I play my computer games using mouse and keyboard – at least I have done up till now. In the majority of games I play the mouse is ideal. It was working fine for me in Elite Dangerous – that was until an xBox player posted that they were changing over to a brand new PC setup and sought advice about Joysticks. The conversation was very constructive with lots of advice from the PC members of the community about Joystick options. It got me thinking about whether I too should be getting a Joystick and, whether my gameplay (for that read Combat ability) would improve as a result.
I have owned a Joystick before – back in the late 1990’s. It was a good one that translated vibrations to the stick – Ideal for flying aircraft in Flight Simulator, or so I thought. Sadly, at the time I was flying real aeroplanes and things didn’t feel right. For one thing the Joystick was Right Handed and could not be adapted for LH use (Fixed wing pilots of any non-single seat light aircraft fly from the LH side of the Cockpit and use the left hand to fly the aeroplane). Can’t blame the ‘stick manufacturer for that though – the market was with ‘imitation’ fighter jet pilots who’d never checked a propeller for nicks in their lives and wouldn’t know! 😉
The other issue was landing a light aircraft in the simulator world… There’s one thing that was very difficult to do in computer games back then – it was important to simulate how real textures look to the Pilot. I was taught that on final approach to land, while I’m watching the runway ahead, I’m looking for those blades of grass in my peripheral vision to become distinct – to become individual blades of grass! When they do, it’s time to flare and get the aircraft into a landing attitude. That worked fine for me in the real world for 15 years. Never looked right in flight sims though. So – putting the history lesson away… I chose to get a Joystick for use with Elite Dangerous. After all… there ain’t a lot of grass out there on the planets and most of our flying takes us between stations.
What have I bought? There are a lot of Joystick and throttle options out there ranging from a few pounds for a joystick alone to hundreds of pounds for a full suite of controls including stick, throttle and peddles. I opted for the Thrustmaster T Flight Hotas X. It is a joystick and throttle combo and comes in at the surprisingly low price of around £35 in the UK. A lot of players on the Elite Forum recommended it as a good starting option and given that the next credible option is the Saitek x52 at £110, it seems a sensible choice for people like myself that don’t know whether they will use a stick in the long term or for those who have only a single use requirement.
Before making my choice though, I did some research amongst the youTube posters who play Elite Dangerous. My favourite of these is AdoredTV – a braw bonnie Scotsman whose honesty is evidenced him happily showing his disasters in game. I love his approach to explaining things for beginners and seasoned veterans alike! Check out his Mouse to Hotas Video. If you follow the breadcrumbs in youTube you’ll find his review too. But this is my review… Hopefully, as a fellow Mouse to Hotas player I can be equally honest!
The Hotas X arrives in a large square box which seems a bit odd as the shape of joystick and throttle together (as pictured in the adverts) ought to be vaguely rectangular – turns out that in transit they are packed one above the other which is handy because I can’t see a reason why you’d want to permanently fix them together just 6 inches apart for gaming purposes! After you unpack the box you find space on your desk… Sorry, that should read, you dump all the junk off your desk in the hope you can find space for your new joystick/throttle! The size of these items (and it applies to all gaming joysticks) is a real estate issue – better apply for planning permission before buying 😉 It’s a joy to set up… Just plug into a USB port and it’s ready to go. Updated drivers and a manual are available from the Thrustmaster website. From this point I have to be specific to Elite Dangerous – I don’t doubt it will work well for Fighter Jockey’s in Flight Sim.
In the Controls section of Elite the presence of the Thrustmaster Hotas X is automatically detected and is offered as an option in the controller dropdown. It sets up most single button things for you but check that your previous mouse/keyboard options are as you expect – L for example becomes Lights rather than Landing Gear. It won’t be long before you want to change some of the default settings – for example the power distributor buttons or perhaps you’d prefer the landing gear to be controlled from a button on the throttle control? Be careful… Changing the settings often results in loss of the main control settings so you may find after a change that pitch or roll have stopped responding to joystick input! So, check all the settings after you make a change in case any of the ones you didn’t mean to change have been lost. Once you are happy, it’s time to go and fly.
If you are a Mouse and Keyboard player… it’s shock time! Suddenly you have no fine control, or so it feels and your ship turns slower than a supertanker The game hasn’t changed. Your ship still has the same rate of turn it’s just that you don’t have the instant control you once had! If you think about it – moving a mouse a few millimetres compared with pushing/pulling a stick several centimetres is quite a difference. Just docking in the beginning is a new learning experience – I suddenly understood why some new players facepalm stations with their ships though I avoided the embarrassment of doing so myself! Using the Joystick feels precise whilst simultaneously feeling like herding elephants… what a contradiction in terms and feelings!
Combat… I killed the first NPC that attacked me but, it took me ages and it was very hard work. It was a Diamondback and I’d have killed it under two minutes when using the mouse – despite flying one of the least combat worthy ships in the game (Cobra IV)! I lost the canopy in the fight and couldn’t land at the nearest station because… you’ve guessed it… Landing gear had not been assigned to a key and by the time I resolved that the Oxygen gave out and the ship destructed. I ran back home to HR 783 asap after the insurance buy back and parked up Roth Hub – that was a ‘fun’ experience – see note above re: Docking!
At this point I decided I’d had enough – not going to risk flying a ship that costs KCr500 to replace. I treated myself to a Hauler for tuition purposes – Only 2K2Cr per loss – that’s better! Guess what… Never lost it once and started to get to grips with controlling the ship via the stick. Swapped over to the Vulture a few flights later and getting better all the time. Even so – I still can’t easily shoot a sidewinder or an eagle using fixed weapons – just can’t seem to keep them in my sights long enough, which I could with a mouse! Now I’m back in the Cobra IV and feeling a bit more confident. Combat is still a bad thing compared with Mouse flying.
That’s my experience so far. Given the comparison with Mouse flying, why would you want to use a Joystick? I guess the reason is Immersion – flying with a stick just seems more real for most people. I certainly noted that there has been a greater feeling of involvement since starting using the Hotas X. The greater risk of death from interdictions and difficulty handling them has increased my joy of the game – it is supposed to be Dangerous after all! I guess that I didn’t expect that effect from buying a joystick though 😉
There is another ‘therapeutic’ effect from using the Hotas X. I get mid/lower back pains. Sitting too long in a computer chair tends to start the mid-back pain. Using the Joystick is forcing me to sit in a more upright posture while gaming… Guess what… No mid-back pain!!! Aww Shucks! – Doesn’t work for the lower back pain though 😉
The stick is a ‘joy’ to use and I’m pleased I decided to buy it. I suspect that my ability to fly well with it in combat will improve with practice. I’m just glad that there ain’t no grass to line up with in Space otherwise I could make a fool of myself 😉 There are certainly better Joystick / Throttle combinations out there but you get what you pay for (with certain caveats). The more expensive options generally appear to give more buttons to press rather than improved feel unless you go for really expensive choices. As an example of the more expensive Thrustmaster do a joy/throttle combination based on the USAF A10 Warthog and I suspect that is the Bees knees – just way outside of my budget! Initial experience tells me that the budget priced T Flight Hotas X is exceptional value and a great starting point for those of us new to Joystick control.