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NovusBogus
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Joystick Review: VKB-Sim Gunfighter v1 (three different grips!)

Sun Apr 07, 2019 5:01 pm

OVERVIEW

The 1990s were the golden age of joystick-enabled video games. Falcon 4.0 was the new hotness, the EA-Jane's partnership yielded several incredibly good titles, and Microsoft was pushing the envelope on graphics and features with its own well regarded MS Flight Simulator series. The mainstream PC gaming industry got in on the action too, with everything from mecha to racing games working well with a good stick or yoke. Consequently, there were quite a few good quality if primitive analog accessories to be had for under $150.

Unfortunately, all of that fell apart in the mid 2000s, and the joystick industry has been stagnant ever since. Thrustmaster dominates the high end with its HOTAS Warthog package, trailed by several former Saitek offerings of variable quality and performance. At the low end, it's a real wasteland: all the key players either quit making anything under $100 or offer one really terrible option as a consolation prize. None of this is good news for anyone seeking a decent stick or HOTAS for the resurgence of sim games led by Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen.

Meanwhile, in post-Soviet Russia, where joystick holds you! and parades favor tanks and fighter jets over old men in convertibles, things took a different path. Eastern Europe has a voracious appetite for military history and sim games. It is the home of Eagle Dynamics (DCS) and Wargaming.net (World of Tanks/Warplanes/Warships), and as the name implies IL-2 Sturmovik is a thoroughly Russian production. The IL-2 community is notable in that several companies grew out of the need for better hardware but the homebrew nature has left them struggling to obtain global reach.

All of this means that in 2019 the flight sim hardware market is more complicated than that of other PC peripherals. Saitek/Logitech (http://www.saitek.com) and Thrustmaster (http://www.thrustmaster.com) are still the biggest names, with good product design and support but middling performance and quality. CH Products (http://www.chproducts.com) is more niche, offering literally industrial-grade controllers that are incredibly durable but rather clunky and feature-limited--exactly what you'd expect from a large HMI component vendor that does consumer stuff as a side gig. VKB-Sim (http://vkb-sim.pro, https://vkbcontrollers.com) is legendary in the hardcore sim world for both performance and scarcity, sometimes going years without another batch produced by their Chinese manufacturing arm. Belarusian newcomer VirPil (https://virpil.com/) is eager to get a piece of the action too, offering a la carte modular components and more regular availability. And for the truly hardcore, there's Leo Bodnar (https://www.leobodnar.com/shop/) controller boards for making your own custom setup. All of them merit serious consideration, but do be aware that CH has spotty mainstream availability and VKB and VirPil are only officially sold by mom-and-pop regional distributors, though stock sometimes shows up on aliexpress before distributors get it.

A couple of years ago, after a lengthy wait, I finally got my hands on one of those semi-mythical VKB unicorns: an early-batch Gunfighter v1, and in the meantime I've picked up all three of the modular handles. I also have the disassembled pieces of a HOTAS Warthog left over from an old work project. It's not currently usable for gaming but I'll use it to make a few comparisons around ergonomics and build quality. The newer Gunfighter mk 2 that they sell now is very similar, but the handles are not interchangeable due to the pogo pins and contact plate being reversed.


HARDWARE

The Gunfighter comes in a nice box with all of the stuff you need, plus a few things you probably don't like a dust cover. Because mine was an early batch it also included a nifty milled metal coaster, something of a company tradition when launching a major product. Nice presentation for a small company. There isn't much for documentation, and software must be downloaded from their website.

The Gunfighter gimbal is VKB's crown jewel, and it does not disappoint. The gimbal assembly is, to put it simply, one of the finest pieces of mechanical design I have ever seen. Everything that could be made out of Glorious Metal is well machined steel or aluminum, the springs and cams are easily accessible and interchangeable, and the whole thing is held together with lots of machine screws. The mechanical engineers at work were similarly impressed with the function and construction of this thing. The VKB gimbal also features nylon dampers that can be tightened to hold the stick in position if desired.

The base plate is a straightforward affair, a sheet of black powder coated aluminum with a milled, unpainted chamfer providing a decorative outline and four rubber feet stuck to the bottom. It gets the job done, but since it's lightweight aluminum and the feet are not very big it has a tendency to slide around a little bit in an intense gaming session. This is probably my biggest hardware complaint; the base should have been heavier to provide better stability. The gimbal assembly is attached with four machine screws so I could easily swap it out for a different, heavier base plate or mount the stick portion directly to my desk if I really wanted to.

The Gunfighter also comes with an orange "black box" controller module that sits between the stick and the computer. It has two of the four-pin joystick interface connectors and one RJ-45 port plus the USB port to the PC, the idea being that one could have several VKB devices connected to a single controller and USB port. Like everything else it's made out of milled, powder coated aluminum. It does what it needs to do without being overly obtrusive, and since it's got an onboard ARM microcontroller it remembers settings and only requires the driver software when it is being programmed.

The modular handles slide onto the stick base and are held in place with a two-piece, screw tightened locking assembly. It can be difficult to get the two halves of the assembly to align correctly so swapping out handles can be frustrating. I've not had a handle come loose on me yet so it clearly works, but I do prefer the Warthog's large threaded metal locking disk. One interesting feature of this connecting assembly is that it allows some grips such as the KG12 to be mounted at a slight angle rather than perfectly straight. This is useful for some simpit configurations. The grips themselves are all made out of good quality plastic and purportedly(tm) use Omron switches, but I've never disassembled one to check.


SOFTWARE

Software is not VKB's strong suit. The standard VkbDevCfg configuration software is mostly functional, but about as cobbled-together as it gets. Allegations that it was written by some random guy as a side project are addressed by the title bar which vehemently confirms that it was, in fact, written by some random guy (http://alex-oz.strana.de/index.htm) as a side project. Most windows won't scale, random errors are uncomfortably common, and button mapping is problematic at best. Firmware upgrade is a chore and may require a number of reboots, stopping other USB devices and/or connecting it to a no-frills Windows 7 system to get it to successfully communicate. There aren't any major feature gaps or missing functionality, it's just wonky and difficult to use. Thankfully, the black box remembers its settings so you should not have to deal with this software very often. There are also a number of premade profiles available online.

It should be noted that part of the reason the software is so obtuse is that it is designed to offer an extremely high level of user customization. This goes far beyond the usual button macros and the like and actually exposes many of the parameters of the underlying control system itself. Much of that is only going to be useful to someone who is customizing a stick so I didn't dig too deep here. I did some minor adjustments to the LED functionality and shift button behavior, but otherwise used the games' input configuration menus for button and axis mapping.

VKB claims that their WIZZO software, originally designed for the more mainstream Gladiator joystick, has been adapted to also support the Gunfighter. This may be worth looking into because WIZZO is more of an 'easy mode' application compared to VkbDevCfg.


PERFORMANCE

Base and gimbal

The first thing a Saitek guy like me will notice is that there's not much stick slop. That is, the stick centers at a single point rather than flopping around a few degrees. Saitek's spring loaded centering mechanism revolutionized the joystick experience by offering smooth off-axis motion at a low price, but it came at the expense of a lot of stick slop especially on the cheaper models. The Gunfighter, and Warthog for that matter, do not have this problem due to using radically different and much higher quality gimbalsdesigns. This is a sensitive stick so you'll still probably want some dead zone, especially in space sims where the vehicle will not level itself. Axis response can also be adjusted in the driver software.

As is expected of any gimbal system that puts the springs along the XY axes, off-axis motion is softer than on-axis. It's not too bad though; certainly no worse than the Warthog and smoother than the old style 'barrel' gimbal prevalent in the early 90s.

Two years on and the joystick still feels good as new. One of the springs did break, but those are user replaceable. Speaking of springs, the default ones were a little too floppy for my taste so I swapped them out for slightly stronger ones that offer more resistance--good for the minor turns and corrections that you'll be doing a lot of in a game like X3 or Star Citizen. The manufacturer offers a range of springs, with the stiffest ones intended for use in a simpit with a handle extension.


Grip #1: KG12 WWII Grip

This is the default grip that came with the original Gunfighter package, and is a reproduction of a WWII Luftwaffe grip. It's a very simple affair with a single trigger, hat switch, and two buttons. It is a small stick, which suits me well, and the buttons are all placed in extremely convenient locations. The bottom pinky-finger button is frequently used as a shift button, boosting the total number of possible button actions from 7 to 12. The grip is well built and comfortable during long gameplay sessions, but it isn't very stylish. It performed admirably in X3 and lightweight sims like SimplePlanes, but would not be up to the task of a more complicated game like Star Citizen.


Grip #2: Modern Combat Grip (MCG)

The MCG is a reproduction of the Russian Su-27 grip and is intended for jet fighter sims. It has a vast array of buttons and hat switches, including an incredibly handy two-stage trigger and fold-up secondary trigger, with software support for delayed fire. Compared to the Warthog grip, it is slightly larger and also has more curvature. Since I have small hands the size was a real problem, and none of the buttons other than the trigger, lower thumb button and hat switch were very convenient. The height and curvature also leads to some hand position issues and discomfort after a little bit of desktop use, since the hand is coming at it from behind or below rather than slightly above if it were mounted lower like a real one would be. If you want to shout "Eagle to squad leader, FOX THREE!!!!" while sittng in your custom simpit this is almost definitely the best of the three options, but the MCG's ergonomics make for a subpar experience in the more pedestrian use case of a normal joystick sitting on a desk.


Grip #3: Kosmosima Premium (Space Combat Grip)

Kosmosima is VKB's first non-historical modular grip design with an eye toward sci-fi video games. It essentially repackages the MCG functionality in a smaller, more desktop friendly form factor. They also added an RGB LED since no respectable gaming accessory is complete without one. Kosmosima is a very comfortable stick, with good ergonomics and readily accessible buttons. All hat switches also have a center push button. The pinky button is a little awkward and my thumb doesn't quite reach the top right hat switch, otherwise no issues to report. The Premium model that I bought adds a second trigger, another hat switch, and one of the hats is upgraded to an analog thumbstick. The second trigger is extremely useful, both as a trigger and because it can additionally be tapped forward--great for switching targets or weapon groups. When I originally bought the Gunfighter this was the kind of stick I wanted to eventually buy or build, and I'm happy to say that they really nailed it. The RGB LED isn't doing it for me, though; when programmed for a mixed color I can easily detect the component colors when shifting my gaze, suggesting that the PWM is not very good.


SUMMARY

With the Gunfighter mk 1, VKB-Sim largely lives up to its reputation as a boutique manufacturer of the best flight stick money can buy. The hardware, build quality and performance are truly phenomenal, but the overall experience is marred by software that only an enthusiast could tolerate. At around $350 to $450 depending on options it is notably more expensive than competing products like the standalone HOTAS Warthog stick and VirPil's modular system, and is almost never in stock for immediate purchase. I've been thoroughly satisfied with my Gunfighter, so if you have the money and are willing to wait you can't go wrong with VKB. Of the three available grips, I recommend the Kosmosima as the most versatile and desktop friendly.

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