In the last article we looked at gamepads, a fairly profound shift away from classic PC gaming peripherals. Today we’ll be examining one of the older forms of PC peripheral, the joystick. This discussion on joysticks will look at regular joysticks and their usage scenarios, perhaps with recommendations for alternative or more advanced options such as HOTAS. After that if I still have words left I may even discuss motion capture with the relatively successful Wii, the meh Playstation move and Kinect… These aren’t directly applicable to PC gaming however there do exist drivers and solutions for getting them to work, of which I’ve tried at least one.
Gamepads are not the only controller type that can provide analogue input and in fact the traditional PC method of doing this was the joystick. With the age of console ports, the prevalence of the 360 pad and a general lull in the development and release of PC games that take advantage of the full potential of the joysticks the past few years have been a little sad. The relative scarcity of space combat games, bar perhaps Evochron but that’s not to everyone’s tastes and flight simulators plodding along on a fairly small but dedicated fan-base the early 2000s represented a low point for joysticks. Recently however there has been a resurgence in interest. Once idle game genres are now regaining momentum; the combat flight sim for example has taken leaps and strides with the very popular and realistic DCS series and the space combat game has also seen a resurgence. What with the advent of crowd-funding blowing away idiot publisher preferences the space combat game is seeing a resurgence with the highest profile example being Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous. These are games that take full advantage of the joystick and often the mouse and keyboard as well, taking full advantage of the complexity in controls that the PC can offer.
In terms of ideal joysticks for these types of games then really most will do so long as they have an analogue stick and a combined with a keyboard. For a reasonable time I played Elite: Dangerous with a Saitek AV-8R (get it?) combined with the keyboard. However the game never really took off for me until I got a HOTAS. HOTAS stands for hands on throttle and stick as is based upon design decisions in modern fighter jets that allow the pilot to keep his hands on the throttle and stick whilst controlling key aircraft systems, thus improving reaction time and allowing continued fine control in high G manoeuvres. The advantage of using such a design for PC gaming and simming is the ability to control the game entirely without taking hands off stick and resorting to the keyboard or mouse. The main issue with HOTAS is the price, even my relatively cheap Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X incurred a reasonable cost or around £40ish. The advantages are many though and if you plan on playing Star Citizen and/or Elite: Dangerous then the investment in a HOTAS stick is probably going to be worth it to get the most out of the game. Personally I justified the cost in the added advantages of using a HOTAS in flight sims, in this case Xplane 10. I looked at Xplane 10 not long ago and I believe that I commented that it is certainly improved by a good control setup, and I will reiterate that here. I’m hoping that as the resurgence of space flight games, flight sims and combat flight sims really starts to take off we’ll see an expanded range of affordable HOTAS like sticks start to pop up. As it is, the major impediment to using a HOTAS is buying it with a really high quality bit of kit like the Thrustmaster Warthog (oh it’s pretty) being a significant investment.
After the more serious look at the ideal (joysticks) and the less than ideal (gamepads) controllers perhaps it’s time to have a little chuckle over motion control: This hasn’t really been much of an issue for PC gamers as the console peasants have been the guinea pigs for this little experiment, which actually makes it a little more entertaining. Having been made for the console peasants doesn’t necessarily mean that PC gamers can’t have a bit of a play with these experiments. A Wiimote for example, one of the more successful motion control experiments is compatible with Linux relatively easy, I know as I’ve tried it. The Kinect apparently also has a PC variant although I can’t talk for the compatibility or usefulness of that. The nice thing about the Wiimote is that it essentially becomes a bluetooth connected pointer, simply emulating mouse behaviour, the nature of the Kinect would be that significantly harder without delving into Microsoft’s SDK, ew. I can’t speak much for the Playstation Move as I’ve heard and seen very little about it. I don’t have one for the PS3 currently acting as a Netflix/Youtube/Amazon box downstairs and I can’t see any reason why I’d want one, which I think is a fairly common phenomenon considering I’ve never seen one in the flesh. In short motion control seems to be going away now and whilst it was a fun little experiment, I’m rather glad.
Another potential control method that I’ve failed to cover is that of touch screens. For the most part they’re redundant, uncomfortable on laptops and mostly just utilised in tablets and phones which have their own little slice of the gaming pie, a slice that I can’t see transitioning near the PC any time soon. I’ve also neglected wheels, shifters and pedal, all of which are even more niche than anything I’ve covered here and therefore I have too little experience in dealing with to write about.
In short (as this turned out rather long), control methods for the PC at least are beginning to see a return to the classic mouse, keyboard and joystick days as PC games that are actually PC games begin to become the norm again. It’s still worth having an Xbox360 pad just in case there’s a bad port or a game like Sleeping Dogs appears which is genuinely improved by the controller support, but for the most part the keyboard and mouse is king. Unless you’re playing any for of flight game in which case you should consider a joystick and if you’re really into it, consider a HOTAS set up because damn are they cool.