Sometimes a flight sim takes a big leap forward and looks like a whole new sim all at once. DCS World did when it jumped up to version 2.5 and it did again when it went to 2.7 introducing new clouds, lighting, and all kinds of new effects. The team at 1C Game Studios working on the IL-2 Sturmovik: Great Battles Series have taken a more incremental approach releasing a significant new visual effect and then moving on to tackle something new. The latest patch has introduced some new visual effects that bring together a series of visual updates that we’ve seen over the last several months… some of which have had a dramatic impact on the visuals in the sim. This is what IL-2 looks like now.
Clouds, sky, sun, stars
The biggest visual changes that we’ve seen from the series involve the sky and I’ll start with the clouds. I’ve already written a piece about how the technology changes to the clouds in the series have altered not just the visuals but how you approach dogfights, strike missions, and more.
The new cloud technology in IL-2 provides for more variety, more depth, more layers, and physically bigger clouds and cloud formations. Tower clouds, thin wispy clouds, popcorn clouds, and a variety of other types of clouds are all represented in a series of new sky conditions. We also now have localized rain and snowstorms that move across the map according to the wind conditions. For a sim that is focused on air combat more than the weather, it’s an impressive improvement.
IL-2 is up against some serious competition with Microsoft Flight Simulator and DCS World offering what I think are still better looking clouds, however, IL-2 has always done well by offering nearly the same visual appeal with minimal performance impact. The series has also always done well by offering a cohesive visual style that fits in so beautifully with the rest of the art in the sim. These don’t exceed the competition but it keeps IL-2 in the very close running. These are still significantly better than any of the volumetric clouds that X-Plane offers (paid and free) and they perform better too!
The other big change is the sky which was introduced in the most recent patch (coming out mid March of 2022 if you read this later on). The sky visuals are no longer an art asset and are instead calculated using real world physics calculations to simulate the way that the sky should look. The change is subtle at times yet still impressive when taken in together with the new clouds.
No longer do we have unusually dark, almost candy coloured sunsets. That’s been replaced by a much more convincing look! Most or all of the colour-banding that I saw before is gone or reduced to such a minimal level that I don’t easily notice it. The sky feels smooth, bright, and more accurate to the real world than before.
The sun and stars have also been overhauled in the most recent patch. More sun effects on clouds appear to be present and the visual of the bright sun feels smoother and more organic than before. The stars have also been given an overhaul. Some are not quite sold on their appearance and I agree that they are maybe just a little too big in some cases… but the overall effect is impressive. And beautiful.
Lighting and other effects
The other big change in the most recent patch is a rework of the overall lighting scheme for the sim. Its subtle but the lighting on objects such as aircraft appears to have been improved bringing out more subtle shapes and hues as the light dances across the texture maps.
The recent lighting updates really bring that to the fore even in lower light situations where the subtle patterns and textures on aircraft seem to come out even better than they used to. In direct sun, the aircraft have what I think is an appropriate level of shine. To the best of my knowledge, IL-2 doesn’t officially have the PBR style rendering system that some other sims are sporting these days but it doesn’t seem to matter as IL-2’s artists and engine programmers have managed to make it look just as good.
The 4K upgrades to the cockpits and exterior textures have also added to the visual feast. Many of you will have also noticed that bomb effects, crash effects, tracers, and smoke effects, have been all tweaked over the last several months as well. The overall effect is more detail, more authenticity, and a better looking sim that seems to be running just as well as before if not better.
IL-2’s developers have carefully improved their visuals without significantly impacting hardware requirements. To be fair, these have crept forward and GPU VRAM requirements have gone up slightly as a result of the new sky technology with increased memory usage being needed to help calculate the new physics based approach. Still, the increase is minimal with 1GB of VRAM being dropped as the minimum spec in-favour of 2GB of VRAM. I know a few of you may still be running with GPU’s with small amounts of VRAM but cards dating back several generations were offering more than 2G of VRAM and most other sims are asking for much more. At some point the sim has to move forward.
Of course, to get the most out of the sim you’ll need to set it to the maximum settings. Fortunately, IL-2 works well across a wide range of hardware types so recent systems can easily run the sim at maximum settings with buttery smooth frame rates. Even my six year old system that I was running on until just recently was able to keep it at a solid 60fps at 1080p nearly all of the time. VR remains more demanding but VR simmers tell me that IL-2 is still the smoothest VR experience you can have.
Rather than offering a massive visual update across the entire sim all at once, 1CGS have, as I mentioned in the preamble, been busy updating the sim one component at a time. Although it doesn’t have the same visual jump forward that we have seen elsewhere, it still has impact and I love to see sims like this one continue to push forward. Pushing the limits here have been done very carefully and the result is a sim that continues to look better all the time while walking the tightrope between eye-candy and performance.
The Great Battles series has never looked as good as it does now.