For the longest time, force feedback controllers were really more of a marketing gimmick that anything even remotely useful. Little motors causing vibrations in controllers is response to game events was certainly an innovation, but to call them "force feedback" was an egregious overstatement. True force feedback can be as simple as a slightly increased resistance to control movement, although one would certainly also expect a tactile feedback for more abrupt situations; the force of hitting a concrete wall while doing 180 mph in a race car would most definitely qualify as something you should be able to feel transmitted through the steering wheel. There's a reason drivers take their hands off of the wheel a split second before impacting with a large, immovable object after all.
Interestingly, steering wheel controllers were the first home gaming devices to see force feedback in a useful way. The reason for that is partially because the uses of a steering wheel are fairly limited, thus giving designers a fairly closed-ended set of forces that they would need to be able to respond to, but also because wheels are most commonly attached to a solid surface with clamps. Because the controller isn't expected to be hand held, it can be made much larger and heavier than a hand controller could ever feasibly be. This in turn allows for a base large enough to house the electric motors used to provide the force.
I went though a number of different force feedback wheels, all of which eventually were worn out through hours and hours of use. The addition of force feedback to racing games made such an amazing difference to the quality of the racing simulations that it quickly became obvious that I would never again be able to enjoy a racing game without it. As I worked my way up through the quality chain, I eventually ended up with a Logitech G25. The G25 is so robustly built that it has survived two and a half years of intense racing without any problems. The G25 is so good, in fact, that I have always wished that Logitech would apply the technology in the area of flight controllers.
Flight simulations are another area that has been under served by standard controllers. Whether it be a stick or a yoke, the "feel" of the control movements is critical to attaining a realistic level of flight control. Typically, joysticks provide resistance through some type of spring arrangement that centers the stick. Resistance is critical, of course, because without any resistance to control movement it is nearly impossible to control an airplane without over controlling and/or getting into a PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillations) situation. That said, if the resistance is too strong, it is hard to make the small corrections needed to perform flight operations such as holding a helicopter in a hover. The solution to that problem was for designers to configure the spring arrangement such that there was a small zone in the center of the joystick's travel that had minimal resistance, then a spring-based resistance as the player moved the stick out of the center range. That worked well enough, but it suffered with a couple of issues: the initial resistance (the "break out" force) of spring force was too strong and abrupt, and the center was always the center. In other words, the null force zone could not be moved. While subtle, that latter problem meant that it did not feel natural when using elevator or aileron trim to remove the control forces in flight. What was required was force feedback technology.
Any number of force feedback joysticks have been on the market for a few years. As with the steering wheel controllers, there are low-dollar units in the $100 range and high-end units costing thousands. And, just as with steering wheels, Logitech has found a niche in the $300 range. The new Logitech force feedback flight stick, the G940, is targeted at the dedicated flight simmer that is willing and able to pony up the extra dollars for a higher quality simming experience. It is a large and robust design, just like the G25 racing wheel, with plenty of power available to provide realistic control forces.
It does the G940 a grave disservice to call it just a flight stick, though, as it is more accurately described as a flight control system. The G940 system provides three components: the force feedback joystick, a separate two-handle throttle quadrant, and a set of rudder pedals that include pivoting pedals to control brakes. All three components are sturdily built and obviously designed to last. The bases of the throttle quadrant and joystick are large enough to make them stay put fairly well on your desk, but if you choose to make a more permanent installation they include recessed bolt holes in the bottom flange of the case. The rudder pedals have retractable spikes to hold them in place on carpet. Details such as these simply exude a perception of high quality,
Because the control system needs to be flexible in its design in order to provide control for any number of diverse simulations, both the throttle and joystick are peppered with dozens of button, sliders, and hat switches. While it will take diligent effort on the part of the player to set just the right configuration to suit their tastes, it should be possible to configure the system to allow for a nearly hands-off flight system. Well, "hands-off" is not really the correct term; rather, the term to use is HOTAS, an acronym provided by the masters of acronym invention, the US Military. HOTAS stands for ‘Hands On Throttle And Stick’, and implies that the sim flier should rarely have to resort to the use of the keyboard to operate the simulated aircraft. This is beneficial in that it should reduce the number of times that the pilot needs to look away from the screen, and ever valuable feature when fighting for your life in a dogfight.
This level of configurability comes at a cost: whether using the Logitech profiler application or working directly in the game's controller configuration screens, there is a lot of setting up to do. Because of the plethora of controller options, the G940 will appear as three separate units in the settings pages. This led to quite a bit of confusion while configuring the test bed simulation used by this reviewer. While trying to get everything to work as desired in DCS Ka-50 Black Shark, it took awhile to realize that the program has defaulted certain things across all three controllers. The effect of this was to stare in abject confusion as moving the throttle controller up not only increased the collective (as desired) but moved the cyclic control from the bottom right to the upper left. Which, as you can imagine, was most certainly not desired!
Other games were easier. For example, IL-2 Sturmovik was relatively easy to configure, albeit with the disappointment of finding that only one analog control could be assigned to the engines. In other words, the separate throttle lever was useless in twin engine aircraft. The separate throttle came in very handy in Microsoft Flight Sim X, though, particularly with the twin engine sea planes. Using asymmetric throttle to get them to turn on the water was far superior to depending entirely on the water rudder, especially when docking or maneuvering at slow speeds.
While the convenience of multiple analog controls, buttons, and sliders makes the G940 an excellent choice for flight sims, at the end of the day just about everyone is going to be more interested in how well the force feedback works in creating a realistic feeling. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer other than "it depends." What it depends on is the quality of the program you’re running, and my early impression is that the programs that currently support force feedback were developed when force feedback joysticks were much less sophisticated than the new level set by the G940. In other words, they seem to concentrate more on reactions to external forces like firing the aircraft’s guns, bouncing along on a grass runway, or getting hit by an enemy’s bullets. Control forces in flight are far more subtle and in most cases are simply a better feeling centering force.
Three different flight sims were used to test the force feedback: Ubisoft’s IL-2 Sturmovik, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X, and DSC’s Ka-50 Black Shark. Of the three, the most active force feedback came from IL-2. The first indication that you’re not flying with a passive joystick is on takeoff when you can feel bumps in the runway as you accelerate in your takeoff roll. It might be just the muscle memory of you reviewer talking, but I swear I could feel the airplane getting lighter on its wheels as the plane neared liftoff speed. Once in the air, the centering force is well balanced and allows for small, effortless corrections in cruise flight, but provides a nice feeling of resistance in high speed maneuvering. If you yank your plane into a tight, high G turn, you will feel a buffeting in the stick as the wing struggles to maintain lift at a high angle of attack. Pull the trigger to fire a gun or press a button to release a bomb and you will feel the recoil from the gun and the bump of a 500 lb. lighter airplane as the bomb releases.
It is during full deflection movements that you will feel the one weakness in the G940’s force feedback. Endemic to the mechanics used in Logitech’s force feedback system is a rough feeling as you push through the opposing force. It’s hard to describe, but I’d say one way of saying it is that it feels like there is gravel in the system. Speaking electronically, I would guess that it has something to do with moving through the phases of the electric motors that provide the force. It’s not unique to the G940; other Logitech force feedback controllers have a similar feeling. You get used to it pretty quickly.
The force feedback effects were less noticeable in Flight Sim X and Black Shark. The most noticeable feeling in Black Shark was with the flight trim system. In Black Shark, you move the joystick in the direction you want to go and once you have the stick in the correct position for your desired speed and/or bank, you click the trim button. That immediately removes the control force required to hold the stick in position. Of the three titles, Black Shark was the only one that felt realistic in trim. All three benefited from the three trim analog sliders on the base of the joystick, though.
Even without sophisticated force feedback effects, the G940 proved to be a higher fidelity controller than any I had used before. Because of the higher sensitivity in the center zone coupled with the smooth and predictable break out forces, I was able to fly FSX helicopters better than ever before. In IL-2, I found that the centering force combined with the wing buffet in high G turns helped provide better control and fewer cases of the stall/spin incidents that have led to my demise so many times before. The plethora of configurable control options allowed for a much higher degree of HOTAS flying than ever before. While the price puts the G940 well into the range that only a dedicated gamer will tread, Logitech is offering a high quality control system that will reward the dedicated flight sim enthusiast with a high quality flight experience.
It's not cheap, but the Logitech Flight System G940 is a robust, high quality flight control system. The force feedback capability should become more sophisticated as newer simulations come to market.