased performance or at least kept it around the same level. 1CGS is being careful to ensure that their sim runs on a wide range of hardware and so they have made a choice to build for speed and I think they have achieved that.
What might happen next?
1CGS for their part have already stated that they might be adding some alternate types of cloud patterns in the future. Of course I’m always an advocate for more options and those options will add to the diversity of patterns that we already have.
The developers for IL-2 are also rarely ever resting on their laurels and I can easily see them continuing to refine this technology over time. This first release is very good but the clouds could use some added lighting and definition and while there’s no reason to rush that in my mind, it would be a nice to have at some point down the road and so I suspect that they will continue to refine these.
These are still some of the best clouds in the flight sim business. Though they may lack some details around the edges, they don’t have the pixelated ash cloud look that MSFS has sometimes confronted. The visuals are well rendered in the scene not standing out as if they don’t belong there like I sometimes see with some of the cloud replacements for X-Plane. And they run well with little or no performance drop which is impressive!
The equation for me here is fairly simple. 1CGS have made a visual change that has also changed the “gameplay” experience for IL-2 with varying cloud conditions across wide stretches of IL-2’s flying area and that has the potential for some profound changes in the experience for both multiplayer and single player.
Of course, some scenarios are clear of clouds and you won’t necessarily see those changes. For other scenarios, however, the situation is going to be dramatically different and that’s pretty exciting. And, as with other core updates for this sim, the change here is dramatic for not just WWII virtual pilots but WWI virtual pilots and tank drivers as well. Localized rainstorms can change visibility and have a dramatic impact on how a fight may happen while driving around in a tank. And that’s really cool!
This is another great update for IL-2 and one that will have a positive lasting effect.