I’ve been meting this out on Twitter, but I am at a point now where this subject deserves it’s own post.
Last week — on my birthday, no less — my trusty Saitek/Logitech X-52Pro died. I had just reinstalled Elite Dangerous, as the Dapper Wolfyseyes had been Tweeting about it. Star Citizen had been experiencing some issues which prevented the sale of mining and refining goods which, as my main source of income and our corp’s biggest community revel, put the game on the back burner so Elite was intended to satisfy my need for interstellar flight until CIG got around to fixing things. Almost as if I was asking for it, I made the decision to jettison several years of progress in Elite and start over. I can’t say it wasn’t a tough decision; after having played since launch, I had only amassed about 17m credits and a low-mid-level ship. There were too many gameplay changes over the years for an iterant player like me to understand completely, and without the sense that I could be confident in my path forward, I blew away my profile and started back in the warm, well-worn seat of a Sidewinder in the hope that the tutorial would clue me in to some of the evolutionary updates as if I were a completely new player.
After taking an initial delivery mission, my X-52P started getting wacky. The hats, which I used to navigate menus, were jumpy, activating options which weren’t even close to being controlled by said hats. Flight worked OK, but I relied on those hats in Elite and in Star Citizen, so if they were getting flaky, it was not a good sign. I had already opened the casing on this HOTAS three times to fix issues, once re-soldering some of the wires to fix a power issue, so I’d be damned if I was going to triage this thing every time it had an issue. The thing was flipping out with regularity now, and I was sad and angry — aside from AC: Valhalla right now, Star Citizen and now Elite Dangerous were the only games I was playing.
Sulking upstairs, I informed my wife that my joystick died and that it was not a euphemism. I had been thinking of ways to break the news that a new HOTAS system was going to clock in at about $400 USD, because I figured if I was going to replace the X-52P I was going to upsize to the X-56 Rhino. When I dropped the price in conversation to my wife, she was incredulous; I explained that they don’t really make these any more, and they’re a hot commodity because of releases like Elite, Star Citizen, and MS Flight Sim. Apparently she knew how much my space sims meant to me, however — and because she’d been on a tear stockpiling supplies to re-do our walk-in closet — she gave me the green light to pick up an X-56.
Well, she green-lit the spend of $400, actually. I didn’t jump on the X-56 bandwagon right then, but instead went to the web to see what $400 could get me within the realm of flight controllers. Looking back on my previous post about the different grades of flight controllers, I checked in on VirPil only to find that I could get either a stick or a controller base for $400. Obviously that was no good because A) I needed both, and B) I could get the stick assembly but not a throttle. I then checked out VKB and lo! At some point since I had last apprised myself of their offerings they had released the Gladiator NXT, an “entry level pro stick” for the amazingly low price of $150. This included the stick and base, which meant that not only could I get a whole right-handed stick for flight, but a left handed stick for throttle.
Now, here’s a technical breakdown for the uninitiated. It’s possible to fly with mouse and keyboard. Not optimal, IMO, but like anything once you practice you can get quite good at it. Same goes for gamepads, although I’d personally consider both to be “low entry-level” options. For serious flyers, HOTAS — Hands On Throttle And Stick — is the way to go. This was afforded to me by my beloved X-52P. The throttle mainly handles forward and reverse, with some extra buttons and knobs for whatever functions need to be literally at-hand. The real fancy flyers, however, look to HOSAS — Hands On Stick And Stick. In this setup, the pilot uses two sticks.
Why? Well, with HOTAS out of the box, the pilot is limited to pitch (nose up and down), yaw (nose side to side) and roll (barrel-roll, I guess?). With airplanes this is probably the most maneuvering one would want to do, but with space ships, there’s also lateral (side to side) and vertical (up and down) thrusters. Lateral thrust is important for combat maneuvers when combined with yaw and roll, and vertical thrust is super important for things like takeoff and landing, as most space ships rely on a form of VTOL. On the X-52P I had the thrusters mapped to a small 8-way hat accessible on the throttle. This worked well for take off and landing, but in combat it was less than effective.
With HOSAS, the control scheme works very much like a gamepad. For some that might be the kiss of death; either you’ve groked gamepad dual-stick controls or you haven’t. When it comes to precision, I’m not so good with a gamepad, but when it comes to maneuvering, I’m very comfortable.
This morning I got to play my first real session in Elite with the sticks, and after spending time bouncing between mapping and testing, I got a very comfortable, effective setup. I spent some time in Star Citizen’s “Arena Commander” free-flight to do the same. In both cases, the basic flight controls were easy to map and easy to get used to. It’s really not too much different from playing HALO or Uncharted when it comes to forward movement with simultaneous strafing. But if I might get technical for a moment…
What I found is that by default, the maneuvering thrusters are, as one could expect, not as powerful as the main thrusters. Pushing forward grants great speed, but yaw and lateral or vertical thrust just isn’t the same. Often times it’s necessary to keep moving forward while also maintaining a facing on a target, such as when approaching a landing pad from an odd angle. In cases like that, it’s common to yaw (pivot along the ventral axis) and “slide” horizontally to get into position. With HOSAS control, I’m finding that space ships have different thruster calibrations between the different axes, which is a stupidly meta thing to say, but it has a real impact on how a ship flies. I never had that kind of feeling with the HOTAS, and I’ve heard other people say that twin-stick flying is a lot more immersive than any other flying out there on account of how much active control a pilot has over his or her craft.
The only issue I’m having now is that the Gladiator NXT sticks are rife with hats but not so much with buttons. When it comes down to it, I use hats for menus, making choices between a compass array of options, and maybe looking around. Selecting individual options or triggering events is far more common, so I’m having trouble mapping everything that I had on the X-52P to the NXTs. Thankfully there’s GameGlass, the tablet-based solution that replaces a faceless keyboard with custom buttons for specific features, and which offers setups for both Elite and Star Citizen.
Despite this, HOSAS is an insanely comfortable solution, even after years of practice on HOTAS. After finding the NXT solution, I found that several members of my Star Citizen corporation had already had experience with or were awaiting their delivery of NXT HOSAS, which lead to an intense conversation about HOSAS in general, NXT performance, and how both performed in Star Citizen. The sense was extremely positive, which made me happy because finding a “pro-grade” stick for such a low price was a highlight of my birthday, and learning that they were as performant as one would expect for such a caliber was icing on the (birthday) cake.