Right now I have the venerable Logitech/Saitek X52 Pro HOTAS (HOTAS stands for “hands-on throttle and stick” which is a lot less NSFW than it sounds) and I like it a lot.
In Elite Dangerous, I never have to use a keyboard and mouse except when I am using the map. Every command I personally need has a button or a switch or a hat assignment somewhere on the X52P.
Star Citizen is a little more complex because there are more basic commands that are necessary to manage a ship, and while I can get all of the essentials mapped on the X52P, it’s cramped. I have instead started using the awesome GameGlass on a Kindle Fire tablet to supplement my operations.
I have owned many joysticks and HOTAS setups over the years (RIP Sidewinder) and had always made it a point to be on an upward trajectory when I needed (or wanted) a new setup. Since it’s been a while since I have upgraded my controls, last night I was wondering what options I had available to me and found that there are fewer than I’d like.
Here’s a breakdown of three arbitrary levels of flight controllers you can get if you’re in the market. They differ along the lines you’d expect: construction, functionality, and price.
Basic Department Store Sticks
I don’t mean this “basic department store sticks” to be a slam; I used many of these over the years and they have always done right by me. As games became more complex, and as my interest in more complex games became real, these offerings quickly became obsolete because of their construction (not sturdy enough) or features (no programmable software or a lack of buttons, hats, and dials).
At this level, you’re going to get decent construction. At best, mounting is done by suction cups attached to the base, which may or may not be weighted. As in the example above (the Thrustmaster T-Flight HOTAS for PC and PS) which I had used for a few years, The footprint is large for balance, primarily to offset the lack of weight. You can obtain one of these babies for well under $100USD.
Enthusiast Level Sticks
I’d put the X52Pro and its big brother the X56 Rhino in this category, as well as the Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS. Despite the fact that these setups come with programming software, a lot of bells and whistles, and a pro-level price tag, they aren’t as simple as the department store offerings, nor are they as bespoke as the pro-level hardware.
Although the layout seems intimidating, these items can also be made of plastic like the bargain offerings. My X52P has suction cups on the base which work well so long as they’re cleaned regularly. Generally, these are going to have more weight to them anyway, which may be artificially added to make them feel more “pro”. Some variants allow you to adjust the tension of the stick; the throttle on the X52P and the X56 above have a small wheel on the side which allows you to play with the “give” of the throttle level so you don’t have to take anything apart. Pricewise, you’re looking at between $200USD and $400USD. Oddly enough, there hasn’t been a significant addition to this category in years (the X56 was released in 2016), so with the resurgence of sim games and fans trading up to the pro-level devices, you might be able to find a lot of these controllers used at a reduced price.
Pro Level Sticks
Unlike all of the previous examples, both of these manufacturers make their products in small batches. They use pro-grade materials and manufacturing techniques. You aren’t buying “a controller”, you’re buying “flight (sim) equipment”. Most of their products look anemic compared to less expensive offerings, but therein lies the obvious difference. At this level, you don’t buy “a stick”, you buy “a grip” which mounts to “a gimbal”; the grip only deals with the buttons, while the gimbal deals with the movement translation of the grip to the sim. You end up choosing your equipment based on looks, features, comfort, and performance (if you’re seriously considering one of these setups, price kind of becomes a non-issue). And if you’re feeling crafty you can often open these things and make calibration adjustments. Beyond the actual controller, you will need to buy mounting solutions (as the ones offered by a company called Monstertech) in order to actually use them, as the gimbal base isn’t suitable for just placing on your desk.
Of these two companies, only VirPil offers a separate throttle control which is apparently more of a nod to those who like such things, because when we get to this level of controller many people use two sticks to control the pitch, yaw, roll, and thrust in forward, backward, left, and right directions. I don’t know that I could get used to that, and if I did, I suspect I’d have a hard time going back.
VirPil’s most expensive grip will run you about $170USD. Then you need a base, the most costly of which is about $320USD (it’s what contains the bulk of the electronics, hence the additional cost). That will get you one flight stick. If you want another for the other hand — which they do sell in left and right-handed variants specifically for that kind of configuration — double that. If you want the throttle control, you’re looking at another $350USD. As the grip plus base won’t be enough to actually use, you’ll need a mounting solution. Monstertech will sell you a basic joystick desk clamp for $100USD each.
What About Pedals?
Rudder pedals are kind of a luxury accessory for the hardcore. While you can’t get pedals for less than $100 anywhere, throwing them into the mix on top of a dual-stick, HOTAS, or GameGlass or VoiceAttack-augmented setup is pretty much overkill. Elite Dangerous and Star Citizen technically support pedals through software programming, so they can be used. I have the Logitech G-Pro Flight Rudder Pedals and have tried to use them with both games, but ultimately put them aside because using them turned out to require more concentration than I had to give at that point. Of course, if your jam is less spacey and more terrestrial, I’m sure rudder pedals are more suitable for flying airliners or fighter jets.
Is a Minor Upgrade Enough…Or Worthwhile?
The name of the game really is “need” versus “want”. My X52P is still in great shape and does everything I want it to. One reason I went looking, however, is because, with the throttle and stick, the keyboard, mouse, a tablet running GameGlass, and the Streamdeck for ancillary controls, my desk is pretty crowded. I might be able to drop GameGlass if I had more buttons (or if I lowered myself to using the keyboard like a space-sim peasant), which is really just a thin excuse to just buy something “better”.
If anything, I might look into the Warthog or the Rhino, but I’m not entirely convinced that either would be a significant upgrade that wouldn’t make me regret spending the money. As much as I’d love to get some VirPil or VKB products, that could be a slippery slope. I know I’d start looking at the rest of my setup and wondering “do I need to get a dedicated simpit, or do I need to get a dedicated simpit?”