By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman
hen it comes to force feedback, flight sticks tend to be a bit behind steering wheels in terms of quality. Which is actually kind of strange, considering the fact that there's more support for force feedback in flights sims than racing games. Regardless, the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro is not the best joystick around in terms of feedback, but it is one hell of a joystick.
This stick has been out a while now (over a year, actually) but only recently did Microsoft add USB support to the device. The USB support comes by way of the included gameport-to-USB plug, so don't expect any major improvements in terms of precision…of course, the joystick does extremely well with only the game port anyway, so it's not a big deal. If you've got a USB port, there's no reason not to use it, unless they're both used up with devices that can't daisy chain (like scanners, digital cameras, etc.) don't worry…you're only missing out on a slightly easier installation.
Since the device uses either the USB or game port on your sound card, installation is really a snap. This is one of the truly "plug n' play" devices out there, and you should have the device up and running in a matter of minutes. One quick bit of advice though…the stick doesn't like being anything but the primary joystick listed in your "game controllers" control panel. Change it at your own risk.
Like I said, it's not the best force feedback joystick in the world. It was one of the (if not the) first force feedback controllers on the market, so I forgive it for that. Playing a game like Descent: Freespace with this is an odd experience…the controller uses a motor driven system for delivering its feedback, and the result is a somewhat jerky, and clumsy series of jolts. While it can handle effects like collisions and explosions remarkably well, when it comes to more subtle forces, like those from a missile or light gun, it feels less realistic, and more like what you'd expect from a game device. If you've never used a force feedback stick before you probably wouldn't notice, but after using more recent devices (most notably Logitech's excellent Wingman Force) the stick starts to show its age.
Oddly enough, I found that the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro works best with Microsoft Combat Simulator, which is probably due to the fact that in that game, you expect the feedback to be jerky. In fact, jerkiness is more realistic in that game, where the rickety aircraft would probably feel exactly the same. The game also uses the force feedback well, because it puts limits on how much you can pull the stick back at any given time…until your engine gets shot out, in which case it all disappears, giving a really well done feeling of helplessness. Because of the Force Feedback Pro's lack of subtlety, this comes across really well. One oddball side effect to the jerkiness involved here, however, is that the stick is really, really, loud. You can actually hear the gears working sometimes, and that can be a bit distracting. It's hardly a big deal, but it's an odd one.
Force feedback aside, however, this is one hell of a joystick. It's very well designed, and proves that Microsoft has some of the best designers in the hardware business working for them. The stick is beautifully ergonomic…your right hand wraps smoothly around the stick, and the trigger button, in an excellent design decision is oversized. While this may not be the most "gun-looking" choice for a trigger, it is the best for ergonomic reasons. The button curves inward with the stick, allowing your trigger finger to lie comfortably in its contours. The result is a stick that may be the most relaxing I've seen yet.
The thumb-activated buttons are equally well made. The expected hat-switch, which is positioned in the middle towards the top of the thumb rest, is easily accessible, but the least ergonomic of the four. Nobody's figured out how to make a hat-switch that is truly relaxing for the thumb, and this is no exception. However it is better than most, as it is a simple raised button. There's still the awkward, "side pressing" necessary here in order to activate it, but because of how well designed the thumb rest is in general, this is less awkward here than it is on many flight sticks. Just to the right of the stick, you'll find two nicely placed buttons, and to the left, one oversized button that goes down the length of the thumb rest. They're all nicely smoothed out, and it's good to see that Microsoft's designers aren't convinced that buttons need to have textures to be "realistic". More often than not, "realistic" controllers tend to mean "non-ergonomic" and appeal more to hard core flight sim players than most of us. These textureless buttons are nice, and they're curved in such a way as to prevent your thumb from sliding off too easily. They don't grip, but they don't hurt your thumb, either.
The base of the unit is a bit bulky, but not overly so. It's curved along the edge, making it easier to grip, but the weight is slightly unevenly distributed, which means if you don't have much in the way of desk space (like me, sadly) you'll have a hard time balancing the stick on your knees. This is due to the weight of the gears necessary for the force feedback I'm sure, but it's a pain nonetheless. Regardless, the curved left side of the base is well done, as it allows your hand to be perfectly positioned by the throttle, "shift" button (more on this in a moment) and the other four main buttons. The "shift" button is certainly an odd little thing, and wasn't natively supported by any of the games I tried the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro with. Essentially what it does, is let you get an extra set of buttons by holding down the "shift" button while pressing another one. The problem is that it's not supported by much of anything. Heck, even Microsoft Combat Simulator kept calling the button, "button 10" instead of recognizing it as a way to access other commands. Oh well…it's not like I really needed four extra buttons anyway. I'm quite content with the seven (plus hat switch) I have without it. If you're willing to put in the extra work involved, you can set up custom macros with the included software, but am I the only one who would just prefer games to recognize this stuff natively? I don't want to have to program a series of keystrokes to my joystick, I want the game to recognize all my stick's features, dangit! Maybe I'm in the minority here…oh well.
The throttle is without a doubt the best I've ever used…if you've seen Microsoft's Sidewinder Precision Pro, you've already seen it, although this one is more comfortable because of the larger, more contoured base of the unit. Instead of the clunky (albeit more realistic) throttles you're likely to find on the Sidewinder 3D Pro, and other joysticks that use a "mini-throttle" style switch, the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro uses a more ergonomic "flattened wheel" type thing. It's difficult to describe, but suffice to say, it allows for extremely smooth, and comfortable access to the throttle, and because it's got little ridges along the wheel, making it delightfully easy to make small adjustments. Which of course is a major thing you want in a throttle control, since in hardcore flight sims like Falcon 4.0 quickly moving the throttle is a definite no-no.
The stick itself is remarkably precise, and for a force feedback stick this is a major accomplishment. Other feedback-enabled sticks have had dead zones the size of Montana, but the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro has a minimal one, and one that's comparable to the best non-feedback sticks. The fact that you have the "twist" yaw controls is another big plus…I've been baffled as to why some of the more popular sticks out there don't support this at all, and it's good to know Microsoft has their heads on straight here.
Essentially what this is, is the ability to twist the stick to the right and left in addition to the normal X and Y-axis movements. In a flight simulator, this allows you to control the yaw of your plane, and mastery of this skill can make the difference between shooting down the bad guy, and getting your sorry butt wooped over enemy skies.
Unfortunately, if you pick up version 2.0 of the Force Feedback Pro (which you'll need to do if you want that USB support), you're going to get shafted on the software pack-in. The original version of this stick included the full Interstate '76, and demos of Shadows of the Empire and MDK. While the later two are just demos, the full I76 was a cool inclusion. The problem with those games, I imagine, is that none of them had especially great force feedback support. The included software in version 2.0 is the full version of the snoozer Urban Assault and three months of Microsoft's average online multiplayer Fighter Ace. Both have decent force feedback support, but are hardly the kind of games you'll get excited over.
The bottom line with the Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro is an odd one. It's a great joystick with less than stellar force feedback support. I have a difficult time recommending it as a general flight stick because of its inflated price, but if you're willing to fork over the cash, you won't be disappointed. On the other hand, as the other force feedback sticks out there don't make the best flight sticks in the world, you may want to consider this, as it is the best overall force feedback stick I've used. It's with a bit of trepidation that I do so, but I do give a big ol' thumbs up to the Microsoft Force Feedback Pro. It's expensive, but worth it.
- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief here at loonygames. He has to be on a plane in 40 hours or so, and he's genuinely dreading it.
|Credits: Geek Toys logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. This edition of Geek Toys is © 1999 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is a majorly hostile gesture.|