I always wanted to be a pilot, specifically an astronaut. It’s the reason I became interested in the military at a young age, knowing that they could offer me the skills I’d need to learn in order to make my dream a reality. However, as a teenager I learned that I was simply too tall to fly anything exciting and the odds of me making it into the space program were about as high as me being the starting pitcher for the Red Sox. It’s been 15 years since I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m destined to be stuck on the ground, but now that I’ve got my hands on a Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog, I can take to the skies like I’ve always wanted, with the added bonus of never actually having to go outside.
The HOTAS Warthog is as close as you can get to sitting in the cockpit of the US Airforce’s now retired A-10C without having to deal with haircuts, surprise dorm inspections, and that one annoying Airman who just never seems to remember to bathe. It’s an impressively imposing piece of hardware with more control options than I really care to get into, so much so that it’s actually a bit staggering when you first sit down with it. On the joystick alone, there are 19 action buttons and an 8-way “point of view hat” to be found.
With a HOTAS (or Hands on Throttle and Stick), the idea is to allow the pilot to operate the vast majority of his craft without ever having to remove his hands from either in the heat of the battle. For PC gaming, this ends up being a huge asset. Having everything I need to launch my craft, lock onto a target and engage without having move my hands means I’m always able to react. It’s a problem that casual gamers obviously don’t have, but those who want to put hundreds, if not thousands of hours into a game or simulator know that that those few seconds you spend not controlling your craft can be the difference between virtual life and death.
The HOTAS Warthog isn’t just modelled after its namesake, it’s almost a prefect one-to-one replica. As such, the tension on the joystick and the pressure needed to push the buttons is accurate in terms of what the craft’s pilots had to deal with. The one downside to this is that some of the button tensions feel a bit high at first, but considering that pilots are usually wearing gloves and need tactile reinforcement, this is completely understandable.
Playing with the HOTAS Warthog is an absolute dream. Everything is perfectly responsive, the weighted bases are sturdy enough that I don’t accidentally rock them when I frantically pull back in order to make up for my poor piloting, and the buttons all have a satisfying snap to them. On top of that, the joystick is easily the best I’ve ever used. Thrustmaster touts 16-bit precision for the stick, and I didn’t feel any sort of dead zone. It takes some getting used to after coming from cheaper flight sticks, where I really needed to crank to get control, but it’s well worth the effort.
I was originally concerned that using a piece of hardware so specified would be slightly problematic in situations where I wasn’t actually flying an A-10C, but I haven’t encountered any issues so far. Elite: Dangerous recognizes and maps everything out fairly well (although I did need to make some small adjustments for personal taste and still need a bit of fine tuning to get it where I want). Two-thousand-and-fifteen is going to be the year of the simulator with both that and Star Citizen vying for control of your battle station, and this is a perfect tool to navigate deep space with.
Truth be told, the main reason we inquired about the HOTAS Warthog was because of those two games. While Star Citizen still has a ways to go before we see version 1.0, Elite: Dangerous went from a “good” game to an outstanding one (we’ve been holding off on our review until we feel we’ve seen enough of the game to truly critique it, and until I learn not to fly directly into stars) with this level of control.
There’s a feeling of “connectedness” that I just can’t get out of my head as I’m floating through space at the helm of this beast. You can assign buttons to jettison cargo, communicate with people in the area, turn off flight assist and pretty much anything else you can think of, and it’s all under your fingers. There’s a definite learning curve here, but if you stick with it, the Warthog offers an unparalleled experience.
This is a critique, and with that it helps if I’m critical towards the content, but the fact of the matter is that I’m struggling to find notable flaws with this peripheral. In fact, after all the time I’ve spent with it, I’ve really only been able to come up with three direct flaws. The first one is blatantly obvious, but still hard to list as a true flaw: At nearly $500 it’s a massive investment. The price alone is going to run off casual gamers, but in all fairness, this isn’t really a product geared towards them. This is a heavy duty piece of gear, and it’s really made for people who are looking to get a certifiably realistic experience.
The second flaw is more of a nuisance to me, and I really don’t know how to get into it. There’s no Z axis control on the HOTAS Warthog, but that’s also because there wasn’t any Z axis control on the flight stick found in each Warthog. I can’t knock the product for being accurate, but I can’t help but to think that I would have enjoyed breaking from reality just a bit for the extra feature. After all, the removable pinky paddle found on the joystick is from an F-16, not an A-10C, but we made that concession.
While the first two flaws I aired are either obvious or overly nitpicky, I think the third is a bit more of an issue. That is, the fact that the TARGET software that comes with the Warthog is outright bad. At its absolute best, it’s an annoyingly cumbersome mess with graphic design reminiscent of my 1999 GeoCities page, but more often than not it’s outright obtuse and seems to purposely get in the user’s way. You can expect to have to wade through mounds of information to find what you’re actually looking for.
Once you get a feel for TARGET, there is an absolute plethora of stuff you can do. Buttons can be programmed to trigger one action when pressed and another when released, others can be set to rapidly pulse commands as long as they’re activated, and you can even set some to work as a hotkeys for something different. It’s an impressive (if not slightly imposing) amount of customization, and it’s just a shame that they couldn’t find a better package for it.
The bright side to all of this is that you really don’t need to fiddle around in there unless you’re trying some more advanced stuff. During our testing, pretty much everything we were hoping to do could be accessed in the game’s control options, so while I’ll admit to only having dipped my toe into the customization options, I was more than happy with the results.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to really sell the idea of a $500 flight system to most people. However, it’s safe to say that there really isn’t anything quite like this on the market. My personal philosophy is “Buy it for life,” meaning that if I’m going to buy myself something I’m going to consistently use, then I’ll get the best I can and keep it for the next 20 years or so. I can’t imagine needing anything more than the HOTAS Warthog at the end of the day. This is very likely the last joystick you will ever need, and if you’re serious enough to merit something this robust, the cost per hour is going to be pretty miniscule when everything is said and done.
This review is based on a review unit that was given to us.
The Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog should probably be the last flight stick you ever have to buy. If you're serious about your simulations and are willing to pay the premium, there's nothing on the market that can compete with it.