Peripherally Speaking: Aviator

It’s been a long time since I’ve used a good flight stick. Even more time has passed since I’ve put a good one between my mighty thighs. When Mad Catz sent Destructoid Saitek’s hot Aviator flight stick, I sprung on the opportunity to review it. While I enjoy HAWX or Blazing Angels with a controller, nothing beats what a good flight stick can provide for the action experience.

I wasn’t disappointed with the stick. It’s an affordable gizmo that works as advertised, however, it does have a few issues that may or may not be a deal breaker for potential consumers. Hit the break for the review.

Saitek Aviator (Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC)
Company: Saitek, Mad Catz
MSRP: $49.99

Flight sticks are jammed in cluttered peripheral drawers for a good reason: any respectable stick changes the way people play flight games. For this reason alone, it’s impossible to argue against purchasing Saitek’s Aviator stick. It adds a layer of precise control and immersion for any game willing to cooperate with it.

You may have noticed the not-so-slippery wording at the back end of my last sentence. This review comes with a caveat: for whatever reason, most flight games on the Xbox 360 don’t allow button mapping. This is a fundamentally flawed practice developer-side. I can’t even think of a rational reason why a studio would choose to deprive players the ability to use a flight stick by cutting the ability to customize controls. Regardless, this issue has forced me to review the stick almost exclusively with a single title, Tom Clancy’s HAWX. All is not lost, however, as Saitek freely advertises HAWX as the title to use the stick with. Go figure.

To Saitek’s credit, they tried to bypass game customization issues with the stick’s innards. A small switch with two modes sits on the right side of the base. Mode 1 is intended for HAWX; mode two is for games like Blazing Angels. In practice, Mode 2 doesn’t work the way it should: the throttle and maneuvering function well, but the placement of targeting buttons and periphery functions is jumbled.

A quick note about Mode 2: according to the instruction manual, Mode 2 is also intended for PC use as well. I wasn’t able to try the Aviator Flight Stick on my PC because, well, I have a crappy PC. I can’t run anything that looks better than King’s Quest VI, much less a current generation flight game.

The flight stick features three buttons at the top of the shaft and a tight trigger directly underneath the nose. A cute little piece of plastic covers the “X” button on the far left — a token touch, considering most games will require the use of the button. A throttle bar is located directly behind the stick and the rest of the Xbox 360 controller’s face buttons (as well as D-pad) are located at the front.

Each button responds well to presses. During play, the throttle particularly impressed me. Even though it’s essentially a massive trigger, I found the amount of touch you can apply — by sliding it up or down– the perfect complement to a game like HAWX, where hairpin turns are commonplace.

The front buttons are a sore spot. The stick’s base is roughly the size of four fists stacked together. In order to use the front buttons, you’ll need to reach almost underneath the base — a problem when you’re flying fast and low. And the size of the buttons is just as aggravating. They’re smaller than M&Ms and probably don’t taste as good.

A  loose analog stick sits on top of the stick shaft’s nose. Its placement makes for awkward play. During battle, I’ve clumsily tapped the stick several times. The throttle feels a bit out of place as well. If the base was bigger, Saitek could have placed it on the side of the stick — a much more accessible place.

When I started fiddling with the stick, I couldn’t find a good place to put it. It slides around on a coffee table and feels downright unnatural in such a position. But it’s also frustrating to have to put it on your lap — you’ll need to literally tilt the entire stick to reach the front buttons. Eventually, I settled with the stick on top of my legs. It’s not the ideal position — I would have liked it a bit further from my chest — but chances are you’ll forget about it as you play and avoid digital injury.

Another quibble I have is the design of the stick. It’s just a shiny black and flat shaft. It doesn’t have grips or curves intended for a hand. Like the small base, it’s something I got over as I played. The stick rotates wonderfully (including the quarter-turn element), so I think I can forgive the ergonomic faults.

Saitek’s latest offering isn’t a bad one. Despite my base and front button quibbles, I find it hard not to encourage a purchase if you own HAWX, a customizable game, or are looking forward to a game with button mapping in the future. The swivel-action joystick, responsive buttons, sleek look and ability to use it cross-platform trump my simple complaints. If you’re in the market for an economical joystick that will give you better precision (or a couple of scares) in a flying title, buy this thing.

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Brad BradNicholson
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