Normally I’m a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to the Christmas season. Well, truth be told, holidays not withstanding I reached curmudgeon status long ago, and I’m progressing nicely on the ‘crusty old’ part of “crusty old curmudgeon” as well. This year was different, though. Just before the post office began their annual hibernation, a package from Saitek arrived. I gave them a pretty good score on the reviews of their rudder pedals and AV8R joystick I wrote last month, so I wasn’t overly concerned that the shiny box might be a Trojan Horse containing anthrax or some other toxic substance (this reviewing gig ain’t all wine and Doom 2, you know), and sure enough I was greeted with one of the most aesthetically pleasing gaming peripherals I’ve ever seen upon opening the mysterious box. Yes, it was the Saitek X52 joystick and throttle combination, a simply gorgeous piece of gaming kit. What could be better than spending long hours putting this beauty through its paces, and what a perfect excuse to not participate in the annual Xmas stress-fest! In short, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I may have actually lapsed into the holiday spirit so foreign to us hermits!
Having already installed update Saitek drivers for my other peripherals, it was a simple matter to get the X52 installed and running. The throttle unit provides the USB cable and another cable connects the throttle to the joystick. This worked out well for me since I wanted the throttle positioned for my left hand, and my “almost-works” PC (it’s a long story…) is over on that side too. Being the impatient sort, my first goal was to get a feel for how the joystick worked for flying the helicopters in Battlefield 2, which is what I consider to be the “make or break” test for any joystick. As a comparison, this test proved the Saitek X45 I previously used to be unsuitable, but found the Saitek AV8R to be adequate. Of course, in all things aviation related we toss the unsuitable and strive to improve on the adequate.
The Saitek X45 was deemed unsuitable because of the overly strong break-out force to move it away from center. Flying a PC-based flight sim typically requires a good centering force, but also requires a lot of sensitivity around the center. In flying a helicopter, for example, it is critically important to be able to make very small corrections near the center of the stick’s throw. With the high break-out force of the X45, this was nearly impossible and commonly resulted in over controlling and pilot induced oscillations (PIO). With the X52 being similar in appearance and configuration to the X45, I was naturally curious as to whether this problem had been resolved. The answer, I’m happy to report, is an unconditional, resounding ‘yes.’ The X52 has very precise centering, but accomplishes it without brute force centering springs. The action around the center is extremely light and allows for very precise control. Now, this is an area that can cause other problems. If the centering force is light, and the full throw force is equally light, it becomes much too easy to over control. The X52 solves this inherent dilemma by having what felt to me like an increased resistance out toward the further reaches of the stick.
That said, I was initially shocked and awed by the extreme level of movement required to get an appreciable control input. Consider as comparison the level of stick movement required to get a response from my real-world airplane: my typical control input in making a turn is typically on the order of half an inch, if that much. I fly basically with fingertip control. To be fair, my airplane is an RV-6, a type known for its control responsiveness, so not necessarily representative of all stick-controlled airplanes. That having been said, helicopters are similar in their control responsiveness, so the butter-churning I was doing with the X52 is not realistic. But, is that bad? At first I thought it was, but once I took the time to get familiar with the required movements I realized that it was a good thing. One of the difficulties in flying sims is the lack of physical feedback, so it often becomes a matter of intense concentration on making minimal inputs to avoid PIO. With the wide range of the X52, however, I found it much easier to achieve good, solid control without the over-controlling that would occur with a tighter control throw. So, the X52 score on the BF2 chopper test: extremely good! When paired with the Saitek Pro Rudder Pedals, this is the control configuration that BF2 just screams for.
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