Eagle Dynamics’ DCS World 2.5: A new phase

FEATURE

Never one to rest, Eagle Dynamics quickly released a Chinese asset update created by Deka Ironworks Simulations that brought the J-11 Shenyang variant of the Su-27 to owners of Flaming Cliffs 3 or the Su-27 standalone module. The update also adds several AI aircraft, ground and navy units fielded by China.
With helicopters, fighters, attack jets, prop aircraft and Combined Arms ground vehicles, DCS World 2.5 should have content to satisfy nearly every sim enthusiast.
Caucasus terrain mesh has rounded off what were formerly polygon-like mountains, giving a gorgeous flow to the landscape.

Back in late 2015, DCS World fractured into two separate installs with the release of DCS World 2.0 Alpha. The necessary version split came as Eagle Dynamics moved towards updating the foundation of the sim with a new terrain engine, graphics and lighting, environmental effects and a wide array of other ‘under the hood’ improvements. The release of 2.0 Alpha was an exciting step forward for DCS World and over the following two years the separate branches (1.5.x and 2.0.x) would march forward at different paces with the single common projected intersection culminating in DCS World 2.5. For fans of DCS World, the process of managing multiple installs, keeping up with releases and figuring out compatibility was sometimes more difficult than learning to fly a fully modelled attack aircraft. Earlier this year, to the great relief of the DCS World Bcommunity, Eagle Dynamics crossed the finish line of another phase of its evolution and embarked on support and advancement of the combined 1.5 and 2.0 with the release of DCS World 2.5. Widely referred to as ‘The Merge’, the release has been heralded as the biggest step forward for the franchise since inception.

Merged but still emerging

For those who sat on the sidelines, content to let others beta test and sometimes come up against the bugs that are an inevitable fact of software updates, the release of 2.5 took them from their stable retail 1.5.8 to 2.5.0 release. Users were given the option to save their 1.5.8 installs to another location prior to updating for reasons such as saving campaigns in progress, pilot statistics and for both community and developer-created missions that might not yet be compatible with 2.5. For those users who never had any beta versions of 2.x installed, the new download was significant in size, while users who participated in the 2.x development branches would have their install updated to 2.5 by ‘borrowing’ already present files from their 2.x beta install location, significantly reducing their download requirements. Of course, development of DCS World did not stop with the release of 2.5, and immediately an Open Beta version emerged via hotfixes that allowed users to continuously upgrade DCS World as it moved past 2.5, adding features and squashing bugs along the way.

Under the umbrella of 2.5

‘The Merge’ brought together all of the default and DLC maps under one install. To summarise, users now have a beautifully updated and expanded Caucasus theatre that remains part of the free-to-play DCS World experience.

PCPilot PLATINUM AWARD

Also available as payware DLC are the very popular Nevada Test and Training Range and the Normandy 1944 theatres. As of early May, the new Persian Gulf theatre is in pre-order with some users already receiving Early Access. In addition to the theatres, all of the existing aircraft and helicopter modules are available to play under 2.5, although at time of going to press, there remained just a few glitches in a couple of the modules where internal cockpit lighting needed to be tweaked to properly work with the new 2.5 lighting process. Of course, updating modules is the responsibility of the individual developers, so expect there to be updates and improvements at different rates based on the workload of each development team. By-and-large however, all of the modules seem to work seamlessly, with just a few bugs being reported related to the 2.5 update.

Further major categories of content for DCS World are the default single and quick start missions, training content and default and DLC campaigns that had to be updated in order to work with the newly revamped Caucasus theatre. Undoubtedly, updating these components for each module to work with the modified Caucasus must have taken an enormous amount of time. One great side benefit of the total reworking of the Caucasus theatre is that the new SpeedTree foliage blocks line-of-sight and causes collisions for helicopters, aircraft and munitions. Whereas before you had to hover your helicopter carefully out of sight while guessing where the terrain would provide cover, now you can bob-and-weave between the trees, popping up to strike while using the trees for cover from return fire. Old missions had to be play tested to make sure that unit placement with the new tree technology and terrain mesh would not cause errors in gameplay. While most of the missions have been updated and work fine, with the enormity of the number of missions to be tested, it is not unexpected that some quirks in unit placement still exist.

All seasonal textures have undergone updates, providing a new feel for this old theatre.
Improvements to lighting and shadows provide for dramatic conditions.

Impressions

Those making the move from 1.5.x to 2.5 without having dabbled in the earlier 2.x alphas and betas will be treated to an incredible upgrade. Graphics improvements to the Caucasus terrain are the most obvious, with newly forested areas containing betterlooking foliage, higher resolution terrain mesh, more detailed ground textures, improved buildings, higher object counts and many other general improvements to the theatre.

The hills and mountains look much more natural with the smoother terrain mesh and the forests look denser and realistic. At low levels, the procedurally generated grass looks incredible, adding to the sense of speed over the terrain and providing us helicopter pilots excellent spatial reference. Accentuating all of the upgraded features is a gorgeous new lighting system that adds a tremendous amount of moodiness to most missions. The dynamic lighting of the terrain provides stunning shadows while deferred options and new graphics settings bring an overall look to the atmosphere that will cause uncontrollable fits of screenshot taking.

New clouds, fog and haze are in a constant state of improvement and features such as rain effects on the canopy and a new night lighting model, featuring variable levels of terrain illumination based on moon phases, have been shown in recent weeks and will be filtering down into DCS World as the developers wrap up those features. It isn’t a stretch to say that the DCS World theatres under the new graphics engine give some of the most beautiful flight simulation experiences in any sim on the market today. With DirectX 11 driving the graphics, most users are reporting frame rates equal to or better than the old DCS World versions despite the inclusion of much higher texture and object counts.

Those of us who enjoy flying night missions will notice a significant improvement to the depiction of flying with night-vision equipment since white/hot and black/hot modes now depict objects with more realism (and more improvements are planned). Thus, those aircraft and helos with sensors such as targeting pods will see an improvement in their functionality. Also, night vision goggles now have a more realistic focal point which blurs the cockpit graphics while providing a sharper view (focused at infinity) through the optics. This change is far more authentic but can be challenging to come to grips with as we were spoiled with better-performing, exaggerated quality optics for many years. Another very cool feature that recently made its way into DCS World is the addition of a China Asset Pack created by Deka Ironwork Simulations that has added modern Chinese weapons and platforms to DCS World. For users who purchased Flaming Cliffs 3, the asset pack also includes a flyable Shenyang J-11A (NATO codename Flanker B+) based on the Sukhoi Su-27. While the J-11A was developed from the Su-27, notable upgrades include the ability to launch the active radar homing R-77/ AA-12 ‘Adder’ air-to-air missile and the option to mount dual racks for rockets and bombs on the wing stations. These upgrades make the J-11A a formidable opponent over the battlefield

The vastly improved Caucasus terrain can still be enjoyed in the free-to-play Su-25T along with all of the missions and campaigns it includes.
Wide-ranging texture improvements have been made to airfield structures and objects, city buildings and many more items.
Low-level haze looks particularly good when skimming above the waves in the Heatblur Simulations AJS-37 Viggen.

System requirements

Minimum system requirements (LOW graphics settings): OS 64-bit Windows 7/8/10; DirectX 11; CPU: Intel Core i3 at 2.8GHz or AMD FX; RAM: 8GB (16GB for heavy missions). Free hard disk space: 60GB. Discrete video card NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760 / AMD R9 280X or better. Requires internet activation.

Recommended system requirements (HIGH graphics settings): OS 64-bit Windows 8/10; DirectX 11; CPU: Core i5 at 3GHz or AMD FX / Ryzen; RAM: 16GB (32GB for heavy missions). Free hard disk space: 120GB on Solid State Drive (SSD). Discrete video card NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 / AMD Radeon RX VEGA 56 with 8GB VRAM or better. Joystick. Requires internet activation.

The Su-33’s improved flight dynamics, combined with the revamped Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, provide for an awesome naval aviation environment.
The free-to-play, fully clickable cockpit TF- 51D will give new users a taste of DCS World’s prop plane fidelity and introduce them to the incredible level of detail and systems functionality within the fully modelled cockpit.

Down in the dirt

Speaking of the battlefield, DCS World 2.5 improvements also include some fantastic features that add more grittiness and immersion to the action occurring on the ground. Impressive new explosion effects from aircraft-dropped ordnance can only be described as awesome with huge plumes of dirt and debris being ejected from the impact zone accompanied by a dynamiclooking mushrooming smoke effect. Another superb feature is the ability to add towering smoke columns and flaming areas via the mission editor, allowing mission creators to create apocalyptic scenes of destruction one would expect from an area under siege. For those who have added Combined Arms to their DCS World install, the new terrain mesh, tree masking and all of the other lighting and special effects improvements have revamped the ground combat experience.

On the horizon

With the DCS F/A-18C Hornet and the Persian Gulf map entering Early Access (turn to page 16), it can be expected that additional resources will be developed for naval aviation. Eagle Dynamics has already shown some development images of carrier deck crew members and are planning skeleton animation for infantry and presumably other units as well. With the Persian Gulf theatre will come additional units and objects that will add to the overall object library. It has also been announced that there are plans for additional ‘survey sim’ modules to be released as Flaming Cliffs 4, which would be a nice expansion for those preferring more lightly modelled aircraft. Work also continues on the ground radar modelling and overall improvements to weather and much needed improvements to air traffic control. With the release of the merged core platform, the community hopes that we will see some focus shift to overall gameplay improvements and a tidying up of those items that Eagle Dynamics might not have had time to address while doing the heavy lifting of moving to an entirely new graphics engine.

Conclusion

If you are a flight simulation fan, you’d be hard pressed not to find something to love within DCS World. With the 2.5 release, things have only got better and with Eagle Dynamics’ track record of continuously pushing forward, and the promise of some fantastic third-party modules on the near horizon, the future of DCS World looks exceptionally bright.

By Chris Frishmuth