I've spent far too long thinking about and researching joysticks lately, primarily as a result of playing Elite: Dangerous. One thing I haven't established during all that time is whether 'joystick' is the right word for a genre of game controller which also throws out terms like 'flight stick' and 'HOTAS.' I've probably offended someone with just the title of this piece, but then again someone like decided that Hot Ass is a perfectly reasonably thing to call a 'Hands On Throttle-And-Stick.' Someone also thought that writing 'VIBRATION' in enormous capital letters down the shaft of one of the three sticks I'm looking at here was sensible. Basically, the joy/flightstick industry is a place where innuendo goes to die.
In any case, I'm sticking with 'joystick', and I'm using it as a term for three very different types (and costs) of stick I've looked at in my recent return to space games. Those are, in descending price order, the Saitek X52 Pro, the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro and the Speedlink Black Widow.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what's available - I may look at more later, but hey, you try filling your one-bedroom flat with gaming peripherals and see how you like it. They're all viable options in their own way, though. I've also looked at them primarily in the Elite: Dangerous Alpha, as I'm no flight sim man, but I'm fully expecting to be exploring more spaceship games as the year wears on. It's an exciting time for them, and thus suddenly an exciting time for game controllers too.
Let's start with the Speedlink Black Widow, the cheapest of the three. This is a proper flight stick, in that it's got a full-size throttle and takes up a fair old chunk of desk space, and it can be had for as little as £20 if you shop around but generally goes for around £30. More importantly, its main stick looks the most phallus-like of anything here and has 'VIBRATION' printed on it, so this is the one to steer clear of if you want to avoid awkward questions.
Other than that common sense failure, the Speedlink doesn't feel especially cheap. It's inescapably light, bland and feature-short when compared to the Saitek for even a second, and the Logitech too makes a better first impression by far, but this is surprisingly robust, has pleasantly big, clicking buttons and a matt finish along the big naughty bit which doesn't flinch at slimy hands. Its throttle is my favourite of the three despite being more basic than the Saitek's - you can clench it, get that great sense of easing it in, whereas the Saitek's massive throttle looks like a Cornish pastie designed by Skynet and limits its range/sensation of movement by having a sort of click-in, locked area at maximum and minimum acceleration. (I'll come back to that later though).
I also like the throttle-mounted rudder, which offers a chunky two-way switch for precision left/right movement, essentially doing the job that pedals might. It's extremely useful for minor targeting adjustments in Elite, and for making sure you don't hit the sides of the station while docking, and most of all it feels kinda good. The Saitek and Logitech have a twist-rudder built into the main stick, but it lacks the satisfying physicality of this.
The trade-off is that including this switch instead of twist-rudder in the Speedlink's stick creates a severe limitation when it comes to broader movement, and I struggled to manoeuvre effectively in dogfights. Also, while the Speedlink has analogue movement on its stick, it's designed in such way that it feels like digital, with a rectangular rather than circular area where the neck joins the base that makes it tricky not to move to compass point extremes. Perhaps it was cheaper to construct that way, but it's a big negative which impacts on the sense of freedom and direct human-game connection that the others offer.
It's fit for purpose and surprisingly meaty given the price, but there's no escaping that it's a compromise. I was hugely excited about it initially, primarily down to the joy of using the throttle, but the more I used it the more I was frustrated by it. If it's all you can afford, it's a huge improvement on keyboard and mouse or even gamepad controls in Elite at least, but long-term you'll wish you'd saved up longer.
Phallusometer reading: Errol Flynn
Next up is Logitech's Extreme 3D Pro, which goes for around £40. It's definitely 3D, is at least a little Pro but I see no evidence of Extreme. In fact, it's the least extreme of this trio, at least in terms of mass. It's a tiddler, this one. It differs from the other two as it's a more traditional joystick shape, rather than the wide boxes and chunky throttles of the Saitek and Speedlink offerings. To some degree this makes it less exciting - there's no "oh yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhh" moment when taking its relatively small frame out of its relatively small box, but it's well built with a no mess, no fuss design approach that almost makes me like it most of all.
It looks smart and streamlined, and accessible too - compare that to the X52 Pro, which at first sight would put the frighteners on anyone. It also has a small footprint and enough weights in its base that the annoying suction cups the other two use to clamp to a desktop aren't needed, and despite the stick being shorter and thinner than the others it feels like a solid handful and moves everywhere it needs to with appropriate responsibility and resistance. Movement feels right, and while movement feeling right is not a quantifiable quality, it is perhaps the most important one. The rubber sheath around the bottom of the shaft (oh God, that sentence) gives it a pleasing Real Gearstick look too.
The somewhat smaller stick isn't a problem, but the impoverish throttle really is. It's a a tiny flap of a thing that looks like a skintag and moves as though it's not connected to anything. It's an effort to not simply slam it from 0 to max speed, as anything in between requires very tiny, very careful movements which sap far too much attention while in the midst of a fight. I mean, there was always going to a tradeoff to have a stick so much smaller than the others here, but at the same time there is space on the stick's base for the throttle to have been at least 50% larger, and it would have made a big difference.
Other negatives are that despite first glance looks being impressive, it quickly turns out to be the most plasticky looking and feeling of the bunch here - pressing one of the base-mounted buttons causes the adjacent one to tremble, it lacks the sweat-resisting matt finish of the others, there's a distractingly ugly seam down the shaft (of the sort you might find on the back of a pound-store doll's thighs), and the handrest at the bottom of the stick digs in uncomfortably. It most certainly isn't cheap and nasty and it does perform well (other than the throttle), but there are some rough edges that undermine an otherwise classy little number.
It's got a few more buttons than the Speedlink, which make it much more viable for the relatively elaborate control set of Elite: Dangerous, but a second HAT switch of some kind would have been a big help, plus the close clustering of buttons 7-12 along the base makes it hard to always select the right one without checking first. The quartet of stick-mounted ones are much more successful though, and have the size that the tiny nipples on the X52 Pro's stick do not. There's also a decent enough programming tool, but I was sad to discover that Elite Dangerous had no profile for this stick. That's the game's oversight rather than Logitech's, and all it means is manually rebinding everything yourself, or alternatively you can add one of the profiles created by other players here. It seems to be a pretty popular stick though, so I'd expect to see official support for it before too long.
Part of me likes this stick a lot. It's the most sober of the bunch and the one where I feel I could just whip it for a quick spot of fun anywhere (oh God, that sentence), but at the same time I feel like if it had just 10% more features and polish it'd be an absolute humdinger. As it is, it's very likeable and outdoes its small size, but it's no triumph. Definitely a better lowish-cost option than the Speedlink, however.
Phallusometer reading: Napoleon
And so to Big Mama, Saitek's X52 Pro, which cost me £120 but can be found for a nose less if you shop carefully. I'd be lying if I tried to convey just why the Pro is superior to the non-Pro X52, but Men Who Know About These Sorts Of Things assured it this was an improvement over the earlier, cheaper model, and not just because it's painted black. In any case, it's beautiful. It's ridiculous. It's wonderful. It's monstrous.
It's probably the nerdiest thing I've ever owned, and I say that as someone with three monitors attached to his PC, two Japanese import Transformers on his desk and an unassembled Greater Daemon of Tzeentch lying on the floor underneath it. While primarily designed for flight sims, it looks far more sci-fi to my eye, and that's one of the reasons I like it so much. Entirely superfluous LEDs flicker into garish life when it's plugged in, there are metal effect panels on the two base units, and by God it's got a little flip-up safety hatch over one of the main buttons. The only thing I don't like about the look is the strange green chrome on some parts - one colour too many.
"One thing too many" is probably the design mantra of the entire thing, in fact. Does it need to be split into two sperate units? No, not really, but it's nice to spread one's elbows out. Does it need three HAT switches? Clearly not, but I did find a use for all of 'em. Does it need a little Thinkpad-style nipple which works as a virtual mouse? No, but it did mean I briefly tried to control Windows with a joystick. Does it need a giant LCD display panel? No, but I did get it to tell me the time and that was quite nice.
I'm still learning it to some degree, but Elite's out-of-the-box support for it helps enormously. What I'm most enjoying is its physicality - while its price may be eyewatering, it does work hard to justify it. The stick is strong and spring-loaded, and while it doesn't have force feedback (uncommon in flight sticks now) its mechanical resistance very nearly does the trick anyway - I do feel like I'm hauling something heavy across the skies. Switch-based triggers and some of the buttons go click rather than clunk, so it feels like expensive electronics rather than a toy, and they also offer the reasurringly cold touch of metal rather than plastic. The stick is primarily plastic, but it deploys bits of metal in just enough places to make it feel otherwise.
What this all adds up to is the giddy feeling that I am controlling a bloody great spaceship rather than some graphics on a screen, and that's a feeling I now realise I'd be willing to drop even more money on. My ideal stick would have a couple more big buttons instead of the rotating discs and sliders over on the throttle array, and the buttons on the top of the stick unit wouldn't be quite so tiny, but perhaps when I'm deeper down the rabbit hole I'll find more of a purpose for the former.
Clearly, this is not a stick for the casual spaceship-fancier, but as far as I'm concerned it's the best thing I've plugged into my PC in years. I have a sneaking suspicion that vanilla X52 would have been all I needed, but I don't regret getting the pro one bit.
Phallusometer reading: Michael Fassbender