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.

Like all modern online computer games, Elite: Dangerous undergoes upgrades to fix bugs and to offer improvements to the player community. These upgrades can be major or minor, the latter fixing small bugs. The most recent upgrade was a major one bringing a new subgame called Close Quarters Combat to the players. It’s probably an honest view when I say that I think this CQC addition was really aimed at the new XBox community and at those players who want PvP play but don’t want to risk their hard earned ships/credits by playing the wider game in the Open arena. CQC is not for me… I play in the traditional Elite style except I embrace the dangers of being killed by other players in Open rather than choosing to play Solo. For those of you who are wondering what I’m waffling on about… You can check out the Elite: Dangerous Website.

The other things that this major upgrade brought were ‘Sarah’s Minions’! Now, let me dissuade you from an image of fluffy yellow beings in dungarees. Sarah is one of the Elite: Dangerous developers and was involved in improving the NPC ships in the Elite Galaxy and in particular – giving teeth to the Pirates and other neerdowells that prey on passing ships. If you are an innocent trader or, perhaps, a smuggler… There are Pirates out there who would love your cargo! Back in January, not long after the game’s initial release, you could lighten your ship by removing the shields and other defensive bits and pieces to increase your cargo carrying capacity or your jump range, if you were going off exploring, and find that you could survive and escape any attempts at piracy by NPC’s. There weren’t anywhere near as many human players in the game then either!

From release 1.3, the NPC’s started to get teeth and it became harder to defeat them when they attacked you. Even so, if you had a well protected ship you could beat them and move on. But the ability of the NPC pirates kept improving. Now, in 1.4, they have really become opponents you need to be wary of – travelling without shields is foolhardy in the extreme! Having said that – the jury is out. On the forum we had a post complaining about the AI NPC’s being too good! – Now that’s a first 😉 Of course there were also those who said that they were still useless. I got to thinking about the discrepancy between the two views and the middle road held by some of us that the NPC’s are now offering the right mix of challenge.

In any online computer game there will always be those with different levels of ability in the different skills required by the game. I’d view myself as generally average to perhaps slightly above average in combat games – age has taken the edge off my reaction time but broadened the subtlety of my response. In a game like Elite there are lots more variables – a steep learning curve for the beginner is one. The ability to balance risk v reward. The choice of what ship to fly amongst those you can afford and then, to compound that variable – what loadout of weapons, shields and ancilliary equipment to enhance it.

Taking those variables and assuming that the game’s designers want it to be playable for everyone, the range of NPC’s has to be potentially lethal as far up the chain as possible without the absolute beginner being killed instantly all the time. I told in a post a while ago about my two bad experiences early on with very well armed NPC’s. I checked up – I’ve claimed the insurance on my ship 12 times in 10 months. Given that I fly one of the smaller, less well armed ships, that’s not bad and I know that 10 of those losses were largely down to decision making errors by me! My guess is that those who don’t find the new NPC’s a challenge are the players who maxed out on the game early and now have the most powerful ships possible – for them, there is nothing more to do than wait for even more powerful ships to become available! One of my friends in the game takes a more pragmatic approach; he buys smaller ships and goes out looking for the challenge 🙂

So – how is combat with NPC’s now? I recently flew into an anarchy system where I was set upon by a wing of three ships, 1 Eagle and 2 Sidewinders, that were all firing at me and flying in a competent manner. They are very manueovreable but they are ships that my beam lasers can normally take out individually without much difficulty. But when you have three of them simultaneously attacking you, your shields come down very quickly! They wreaked havoc on the hull – I was glad I had Military spec bulkheads and an enhancement package. I eventually killed the Eagle and after that it got easier. Both sidewinders succumbed to my beams fairly quickly and I was left with not much of a bounty to claim and the hull down to 48%. The system I was in did not have stations with repair facilities, so I jumped to an adjacent system only to be immediately interdicted by a pair of Viper’s flying as a wing. The Viper is a pure combat vessel and these guys were lethal, immediately taking down my shields again. They flew well and I could not get the one I targetted in the firing area long enough to burn through his shields. This was only going to end badly unless I took the only course left open to me… Run. The Cobra is the fastest ship out there, though the Viper comes close. Top speed is around 300m/s for my ship but with boost that increases to 430m/s. By the time I distanced myself enough to re-enter supercruise for the station the hull was down to 1%. The expletive-deleted’s only interdicted me again, didn’t they! This time I ducked off at right angles, boosting away as often as the power capacitors would allow. Somehow they never quite got the killing hit and I made it to the station for very expensive repairs! Now that was adrenalin charged fun!

Whenever I read a complaint on the forum about, griefing, ganking, or any other form of ship loss I wonder about the age of the complainant – We seem to have bred a generation of gamer’s who expect to win everytime and throw their toys out of the pram whenever they suffer a setback. Sorry guys – if winning or progressing with ease is what you expect from a game then Elite is not for you – it’s a hard life making money out in the 34th century galaxy!

I do kill NPC’s pretty regularly (Bounties have made me more money than Trading or Exploration) – here are some images of dying ships, all victims of my Cobra…

I’m sitting here at Fullerton in the Mbukuravi system pondering the last few hours. For me these have been real hours spread over several days but for the galaxy as a whole it has been somewhat longer as time there continues whether I am present or not. I told the tale a while ago about my first combat in the current incarnation of Elite. So now I have to report that I have a total of 4 kills. I guess you will all realise that these happened as a result of being attacked first – I remain very much a trader in a poorly equipped vessel.

My second combat was in the Erevate system and once more it was an Eagle. The minutes of chasing each other’s tails resulted in a win for me though he tried to flee the scene of battle towards the end. His Frame Shift Drive was still charging when my strikes on his hull wrecked his ship.

Erevate seems to be attracting some dubious characters – Next time I flew in I was interdicted almost as soon as I moved away from the system’s star. This assailant was flying a Cobra and he was clearly better than me. We swooped around and I knew I was in trouble as he continued to hit my shields – taking them down to failure point. As we sought positions to gain advantage two other ships joined the fray. I took my chance and hit the warp button. Escaped and free again… Phew, that was close!

This shook me a bit – I don’t want to be getting killed unnecessarily. It was time to look at improving my ship’s defences and weapons. One of the good things about major MMO / PvE games is the amount of recorded support out there to assist newbies and old hands alike. So I went and did some research about how to upgrade my Sidewinder, bearing in mind that I’ll probably have to live in her for quite a while to come – and that’s part of what Elite is about… It’s real time life!

Watching AdoredTV’s Elite videos on YouTube suggested that buying better Power Distribution Couplings was the best upgrade you could do to the Sidewinder – 20200 credits… Not Cheap and not a weapons upgrade either. The sort of thing that goes against the grain for most gamers! But an upgrade that really improves your chances in a fight by ensuring your shields, weapons and engines all receive the best from your reactor! So you could say that it’s an indirect upgrade to the weapons allowing them to fire longer before overheating 😉 I sploshed the dosh!

I’m returning again to the Erevate system and once more I’m being attacked 😦 This time it’s a Viper and the Pilot is a Novice – much better than my Sidewinder and two grades above me in the pilot ranking system. We swirl around each other but he can’t drag my shields down then, I gain the advantage and take his shields out. As much as he weaves I keep hitting him – don’t understand why he doesn’t warp out? Then he just explodes… Wow!!! I learn when I dock that I’ve earned over 4000 credits for shooting him down. But he would have had me if it wasn’t for the improvement to the power distribution – that made all the difference!

More trading runs until I get dragged out of supercruise in the Yakabugai system. This time I’m attacked by a guy flying an Adder. The battle swung both ways but I never felt that I had the ability to win this one 😦 His manoeuvring was great. Despite getting his shields down I couldn’t take him out – his armour was too strong and his manoeuvring too good for my firing. He took my shields down and I found myself dodging and weaving to allow them time to rebuild – I pushed all the spare power to the shields. The Distributor did its job – suddenly I had full shields again. I feigned continuing the battle by launching some limited laser bursts against him and then, at an opportune moment, hit the warp and escaped.

But not for very far… I was almost at Serebrov when I get interdicted again. This time it’s an Eagle with beam lasers. Despite his better weapons I was able to maintain my shields quite well and start hitting him where it hurts. I’d just got his shields down when two other ships joined the fray. I was contemplating getting out of there as I assumed they were his wing men but no – they started attacking him too! The battle raged and I had to stop firing on one occasion as one of my new found friends flew into my line of sight. However, in the end I was the lucky one who nailed the Eagle and claimed the bounty of 3500Cr.

It’s one of the anomalies of Elite currently that the bounty goes to the person who scored the last hit no matter what assistance they had from other Commanders and it is a subject of discussion on the forums with people suggesting that it might be fairer if the bounty was divided up amongst all the Commanders who were involved in the fighting based on the amount of damage each had inflicted. That does sound fairer though how easy it will be for the game’s developers to execute I don’t know?

As I completed the journey to Serebrov I pondered the interest shown in the Eagle Pilot by the other two ships – why had they joined in on my side. You learn quickly in Elite that nobody does anything for nothing – so I assumed that they were after the bounty on the Eagle for attacking me? I was in for a shock while I was checking out my Target Panel in dock – In the transactions section was a notice of a Bounty of over 9500Cr! I initially thought – what did I do to incur a bounty against me? Then I realised it was additional bounty on the Eagle that I’d be able to collect next time I visited a Federation colony – no wonder those other pilots wanted to kill him! I wonder what he’d been up to in Federation space to incur their wrath?

Anyway, I have subsequently claimed that bounty and with that fourth kill I find that I’ve earned over 26000Cr in bounties – no wonder some Commanders decide to take up a life of bounty hunting! As I said at the start of this post, I’m sitting at Fullerton in the Mbukuravi system. I feel I have reached an evolutionary point in my career. Mbukuravi is beyond the cluster of stars around the LHS3447 binary system where I started. It’s over 20 light years from one of the systems that I have visited there. I have been able to sell maps for the first time and I’m beginning to wonder if it is time to move from pure trader to become a trading-explorer? Or will I shrink from the unknown and make my way back to the trade routes of Erevate? Watch this space…